As I said in my previous blog entries on my stay in Arkhangelsk and Pinega, I was not able to get the border permission in time. On hearing this I decided to visit the reindeer herders outside the border zone and postpone my work in the village of Nes with the other reindeer herding brigades for a later visit.
It proved very useful that I had already gained contact information from the 7th brigade of the Kanin reindeer herding cooperative in the summer. It was not difficult to get in touch with their friends in Pinega who agreed to take me to the camp in the forest immediately. The southernmost brigades can be reached with a regular car in the winter as the winter roads made by the forestry lead almost directly to the camp site.
The reindeer herders asked me what I did in Pinega, where some people said they had seen me a week before my arrival. It seemed information was travelling faster than myself and my phone call a week prior to Pinega caused the appearance of my ghost before I had arrived!
I reached the reindeer herders just in time, because in the middle of March they left their southernmost camp-site and moved further north. They decided to stay at the new place until just before it started thawing in April and then they move quickly to the Kanin peninsula to their calving grounds some 300 km northwards.
I was invited into the tent of the Vaniuta family to be their guest for the ten days. The camp was situated some 16 km from the village of Karepole near the river Laka one of the tributaries of the river Kuloi. The village is a constant destination for the reindeer herders in winter and I travelled several times by reindeer sledge and snowmobile to visit the shopkeeper who is a friend of the family. The days were filled with different kind of work with the reindeer. The constant presence of the herder with the reindeer is not needed at this time of the year and that gives the herders time to repair their sledges and prepare wooden parts for tents and sledges for the summer when they are on the treeless tundra in the North.
Wintertime is also the time of frequent visits and communication with neighbours. I witnessed several visits of different kind of traders to the camp that sold groceries and clothing there, but also relatives and friends from other brigades were travelling to our camp.
In Arkhangelsk people told me frequently that they know friends and relatives who visited the reindeer herding camps as tourists. The reindeer herders became an important tourist attraction in the Arkhangelsk region in winter. They have guests from the Arkhangelsk region as well as from other regions of Russia and even from abroad. The reason for the evolving tourism, mostly on weekends is the possibility to reach the camps easily by cars and coaches on the winter-roads. Since the reindeer herding cooperative can only provide a vanishingly low salary, the herders depend almost entirely on the products and services they sell to tourists and villagers. They offer tea and reindeer specialities, berries, meat, souvenirs and handmade shoes made from reindeer fur. They carry the children on reindeer sledges and explain their lifestyle to the townsfolk who cannot imagine how people can live during the winter in such thin tents.
It seems as if the multicultural history of the region still has its effect on the present. Pinega and the villages around were already a place for the exile of political dissidents in czarist Russia. Even American soldiers were located here during the intervention time in the Russian civil war. Political prisoners later filled the Gulag camps established under Stalin along the river Kuloi, a lot of them were from the Baltic States and Poland but also from other parts of the Soviet Union. The region had previously been the place where Russian settlers met the Chud people and later met with Komi and Nenets reindeer herders. I have the impression that this diversity of encounters helped to develop forms of relations building on mutual understanding and respect of differences.
As an example I was able to observe a case which had the potential for conflict – the cutting of forests near our camp-site on the reindeer pastures. The noise of the chainsaw on the nearby cutting place woke me up in the morning several times during my stay. The reindeer herders are afraid that the forest will be completely gone one day and that they will have to camp on clear ground. Most important is the lichen found on the forest floor that is the most important food for the reindeer during the winter.
The foreman of the forest workers visited our camp several times and meticulously explained all the details of their work. He insisted on taking me to their working place to convince me that they do not clear-cut the forest and will not harm the surface. I got the impression that the forest workers have even started to understand that mixing up the upper part of the soil to foster the quicker appearance of new trees will harm the lichen pastures for the reindeer herders. Possibly the most important thing was that in this conversation between the foreman and the reindeer herders I didn’t experience any of the arrogance and guardedness that I had often observed with urban officers and officials. I very much hope that this kind of relationship could enable a peaceful coexistence of reindeer herding with forestry, because the latter is almost the only source of income left for a lot of village people in the Arkhangelsk North.
In immemorial times the Nenets of the Kanin peninsula used the forest of the Pinega and Mezen region as reindeer pastures. Nowadays they have to pay rent to the Arkhangelsk regional administration to use the pastures of their forefathers. This time I also got to know a lot about the so called forest Nenets (not to be confused with the separate Forest Nenets people in Western Siberia) who lived with their reindeer in these forests all year round. It was a special subgroup of the westernmost Nenets (formerly called Samoyeds of Mezen) that where joined in the 19th century by Nenets and Komi from the Bolshezemel’skaia tundra fleeing from epizooty there. Still during Soviet times the old reindeer herder Aleksandr Osiotin used to live in the Pinega forests hunting for a state company. Nowadays there is only a small reindeer herd near the lower part of the river Kuloi that is kept in the forest-tundra zone all year round. I hope that in the near future I will be able to speak to reindeer herders there and record the elders who still remember the forest type of reindeer herding.
I also learned a lot about the deeply rooted and highly developed relationships of the reindeer herders with local Russian villagers. This institutionalised relationship is known as patera in Nenets and Komi language and in Russian kvartira or fatera. The term does not only refer literally to a flat of hospital villagers for the reindeer herders to stay overnight and go to the sauna on their way to the winter pastures. Patera can also be considered as an institutionalised long term relationship between village and nomad families. The relationship includes many aspects including bartering and maintaining forms of social kinship such as godparents. This form of partnership based on trust and mutual respect is regularly transmitted from generation to generation but also appears spontaneously if for instance men return from the army service together and become friends. The reindeer herders have such patera in the villages of Karepole, Soiana, Dolgoshelie, and Mezen.
Anthropologists call such relationships based on deference, understanding, and acknowledgement of the equality of status and difference of identity symmetrical, because both sides have the possibility to influence on the character of the relationship on more or less equal terms. The interrelations are so important for the reindeer herders nowadays, because through these they are not perceived as uneducated primitive people but as equal partners who know full well what is profitable for them, what they want to achieve in life, and how to successfully find a way to secure existence in often economically unfavourable circumstances. Everybody that has to become acquainted with and wants to communicate with the reindeer herders, be it officials, representatives of oil companies, anthropologists or businessmen should follow the example. This was probably the most important lesson of my short trip to the Kanin reindeer herders’ winter pastures.