Artists for endangered languages

The Edge of Ice is a multidisciplinary project seeking new ways to protect endangered Finno-Ugric languages and cultures.

“Humankind is worried about global biodiversity, endangered plants and endangered animals, such as pandas and Siberian tigers. This is good. But is anyone worried about small, endangered peoples and their languages, cultures, rituals, myths and mythology? They are dependent on unpolluted natural environments and traditional livelihoods, such as reindeer husbandry, hunting and fishing. Too much oil has been spilled in the taiga and tundra, but it’s not too late yet,” says Project Manager Kirsikka Moring.

For three years, the Edge of Ice project has worked to protect Finno-Ugric languages and cultures in Russia, holding workshops, participating in festivals and conferences and planning a closing conference to be held in Helsinki. The project seeks to find new ways to protect endangered languages and transfer cultural traditions from the elderly to children.

Fearless artists have travelled to Udmurt villages, including Pauliina Hulkko, Professor of Theatre Work from the University of Tampere, and cousins Ari-Pekka and Jarkko Lahti, who travelled through the Khanty-Mansi oil regions to remote villages with Tuomas Rounakari, an ethnomusicologist from the Sibelius Academy. Author and theatre director Hanna Kirjavainen travelled with photographers to reindeer owners’ winter villages in the Komi Republic to take rare pictures and interview people for a forthcoming play called White Deer, a joint Finnish-Komi production. Choreographer Hanna Brotherus created a dance performance about the life story of Faina, an elderly Livvi-Karelian woman.

“It takes courage to travel to the villages along the upper Volga and in Siberia. Getting around is difficult, and the risks are high,” says Moring.

Under pressure from mainstream culture

The work of the multidisciplinary, multicultural and multilingual team was not easy. According to Moring, they first needed to understand how to climb over cultural walls. After a period of increased openness and tolerance, the uncertain situation and suppressive attitude towards original peoples in Russia came as a surprise.

“Under pressure from mainstream Russian culture, endangered local cultures are often hidden under the surface. Finding them requires a sensitive approach. This affected our opportunities to schedule work processes.”

Can art really be used to promote the status, existence and visibility of endangered languages and cultures? According to Moring, the speakers of small languages felt that the arrival of Finnish artists in Finno-Ugric regions to discuss the preservation of language was extremely encouraging in itself.

“The most important aspect was to strengthen people’s self-esteem and encourage them to believe that they are unique and valuable. The journey was not easy, but it provided an entirely new outlook.”

Shamanic violin concerts and a hunting feast

The project will culminate in the Edge of Ice festival at the Finnish National Theatre from 21 to 23 January 2016. The festival will feature performances by the Khanty-Mansi Obin-Ugric National Theatre and young people of the Petseri minority in Russia, as well as a shamanic violin concert and Siberian hunting feast with folk music.

“The festival in January will present the results of our work as an unbelievably rich programme that is rare in Finland with seminars, films, concerts and visiting theatre performances,” says Moring.

More information about the programme is available on the website of the Finnish National Theatre at:

The Edge of Ice project received a Kone Foundation Multilingualism and Art grant in 2013.