The Altaics—A People We Came to Love
During the past century, Russian Orthodox priest Archimandrite Makarios translated the “Old Testament” of the Bible into Russian. Prior to doing so, however, he was commissioned by the church synod to acquaint the Altaics with Christianity. Who are the Altaics? Where do they live? What is their way of life?
ONE of the district conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in Russia last July was attended by about 40 Altaics. It took place in Barnaul, the largest city in Russia’s Altay Kray. The convention had an attendance of 1,730. To attend this three-day gathering, I flew there with friends from St. Petersburg, a nearly 4,000-mile [6,500 km] flight.
During our few days in Barnaul, we came to know and love dearly the Altaics we met. Especially were we moved when we were informed that many of them had traveled by bus nearly 400 miles [650 km] over mountain roads and that even when a falling rock broke the windshield of their bus, they never entertained the thought of turning back. Upon learning about their land and culture, we were eager to visit them in their homes and villages. So after the convention, we made a fascinating journey of over 900 miles [1,500 km] through the land of the Altaics.
Their Land and Religion
Most of the some 70,000 Altaics, the area’s original inhabitants, make their home in the mountainous areas not far from the borders of Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. We found the landscape there to be awe-inspiring—beautiful and mountainous, with crystal-clear rivers and plenty of flowers. The local folk gather a variety of roots from which they make a delicious aromatic tea. They also enjoy eating pine nuts.
Some Altaics own farms. One Witness said that she and her relatives have 75 head of cattle and 80 sheep. They sell the meat, and they exchange wool for flour and sugar. Another Christian sister told me that she sold four rams so that she and her daughter could go to the convention. Seven other people came with her, ones with whom she conducts Bible studies! At the convention one of these told me: “We have but one way of life—God’s way.”
Although this is a remote area of breathtaking beauty—visitors call it the second Swiss Alps—life has changed dramatically even here. One elderly man told us: “If someone had said several years ago that I would have to lock my yurt [circular domed house] before going to bed, I would not have believed him. But now I do this every night.” These “critical times” have moved many to examine prophecies in the Bible.—2 Timothy 3:1-5.
Altaics are generally proud of their ancient traditions and form of worship. Most believe in river and mountain spirits—to them a mountain is the symbol of their gods. These also worship animals, even drawing an image of a rabbit on a white cloth and hanging it on a wall of their yurt. When the first thunderstorm of the rainy season comes, they perform a ritual before the image of the rabbit, sprinkling it with tea, milk, or an alcoholic drink called arrack. But especially do they worship what they believe to be spirits of the dead.
Their religious leaders are called shamans. In both spring and fall, the shamans perform rituals at ‘holy places’ on tops of mountains or on mountain slopes. During such rituals the shamans tie white cloth strips to tree branches, covering many trees with them. They believe that the mountain spirits will be pleased when they do this and that the spirits will protect them from mishaps while traveling.
The Effects of Spiritism
My friends and I were impressed most, however, by the people and their warmhearted sincerity. We met Svetlana and her daughter Tulunai in Barnaul and then enjoyed their hospitality at Ustʹ-Kan, a village of about 3,000 people. Svetlana was raised by her grandmother according to local traditions and in close association with the shamans. In fact, Svetlana learned to communicate with what were reputedly spirits of the dead. As a result of her special knowledge, Svetlana came to have a position of authority, which she enjoyed.
Yet, she began to experience many problems. “I was tormented by the demons,” she told me. “I could not get a good night’s sleep.” At times, she would be in a semihypnotic state. “One time,” she explained, “I saw my six-month-old daughter Tulunai in the form of a piglet that was crawling toward me. I wanted to strangle it. But Tulunai began to cry loudly. I was horrified when I came to my senses and realized that I could have killed my daughter.” Svetlana began to wonder about the identity of these spirits.
Then in 1991 an Altaic woman took some Bible literature published by Jehovah’s Witnesses to Ustʹ-Kan. Each time Svetlana started to read the brochure “Look! I Am Making All Things New,” she would start to fall asleep. “I would giggle,” she noted, “and say that the Witnesses had given me something better than any sleeping pill.” But she still had disturbing visions at night and so uttered a sincere prayer: “Jehovah, if you are so powerful, please help me to get rid of these terrifying nightmares.” Within a few seconds, everything was fine and she felt normal.
Svetlana started to pray before going to sleep at night, and to her surprise she would fall asleep quickly. “It was unbelievable that I could sleep like a normal person,” she said. She decided to study the Bible seriously with the help of publications of the Watch Tower Society, and in 1992 she symbolized her dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism. “I learned that if you trust Jehovah completely, nothing will prove to be impossible,” she told me.—Philippians 4:13.
Christian Worship Prospers
By 1993 a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was established in Ustʹ-Kan, and some 70 people were attending meetings there. In April 1998, 120 attended the Memorial of Christ’s death. The village of Yakonur, a few miles north of Ustʹ-Kan, was at one time considered to be the center of shamanism. But a man named Shamyt said that when Witnesses started preaching there, the shamans started to lose their power. A group of Witnesses are active in this village now, and many people are showing interest in the Bible.
In the village of Chagan-Uzun, located about 55 miles [90 km] from the Mongolian border, it is said that most of the some 500 residents read our publications. And in Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Altay Republic, there are two congregations made up of about 160 Witnesses.
Early in 1994, however, many Witnesses, including those from Ustʹ-Kan, were summoned to appear in court in Gorno-Altaysk. They were charged with such outrageous offenses as practicing child sacrifice. Because of the opposition, some Witnesses were fired from their jobs and expelled from Altay. But in time it became clear that the charges against the Witnesses were false. Thus, in May 1994, the justice department of the Altay Republic legally registered the Gorno-Altaysk community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today the Witnesses and their Bible literature are well-known throughout Altay.
Sharing in the Ministry
During our visit to Ustʹ-Kan, we were able to share with the local Witnesses in their public ministry. In fact, word had been passed around that visitors were coming. So on seeing us out preaching, a reporter for the local newspaper approached our group and said: “I heard that some important people were coming our way. How can I get in touch with them?”
What a surprise he had when we were identified as the supposedly important people! He was amazed that we were out with the local folk calling on the homes of his neighbors. During our discussion with him, he remarked: “I see that there are no bosses among you. You are just ordinary people who don’t view yourselves as special. This is truly remarkable! You are real Christians, and I am on your side.”
Our visit came to an end all too soon. As we were leaving, our friends had tears in their eyes. They stood close together shoulder to shoulder, forming a living fence. This is a traditional Altaic farewell to their dearest friends. In the few days that we were with them, we developed deep affection for one another. We became true friends. Why? Because the one who united us is Jehovah, the impartial God.—Acts 10:34.
On Our Return
On our return trip to Barnaul, we stopped at a store in a small mountain village. The sales clerk, who was alone, was very happy to see us. After we exchanged a few words, I asked: “Have you ever heard the name Makarios?”
“No, I haven’t,” she replied, after a brief pause.
So I showed her a copy of the Makarios translation of the Bible and explained: “It was here in Altay country that, during the past century, Makarios worked on this translation.” At that, I presented the Bible to her as a gift.
As we continued to look around, the woman began reading it immediately. All of a sudden, we noted a sparkle of hope in the lady’s eyes. When we were leaving, she told us that she has many friends and relatives who would be interested in the Bible. So before we said our final good-bye, we left her a considerable amount of Bible literature.
How rewarding it is to know that although it has been over 150 years since Makarios lived among the Altaics and worked on his Bible translation, many Altaics are benefiting from that Bible today!—Contributed.
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Altaics at the convention in Barnaul
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Scenery in Altay
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Many believe that these strips of cloth protect travelers
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Preaching in Ustʹ-Kan
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Svetlana and her daughter
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