Letter from Siberia — From the April 2018 issue

Cursed Fields

What the tundra has in store for Russia’s reindeer herders

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The Yamal Peninsula juts up from the northern edge of Russia like a thumb sticking out into the Kara Sea. A matrix of lakes and streams stretches across the barren surface, beneath which lie layers of permafrost that can reach deeper into the ground than Moscow’s tallest buildings rise into the sky. When the temperatures drop in the winter, the waterways freeze over and the sun recedes, leaving the region shrouded in darkness for twenty hours a day. During the summer, the ice splinters, and the tundra turns into a boggy, mosquito-infested maze.

In the language of the native Nenets people, yamal means “the edge of the world.” In medieval times, outsiders took to calling the surrounding lands “midnight country.” Early travelers wrote of mountains, as high as the heavens, that sloped down to the sea and emitted unintelligible cries. Others told of a savage local tribe who served their children to guests for dinner. Explorers from the Novgorod Republic, who arrived in the eleventh century to trade iron for furs, took back with them tales of a place where little reindeer fell from the clouds and scattered across the earth.

Tikhon Kondigin and his sons Alexander and Ivan hunt reindeer near their camp in Aksarka (detail). Photographs from the Yamal Peninsula, Russia, by Davide Monteleone

Neither Yamal’s remoteness nor winters during which temperatures can reach ?55° F drove the Nenets south to warmer ground. Instead, they developed a lifestyle dependent on the reindeer, which were as plentiful as the stories suggested, and well suited to the harsh northern environs. Native legend has it that the gods created reindeer just after they created man; the spirit responsible for the animals is known as Ilebyam pertya, which translates literally to “giving life.” The reindeer serve as a mode of transport, as well as a source of sustenance, warmth, and meaning. Soviet anthropologists came to study Yamal’s tribes in the early 1920s and remarked on this relationship. As one observer wrote, everyone he met there

dreams of owning his own herd and never stops collecting reindeer, he does not treat his herd as capital, as a means of obtaining profit and exploiting others (he has no notion of rational economy). . . . The nomad’s reindeer herd is his guarantee against hunger and the elements.

To this day, Nenets herders will follow their reindeer hundreds of miles each year, up and down the peninsula in search of new pastures. They come to know their animals so well that they can identify individuals in a herd of thousands. These grueling journeys along the reindeer trail have taught the Nenets to be wary of long-term plans, to recognize the fragility of their existence. Ethnographers note that they often add the phrase ta eltsyand tevba na (“if we live till then”) when discussing the future.

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