Buying a God in Paris: Cultural Hybridity in the Thinking of Yuri Vella, Forest Nenets Intellectual


  • Eva Toulouze Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales
  • Liivo Niglas University of Tartu
  • Laur Vallikivi University of Tartu


animism, cultural hybridity, Forest Nenets, Notre-Dame de Paris, sacred objects


This paper analyses highly creative and hybrid practices which tie the Indigenous Siberian, European Christian and Soviet worlds in unexpected ways. Reflecting on the Forest Nenets reindeer herder, poet and intellectual Yuri Vella's understanding of the religious, the authors discuss an episode of turning an icon-like painting of Madonna with Child into a Nenets 'god'. This took place in Paris half a year before Yuri's death. First, we present his short biography, emphasising the key moments that shaped his cosmological and religious sensibilities. Then we depict a ritual of ‘god-making’ by using the ethnographic technique of thick description and then comment on it from various angles and discuss what they reveal about Yuri’s understanding of personhood and agency, relations with deities and other humans. Finally, we explain how animist notions and Christian elements become entangled in his religious thinking.


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