It’s –40°C but the wind has died down so, in our thick, ankle-length reindeer-fur coats, which make us three times wider than usual, it’s bearable. All around us there is an unending, frozen whiteness. The snow on which Radik, Kostya, Alya and I trudge merges with the sky at some indefinable point.
We arrive at a place where more than 100 wooden sledges lie scattered over a vast area. The encampment’s chums, the conical reindeer-hide tents in which these Nenets nomads live, have been disassembled.
Nearby, a herd of reindeer is snorting and stamping, some of them digging through half a metre of snow to graze. Radik and his brother Kostya are already hurrying over to where a group of ten men is collecting, 100 metres from the herd, lassoes made from reindeer rawhide in hand.
‘How many reindeer are there?’ I ask, turning to Alya, Kostya’s wife. Only her slanted eyes and the dark skin of her nose are visible under her tightly drawn reindeer-fur hood. ‘Ten thousand,’ she replies.
The herders to whom the reindeer belong are about to migrate south. Before they do so, the young, castrated male animals used to pull sledges must be separated from the herd.
Dogs begin to drive small groups of non-transport reindeer away from the main herd. In a thin stream, they gallop past the waiting herders, regrouping in a slowly growing huddle on the other side of the encampment.
Mostly, the men stand still as the animals flow by, but occasionally, on spotting a transport reindeer attempting to break away with the others, someone lashes out with his right arm. His lasso sails through the air and, more often than not, catches on the correct pair of antlers.
When all is finally done and we’ve been outside for seven hours, one family from the migrating group invites me to eat with them. Seven of us sit in a circle on the snow and they fetch vodka and lumps of raw, frozen meat from a sledge.
‘Without this,’ the father of the family says as he pours me a glass, his moustache hanging on either side of his lips in huge, white icicles, ‘it’s not possible. It’s especially necessary before you travel by sledge. You shouldn’t have a lot, though – just enough to keep out the cold.’
For the first six hours outdoors, the many layers of reindeer-fur clothing kept me comfortable. But now the cold is starting to make itself felt and I’m grateful for anything that will keep it at bay. A cup of the fresh, warm blood that the Nenets so love to drink would be perfect right now. Unfortunately, none is forthcoming.
For ten minutes we sit chewing relentlessly on the meat, passing around the single shot glass and toasting one another as the world darkens and the wind strengthens. Then my companions get up and leave, reindeer and sledges crawling across the landscape like an army of ants, turning the predominant colour from white to brown.
Half an hour later, they’re still visible, drifting towards the horizon, but the rate at which they shrink is increasing exponentially. In a few minutes, they’re just a distant smudge; a few seconds later, a line; then a dot; then they’re gone.
Not all groups of Nenets exercise as much caution in regard to vodka as these. Here on the Yamal Peninsula – the ‘Edge of the World’ in the local language – most reindeer herders will drink no more than a few glasses at a time, or none at all. In contrast, a group with whom I lived in European Russia’s Arkhangelsk Region often got so drunk that they could neither speak nor walk. They would take it in turns to work three-month shifts with their 1,300-head herd in the tundra then spend three months drinking in a nearby village.
The Yamal Nenets, on the other hand, are divided into two groups, each comprising roughly half of the peninsula’s indigenous population: those that live permanently in villages and those that live a nomadic existence in chums as their ancestors have for centuries.
During the 1930s, the Soviet Union began policies of collectivisation of resources and assimilation of the indigenous peoples of the north. The Nenets were expected to hand over their reindeer herds to government farms. Nenets children were taken away from their families and educated in Russian boarding schools.
As a result of this history, among the Nenets with whom I lived in the Arkhangelsk Region, no-one born after 1970 knew the Nenets language. In contrast, among the Yamal Nenets, Russian is a second language.
Those Arkhangelsk Nenets were glum, silent people who, despite feeding and looking after me, made little effort to tell me anything about their lives or involve me in their work. Radik, Kostya and Alya, in contrast, are cheerful and open, taking me with them every day to herd reindeer, cut firewood or collect ice for water.
Although there are undoubtedly many reasons why such differences exist between groups of the same people from different areas, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the way in which different regions were administered during the Soviet era was a contributing factor. The Arkhangelsk Nenets were forced to settle down and work on collective farms. The men worked three-month shifts in the tundra with the reindeer while their wives and children stayed in the village.
The Yamal Nenets, on the other hand, forfeited most of their reindeer – they now belonged to the government, not to the nomads themselves, and a quota had to be handed over for slaughter every year – but whole families were allowed to keep following year-round migration routes that differed little from their traditional ones. Thus the way of life of one Nenets group was utterly destroyed, while the other group continued to live as before but under new conditions.
I lie awake at night, the screeching of the wind and the creaking and groaning of the chum keeping sleep at bay. Despite the many layers of clothing I’m wearing, my teeth are chattering, so I pull two large reindeer hides over me.
The fire has gone out, but the gas lantern keeps burning and swings from side to side, causing shadows to flicker, jump and dance while my breath hangs in thick clouds. I’m painfully aware that only the reindeer skins that make up my clothes and the walls of the chum stand between me and a quick death at the hands of the savage northern elements.
In the morning, I find three homemade dolls beneath some hides, each about a foot and a half tall and dressed in reindeer-fur clothing. ‘They’re our ancestors,’ Alya tells me. ‘This one’s Kostya’s grandfather, that one there was a great shaman. They even have their own sacred reindeer.’
Every person and every god has a sacred reindeer that won’t be killed until it’s very old, at which point a similar-looking animal is chosen to replace it and has blood from its predecessor smeared on its face. Reindeer that lose their mothers at birth are also set apart from the others, raised as family in their chum until they’re old enough to fend for themselves. For their entire lives they are welcome to live, sleep and eat with the family that raised them, and they divide their time between chum and herd.
These orphaned reindeer are the only ones that will never be killed by the family that raised them. Instead, they are given to other families when they are very old. All of these, as well as many other types of reindeer for which individual words exist in the Nenets language, are instantly recognisable among thousands of others to the herders.
The world of the Yamal Nenets is full of gods, spirits and laws relating to them that are strictly obeyed and affect every aspect of their daily lives. Many of the laws relate to sya mei, a force from the world of birth and death that can be harmful to things of this world.
Thus, newborn babies, people who’ve recently attended a funeral and all post-pubescent women are subject to restrictions because of sya mei. For example, they aren’t allowed to touch the sacred sledge or pass above certain objects, instead stepping around lassoes lying on the ground or holding sledge harnesses over their heads and walking under them.
There is a line, Alya tells me with a smile, that extends from the centre of the chum to the sacred pole at the back and out into the tundra. No women or anyone else affected by sya mei, while inside the chum or in sight of it outside, is allowed to cross that line.
‘Do you like living in the tundra?’ I ask her. ‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.’
A few days later, Radik returns from a trip to the nearest village, 80 kilometres away. He and I go out to round up stray groups of reindeer then head for the only source of firewood nearby, a tiny copse of skeletal trees. The temperature has risen to –25°C, which Radik describes as ‘hot’, taking off the outer of his two reindeer-fur jackets.
I’m too lazy to struggle out of mine and continue working despite feeling that I will soon break into a sweat. A minute later, my hair is clumped together into icicles dangling over my forehead, my cheeks covered in frozen sweat.
‘You see,’ Radik says, ‘we have hard lives. We can’t take days off. If you take days off, you lose reindeer. I’ve never even celebrated my birthday.’
‘But would you rather live in the village?’ I ask. ‘Oh no, I like the tundra,’ he replies. ‘I lived in the village for two years. There you drink all day every day, and when you wake up in the morning, people want you to get more beer. No, I didn’t like the village life at all.’
In Salekhard and in Yar-Sale, the nearest village, I met several Nenets returning home on university holidays to head out into the tundra and live with their families in chums. I also met Nenets who had completed university education elsewhere in Russia before returning to the tundra to become reindeer herders. It seems that many of them are capable of taking what they need from mainstream society and fusing it with their traditional way of life.
In many places, traditional tribal clothing is scorned and called ‘primitive’, but here it’s recognised as the only means of survival and preservation of one’s livelihood. Similarly, around the globe, traditional lifestyles are being cast aside in favour of menial jobs in towns and cities, but on the Yamal, reindeer herding is recognised as a valid and respected way to feed one’s family.
While some tribal groups sink into depression and alcoholism after absorption into mainstream society, Yamal Nenets are cheerful, hospitable people who are proud of their heritage. Their reindeer herds are the largest and best-managed in the world, providing the Russian government with its steadiest source of reindeer meat and antlers.
Those simple administrative decisions of so many decades ago, forcing Arkhangelsk Nenets to settle down but allowing Yamal Nenets to continue to live as they had before, seem to have drastically affected the fates of the two groups. While the former has sunk into alcoholism, silence and a dislike for reindeer-herding, the latter is proud and hardy. The Yamal Nenets continue to preserve their traditional values and beliefs while at the same time providing income for the government.
Radik’s grandparents told him that life was far better before the Soviet Union, when they owned all of their own reindeer. However, considering the track record of developing world governments, mining companies and loggers, it seems unrealistic in today’s rapidly shrinking world to think that any indigenous group will remain untroubled by the race for resources much longer.