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Logics, Stakes and Limits of Cultural Heritage Transmission in China, Russia and Mongolia

Incorporating stone mining into Indigenous and local notions of cultural heritage and sustainability

L’incorporation de l’exploitation des pierres dans les notions locales et autochtones de patrimoine culturel et de durabilité
Anna Varfolomeeva


Cet article s’intéresse aux pratiques autochtones et locales d’extraction de pierres décoratives comme activité économique traditionnelle. L’auteure étudie la manière dont la continuité historique de l’exploitation des pierres contribue aux perceptions de durabilité et de patrimoine au sein des communautés. L’analyse se concentre sur le cas d’étude de la minorité autochtone des Veps dans la République de Carélie, au Nord Ouest de la Russie. Depuis les xviiie et xixe siècles, les Veps de Carélie extraient de rares pierres ornementales, à base de diabase gabbro et de quartzite rouge. De nos jours, la plupart des résidents des villages Veps sont employés dans les mines de pierres. Les Veps de Carélie adoptent largement le travail des pierres (veps. kivirad) comme un élément de leur identité autochtone. L’exploitation minière de pierres est promue comme un élément du patrimoine culturel Veps au travers d’institutions publiques, comme le musée ethnographique Veps, ou au travers de projets financés par le gouvernement, comme le parc à thème « ethnique » Veps. De nombreux résidents des villages Veps parlent du travail de la pierre comme d’une tradition forte à la fois d’une histoire riche et de promesses d’un avenir pérenne. Dans le même temps, les pratiques actuelles d’extraction des pierres et l’impact environnemental de leur exploitation sont une source commune d’inquiétude et de déception alors que les Veps se sentent exclus de l’industrie de la mine postsoviétique. Au travers de l’analyse de l’exemple Veps, cet article discute l’importance d’incorporer les visions locales et autochtones de l’industrie et de la durabilité dans les discours officiels dominants. Ce papier s’appuie sur des observations participantes et des entretiens conduits dans les villages Veps de Carélie entre 2015 et 2021.

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1The picturesque village of Rybreka (in Veps language, Kalag’) is located on the shore of Lake Onega in Karelia, northwest Russia. It belongs to the group of villages where Veps, a Finno-Ugrian Indigenous people, traditionally reside. Along with its richly decorated wooden houses, a thick pine forest on the lakeshore, and long-held fishing traditions, Rybreka is further defined by a massive row of rocky hills where ornamental stone has been extracted since the 18th century. Mining forms an important part of the local past and present, as most of the residents of Rybreka and the neighbouring Veps villages are employed in the stone quarries. The Veps ethnic theme park that opened in Rybreka in 2020 promotes fishing and stone extraction as equally important elements of the Veps identity.

2This article focuses on the process of incorporating stone mining as a traditional economic activity into the cultural heritage of the Veps. When referring to traditional Indigenous economy, I follow the definition of Rauna Kuokkanen (2011) focusing on the activities not only providing subsistence and sustenance, but also creating meanings and reinforcing Indigenous and local connections with the land. Since the 18th-19th centuries, Veps in Karelia have been characterised by their involvement in the extraction of rare ornamental stones: gabbro-diabase and raspberry quartzite. Both stones are valued for their firmness and deep colours (the glossy black look of polished diabase and the dark crimson tone of quartzite). The Veps experienced the Soviet-era switch from small-scale artisanal mining to extensive industrial development and the subsequent privatisation of state enterprises in the post-Soviet period. The contemporary residents of Veps villages are concerned about the environmental harm caused by stone mining development and about specific practices of extracting and transporting stone carried out by private mining companies. At the same time, many of them recognize the significance of stone extraction as a tradition and as the industry that used to support the villages both materially and symbolically (as a source of meaningful work). Therefore, the mining industry becomes an element of the Veps villages’ cultural sustainability. The article stresses the importance of understanding local and Indigenous notions of sustainable development, which in many cases challenge the dominant Western discourses (Virtanen et al. 2020). It draws attention to locally based perceptions of resource extraction and sustainability where mining is viewed as a historical occupation, and its continuation is expected and valued.

3The article is based on participant observation and semi-structured biographical interviews in several Veps villages of the Prionezhskii District in Karelia (Kvartsitnyi, Rybreka, Sheltozero, and Shoksha), as well as in Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia (see fig. 1). By Veps villages in the Prionezhskii District (also more informally called Prionezhie), I refer to the settlements situated on the southwest shore of Lake Onega historically inhabited by northern Veps (Mullonen 1994). They were included in the Veps National District (Veps. Vepsän rahvahaline volost’) existing in Karelia between 1994 and 2004. The villages selected for field research are the largest settlements of the former Veps District. Of them, Shoksha and Kvartsitnyi, as well as Rybreka, are centres of decorative stone extraction.

  • 1 By current mining workers, I refer to those employed in stone mining at the time of the interview. (...)
  • 2 The interviews were conducted in Russian with occasional Veps-language references. I understand the (...)

4The interviews were held in several instalments: 66 interviews were conducted during multiple field visits between July 2015 and December 2018, and additional 18 interviews were gathered in August 2021. The interviews were conducted with current and former mining workers1, administration representatives, teachers, and cultural workers, as well as other residents of Veps villages. In Petrozavodsk, I primarily worked with the members of the Veps speaking club “Paginklub”, as well as with Veps scholars and university lecturers. During the initial field visits, I relied on several gatekeepers I met through attending Veps cultural events, festivals, and the annual Miner’s Day celebration in Rybreka Village. After that, I used the method of snowball sampling to enlarge the pool of potential interviewees2.

Figure 1. The Veps villages of Karelia

Figure 1. The Veps villages of Karelia

© Anastasia Kvasha (background map by OpenStreetMap contributors and the GIS user community)

  • 3 I do not state in all cases, when referring to quotations, whether or not the interviewee is Veps b (...)

5During the interviews, I asked about my interviewees’ self-identification as Veps or non-Veps. While the majority of the interviewees self-identified as Veps, I also conducted interviews with former and current mining workers who moved to Prionezhie in the late Soviet period3. Whereas, until the mid-20th century, diabase and quartzite mining had been carried out predominantly by Veps, in the second half of the 20th century migration to Veps villages intensified due to the availability of job opportunities in stone quarries. As it is almost impossible to divide the community of Veps villages into clear and distinct categories, such as “local” versus “incomer”, I view Veps Indigeneity as a fluid category potentially including those locals who are not Veps by ethnic origin but feel strongly connected with the region and its industries. Whereas I view diabase and quartzite mining in Prionezhie as a traditional economic activity of northern Veps, I argue that many of the residents who migrated to Veps villages in the late Soviet period developed a sense of connection with the industry and with the local community through shared employment in stone quarries (see also Varfolomeeva 2016).

6To complement the interview data, I conducted several visits to the Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero Village and attended in-person and online meetings of the Veps speaking club. I also attended several celebrations including Miner’s Day in Rybreka (in 2015, 2016, 2017), the Veps festival “Tree of Life in Sheltozero (2015), the Paginklub New Year celebration in Petrozavodsk (2018), and Settlement’s Day in Kvartsitnyi (2021). I have been following the social media accounts managed by Paginklub, the Society for Veps Culture, and the administrations of Veps villages.

  • 4 The term “stoneworking” is used as a translation of the Veps word “kivirad” encompassing various as (...)

7The article is organised as follows. In the next section, I focus on the concept of cultural heritage and discuss the links between cultural heritage and sustainability, as well as the position of mining as a part of the Indigenous and local cultural heritage. I also provide background information on the past and present of the mining industry development in Veps villages. The empirical part of the article centres on several intertwined themes. First, I explore contemporary initiatives that present mining as a part of local identity, focusing on the Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero and two ethnic theme parks, which are being organized simultaneously in Rybreka and Kvartsitnyi. After that, I focus on the future of mining and its intergenerational continuity in Veps villages. The final section also discusses the environmental impacts of stoneworking4 and the local perceptions of this activity.

Cultural heritage as an element of sustainability

8Mining activities are in many cases assumed to be in opposition to cultural heritage protection as well as to Indigenous and local lifestyles. Franke Wilmer’s “broadest definition of indigenous peoples” characterises Indigenous communities as having “tradition-based cultures” (Wilmer 1993, p. 97). The mining industry, on the contrary, is often associated with development and modernity (Macintyre 2011) and in this sense juxtaposed to tradition-based lifestyles. However, stone extraction as a traditional occupation may also form a part of the community’s cultural heritage. As a result, Indigenous and local historical connections to the mining industry influence the contemporary perceptions of the mining industry in the community.

  • 5 The UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Retriev (...)

9The definitions of cultural heritage vary, as its constituent elements – “culture” and “heritage” – represent rather elusive concepts and have been criticised as being embedded in global power hierarchies and neglecting minority perspectives (Novoa 2018; Porsanger & Virtanen 2019). Initially, the concept of cultural heritage largely focused on tangible material elements: the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) refers to “monuments […] groups of buildings […] sites […] of outstanding universal value”5. As the concept developed, it encompassed intangible cultural heritage such as language, values, beliefs, or ideologies and meanings (Blake 2000; Vecco 2010). As a concept, “cultural heritage” conveys a richer meaning than “cultural property” or “cultural objects”, exactly because it covers both tangible and intangible aspects of culture (Ferrazzi 2021). Indigenous residents’ vision of cultural heritage is often holistic, and the physical features of a specific landscape and its spiritual significance are treated as a single entity (Gilbert 2017; O’Faircheallaigh 2008). Within critical heritage studies, the concept of cultural heritage has been reanalysed within post-humanist and post-anthropocentric thinking and viewed as a political and cultural phenomenon (Gentry & Smith 2019; Sterling 2020).

  • 6 The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Retrieved from: https:/ (...)

10The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted in 20036 highlights several features of intangible cultural heritage. It stresses the importance of preserving particular elements of culture for future generations, as well as the continuity of cultural practices (Blake 2000). The Convention draws attention to commonality as a feature of intangible cultural heritage: it needs to be recognised by community members as a shared notion. Additionally, intangible cultural heritage is constantly being revised as a dynamic and fluid concept. The dynamic nature of the cultural heritage notion has allowed its application to various types of practices, including hunting (O’Keefe 2007), fishing (Shyllon 2007), gastronomy (Bortolotto & Ubertazzi 2018), slab car culture (Wilkins 2017), or second-hand and vintage shopping (Appelgren & Bohlin 2017) among others.

11The focus on the idea of inheritance and legacy connects the concept of cultural heritage with the broader sustainability discourse. In the context of anthropogenic climate change that threatens heritage sites and simultaneously questions the divisions between humans and the environment, the links between heritage and sustainability become even more pronounced (Krieg et al. 2021). The classic definitions of sustainable development highlight its three pillars: environmental, social, and economic (Basiago 1998; Strezov et al. 2017). However, cultural sustainability is also commonly included as a crucial part of the sustainable development agenda (Soini & Birkeland 2014). The World Commission on Culture and Development coined the term “cultural sustainability” in 1995, defining it as “inter- and intra-generational access to cultural resources” (Axelsson et al. 2013). There are several approaches that view culture as the core or basis for sustainability in general, as the glue connecting its three main pillars, or as a separate pillar taking an independent role in the sustainability discourse (Laine 2016). All these approaches recognise the profound role of culture in connecting the different domains of sustainability. As Tim Winter (2013) argues, the concept of heritage could be instrumental in addressing the challenges of environmental and cultural sustainability.

12Katriina Soini and Inger Birkeland focus on cultural heritage as one of seven storylines constituting the discourse on cultural sustainability. Within this storyline, culture is seen as embedded in a specific time and place, and is transferred to future generations as cultural capital (Soini & Birkeland 2014). This vision is in line with David Throsby’s principles of cultural sustainability, which include material and non-material wellbeing, acknowledging the interests of future generations, and fairness in access to cultural resources (Throsby 2003). Placing the heritage concept within the broader discussions on cultural sustainability draws attention to its temporal and spatial situatedness, as well as to the connections formed between humans and materials through heritage practices.

13The problem of cultural heritage is increasingly discussed in relation to the mining industry. The focus of such discussions is often on the damage that natural resource extraction causes to Indigenous and local livelihoods and cultures (Bainton et al. 2011; O’Faircheallaigh 2008; Tost et al. 2021), or on closed mines turned into heritage sites (Dicks 2008; Novoa 2018). In Russia, due to its Soviet legacy of state superiority, power disbalances in Indigenous relations with extractive industries are strongly pronounced (Stammler 2011). The Soviet system created the dependence of Indigenous peoples on the state providing employment, social services, and other forms of support, but simultaneously alienated local communities from subsistence economies (Crate 2006). In post-Soviet Russia, the distribution of profits and risks in the extractive sector stresses the vulnerability of Indigenous groups. At the same time, open conflicts are rare, and Indigenous residents choose avoidance and retreat as mechanisms of resilience (Dudeck 2018).

14However, active mining practices, as I argue in this article, may also form a part of local cultural heritage and strengthen the community formation. Through their employment in extractive industries, many non-Indigenous incomers started feeling at home in the north when moving there in the Soviet period (Bolotova & Stammler 2009; Stammler 2011). When mining skills form a part of family history and are passed from generation to generation, resource extraction is viewed as a traditional local occupation that fosters intergenerational exchange. Mining practices strengthen the community’s collective identity and form strong ties connecting humans, materials, and landscape (Bennett 2009). Resource extraction cultivates feelings of pride and belonging, and the closure of a mining site often results in an overall sense of decline in the community (Povoroznyuk 2020). Ultimately, the significance of mining as cultural heritage may influence local visions of the region’s sustainable development. In such cases, the environmental impact of mining sites and their cultural significance are viewed as interrelated phenomena.

15Situating extractive industry development as a part of heritage practices challenges the generalized notions of sustainability. It is argued that these notions bear the risk of overshadowing and suppressing those whose perspectives differ from mainstream discourses, and are therefore often ignored and overlooked (García Maldonado et al. 2016). The example of the Veps strong historical ties with stone extraction brings forward the position of stoneworking as part of their cultural heritage practices.

Stone mining development in Veps villages

  • 7 Postanovlenie Pravitel’stva RF ot 24 marta 2000 g. N 255 “O Edinom perechne korennyh malochislennyh (...)
  • 8 By “Veps activists” in Karelia, I refer to members of the Veps speaking club “Paginklub”, scholars, (...)

16Veps are a Finno-Ugrian ethnic minority who primarily reside in three regions of Russia: Karelia, the Leningrad region, and the Vologda region. According to the 2010 census, 5936 Veps reside in Russia, 3423 of them in Karelia (Strogal’schikova 2016). Since 2000, the Veps have had the status of an Indigenous people of the Russian Federation7. They received the Indigenous status as a result of a several-year “ethnic mobilisation” campaign carried out by Veps activists8. This mobilisation campaign was preceded by nearly fifty years of state assimilation policies when the Veps language was not taught in schools, Veps territorial autonomy was eroded, and officials systematically registered Veps as Russians in their identification documents (Jääts 2017). Administrative divisions between Karelia, the Leningrad region, and the Vologda region, as well as limited transport opportunities between Veps villages, resulted in the largely separate development of the three Veps groups (Strogal’schikova 2016).

17In Karelia, Veps reside in several villages along the coast of Lake Onega, in Prionezhie, with Sheltozero (Veps. Shoutjärv’) as the centre. This group is also referred to as the “northern Veps” (Vinokurova 1994). Since the 18th century, in addition to other forms of subsistence such as hunting, fishing, and agriculture, northern Veps have been extracting gabbro-diabase and raspberry quartzite. Diabase and quartzite mining was conducted on a small-scale basis by Veps stoneworking brigades. Veps masters often accompanied their stone to construction sites in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, and Reval (Tallinn), working as seasonal labour migrants (Russian: othodniki) (Strogal’schikova 2014). The northern Veps were engaged in seasonal labour travels more than other groups living in the Leningrad and Vologda regions and, as Veronica Davidov notes, “their sense of self has historically been as a relatively mobile rather than rooted people” (Davidov 2017, p. 82). Labor migration also influenced the gender division roles in Veps villages, as women took over all the work in the house and in the fields while most of the local men were away for seasonal stoneworking labour (Uspenskii 1909).

18In the early Soviet period, large state-owned quarries producing diabase and quartzite developed rapidly in Veps villages. The first stone quarry producing diabase opened near Rybreka in 1924. Large-scale extraction of raspberry quartzite near Shoksha also started in the 1920s. At first, all the work at diabase and quartzite quarries was performed manually, but already in the 1930s the quarries were to a large extent mechanised and more than 2000 people worked there. The first mining teams consisted mainly of local Veps, many of whom had experience of working with the stone (Respublika, November 19, 2014). Gabbro-diabase and raspberry quartzite were used for building and monument ornamentation in different parts of the Soviet Union. Gabbro-diabase was used for Red Square’s pavement in Moscow, while Lenin’s Mausoleum, also located there, was partly made of raspberry quartzite. Diabase and quartzite were also widely used for industrial purposes, for example in the production of enamel.

  • 9 The word “settlement” is used in this article as a translation of the Russian term posёlok (also po (...)
  • 10 The “Liquidation of the villages without prospects” policy (1960s-1970s) recognised the smaller rur (...)

19As mining was a flourishing industry in Prionezhie in the second half of the 20th century, the ethnic composition of Veps villages became more diverse. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, a number of workers moved into the region from other parts of the country to find employment in the mining industry. This migration became especially noticeable in the 1970s, as the new quarry producing quartzitic sandstone and the settlement9 of Kvartsitnyi built next to it attracted fresh graduates with well-paid jobs and housing prospects. At the same time, during the 1960s and 1970s, due to the “liquidation of the villages without prospects” policy (Rus. likvidatsiia neperspektivnyh dereven’)10, many Veps migrated from smaller villages to larger settlements or urban areas (Strogal’schikova 2014). Several small Veps villages in Karelia were thus abandoned. The policy increased the assimilation of northern Veps: as they often needed to settle alongside Russian-speaking families, many of them eventually switched to Russian as their primary language of communication.

20After the fall of the Soviet Union, due to the financial difficulties of the 1990s state mining enterprises gradually went bankrupt and were closed or sold to private owners. Since 2005-2006, the extraction of raspberry quartzite near Shoksha Village has almost stopped. There is only one private company working there, employing around twenty people. This quarry produces gravestones as well as stone tabletops, vases, and other decorative items for private buyers. The quartzitic sandstone quarry near Kvartsitnyi was closed in 2005 after a series of financial struggles, and the settlement of Kvartsitnyi was left without the financial support previously provided by the quarry. At the time of my fieldwork during 2015-2021, many residents of Kvartsitnyi and Shoksha worked 15-day shifts at the quarries in Rybreka or other parts of Karelia. In Rybreka, diabase mining is being continued very actively by private companies of various sizes. The exact number of the quarries registered in Rybreka may vary, as some of them are officially registered but are no longer in operation. The quarries in Rybreka produce diabase blocks and diabase gravel. Diabase quarries are the primary job providers in Rybreka as well as in neighbouring villages. In Rybreka, Shoksha and Kvartsitnyi almost all men are employed in stone quarries; for local women, job opportunities are far more limited. In many families, the representatives of different generations are connected through their shared stoneworking experience.

Stoneworking as a part of Veps cultural heritage

21In this section, I analyse the ways of integrating stoneworking as a part of Veps ethnic identity and as local cultural heritage. The first part of the section focuses on the representations of stone extraction histories through the expositions of the Veps ethnographic museum, the design of Veps ethnic theme parks, and Veps celebrations. The second part of the section discusses the embeddedness of stoneworking and its continuity in local narratives of Veps villages. Stone extraction is represented locally as an industry with a notable past and opportunities for future development. While many locals are concerned about the negative environmental effects of private stone extraction quarries, the shared hope is that mining will continue in the village of Rybreka or recommence in the settlement of Kvartsitnyi.

Stoneworking as an occupation “rooted” in Veps villages

22Soviet paternalistic policies towards Indigenous minorities were often aimed at the industrialisation and social transformation of the north (Vladimirova 2011). Therefore, the strong connections of the Veps minority with the mining industry were promoted by the state-managed quarries and the villages’ administration, as this connection was viewed as a symbol of the Veps’ fast integration into the Soviet working context. As an example, in 1937 the local Prionezhie newspaper Krasnoe Sheltozero published a short interview with a female worker at the diabase quarry in Rybreka, who said: “When I joined the quarry, I was illiterate. I started as an unskilled labourer, and now I am managing ten people […] Here I also learned reading and writing […]” (Krasnoe Sheltozero, 15 June 1937, p. 2). The publication authors closely connected the interviewee’s work experience in the quarry with her personal development as a team manager and as a literate and knowledgeable member of the new Soviet society.

  • 11 I refer to Renata as an administrative worker according to my 2021 field notes. However, at the tim (...)

23Such visions of the local mining industry as a symbol of development and progress were often present in my interviewees’ narratives. During an online meeting of the Veps speaking club Paginklub in February 2021, its members (Veps residents of Petrozavodsk and Rybreka) discussed how the rich ornamentation of houses in Veps villages most probably resulted from the stoneworkers’ trips to Saint Petersburg. After the workers saw the beautiful decorations of Saint Petersburg buildings, Paginklub members reflected, they wanted to invest time and energy in their own houses’ ornaments to mimic the great examples they remembered. Stoneworking trips are viewed as a stimulus for the growth of creativity and artistic expression in the Veps community. Similarly to this narrative, a Veps activist and administrative worker11, Renata, reflected during our interview:

Many ethnic communities lived in isolation. They only had their everyday activities, which continued as before; this was their life. Everyday activities and a traditional household do not imply development. Veps are stoneworkers […] They were traveling with their stone, saw various things in other regions, wanted and demanded more; their work required them to acquire new knowledge and skills. This is normal for them; they are not afraid of new work […] Therefore, we can say that the traditional Veps way of living is connected to industrialization […] The Veps studied, got an education, climbed one step higher, and became a part of the industry. (Interview K64)

24For Renata, Veps ethnic identity is ultimately connected with the development of stone extraction. She notes that the Veps differ from widespread representations of Indigenous communities living in a remote manner, fixed in the past and opposing any kind of industrial development. In the case of the Karelian Veps, it is exactly their proximity to the cities and their involvement in the stoneworking industry that defines their Indigeneity. Renata also notes that stoneworking allowed Veps to progress as a community and to become embedded in the industrial development of the area.

25The links between the Veps ethnic identity and stoneworking are also reflected in the exhibition of the Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero Village. Sheltozero is the central settlement of the Veps villages in Prionezhie. Traditionally, it has been seen as a hub of Veps cultural preservation, mostly due to the various activities organised by the museum, as well as the Veps choir that has run in Sheltozero since 1936 (Siragusa 2017).

26The Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero was founded in 1967 on the initiative of Riurik Lonin (1930-2009), a worker on the collective farm in Sheltozero who became interested in collecting the artefacts of Veps culture. The rare name Riurik, interestingly, was chosen by Lonin’s father, a stoneworker, after one of his trips to the neighbouring regions (Davidov 2017). Lonin began collecting Veps folklore in the mid-1950s, but later also started collecting various items from Veps houses of the past: household items, pieces of furniture, clothes, and agricultural implements. In 1967, Lonin began exhibiting the collected items, forming a small private museum. In the 1980s, the new museum became a branch of the Karelian state museum of local history, and all of the items were donated to the state. At that time, the Veps museum also moved to a new building, the so-called Mel’kin House in Sheltozero, where it is now located (see fig. 2). This house was built in the mid-19th century by Ivan Mel’kin, who was the manager of a Veps stoneworking brigade. Ivan Mel’kin was known for his constructions made of raspberry quartzite in Saint Petersburg. At the time of my fieldwork, the museum was administered by the Sheltozero Veps activist Natalia Anhimova.

Figure 2. Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero

Figure 2. Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero

© Anna Varfolomeeva, 2015

27A separate stand of the museum exhibition is devoted to stoneworking displays of quartzite and diabase, as well as stoneworking tools and products made of stone for Soviet industry. The upper part of the stand is devoted to photos of the Veps stoneworking group in Saint Petersburg, the construction of one of the bridges of Saint Petersburg completed by Ivan Mel’kin’s brigade, as well as famous constructions and monuments made of local stone, such as Napoleon’s sarcophagus in “les Invalides” in Paris. The exhibited items refer to the stone as a valuable resource for the community that is used for construction in various parts of the country and abroad.

28As the museum is situated next to the road connecting Petrozavodsk and Saint Petersburg, it attracts many tourists who visit Karelia and pass by Sheltozero. There are also tourist groups who come from Petrozavodsk and other places in Karelia. At the same time, as the administrators of the Veps museum stated, it aims to connect the members of the local community and to promote the Veps culture in Karelia and beyond. The museum hosts the rehearsals of the Veps choir, activities for schoolchildren, and meetings for elderly residents of Sheltozero Village. Additionally, the museum acts as a local library and archive, as its administrators collect books and articles in the Veps language or that focus on the Veps. The museum also holds a collection of publications in local newspapers devoted to various aspects of life in Veps villages in the Soviet and post-Soviet years (starting from the 1960s). It serves, furthermore, as a meeting point for activists, researchers, teachers, and filmmakers from Prionezhie, Petrozavodsk, or visiting from outside of Karelia.

29The Veps ethnographic museum functions as a point of connection between Veps villages and their residents. By including stoneworking as a part of its permanent exhibition, the museum workers represent the role of mining as a unifying force and as a point of linkage between the surrounding settlements. The exhibition establishes stoneworking as a traditional local occupation with a long history. It focuses on the links between Veps villages and the well-known destinations of diabase and quartzite such as Red Square in Moscow and Napoleon’s sarcophagus in Paris, cultivating a local sense of pride over the fame of their stone. As a result, the museum further establishes stone mining as part of Veps ethnic identity and as a strong factor in their community formation.

30More recently, the history of stoneworking in Veps villages has been commemorated in two ethnic theme parks being constructed in parallel in the Rybreka and Kvartsitnyi settlements in Prionezhie. Ethnic theme parks are a widespread tourism attraction in many countries, including Russia. In most cases, they are built as high-density sites providing opportunities to see many aspects of local culture in a single visit (Yang 2011). Ethnic theme parks are often seen as a way of preserving intangible cultural heritage, although simultaneously raising critiques of the commercialisation and misrepresentation of local lifestyles, as well as cultural appropriation (Fiskesjö 2015; Massing 2018). Theme parks are also seen as an instrument of state power as they provide a specific image of an ethnic minority promoted and approved by the state (Ren 2007). The ethnic theme park in Rybreka received the name Kalarand (a Veps word translated as “fish shore”) to commemorate the local Veps tradition of fishing and the rituals connected with it. Since 2018, the holiday with the same name is held in Rybreka in July to mark the local tradition of Fisher’s Day celebration. During Fisher’s Day, families from Rybreka used to gather on the shore of Lake Onega: while the men went to the sea to catch fish the women lit fires, and after that the families cooked fish soup and lingered on the shore until late (Interview K71). In contemporary Veps villages, fishing is still recognised as an important part of the lifestyle. While most of the local men are employed in stoneworking, it is common for them to simultaneously engage in fishing during their days off as a free-time activity. Fishing is viewed as a popular leisure activity and as a means of enriching the household’s diet with fresh local food.

31Although the Kalarand Park primarily focuses on the tradition of fishing, it simultaneously displays the strong connections of the Veps with the local mining sites. Several of its attractions are made out of diabase, and were prepared and sponsored by the stoneworking quarries. For example, next to the entrance to the park, visitors can see a stone high-leg boot made out of gabbro-diabase. On the boot it is written in Veps and Russian: “Rub the boot’s toe – a stroke of luck will come!” (see fig. 3). A bit further on, there is a gabbro-diabase composition named Vägen alang (in Veps, “the valley of power”), designed and prepared by the director of the local mining enterprise “Gabbro Comfort” (see fig. 4). As social media pages of Kalarand Park note, the stone composition symbolises the harmony between humans and nature, as well as the need for inner peace.

Figure 3. Diabase-made attractions of Kalarand theme park

Figure 3. Diabase-made attractions of Kalarand theme park

© Anna Varfolomeeva, 2021

Figure 4. Diabase-made attractions of Kalarand theme park

Figure 4. Diabase-made attractions of Kalarand theme park

© Anna Varfolomeeva, 2021

32The long history of stoneworking is also remembered during the annual celebrations of Miner’s Day, which is held in Rybreka Village on the last Saturday of August. The tradition, which dates back to 2006 (although Miner’s Day is a Soviet holiday initiated in 1947), is of significance to many residents, given that stone quarries are the primary source of local jobs. During the celebration, the year’s best stoneworkers receive awards and diplomas, and this ceremony is followed by an inter-quarry football tournament, a concert, and a disco. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, when I attended the celebration, the administration representatives of Rybreka who opened the celebration presented stoneworking as a traditional occupation of village residents and stated that it was “rooted” in the community. On August 21, 2021, for the first time Miner’s Day was held in conjunction with the Veps ethnic holiday Kalarand. The joint holiday was organised by the Rybreka Village administration and held on the shore of Lake Onega, in the area where the construction of the theme park Kalarand is currently being finalised. The Kalarand-Miner’s Day celebration proclaimed both fishing and stone mining as traditional Veps occupations. Visitors could move from the Veps choir performing songs and dances to a drilling competition between the diabase quarries, and after that taste the traditional local fish soup. As a result of the drilling competition, a new art object – a stone hedgehog with metal “needles” – was presented by the quarries to the ethnic theme park.

33While the locals and guests in Rybreka were strolling between Veps dances and drilling competitions, Settlement Day was being celebrated in nearby Kvartsitnyi. In August 2021 Kvartsitnyi turned fifty years old. Here as well, the presence of stoneworking as a local industry was strong. The former director of the Soviet-era quartzite sandstone enterprise and one of the pioneers of the settlement’s building, Iuri Koren’kov, was a special guest at the event. Koren’kov gave a speech sharing his memories about the early days of the quarry construction. The celebration was held just next to the Kvartsitnyi theme park construction site. The park is named Ruzaver’kal’l’ (translated from Veps as “the raspberry cliff”). The construction of Ruzaver’kal’l’ park started in late 2020 and was hindered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will mainly focus on the theme of raspberry quartzite extraction as a traditional local occupation. The uniqueness of Kvartsitnyi as the only place of raspberry quartzite extraction was proclaimed several times during the Settlement’s Day celebration.

34Therefore, both theme parks make use of the stoneworking history in Veps villages and present it as a part of Veps ethnic identity. When representing stoneworking, the ethnic theme parks do not separate it from other local occupations or ways of engaging with the landscape. Thus, in the Kalarand ethnic park’s exhibition and activities, mining and fishing are equally represented as traditional Veps occupations. The Ruzaver’kal’l’ ethnic park integrates raspberry quartzite elements into the settlement’s landscape, embedding it in the surrounding forest. Both ethnic parks demonstrate that mining is viewed not as an outside phenomenon but as an integral part of the Veps villages’ lifestyles. The following section will continue this narrative, further situating mining in the overall temporal span of the villages’ development.

Continuity of stoneworking

35The vision of stoneworking as a long-term phenomenon is expressed through the personal narratives of many locals. Although many of them note the environmental harm caused by mining development, at the same time they see the stone quarrying as an important aspect of the local lifestyle and hope for its continuity, thus demonstrating the entanglement between environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainability. This section demonstrates how the local perceptions of mining as an aspect of cultural heritage influence the shared notions of sustainability in Veps villages. Indigenous and local visions of sustainable community development could potentially enrich the established definitions and notions of sustainability, as they focus on in-depth knowledge of the area and on intergenerational and interpersonal exchange. As Susan Crate (2006, p. 305) demonstrates in the study of Viliui Saha in Siberia, local visions of sustainability there include the building of diversified local economies, strong local leadership, a shared vision of work to achieve common goals, and the inclusion of local knowledge. In Veps villages, the understandings of the area’s sustainability similarly entail reliance on local knowledge and historical continuity of resources, as well as on fair resource use and local involvement in the resource management.

36In contemporary Veps villages, stone is a visible and audible element of the landscape. Pieces of diabase or quartzite may form a part of a fence, a basement, or a yard decoration. In Rybreka, from time to time, it is possible to hear explosions from the nearby quarries, and every half hour large trucks loaded with stone loudly pass through the main village road. Mining may also form part of family history. Some of the younger miners I met when visiting diabase quarries near Rybreka were descendants of stoneworking dynasties and spoke about diabase mining as a long-term family occupation. Similarly, an administrative worker of Karelkamen’ diabase quarry whom I interviewed in Petrozavodsk reminisced about her grandfather travelling to Saint Petersburg and Kronstadt as a seasonal labour migrant in the 1910s-1920s (Interview K15).

37As the mining industry is viewed as being closely connected with the villages’ past and present, its stable future is seen as a prerequisite for the area’s development. “Look at other villages in the area!” – my interviewee in Rybreka said – “They are destroyed, total poverty. Here it is different because we have quarries. Without the stone, there would be nothing here” (Interview K20). Therefore, the possibility of the cessation of mining in Karelia would also mean the discontinuation of their whole established way of living.

38Over the course of their work, many miners developed affective relations of pride with the local stone. In the interviews, they mention that diabase and especially quartzite are extremely firm materials, and may even break the tools that are used to cut and shape them. Therefore, specific knowledge of the stone is important for working with it (Interview K73). Pavel, a Veps resident of Rybreka and current mining worker, when comparing the local diabase to its analogues in Ukraine, mentioned that the local stone is better due to its extreme durability: “There is a similar stone in Ukraine, but it becomes rusty, and our stone does not, not at all. We have gravestones that are fifty, sixty years old, and nothing happens to them […]” (Interview K55). Another Veps interviewee who used to work in the diabase quarry, Nina, noted: “Our diabase is the hardest stone. It goes even to nuclear stations, that is how hard it is” (Interview K29). For both Pavel and Nina, the qualities of gabbro-diabase as a durable and solid stone determine its high demand in construction and industry. The steady demand for diabase and quartzite in the Soviet period is a common theme appearing in the interviews. As Sergei from Rybreka reminisced, “Many people moved here in the Soviet time. One female geologist came here from Kazakhstan and told everybody back home […] So then many more people migrated from Kazakhstan to work here” (Interview K19). Konstantin from Shoksha shared a story about an engineer coming from another part of the country by plane just to order raspberry quartzite: “Otherwise, he said, our plant will stop working” (Interview K1). Both interviewees stress the importance of diabase and quartzite beyond the borders of Prionezhie or Karelia, as it is valued in different parts of the state.

39Industrial uses of the stone in plants and nuclear stations are highlighted in many interviews. However, there are also references to the beauty of the stone, as well as its well-known destinations. Raisa from Rybreka, when speaking about quartzite, noted: “It has such a great colour […] the colour of over-ripened berries, such a beautiful hue” (Interview K24). Raisa was working with children in Shoksha as a music teacher and mentioned that they have several short songs about quartzite and the monuments it is used for. Once, I even encountered a sudden joking reference to Napoleon when going from Shoksha to Kvartsitnyi by car. The local driver said to me cheerily: “Do you want to hear a story? Just don’t answer that this is not true! Once Napoleon visited Karelia and liked our stone so much that he immediately ordered it for its future grave. That’s how famous our stone is!” While the reference to Napoleon was meant as a joke, it at the same time demonstrated that the destinations of Veps stone were well known in the local community and were used to impress outsiders and to show the high demand for raspberry quartzite.

40Whereas in Kvartsitnyi and Shoksha stone extraction is almost entirely an element of history, in Rybreka mining of diabase continues. Moreover, it is often represented as an activity with a long future ahead. Aleksei, a Veps mining worker in Rybreka, while showing me one of the local diabase quarries, noted that “Our drillers were estimating and estimating [the amount of stone left], but they never finished their estimations. They told us: you have enough stone here for three thousand years, so just keep working” (Interview K52). Therefore, in addition to its notable stoneworking past going back to the 20th century, mining in Prionezhie has a prodigious future span of three thousand years.

41At the same time, in the nearby settlement of Kvartsitnyi, the shared wish of many locals is to reopen the quartzitic sandstone quarry that has been closed since 2005. The quarry’s closure largely disrupted their established lifestyle, and many residents struggle with unemployment and need to leave the settlement in search of better jobs. The quarry also functioned as a source of financial support, materials, and workforce for sports facilities, the school, the kindergarten, and the local youth club in Kvartsitnyi. “If only we had the quarry back, with all its support, it would all be different here, we would have so many opportunities” – a worker in the youth club in Kvartsitnyi noted (Interview K84). Svetlana and Aleksei from Shoksha, both former workers in the quartzitic sandstone quarry, reminisced nostalgically about the time they were employed:

S: It was so good! Now I think every day, God, how good it was to work at the quarry […]
A: […] until perestroika.
S: Until perestroika. And then everything got destroyed […]
A: Everything got closed.
(Interview K13)

42Although the continuation of mining is desired in Veps villages, many of the residents express their growing distrust in the activities of private quarry owners, especially the ones extracting diabase in Rybreka (as the extraction of raspberry quartzite in Kvartsitnyi is carried out on a small scale). The residents of Rybreka complain about the noise and dust from the stone extraction, and about how the stone-loaded trucks damage the local roads. At the same time, they express their worries over the fact that most quarry owners are from outside Karelia and do not invest enough in the villages’ wellbeing. The accounts of the past demand for diabase and quartzite are in many cases juxtaposed to the present decline in production. A local whom I met in Rybreka village noted that “they [the private companies] just take the stone from us, and we are not needed anymore”. Another interviewee noted that the current owners of the quarries do not know the community: “The owner of Interkamen’ [one of the mining companies in Rybreka] – people say he has a helicopter field next to his house here. He just gets in the helicopter, flies to Moscow, then back […] He does not know the village” (Interview K51). Nina, an elderly resident of Rybreka, said to me bitterly, “[…] Rudoupravlenie [The name of the Soviet-era mining enterprise] does not exist anymore […] Now it’s not our people here, the owners [of the quarries] are all from Moscow and Petersburg, and we are […] I do not know who we are anymore. They do not do anything for the village […] They do not do anything, nothing is being built and there is no help” (Interview K29). Similarly, Anisia from Rybreka noted: “Do you know the present time? Now everybody has their own enterprises, where would you go and to whom would you complain? There is dust, you can see it on the grass here and even when you grow vegetables […]”. In several quotations, there is an overall sense of loss or obscurity: “we are not needed anymore”, “I do not know who we are anymore”, or “to whom would you complain”. Many residents feel that they lost perceived control over local stone extraction as unknown private owners are managing the local resources.

43However, even when private companies are accused of mismanagement, the importance of mining itself is not doubted. “Our village would not exist without mining”, a resident of Rybreka noted during an informal conversation. While many informants mentioned the negative impacts of mining (such as the dust in the air or the water pollution), they still acknowledged that it is an important industry for the villages’ development and their stable future. There are cases when the accounts on the negative effects of stone extraction and the disappointment over the quarry’s closure go hand in hand. Mila, a resident of Shoksha, said: “Well, these quarries are harmful, what can you say. I do not know why ours is not reopened […] Maybe somebody will buy it and it will reopen one day” (Interview K7). In this quotation, Mila juxtaposes several themes, such as the negative environmental impacts of mining and its simultaneously important role as a local job provider.

44Some interviewees at the same time did not focus on the damaging effects of stoneworking. Veniamin, a resident of Rybreka and former mining worker, noted “In Shoksha, stone extraction is harmful […] but here [in Rybreka] it is fine, there is dust collecting equipment in the quarries” (Interview K17). Although Veniamin recognises the health and environmental harm caused by mining, he does not connect this problem directly with the enterprise he used to work in, and instead speaks about the quarry situated in another village. Veniamin’s own former place of work is strongly related to his own labour for him and his value as a worker, and perhaps therefore he tends to think about the quarries in Rybreka more positively than about more abstract mining enterprises outside of the village. Whereas many interviewees note the decline of fish in Lake Onega in recent years, they tend to relate this decline to the activities of private tourist companies opening on the lake shore: “There were tons of fish! Tons! But we have no red fish anymore […] Now they are putting these [tourist] bases everywhere and catching all the fish” (Interview K13).

45This section demonstrates that the vision of mining as a traditional occupation with a bright past and a promising future influences the perceptions of its environmental impact. The intertwining of human-landscape and human-stone relations produces a distinct local vision of the region’s sustainability. For the residents of Veps villages, the future of their village is largely associated with the development of the mining industry, and therefore the continuity of mining is valued. However, many feel alienated from stoneworking, as they are not participating in the decision-making regarding the stone’s destinations and the prospects for mining industry development. Moreover, these decisions are mostly not even shared with them. Both private mining enterprises and private tourist companies are accused of causing environmental harm when they are viewed as “outsiders” using and appropriating the resources of Veps villages. Therefore, mining is not directly juxtaposed to other forms of resource extraction. Rather, the residents blame private companies for alienating locals from decision-making and neglecting their needs.


46In the Veps villages of Karelia, decorative stone extraction is viewed as a vital part of the local lifestyle, and its intergenerational continuity and influence on community formation are emphasised by many locals. Stoneworking as an element of cultural heritage is promoted not only by established state institutions such as the Veps ethnographic museum, but also by more recent locally organised initiatives such as the ethnic theme parks Kalarand and Ruzaver’kal’l’ in Rybreka and Kvartsitnyi. Both in the Veps museum and the Kalarand ethnic park, stoneworking is presented as an integral historical part of the Veps lifestyle, alongside other ways of interacting with the landscape such as fishing or hunting. In this way, mining is not separated from human-landscape relations, but becomes embedded in them. Mining practices also produce new connections between humans and materials: the village landscape or family history may be defined through the continuity of stoneworking experiences.

47The local diabase and quartzite are viewed as a constituent part of the Karelian natural environment. They are valued on a material level as primary job providers, but also symbolically, as they connect the Veps villages with well-known places such as Red Square in Moscow or even “les Invalides” in Paris. The high demand for diabase and quartzite, and their firmness and durability, are perceived with pride as the justification for the miners’ hard labour. Simultaneously, the interviewees perceive a loss of demand for the local stone as an indication of their efforts not being valued, and complain that the rare resources of Prionezhie are being “wasted”. Whereas the Soviet-era mining quarries are appreciated for providing various types of economic and social support, the modern-era private mining businesses are viewed as outsiders who are appropriating the natural resources of the Veps villages. Similar narratives of appropriation concern private tourist companies situated near Veps villages; they are likewise blamed for environmental harm and mismanagement of local resources.

48Mining narratives in Veps villages focus on continuity: stoneworking is seen as an industry that has been present for a long time and will remain so for even longer. Therefore, stoneworking forms part of the family legacy and is transferred to future generations. At the same time, the development of mining fosters intra-generational exchange, as the residents of the Veps villages, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are connected through their shared employment in the stone quarries. The extraction of rare stones thus becomes a community-building element. Mining’s role as a unifying force is further promoted through village celebrations such as the annual Miner’s Day in Rybreka and the Settlement’s Day in Kvartsitnyi, which largely focus on the local history of stone extraction.

49The vision of mining as a historical occupation, as well as its economic and symbolic importance play a role in the discussions about its environmental impact. Many residents of Rybreka, the primary site of contemporary mining development in the Veps region, note the negative effects of stone extraction, such as loud noises or dust in the air and on the ground. However, these effects are in many cases closely related to the activity of the private quarry owners who, as the locals claim, do not care enough about the Karelian natural environment. The mining industry itself is presented as a crucial element of local life, and as an important historical occupation. At the same time, many residents are concerned that mining and tourist companies are managed by owners coming from outside Karelia and not familiar with the local resources. They note that the locals are not involved in any decisions concerning the district’s resources and do not experience social support similar to that provided by former state enterprises.

50This case study demonstrates the importance of integrating local and Indigenous visions of sustainability in dominant narratives. Paying close attention to local perspectives moves the discussion beyond the established dichotomies of “traditional” vs “industrial”, or “Indigenous resident” vs “mining worker”, and offers paths towards a more complex analysis. If mining development in the area is seen as a crucial element of northern Veps ethnic identity, and as the cultural heritage of the Veps villages, its continuity is vital not only because of economic reasons, but also due to its cultural importance. At the same time, the currently existing practices of stone extraction not taking local perspectives into account are not accepted by the village residents and are viewed locally as unfair resource management. The residents of Veps villages are willing to be more engaged in decision-making procedures regarding stone extraction development in the area. Many of them share an in-depth knowledge of the industry that is transmitted from generation to generation. This knowledge, however, is not employed when new extractive projects at Veps territories are designed. This article highlights that attention to local needs and opinions and active participation of the villages’ residents in shaping their industry’s future are crucial elements of Veps villages’ sustainable development.

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1 By current mining workers, I refer to those employed in stone mining at the time of the interview. By former mining workers, I refer to the interviewees not involved in mining at the time of the interview but working with stone previously.

2 The interviews were conducted in Russian with occasional Veps-language references. I understand the Veps language and speak it at an intermediate level, but my Veps-speaking interviewees were bilingual and preferred speaking Russian to me, as most of them use Russian outside of their circle of close friends. The meetings of Paginklub were held in Veps. All translations of interview quotations into English are my own. The interviews are cited using “K” for “Karelia” and the sequential number of the interview.

3 I do not state in all cases, when referring to quotations, whether or not the interviewee is Veps by ethnicity, as I focus on the overall community of Veps villages, not just on those who self-identify as Veps.

4 The term “stoneworking” is used as a translation of the Veps word “kivirad” encompassing various aspects of engaging with stone (cutting, shaping, polishing, loading).

5 The UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Retrieved from:

6 The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Retrieved from:

7 Postanovlenie Pravitel’stva RF ot 24 marta 2000 g. N 255 “O Edinom perechne korennyh malochislennyh narodov Rossiiskoi Federatsii” [Resolution of the Government of the Russian Federation of March 24, 2000 N 255 “On the Unified List of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation”].

8 By “Veps activists” in Karelia, I refer to members of the Veps speaking club “Paginklub”, scholars, museum and library workers, editors, and other residents of Veps villages and Petrozavodsk promoting the usage of the Veps language and the development of Veps culture understood as traditional knowledge and ways of living in Veps villages (see also Siragusa 2015).

9 The word “settlement” is used in this article as a translation of the Russian term posёlok (also posёlok selskogo tipa – a rural-style settlement). Settlements are types of smaller localities, usually with a mix of population working in agriculture and industry.

10 The “Liquidation of the villages without prospects” policy (1960s-1970s) recognised the smaller rural settlements as economically inefficient and forced the migration of their residents to larger villages or to neighbouring towns.

11 I refer to Renata as an administrative worker according to my 2021 field notes. However, at the time of our interview in 2018 she was not employed in administration.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The Veps villages of Karelia
Crédits © Anastasia Kvasha (background map by OpenStreetMap contributors and the GIS user community)
Fichier image/png, 475k
Titre Figure 2. Veps ethnographic museum in Sheltozero
Crédits © Anna Varfolomeeva, 2015
Fichier image/jpeg, 137k
Titre Figure 3. Diabase-made attractions of Kalarand theme park
Crédits © Anna Varfolomeeva, 2021
Fichier image/jpeg, 664k
Titre Figure 4. Diabase-made attractions of Kalarand theme park
Crédits © Anna Varfolomeeva, 2021
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Anna Varfolomeeva, « Incorporating stone mining into Indigenous and local notions of cultural heritage and sustainability »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 54 | 2023, mis en ligne le 06 juin 2023, consulté le 27 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anna Varfolomeeva

Anna Varfolomeeva is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, University of Helsinki. Her current project focuses on Indigenous conceptualisations of sustainability in industrialised areas. She is the co-editor of Multispecies Households in the Saian Mountains. Ecology at the Russia-Mongolia Border (2019) and has also published on Indigeneity articulations and stone extraction symbolism.

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