The firsts Memorial for the reindeer herders that went to war with their reindeer in World War II was inaugurated by the governor on February 23rd in Naryan Mar. Relatives of the Nenets and Komi that fought in the reindeer transport troops in the Soviet army came up with the initiative to establish such a monument. They fought in the surroundings of Murmansk, often behind the lines of the German troops, and a lot of them were killed in action and never found. Now their children and grandchildren have a place to grieve and commemorate.
Over 6000 reindeer and 600 reindeer-herders left the Nenets Autonomous Okrug in 1941. Almost half of them never returned.
Memory of the “Great Patriotic War” as WW II is officially called in Russia is omnipresent. Every village museum has photographs of the veterans on display and almost every village has a war memorial.
Unfortunately almost all the veterans are gone already. The last survivor of the reindeer-army now lives in Arkhangelsk. I asked if anybody recorded interviews with the veterans when they were alive but in the villages nobody thought about preserving their memory. I have still the hope to find something here in the capital. What I will document for sure are the recollections of their children about the stories the fathers and uncles told about the war.
There is the assumption that the Soviet army got the idea for using reindeer transport during the Finnish Winter War when Finnish troops using Sámi reindeer transport were able to move quickly on reindeer sledges in the forest.
Some of the home-comers did not say anything because their memories of the battles were too traumatic. Others told heroic stories how they used their sniping skills and their skills to throw the lasso to catch prisoners that where called “tongues” because they were used to retrieve information on the enemy. There are even stories about lost reindeer that found their way back from the Kola peninsula to their Nenets homes on the other side of the Barents sea.
My friend Fedosia Smenovna Kauts told me that she doesn’t even remember the face of her father. She only remembers looking at him from the back, dressed with the beautiful Nenets richly ornamented belt, sitting on the sledge and leaving for the front. This happened after a short stay at home, when some of the herders came back to take more reindeer to the front. She remembers how her mother tried to convince her husband to leave the beautiful belt at home and he put it at his side when he stayed at home in the nomad tent they were living in then. But when he heard the call for departure, he automatically took that symbol of manhood and talisman of every Nenets man and left the family. He never came back home.