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An Economic View from the Tundra Camp: Field Experience With Reindeer Herders in the Kola Peninslua
by Dessislav Sabev
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Natural and social environment for the reindeer herding in the Kola Peninsula


The sharp deterioration of the Russian economy in 1998 has strongly affected the northern periphery. This paper follows a ten weeks fieldwork conducted during the spring 1999, mainly at the reindeer herding camp No. 1, belonging to the former state farm Pamyat’ Lenina  (‘Memory of Lenin’). My concern is how the economic relationships in the very periphery are redefined in response to centre’s pressures. During Soviet rule, the traditional reindeer husbandry was reorganised into collective farms (kolkhoz) and later into state farms (sovkhoz). Created in 1921 in the village of Krasnoschelie, the Kolkhoz has progressively formed what will be later called ‘agrocentre’. Classed as perspectivnoe (‘with good prospects’)[1] the village of Krasnoschelie became a local agrocentre after the fusion with two other kolkhoz’ (Ponoy and Sosnovka) in 1962. Then the improved Kolkhoz was renamed Pamyat’ Lenina . It was transformed into a state farm (sovkhoz) in 1971. In terms of reindeer husbandry, Pamyat’ Lenina has been the second biggest state farm after the sovkhoz ‘Tundra’ in Lovozero. It consists of four operating brigades with 10 herders each one and nearly 20 000 reindeer. The ‘Tundra’ state farm was reported to include 25 000 reindeer in 2001 (Jernsletten & Klokov, 2002). Both state farms are situated in the eastern part of the peninsula, encompassing nearly the entire tundra region of Kola, administratively defined as Lovozero District.

            The tundra camp of brigade No. 1 is located on the Iokanga River 350 km. away from the municipal centre Lovozero. Its economic centre, though, is in Krasnoschelie, which, despite of the status of ‘agrocentre’ is in fact a remote village not connected to the road system of the peninsula. The social environment of the reindeer herders has definitively changed after president Yeltsine and prime minister Chubais started reforms on privatisation (Zakon “O privatizatzii gosudarstviennyh i munitzipial’nyh predpriiatiy v RSFSR “, 1991). In this paper I argue that the economic crisis during the transition in Russia is investing the geographical isolation of the tundra regions into a syncretic network of heterogeneous economic models which relates the reindeer herding brigade as a ‘convergence point’. Indeed, the tundra-camped brigade has to manage both its inherited Soviet-like relationship with the centre(s) and its informal deals with the new tundra actors. The main actors in the agrocentre and the tundra are depicted in Table 1.




Location Village administrative centre (ex)State Farm economic centre Tundra camps
Actors Lovozero
(District centre)
Sovkhoz Tundra
8 brigades
Pamyat' Lenina
4 brigades
reindeer hunters; military, geologists, hunters, poachers
Relationship Substantial
Family network
Vertical relationship
Sovkhoz administration - Brigades
Informal horizontal relationship
Brigades - other tundra actors

Table 1. The main actors in the agrocentre and the tundra, as well as their economic and social relationship. The paper focuses the periphery and emphasise the “tundra perspective”.

            As for the ethnic landscape, there is a great deal of ethnic variety in the brigades with no clear distinction, due to the many mixed marriages and the industrial migration from the south in Soviet times. However, one could say that the Sami represent the majority in "Tundra" brigades, whereas the Komi are predominant in "Pamyat’ Lenina" herding collectives. The Nenets, though, are represented in all the brigades, as well as Russians descendants of the 1930s labour migrants. Brigade No. 1 of Krasnoschelie consists of ten herders including six Komis, two Nenets, one Sami and one young Russian herder. The chief brigadier and his deputy are Komi brothers.

According to the Soviet organisation of the reindeer herding, the brigade consists of ten herders and two female chum-rabotnitsi (tent helpers), usually relatives (wives) to some of the brigade’s herders. A particularity of Krasnoschelie’s herding brigades is the lack of female tent workers after 1991. This is not the case in Lovozero’s tundra camps, nor to other herding brigades in the Russian north. Comparing to Lovozero, Krasnoschelie is a very remote settlement, cut from all communication system, with a poorer farm as unique economic actor. Its herding camps are too far from either the village and the slaughter house near Lovozero. May be the geographic isolation and the absence of cash for the tundra workers are the main reasons why the herder’s wives don’t work in the tundra camps. This is the case in Brigade No. 1 where a former construction worker from the sovkhoz has been working as a tent helper (‘polar’) since 1993 when the chief-brigadier asked him to join the brigade. At 53, he is the oldest in the brigade and uncle to one of the herders. His ethnic history could be representative of the current identity issues, although these are not the subject of this paper. He is the descendant of a great and famous Nenets family of reindeer herders from Yamal (Nenetskiy okrug, north-west Siberia). They came to the Kola peninsula during the great Komi-Nenets migration in late 19th century when a disastrous epidemic was killing the reindeer herds in north-west Siberia. His father was a herder and owner of 300 animals expropriated during the Soviet ‘collectivisation campaign’ in the north in the 1930s. His mother was tent helper and artist of traditional Nenets herder’s clothes represented at exhibitions in Moscow. He married a Komi girl from Krasnoschelie and they had four children. Despite his well-known Nenets family and his marriage with a Komi woman, his passport says that he is ... Sami. He has never explained this point to me but as described also by Konstantinov (1996: 54), ethnicity in the region is “to a large extent self-ascribed and arbitrary”.

This paper is thus based on field notes usually taken during our daily activities in the tundra camp (mostly feeding the transport animals, making and preparing the sledges, searching and stocking wood, hunting; fishing in June) or during group discussions[2]. No formal interviews were done during the field-work. Only informal talks and mostly oral history was taken into account; a few written texts were consulted.

[1] Regarding the methodology of classification, see Palloit (1990: 655).

[2]In some way, these group discussions have been provoked by the process of taking notes itself. As usually happens with anthropologists living for a while in local communites (Stocking, 1983), I was myself object of interest for them, and especially while writing. This interest was very stimulating because it generated a real informal, and informative, exchange.

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An Economic View from the Tundra Camp by Dessislav Sabev.
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