My first station on the way to my next period of field-work for the next two and a half month in the Nenets region is St. Petersburg.
I enjoy a sunny afternoon at the busy Nevski Prospekt. Nothing is clear yet. I don’t know where to stay and where I will go for the next few months. But the stress of preparation of the last weeks is over. Time to relax. “Everything will be”, as the Russian proverb says. I hope I’ll get the permission of the Russian authorities to enter the border zone on the White Sea and manage to get transport to the remote settlements I plan to visit.
I have one day in St. Petersburg and manage to interview Maria Yakovlevna Barmich, a 77 years old Nenets linguist from the Herzen University Institute for Northern People. I met her only once before and she feels a little bit insecure at the beginning. Without the support of my Russian colleague Lena Liarskaya she would not open up so easily and tell me the story of her childhood in a Nenets reindeer herders family on he Kanin Peninsula. She went to the recently established school for the Nenets in the Village of Shoina during war time in the 1940s.
The reindeer herders’ children lived in the boarding school and suffered during the war from malnutrition, scabies and scurvy. Her mother migrated to the village only in summertime with the conical nomads tent made out of birch-bark which hosted four families. The man were at war and most of them never came back. Maria remembered how she got a letter with the information that her father was missing in action and threw it into the fire without telling her illiterate mother.
When she went to study to the regional capital of Naryan Mar and later to St. Petersburg to write her PhD her mother had difficulties to explain her relatives why her daughter was not able to finish school in the same time as other children. She was always suspicious that something was wrong with her mental abilities if she had to learn and learn again, told Maria about her mother.
Maria Barmich is till teaching the Nenets language to the students and searching desperately for some young Nenets specialists to replace her. But salaries are too small and rents in St. Petersburg too high to attract any of the few candidates that would be able to teach Nenets language.