Stanislava Novgorodtseva spent a month with Nenets families as they wandered from the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region toward the Republic of Komi. She documented the ways in which this nation holds tight to tradition while residing in the cradle of Russian oil and gas extraction.
The Nenets are one of the indigenous nations in Russia’s arctic north. They possess both a dignity and a deferential attitude toward visitors, and display a candor which borders on naivety. One can hardly call them mercantile, which often results in them being taken advantage of by strangers.
The lifestyle of these “children of deer,” as they call themselves, has been defined by their main occupation – reindeer breeding.
Although they have incorporated store-bought food products into their diet, raw meat and the innards of freshly slaughtered reindeer remain their preferred delicacies. The meat is then preserved through salting, drying and smoking. Reindeer blood, with its high amount of vitamins and minerals, is considered a health elixir in the north where people are susceptible to scurvy and avitaminosis.
As reindeer are by no means sedentary, their keepers constantly seek fresh pastures for them – rarely residing in one place for more than two months. During the winter months they base their camps near big cities and within walking distance of shops. Walking distance for them can be up to 100 kilometers. Some well-off reindeer herders own apartments in Salekhard and even cars or snowmobiles. However, vehicles rarely last a season, often being smashed to bits within a day, given the prevalence of drunk driving and resultant accidents.
Alcohol has had a disastrous impact on the health of the community. Because eating fruit helps speed up alcohol metabolism, the people to the north are at a particular disadvantage given the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet. Alcohol-driven family conflicts often led to tragic outcomes, and prior to 2000 Vorkuta and the surrounding tundra was rightfully considered a dysfunctional region.
Surprisingly, Baptist missionaries, strolling across the arctic tundra with their prayer books and guitars, offered an alternative. The Baptist church in Vorkuta has managed to gain a significant following among the traditional northern nations. Nenets people who convert to the church receive not only spiritual support but also financial aid, so long as they abide by one of its principal commandments – complete abstention from alcohol.
During Soviet times many traditions of the Nenets people suffered irreversible damage. Shamans, who were previously the bedrock of the society’s cultural and spiritual life, suffered crackdowns and were eventually driven to extinction – along with their rituals, legends and crafts.
Such intrusions from church and state have resulted in a cultural vacuum. The Nenets have an estimated population of around 45,000 and most members do not know their native language and have lost touch with their philosophy: “We don’t take more than we need.”