Yuri Vella (Yuri Kylevich Aivaseda) passed away

2006-13-35 copy

My most important teacher and great friend passed away. I am with my thoughts and heart now in the village of Variogan and at the Tiuitiakha river settlement in Western Siberia. It was hard at the first moment but how to survive, how to live a responsible life that’s what he tried to teach me first of all. I am worried now about the future of the world he invited me into.

Northern Lights over Lapland

Northern Lights over Lapland

In the night of his death and the following night we saw such great northern lights here in Lapland that I could believe that a great man left this world and his steps became visible this way. I promise to do everything possible to preserve what he created. My friends and I plan to publish his poetry in German translation. I want to express my heartfelt sympathy with all relatives and friends of Yuri Vella.

Yura and me looking into a well we build.

Yura and me looking into a well we build.

Ушел из этой жизни мой главный учитель и лучший друг. С мыслями, с сердцем я сейчас в Варьегане и на стойбище на Тюйтяхе. Когда узнал, было тяжело на душе, но я помнил о том, что как дальше жить, учил меня именно он. Меня очень волнует судьба того мира, в которой он меня пригласил.

In 1994

In 1994

В ту ночь, когда его не стало и на следующую ночь мы здесь в Лапландии видели такое сильные северное сияние и хочется верить, что большой человек отправляется в путь и шаги его отражаются таким образом. Буду сделать все, чтобы сохранилось то, что он создал.  Мы планируем с друзьями издавать его стихотворение и на немецком языке. Выражаю соболезнование всем родным, близким и друзьям Юрия Вэллы.

On his birthday in 2008

On his birthday in 2008

Mein wichtigster Lehrer und Freund ist in der Nacht zum 13. September gestorben. Mit dem Herzen und mit meinen Gedanken bin ich jetzt im Dorf Varjogan und auf dem Wohnplatz am Fluss Tjuitjacha in Westsibirien. Ich erinnere mich daran, wie viel ich  von ihm über Verantwortung und Überleben lernte und das hilft mir jetzt. Mich beunruhigt in diesen Stunden vor allem die Zukunft der Welt in die er mich einlud. In der Nacht seines Todes und in der folgenden Nacht sahen wir hier in Lappland ungewöhnlich viele Nordlichter, die einen glauben machen wollen,  sie seien die Schritte eines großen Menschen, der diese Welt verlässt. Ich kann ihm nur versprechen alles zu tun, um das zu bewahren, was er geschaffen hat. Mit Freunden plane ich die Herausgabe seiner Gedichte auch auf Deutsch. Mein Beileid allen Verwandten und Freunden von Juri Vella.

Yuri Vella

Yuri Vella

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Report of my travel to the Kanin reindeer herders in March 2013.

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.

The tent of the Vaniuta family that became my home.

The tent of the Vaniuta family that became my home.

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 were waiting on the forest road with their sledges to pick me up.

The reindeer herders were waiting on the forest road with their sledges to pick me up.

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!

The son of the brigadir

The son of the brigadir

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.

Inside the tent of the Vaniuta family

Inside the tent of the Vaniuta family

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.

Usually reindeer herders don't use snowmobiles but reindeer sledges to do herding work.

Usually reindeer herders don’t use snowmobiles but reindeer sledges to do herding work.

To see the whole herd was an impressive sight

To see the whole herd was an impressive sight

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.

Traders visiting the camp site

Traders offer their goods directly on the sledges

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.

Grandmother Vaniuta

Grandmother Vaniuta

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.

Several times we visited the shopkeeper in Pinega, old friends of the Vaniuta family.

Several times we visited the shopkeeper in Pinega, old friends of the Vaniuta family.

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 forrest cutting site just a kilometer away.

The forrest cutting site just a kilometer away.

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.

Reindeer herders' meeting in the morning.

Reindeer herders’ meeting in the morning.

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.

Grandfather Vaniuta

Grandfather Vaniuta

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.

We where visiting the patera in Kargopole

We where visiting the patera in Karepole

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.

Volodia, one of the youngest herders in the brigade Nr. 7

Volodia, one of the youngest herders in the brigade Nr. 7

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Summer on the Kanin Peninsula

As promised I am giving a short report about my summer experiences with the reindeer herders on the Kanin peninsula before telling you about my visit to their camps this winter.

It was quite difficult to reach the Kanin peninsula from my starting point, the city of Naryan-Mar. Without the help of our partners, in particular the Association of Nenets People “Yasavey”, foremost Galina Platova and Aleksandr Belugin, I would not have been able to organise transport and the border zone permission. In Naryan-Mar, Galina introduced me to Natasha Latysheva, the head of the house of culture of the village of Nes, the place where most of the Kanin Nenets and Komi live nowadays. Natasha provided me with a list of elders I should meet and organised my stay in the village.

The church in the village of Nes

The church in the village of Nes

Why the village of Nes? It’s one of the westernmost villages where Nenets reindeer herders live nowadays and it seems that anthropological fieldwork concentrated so far mostly on the so called Boleshezemelskaia Tundra, the eastern part of the European Nenets area. The Kanin Nenets were the first who established close ties with the Russian settlers and came into contact with Christianity. They experienced a wave of Komi and Nenets immigrants from the eastern tundra in the 19th century due to reindeer epidemics that broke out there. That’s why Yasavey suggested going to the Kanin Nenets, where Galina Platova herself comes from.

Kanin reindeer herders

Kanin reindeer herders

The one month in the Kanin Tundra became crucial for my work to study the oral history of Nenets, because this is the place most of the stories I recorded in the village originate from. Often people asked me, especially in the capital Naryan-Mar, why it would not be sufficient to just visit the village and record the old people there. I think it wouldn’t have worked for two reasons. The first reason was trust. My interlocutors have to be sure that I am able to understand what they are telling me. Why would they tell somebody about their life in the tundra who has absolutely no clue what it means to live there? The second reason was to get to know the social context in which the stories appear and that forms the collective memory of the reindeer herders. I wanted to know more about everyday life where knowledge about the past is passed on from one generation to the next and some memories are recalled and others silenced.

Nobody in the village of Nes wondered about my wish to visit the herders. A lot of people tried to help me and gave me good advice on how to get to the reindeer herders who were at that time on the very northern part of the Kanin peninsula. I used my time in Nes waiting for transportation to the tundra to visit and record the Nenets elders. My Nenets guide Volodia Ardeev took me to his 92 year old grandmother Nadezhda Fiodorovna Ardeeva, the oldest inhabitant of the village. I spend almost a whole day listening to the amazing stories and going through the huge photo archive of this so very hospitable lady.

Nadezhda Fiodorovna Ardeeva

Nadezhda Fiodorovna Ardeeva

I managed to convince the head of the Committee for Indigenous Affairs of the Nenets region to reserve me a place on the helicopter transporting the college students to their parents in the tundra. At the airport I was able to see with my own eyes the consequence of one of the biggest problems of the Kanin peninsula nowadays, the lack of transport infrastructure. Only by chance did I manage to obtain one of the rare flight tickets from Naryan-Mar to Nes, but then in Nes there was an almost fighting crowd around the helicopter. People tried to use the rare possibility to send something to their relatives in the tundra, like letters or parcels. The lack of any organised way to go aboard and to take or send luggage produced a real chaos around the entrance. The flight personal started to threaten people that they would not take anybody or anything on board at all and I started to lose hope that I would make it. But in the end my place on the helicopter was affirmed by some official and I could enter.

When I arrived at the campsite of brigade Nr. 3 I felt quite relieved. I was invited by the family Vokuev with whose daughter Svetlana I had shared the helicopter. The campsite had the name Langudo. Immediately I became acquainted with the oldest reindeer herder of the community, Vasili Ananevich Kaniukov of the neighbouring 4th brigade. He became one of the most interesting interlocutors among the Kanin reindeer herders. He very carefully chose the information he thought was appropriate to share with me and I could feel that he was always aware of the context and the practical use of some of the stories he told me. He cared a lot about my ability to understand things correctly and the consequences of revealing knowledge about places and the past.

Vasili Ananevich Kaniukov

Vasili Ananevich Kaniukov

Together with the Vokuevs I took part in the everyday life of the camp. We rounded up the reindeer, harnessed them for driving on the sledges, went fishing, and after several days travelled with the whole household to the next campsite. The ten-year-old boy Tima taught me how to drive the reindeer sledge over the tundra in summer. The reindeer herders suggested that I should travel from the 3rd brigade to the West to visit a couple of other brigades and arrive after one month at the campsite where the “Day of the Reindeer”, the most important feast of the reindeer herders would take place at the beginning of August. This way I had the chance to visit the brigades Nr. 3, 4, 6, and 7 and at the celebration the camp of the brigade Nr. 9.

Tima and his reindeer sledge

Tima and his reindeer sledge

I was surprised to meet almost no elderly reindeer herders in the brigades and was told that nowadays they prefer to leave the tundra for the village, when they reach retirement age at 55. In some of the brigades there are only young and inexperienced herders who do the work and there is no way to learn from the experience of the older generation.

On my question why the pensioners prefer to leave the tundra I got a variety of answers. I could summarise them in the following way: deteriorating living conditions in the tundra and an insecure future for reindeer herding made the state sponsored houses in the village a desirable option and pensioners prefer to move there. These feelings are linked to the difficult economic situation of the reindeer cooperative “Kanin”. The wages are ridiculously low and the cooperative buys meat for a very low price because of the expensive transportation costs to the market. From the perspective of the reindeer herders the situation seems hopeless and they think they have no influence on the decision-making of the management of the cooperative.

New build houses for the reindeer herders in Nes

New build houses for the reindeer herders in Nes

The illegal shooting of their livestock by villagers is one of the urgent problems. Even the reindeer herders refer to the slaughter of their own animals as poaching as everybody does. Despite the fact that nobody would call a thief or somebody who killed domestic animals in the village a poacher, the killing of reindeer seems to be considered by the public opinion still a minor offence.

The feeling of ignorance towards the reindeer herders culture have yet another source. Almost everybody mentioned sooner or later the sacred place for all the herders at the “Kuzmin’s Grove” and everybody complained that it became a rubbish dump. Since the winter road from the town of Mezen to the village of Nes was constructed through the forest, people leave whatever they feel like, mostly broken and useless things as “offerings” on the trees. This contradicts the idea of a place for religious sacrifices. The place that is of such a great cultural and spiritual significance to the Nenets urgently needs to be rescued and its protected status has to be restored. If the situation does not change, it will add every year to the herders feeling of being defenceless and ignored in their identity as they cross that place on their way to their winter pastures.

The difficulty of obtaining healthcare in the tundra is another reason that motivates the elder reindeer herders to move to the village. The brigades still have no satellite phones and it’s quite difficult to call a rescue helicopter in a case of emergency with the old radio. The brigades can only radio the closest settlement two fixed times per day to order a helicopter from Naryan Mar if weather permits. The “Red chum” project that provided medical help and cultural services in the summer season had not visited the tundra for several years.

Vladimir Chuprov and his nephew

Vladimir Chuprov and his nephew

These problems sound serious of course, but after a month of living with the reindeer herders in the tundra, I don’t feel as gloomy about the future as several reindeer herders do. There are still possibilities for change. There are still parents who know the native languages and were able to teach them to the younger generation, there are still elders that would be happy to work in the local kindergarten to speak in their language to the smallest kids, and there are still young people who would like to become reindeer herders. Most importantly, there are still Komi and Nenets that prefer the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle to the comfortable life in the village. The situation will probably change if the reindeer herders start to believe again in the future of reindeer herding and reindeer herding culture.

Tents of the Kanin reindeer herders

Tents of the Kanin reindeer herders

It’s too early of course to draw any conclusions of the research yet and there are more open questions than answers. It’s striking that the Kanin reindeer herders are the only ones in the waste Nenets tundra from the Kola peninsula to the Yenissei river that changed the conical tent called chum to a rectangular tent with mostly a half round roof. The success lies probably in the fact that it was not as most of the innovations in Soviet times planned and designed by specialists in the centres but an invention of the reindeer herders themselves to make setting it up easier and the construction lighter. Another important question for further investigation will be the traditionally strong social ties to the Russian settler communities near the winter pastures in the Arkhangelsk region. In former times, there existed a forest type of reindeer herding in that region as well that was practiced round the year in the south. I’m very interested in the connection between the perception of the landscape and the historic memory of reindeer herders that is linked to place names and stories about remarkable places that are often linked to the unusual and the supernatural.

Winners of the sports competition at the "Day of the Reindeer"

Winners of the sports competition at the “Day of the Reindeer”

All my work and research completely depends on the help and support of my local partners. I owe the families a special debt of gratitude, especially the families of Latyshev and Ardeev and the Kanin reindeer herders for their hospitality. I hope that together we will be able to obtain the results of our research that will be first of all available and interesting to the local communities themselves.

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Late Winter in Arkhangelsk and Pinega

After the month I spent with the reindeer herder on the Kanin peninsula in summer (I will give an overview in the next post), my plan was to visit them at their winter pastures in the Arkhangelsk region some hundreds kilometres further south of Kanin.

Lenin on the main square in Arkhangelsk

Lenin on the main square in Arkhangelsk

I thought I could visit the 7th brigade of the reindeer cooperative “Obshina Kanin” and then travel up to the north to the village of Nes’ to interview some elders there. But I need a border zone permit from the border guard in Arkhangelsk to be allowed to enter the territory next to the cost and the villages there including Nes’. To get one takes weeks and weeks. I got one in summer, but it took also a long time. Hopefully I’ll get the permit in April, when I’m returning to the region.

After staying in Arkhangelsk for almost a week waiting the permit I went to the big village (an former small town) of Pinega to visit at least the reindeer herders staying outside the border zone.

The German communist Otto Handwerg (Отто Гандшерг) emmigratedt to the USSR and executed during the party cleansing in 1937. His family was banished to Pinega subsequently.

The German communist Otto Handwerg (Отто Гандшерг, on the lower right) emmigrated to the USSR and was executed during the party cleansing in 1937. His family was banished to Pinega subsequently. Display in the Pinega museum.

I visited the nice local museum here in Pinega and was surprised to learn how diverse influences shaped the local history. A lot of newcomers came against their will to Pinega: banished left wing revolutionaries, poets, intellectuals searching for unspoiled Russian folk life, American soldiers during the the civil war, banned Ukrainian peasants accused of being too wealthy and than the long row of “enemies of the people”: the opposition within the Russian left, the party members that were decimated, the suspicious nations like the Germans, even the families of executed German communists – became either settlers in special villages or inmates in the Gulag camps on the river Kuloi.

Houses of the rich merchant family Volodin in Pinega

Houses of the rich merchant family Volodin in Pinega

From the abolishment of the Gulag under Khrushchev on the town seem to have shrunk in importance and only a few remaining trader’s houses witness the pre-Soviet wealth.

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Communicating with the camera

After the long interviews that in some cases went over hours and hours I usually tell my interlocutors, that I want to take a picture of them, that I need a portrait for my work. The first reaction is in most of the cases shyness.

Marfa Prokopievna Laptander

Some take refuge to the excuse that they are not well dressed or coiffured or just don’t like to be photographed. The reaction is very similar to that before the interview. The first reaction then is usually also refusal: „I don’t know anything interesting.“ „My life has nothing to do with history.“ But I don’t need much insistence and the elders start to tell their stories and sometimes cannot find an end.

Paraskovia Savvateevna Ledkova

Sometimes I have the impression that the initial refusal is more a kind of cultural convention to avoid the impression of self-praise. The appropriate form of giving information about oneself is the personal song for the Nenets, and people tell me that a person usually sings that song about oneself only if she or he is drunk. Afterwards these songs has to be performed by others.

Aleksandr Nikiforovich Taleev

The dialogue about ones personal life and experiences is therefore relatively new among the Nenets.

And I am just a beginner in learning the appropriate way of communicating in the Nenets society. Of course my former experiences with the Khanty and Forest Nenets reindeer herders, and probably my family background helps me to develop intuitively the art of dialogue that consists of swinging between close contact and letting loose. Contact is established with questions, eye contact and giving feedback with voice and head movements. At time it is appropriate to avoid eye contact, looking together out of the window and letting thoughts develop their own way. People can dive deep into their memories that way.

Look out of the kitchen window in Khongurei

But one has also to let room for silence, for the thoughts to get formulated. And one has to allow for changing the topic, for silencing certain themes, avoiding certain answers, and veiling the wounds that live left on the soul.

Elizaveta Filippovna Khatanseiskaia

Of course it seems sometimes as if one gets lost in nostalgia or in kitschy ethnographic self-presentations. It helps nothing than as to be patient and wait until the interlocutor opens up again and share more individual and personal experiences.

The same sensitivity mixed with persistence is needed to make the portrait after the interview. I don’t like the flash and I don’t like the artificial light so I prefer to make a close picture with eye contact just on the kitchen table where the interview usually happens.

Stalina Yakovlevna Taleeva

Strangely as a rule either the first or the last picture in the series of photographs I make comes out to be the best portrait. There are people that are relaxed at the beginning and start to tense up after some time. The other kind of people give up their ready made photo-face only some time after, when they get tired to keep it all the time. I would not say that they take of the mask. I don’t believe, that their is anything else than the different social faces that are enacted all the time. But I try to create a more dialogical, a more open and telling portrait of these old people.

Ekaterina Nikitichna Bobrikova

Their faces seem to tell already through their physical appearance about the history of communication and interaction that is life. All the mimics, the movements, the enacted roles and told stories left traces in their muscles and on their skin. If the portrait succeeded it expresses openness and closeness at the same time. The face is a mask to hide behind and to speak through.

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Stalina, Oktyabrina, Vertоlina

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.

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.

Nadezhda Taleeva shows the “Mother-Heroine” award of her mother Stalina.

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.

A little cucumber in the window of Stalina’s kitchen.

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.

Stalina’s house in the village of Khongurei with the greenhouse in front of it.

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.

Nadezhda shows a children’s malica made of reindeer fur by her mother.

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.

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Collecting oral history in the village

First I took Julia Taleeva to help me to get acquainted with some of the elders in the village of Khongurei. First we went to Julia’s aunt, Aleksandra Germogenovna Taleeva, the oldest woman here, born in 1927.

Aleksandra Germogenovna Taleeva

I usually start after introducing myself and the ORHELIA project to ask about the family, about parents, grandparents and children. In the case of Aleksandra it figured out to be a very tragic story. Aleksandra Germogenovna’s father died in prison after being denounced as an enemy of soviet power in the 1930s. The reindeer where confiscated and her mother had to work as a herder during the time of the WWII, when most of the reindeer herders went to the front. The time after the war was not easy either. Aleksandras husband went to prison for some years for loosing some reindeer in the herd of the Kolkhoz. They had seven children, but now only two of them are still alive.

Julia Alekseevna Taleeva with the photo collection of her aunt Aleksandra. On the top of the picture a portrait of her father.

When we went through old photographs, I come across a picture of Aleksei Taleev, Aleksandras brother, the father of Julia with another Nenents in the army hospital. It comes out the he served the army together with a good friend I know from my last visit in the village of Nelmin Nos Mikhail Trofimovich Ardeev.

Mikhail Trofimovich Ardeev and Aleksei Germogenovich Taleev during their army service.

Julia discovers some other photos of her father, one of them with three reindeer herders posing while smoking cigarettes. This picture was probably taken, before the Nenets where settled in Khongurei and still migrated in the tundra around the small settlement of Ledkovo.

Three Nenets reindeer herders. On the right Alexei Germogenovich Taleev.

Aleksandra is switching from Russian to Nenets language quite often and I let Julia ask her questions in her mother tongue, feeling that it is quite difficult for her to remember the old times and tell about her life to a complete stranger. I hope I will translate the Nenets parts later with the help of my collegue Roza Laptander who is also part of the ORHELIA team.

As a symbol of her past as a wife of a nomadic reindeer herder, the Nenet’s woman’s bag is hanging in her sleeping room. In former times this bag accompanied every woman during her whole life and was put with her into the grave.

Aleksandra’s old bag

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