My Siberian friend, the reindeer herder Iosif Nikitovich Kechimov has died

sibiria, 2000

Photo by Christian Vagt

He was one of the respected elders of the Khanty community at the Tromagan River. His friends and relatives buried him on 3rd June 2016.

I first met Iosif Kechimov almost 17 years ago to ask him, if he and his family would agree to be in “Elsewhere”, the documentary of Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyerhalter.

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“Elswhere” film crew, photo by Christian Vagt

It was my late friend, the Nenets writer Yuri Vella, who suggested shooting the film at Kechimov’s place. He knew him as a master of not only reindeer herding but also all the Khanty crafts and traditions. He was known as a bearer of Khanty religious knowledge.

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Iosif in one of his racing boats

I admired how he could build log houses and dugout boats, reindeer sledges and shelters, and respected his knowledge of herding, hunting and fishing.

First of all though, I was amazed by his unique sense of humour. With a few words and gestures, he could launch a small shame provoking attack that left one speechless. It was part of traditional joking relationships among the Khanty indicating social closeness and friendship. He was a master of dark Khanty humour, which together with his dark hair and skin earned him the nickname Pikhte Oship, the black Iosif, among his community, which he never took offence at.

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photo by Christian Vagt

 

Some years later I asked him to take part in a short documentary on Khanty and Nenets storytelling and world view. He agreed to tell about some of his very intimate experiences with forces more powerful than humans. His stories became part of the film “Before the Snow” directed by Christian Vagt.

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With his daughter Nelya and myself in Versailles

In November 2014, I managed to organise a visit of Iosif Kechimov and his daughter Nelya to Paris. Eva Toulouze invited them to the ‘Journées Khantyes’ (Khanty Days) of The National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO) at the Sorbonne Paris Cité to represent their culture first hand and not, as so often happens, through self- or state appointed representatives of the indigenous peoples of Russia.

2006-3-28 copy-21The last time I met Iosif Nikitovich was in early April of this year. He was attending the Day of the Reindeer Herder in the town of Kogalym with his family, his wife Sveta, daughter Nelya, his son Volodya and his grandchildren Dima and Zhenya. I did not expect it would be last time I would see him. He explained to me why he hadn’t performed some days prior at the Bear ceremony I had recorded but suggested to sing the sacred bear songs the next time his friend Sergei Kechimov would organise the ritual at the Tromyogan River. I promised to provide him with the recordings of the songs we had done some days before at the ritual and would try to obtain copies of the songs recorded almost thirty years ago by the Estonian filmmaker Lennart Meri. I’m now working with these copies but I will never listen to Iosif performing these songs at the Bear Feast.

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At the “Day of the Reindeer Herder” in Kogalym

When I visited Iosif’s settlement in the forest for the last time he did not only show me the collection of dugout canoes he had built for hunting and to take part in the yearly racing competitions, we also took a short walk to the newly set up oil drilling sites near his settlement. The noise of the oil rigs had replaced the silence I was used to in the forest. The dogs of the workers, despite them being officially banned, had attacked the reindeers and the pastures had once again become smaller after the huge forest fires of some years ago.

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Iosif at the oil extraction site on his land

As long as I knew him, Iosif was worried about the oil industry’s destructions of the Khanty land and the social change that implied in the Khanty communities. He became impatient with the abuse of alcohol and with the conversion to Protestantism among his fellow reindeer herders, and he did not tolerate such people close to him. Still, the destruction of the land by the oil companies made him feel quite powerless.

2006-3-21 copy-18Iosif Nikitovich Kechimov left us much too early at the age of 56. Unfortunately, he is not an exception among the Khanty of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region where Russia produces more than half of its oil. Social marginalisation, the poisoned environment where the Khanty fish, collect berries and obtain their drinking water, and the reindeer search for nourishment, and and the stress of an unsecured future all lead to the low life expectancy of the indigenous Khanty, Nenets and Mansi in the region, an estimated 10 years below the Russian average.

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Driving to the another settlement

I am mourning a friend and I feel the responsibility growing to pass on the knowledge and skills Iosif and my other Khanty friends have shared with me.

 

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About Stephan Dudeck

Anthropologist at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, the Centre for Arctic Social Studies at the European University at Saint Petersburg and the Centre of Arctic and Siberian Exploration at the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia
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