Openness to innovations is an important character-trait of the Nenets reindeer herders and sometimes the mixture of modernity and traditionalism goes against all expectations.
The first of the elders of Khongurei I got the chance to interview was Stalina Yakovlevna Taleeva.
The reindeer herders tried the best to survive the hard times of collectivisation in the 1930s, when a lot of reindeer were confiscated by the state and herders had no choice but voluntary or involuntary to join the collective farms. Nevertheless they adopted the new political order actively and even took over the fashion for neologisms of the early Soviet Union. It was a la mode to name children after the Great Leader Josif Stalin or the October Revolution. So a lot of girls named Stalina or Oktyabrina appeared in this time. On girl was even named Vertolina still in the 60s after the helicopter (russ. vertolyot) she was born in on the fly to the hospital, Stalina told me. I didn’t get the impression that Stalina’s father was especially enthusiastic about the Soviet order but obviously he had his reason to link up with the Great Leader this way. Nobody remembers the traditional Nenets treatment of names here, which differs a lot from the Russian one with name, father’s name and surname. Everybody uses now the name-father’s name form of addressing like the Russians. To speak out the father’s name in the presence of a person was highly tabooed in former times but nobody even remembers that (my colleague Lena Liarskaya described that rules: Елена Лярская: “Современное состояние системы личных имен у ямальских ненцев” Антропология. Фольклористика. Лингвистика. Сб. статей. СПб., 2002. Вып. 2. )
Stalina is one of the lucky elders who’s ten children are all still all alive and her daughter Nadezhda, my host here in the village, displays proudly her award with the medal “Mother-Heroine” in gold.
Stalina tells me also how children were baptised in the Nenets way by some elders in a small ritual during Soviet times. The small chapel on the lake Urdjuk deep in the tundra, build by Komi people, was venerated by the local Nenets also until now. Valuable things where offered or even exchanged there like on pagan sacred places in the old times. Official and informal ideologies were interwoven in the everyday practices in a complicated way (see the great article of Laur Vallikivi about the present day conversion of Nenets).
But the ultimate symbol of Soviet Modernity in the North is probably not hammer and sickle but something linked to food culture. Soviet settlers in the North introduced the green house and cucumbers grow now everywhere in the north. Stalina is growing them first behind their kitchen window and later in the greenhouse in her small garden.
The long polar day lets grow the vegetables in the short summer very quickly. But she has to carry sand and humus to her garden to plant there some potatoes, the other important vegetable in the North, because the village Khongurei is build on a hill of loam which made it hard to move through the village after a summer rain.
She is also a great master in sewing traditional clothing of reindeer fur. Unfortunately the reindeer herders are not wearing any more the fur clothing made by their mothers and wives. The explanation is not the loss of prestige of old fashioned things but a little bit more complicated. The change from the conical tent with an open fire hole on top to a closed light cabin made of tarpaulin made it quite difficult to dry the cloth made of reindeer skin inside after work. The fur clothing deteriorates very quickly and has to be treated carefully. The women explained to me that after the removal of the families with women and children from the tundra to the village (I decribed this process in the arcticanthropology blog) there was nobody to take care of the treatment and repair of the fur cloth any more.
Nowadays the herders use bought clothes even if they have not the same protecting quality as reindeer clothing. Stalina sold me a pair of beautiful Nenets pimy (long sock-like shoes hand-made of reindeer’s legs’ fur and sewn with sinews) her reindeer herding sons are not wearing any more.