Tatyana Lar, Nenets poet and songwriter, performs her work in a style intended both to celebrate the cultural values of her own people and—for those in whom the Spirit is at work—to draw her listeners toward a relationship with their Creator and Savior.
In pieces like “Numd hynumd” (Pray to God), she sings of the blessings that come from prayerful dependency on God: “If your heart is sleeping, you will never understand the meaning of life. If your heart goes after evil, the real meaning and beauty of life will always be closed to you. Instead, be like a flower; turn towards light and lift your hands up to God. Then you’ll be strong, happy, and start to grow as a flower.”
The lyrics of the song reflect Tatyana’s own journey and offer a gentle invitation to join her.
Tatyana had no interest in anything Christian until her eldest daughter and a close friend both began to encourage her to attend church in Salekhard, Russia—a town situated on the Arctic Circle and accessible from the tundra and forests where her people follow the migration patterns of their reindeer herds. Wanting to support her daughter, she began to attend services at the Good News Church.
Soon after, she was asked to help with translation of the Gospel of Mark into Nenets. As she was exposed to the translated Scripture, she discovered how obscure the Bible was to her and how very difficult the translation process was as a result. But this wasn’t a case of linguistic confusion—Tatyana realized her struggle stemmed from her unbelief.
“If you don’t believe, it’s not an understandable book for you and stays as a closed book,” she says. “I read and I didn’t get it; I didn’t see anything amazing or exciting there. And it wasn’t understandable.”
“For me, this book was opened thanks to prayer, thanks to all those people who prayed at that time.”
Suddenly the Scriptures came alive to her. She realized what a close friend had been saying was true, that the message was “amazing”—and moving.
“When I read my translation … in some places as I read, tears were just running by themselves,” she shares. “When I read the translation I made, all of it went inside me.”
While admitting that the translation process remains a challenge, she now realizes how meaningful prayer is. “As you pray, that’s how the work succeeds.”
Tatyana has a deep regard and concern for her people. She sees how, like the months-long darkness that overtakes this Arctic region each year, a kind of cultural and economic darkness threatens to overwhelm their fragile lifestyle. Oil companies clutter the tundra with their derricks and pipelines. Fish stocks are decreasing in the rivers. Reindeer migration patterns are increasingly hindered. She also sees many Nenets being complicit in all this. And she wants to do something about it.
Having experienced the transforming power of God in her own life, she wants her songs to both reflect that change of heart and provoke others to embrace Jesus, too. In Him she sees the only hope for the redemption of her people, their culture and livelihood.
Tatyana describes one song, titled “Yalyakoko” (Little Sun), written with this hope in mind. In Nenets, yalya can mean “light” or “sun,” an image that can also symbolize the hope that Jesus brings. “Without sun, we couldn’t live here on the earth. If there were not sun, it would be dark,” she explains. “The same way, if there wasn’t God, we also wouldn’t see anything. We would go blind.”
Through songs like “Pray to God,” Tatyana encourages her fellow Nenets to welcome God into the center of their hearts. She wrote this song, in particular, to address the spiritual needs of Nenets youth. They have “emptiness in the heart,” she says, which “can only be filled by God.”
She hopes that its lyrics will point the Nenets to truth—that they will “fill up their inner being, their soul, their heart, with God, so that God would always live inside of them. Then the life also will be wonderful and beautiful. Like blossoming, they will grow spiritually.”
In countries with a large and powerful majority culture, you will find, like gems embedded in a bracelet of gold, minority people groups whose languages and cultures reflect the brilliant diversity of God’s image.
Russia, the largest country on earth in geographic terms, is home to some of the hardiest of these people groups. Some of them have lived for centuries in one of the most challenging environments the earth has to offer: the forests and tundra of the arctic regions of Siberia. Here, environmental extremes prevail: cold that can reach -51 degrees C (-60 F) in the midst of whole months of total darkness, or weeks of unceasing sunshine punctuated by mosquito and flea swarms.
In one such place—the city of Salekhard and its environs—the nomadic Nenets and Khanty communities move in annual rhythms of life governed by the migration of vast herds of reindeer, which comprise the focal point of these peoples’ culture and economy.
In this place of extremes, God has been working through His Church to display His love to these communities in terms they readily understand—through their own languages and in forms appropriate to their culture.
Positioned at the “hub” of outreach and translation efforts in Salekhard is the Good News Church—a body made up of local Russians, Nenets and Khanty believers, and language workers representing several nationalities and partner organizations.
The church came into existence in 2000, under a unifying vision articulated by pastor Anatoly Marichev. His vision – that minority cultures might hear and receive the Good News, just as Russian-speaking citizens had been able to do for hundreds of years.
“One of the foundational reasons we started this church was to be a missionary church—a church with a vision for missions,” says Anatoly.
At first Anatoly and his people went out to the neighboring villages preaching in Russian. But they soon realized that much of their message was being lost on those listening.
“The Nenets and Khanty people didn’t understand many of the Russian words we used,” Anatoly explains.
A change in their approach came when church members from these communities began to take the lead in outreach to their own people.
“We saw something interesting,” Anatoly continues. “When these believers came with us into the village and preached in their own language, the people started to be alive—they started to understand.”
Michael Greed, former director of SIL’s work in Russia, says that, right now, the majority of the nomadic peoples worship as Russians, in large part because there are few non-Russian churches in the region.
Speaking specifically of the Nenets community, Michael adds, “We long to see Nenets worshipping with Nenets scriptures, Nenets culture and Nenets songs.”
For this to happen, God is raising up people from within the Khanty and Nenets communities to take significant roles in the effort. Several key people have been touched personally by God’s Spirit and Word.
The Khanty Bible translation and Scripture engagement project has been sponsored by the Good News Church since August 2007. One of their key translation team members is Boris Ruskalamov. From a small Khanty fishing town north of Salekhard, Boris was the next in line to be his community’s shaman. But, God had other plans for him. Instead of becoming the next shaman, he became a committed and active believer in Jesus.
“Boris travels when he can to other villages and teaches, encouraging and serving other believers who are isolated,” shares Kevin Ennis of Pioneer Bible Translators, who serves the Khanty translation project as exegetical adviser.
He is also involved with Kevin in the project, together with other Khanty speakers who help check drafts of Scripture and other materials. So far the team has published a Khanty translation of Luke in print and audio, and Scripture-based materials to aid in reading comprehension and basic Bible knowledge. They are currently working on Genesis and Acts, and a production of the JESUS Film.
Even though Boris speaks Russian most of the time, he plays an important role on the translation team because of his Bible knowledge.
“He knows a lot about the Bible and helps our other translators who don’t know as much,” says Kevin.
It is a 17-hour journey by boat down the River Ob from Salekhard, to the village where Nadya Padrovna was born and where she operates a business selling goods to the local Nenets population. Nadya travels frequently to Moscow, via Salekhard, on business trips. She is adept at reading in both Russian and Nenets.
The genesis of Nadya’s involvement in the Nenets translation project came when, one day, she was asked to read a draft of the Book of Mark, to check it for clarity and naturalness.
When she read the story of the herd of pigs that ran off a cliff after Jesus had sent a legion of demons into them (Mark 5), she was troubled. The meaning of the story did not match up with her understanding of it, from previous exposure to it in Russian.
“I think there is a problem with this translation,” she told Pastor Anatoly. He asked her to explain what she understood from reading the story in Russian. She replied that she thought Jesus sent the man to the herd of pigs and that all of them, the man included, had drowned in the lake.
“The Nenets text had given her the correct understanding of this whole story,” says Roslyn Nicolle, who worked with the Nenets translation project for several years in Salekhard. “And so the next week she came to church really excited. She stood up and said, ‘This is why we need the Bible in our own language!’”
Nadya serves the Nenets Bible translation effort in a number of ways today. Out of the proceeds of her business, she has made generous contributions to the project, including a significant donation toward printing the Book of Mark. She frequently travels out onto the tundra to carry out an important step in the Bible translation process: reading the drafts to villagers and getting their feedback on the texts.
Prayer is also a significant contribution. Eunsub Song, a Korean member of the Institute for Bible Translation, Russia, and exegetical advisor to the Nenets project, says of Nadya, “In her I have a really faithful prayer partner.”
One day Eunsub and Nadya were visiting a Nenets village on the tundra in order to test the translation draft among community members. As they sat in the choom (Nenets traditional home) reading the text to the villagers, a woman named Olga Larovna appeared and listened quietly.
At one point, Olga was asked to try reading the text. Eunsub was pleasantly shocked: “I found that she was very good; so fluent! She understood almost one hundred percent.”
After this, Eunsub invited Olga to accompany her on a consultant training trip to Saint Petersburg. Olga did so well in the training that she soon became a helper in translation, then later the lead Nenets translator.
Olga was impacted by her own father’s response to the Word of God. Her father, who is around 90 years old, speaks only Nenets and has spent his whole life living on the tundra.
“My father believed in God … but he didn’t know about Jesus,” Olga recalls. “So I started talking about Jesus to him and it was a big step for me to share the Gospel with him. Then he said, ‘Now I know Jesus is the Son of God and He came to earth to save us.’”
Eunsub says Olga, who comes from a traditional Russian Orthodox background, is still young in her faith and her understanding of it, but shows that her relationship to Christ is steadily growing.
God, through His global Church and His Spirit, is at work in this otherwise obscure, often-forgotten place, to bring glory to Himself as the Nenets and Khanty people increasingly reflect His work in their hearts.