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4 December 2000

Sledge ride to seven heavens of Nenets

In a remote corner of Siberia, Oliver Ready meets a woman who is conducting an experiment in social

By Oliver Ready

Laborovaya, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (Far North). The graveyard in Laborovaya resembles a raised catacomb. Pots and pans, empty bottles and upturned sledges cluster alongside reindeer skulls and antlers. Rags are left out for dogs mourning former masters.

The Nenets nomads die as they live – under an open sky. The deceased is buried above ground, and left with his sledge and the bones of two of his freshly slaughtered deer; then the caravan moves on. The Nenets are said to maintain a fairly level approach to death – here, in the Polar Urals a few hundred kilometres into the Arctic Circle, the average male is lucky to live to 50.

Numbering 35,000, the Nenets are the last great survivors of the Far North. Scampering over the tundra to refuge deep within the Arctic Circle, they have resisted centuries of attempted colonisation with much greater success than their fellow northern minorities, such as the Khanty, Mansi and Selkup. They have largely preserved their Uralic language and nomadic lifestyle, in which they follow the seasonal migration of reindeer and use the animals for almost all their everyday needs, from the blood, which they drink, to the skin they use to make their “chum“, or tent.

The 20th century, however, has left the future of the Nenets looking more precarious than ever before. The Soviet Union tried to force the Nenets off the tundra and into settlements, and partly succeeded, collectivising their herds, eliminating their shamans and re-educating their children. Meanwhile, the region’s vast natural resources – oil and gas – are an obvious target for the present government as much as the fishing industry was for its Soviet predecessor.

The settlement of Laborovaya, for all its remoteness, is perhaps the most powerful symbol of indigenous autonomy in the region, and the project unfolding there is inspired by one of the few Nenets to be known beyond the Far North – the writer Anna Nerkagi. Her tales were written in Russian while she was herding in the Polar Urals around Laborovaya in the 1970s and 1980s. Her writing, which is informed by a sense of anguish at what she sees as the disintegration of the spirit and moral fibre of her people, has won plaudits in Russia and abroad, especially in France.

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In its rawness, its sense of an impending apocalypse and its heavy religious allegory, Nerkagi’s fiction has few parallels in contemporary Russian literature. But, now 50, she no longer has time for writing, and literary prizes (in 1997, she won the all-Russian “Karera” or Career prize) have given way to a Stakhanovite lifestyle. She left her family chum and first husband in the early Nineties and became a regional deputy, pushing through legislation aimed at protecting the Nenets, such as a law allowing poor tundra dwellers free material with which to make their chum.

Now she has used her reputation and influence to turn Laborovaya, where she lives with her second husband, Kolya, a Russian, into a flourishing experiment for native rights. Among her projects are a school along ethnic Nenets lines (the first of its kind) and a shop where herders go to barter goods. She has little time for outsiders; or at least her attitude to them is deeply ambivalent. When we first met in her apartment in the district capital, Salekhard, she told me to explain the “degree of my curiosity” and granted me a half-hour.

With her sharp eyes fixed on some point out the window, she spoke about stagnant, unproductive Russia and the laziness of her own people in settlements, about her adopted children and her school, about gas and about God, about freedom and the city. “Word is not deed”, is one of Nerkagi’s many truisms but, when she starts talking, her aggressive monotone carries her through tirades as endless as a Nenets song.

The Nenets nomads live according to an almost epic rhythm. Extended periods of rest – sitting in the chum drinking tea and silently gazing at the fire – alternate with bursts of frenetic activity, when the caravan is being moved on, or when the men head out for a hunt. Sedentary life in Laborovaya, whose 30-odd wooden huts and houses perch above an ocean of tundra, seems to mimic this pace, albeit with an added quotient of labour.

All of the 11 children who live with Nerkagi were taken by her out of state orphanages. She has no children of her own. Orphanhood itself is a theme dear to Nenets culture and its rich mythology, in which children snatched from their parents by “non-people” are invested with divine force. Nerkagi dates her love for orphans to her time spent living in the chum and looking after deer whose mothers had died. Later on, she cared for her first child, a baby girl whom she loved “more than the world”, but who died after six months. “Within a few days, my eldest deer orphan died, too,” she recalls. “And when that happened, my life there stopped entirely and I started this way of life, whatever you want to call it.”

Central to everything that Nerkagi and her helpers are striving for in Laborovaya is the issue of education, which is weighed down with the memory of Soviet boarding schools. Education was always the Soviet Union’s preferred means of expanding its influence, and an efficient way of resettling its inconvenient subjects. The practices established then continue in Yamal today, where Nenets infants are literally airlifted out of their chums. Some return to their families, others never do. Nerkagi remembers her own schooling and then aborted study at the industrial institute in Tyumen as an experience that fostered humiliation and false aspirations in equal measure. She says she went on to study at the institute because she had a dream of building light-blue cities where she could move the Nenets out of the chum.

“I don’t know why they had to be light blue, but when I was six or seven, it was always being drilled into our heads that our parents were filthy and louse-ridden, that we shouldn’t speak our own language. We were brought up like soldiers. In fact, my idea of building light-blue cities was a lot more human than the education we got there. It was only after living 15 years in the chum that I understood that no light-blue cities were needed, that God had already thought of everything, and that no better way of life than this was possible.”

At the “School of the Spirit” that Nerkagi set up three years ago, 24 Nenets infants learn about the history and beliefs of their own people. They also acquire the practical skills needed on the tundra, according to the ancient expectations of gender. The girls learn domestic chores – washing, cooking, sewing; the boys learn to fish, to set animal traps and make sledges.

Nerkagi believes they are learning self-sufficiency, and the virtue of looking reality in the eyes. Astonishingly, given all we now know of many Soviet and Russian orphanages, Nerkagi reproaches these institutions not for the well-documented inhumanity of their practices, but for their leniency – the fact that there are people to clear up after the children. No such luck in Laborovaya, where the infants run the household and are reminded daily that their lives will be full of struggle and grief.

They will never be presidents or astronauts, Nerkagi tells them; but nor, she believes, will they become drug addicts and prostitutes. Just as Nerkagi rewrites Soviet education, so she has found a twist on the old wisdom about religion. The Soviet Union tried to spread atheism by stressing to peasants that the Christian religion they swore by had its roots in pagan antiquity. For Nerkagi, a self-professed “helper of God”, the passage between pagan belief and Nenets shamanism to Christianity is an unbroken one, the single trunk of faith decked with various branches.

A believer in reincarnation and the devil, she is convinced that humanity stands on the brink of a great revelation. In the graveyard, Orthodox wooden crosses poke out of the graves, and the new chapel Nerkagi has had built on the ridge is dense with icons. It is a demanding life, however, under the writer’s monastic watch. There’s not a drink to be had. Vodka is said to do strange things to the diminutive Nenets, turning a placid herder into a bloodthirsty bandit, and Nerkagi was quick to outlaw it.

The Ukrainian medic in Laborovaya suggests that, if we want to make an interesting film, we should put four bottles of vodka in the middle of a chum and see what happens: “With every shot, their shoulders get bigger and their minds seem to grow. They’ll recall squabbles from years past. In winter, they’ll take off their clothes and go outside the chum to fight. Next day, they’ll forget all about it.”

If there is something regimental and humourless about the life Nerkagi has helped to create in Laborovaya, it is an understandable reaction to the modern dilemma of the Nenets. In the villages and towns in Yamal, the settled Nenets have a reputation for being drunkards and good-for-nothings, frequently unemployed.

For many, separation from the herd has delivered a fatal blow: to the Nenets way of thinking, man is as much the servant of his reindeer as the animal is of the man. Paupers in one of the richest parts of Russia, the Nenets began to receive state assistance three years ago. But, for Nerkagi, these benefits – which even after a large rise next year will reach only 660 roubles a head (about £16) – are at the heart of the problem. Dependence, she says, has made the once self-sufficient Nenets lazy – “like dogs at the feast of their master, who throws them a little bone every now and again”. Instead of benefits, she argues, concrete laws are needed to allow them to live off their own resources.

Paradoxically, Nerkagi is more pessimistic about the survival of the Nenets than anyone else I spoke to, but her trenchant views ignore how the herding Nenets’ independence of spirit has only hardened in the face of encroaching civilisation. This last point was brought home to me, as much as anything, by the way in which my two Muscovite friends and I were treated. A constant feature of our wanderings between village and chums was just how uninterested the Nenets were in us, even those who had never seen a foreigner before. At first we thought it was shyness. Later, we came round to Nerkagi’s view that everyone simply saw us “as children with nothing better to do”.

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of these people is that, educated in towns and boarding schools, the herding Nenets have actively chosen to return to the tundra; civilisation holds nothing for them. The children at Laborovaya say that television bores them, and that the five-room apartment in Salekhard is too small. The naivety of the Nenets is a constant source of astonishment to the region’s town-dwellers. Occasionally, they are seen driving their reindeer through the streets of Salekhard or Aksarka for supplies, but they often don’t know the value of money. A long-time Russian resident of the industrial town of Labytnangi told me how they put down their roubles one by one on the counter until the shopkeeper tells them to stop.

We returned to Salekhard with Nerkagi and her husband. For six, bumpy hours, no one said a word. Silence, we had come to learn, was Nerkagi and her husband’s preferred idiom, just as it is with most Nenets. For some reason, however, she relented as we crossed the Ob between Labytnangi and Salekhard, and, as if tempted into a long-forgotten vice, launched into a lecture on the seven heavens of Nenets belief. We arrived long before she would ever have finished. No one knew what to say, and travelling half the world to be there didn’t seem sufficient reason to venture any affectionate goodbyes.

“Off you go, then,” she said, like a teacher dismissing a class of infants. “If you need anything, you know where we are.”

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