Published: May 20th 2012April 30th 2012
The mountainside rumbled under the hooves of 4,000 reindeer. When you put such a huge number of this species together, something very strange but well documented by science happens, and was taking place on a mountain on Arctic Russia’s Kola Peninsula at that moment: the reindeer were galloping around and around in a giant, perfectly-formed ring five hundred meters long and a dozen animals thick all the way around. Over the course of a day this grunting, snorting, mass of constantly circling animals was driven carefully down from the snowy heights, over the short, springy, brown vegetation that covered the boulder-strewn lower slopes and into the tundra and forest below. In this way the indigenous Saami reindeer herders began their Spring migration.
I had arrived on Kola a few days previously after a 33-hour train ride due north from Moscow. After hitch hiking from Olenegorsk down a road that rose and fell with the thickly forest hills that surrounded it I arrived in the village of Lovozero, population 2,600. The centre of Lovozero Region, the largest district on the Kola Peninsula and home to the Saami, it turned out to be a grim mix of crumbling two to five-storey Soviet
concrete in the centre and ramshackle wooden homes on the outskirts, all intersected by dirty streets full of deep, murky puddles.
After half an hour spent in search of the village’s collective farm, which controls almost all reindeer herding in the district, I saw a building with a sign above the door saying “Collective Farm Shop.” I entered to find one small room with three refrigerated glass displays empty apart from four or five parcels of what appeared to be meat wrapped in semi-transparent paper. A woman in a white butcher’s apron came out of a door in the back.
“Hello,” I said, “I’m looking for the Collective Farm. I was wondering if you could tell me where it is?”
“What do you want there?” she asked.
“I’m just very interested in reindeer herding and I wanted to ask if there might be any opportunities to get out to the herds at the moment?”
“All the brigades are moving their herds from the mountains to the tundra in the north now,” she replied. “I think they’re probably already pretty far from here. There was one reindeer herder here yesterday but I think he left this
morning. Anyway, you should go and talk to the Collective Farm management.”
She gave me directions to the management’s building and I left. Having found the two-storey Collective Farm headquarters I entered, found someone on the ground floor and offered them the same explanation of my presence as I had in the shop. They directed me to an office on the second floor where I repeated the same lines first to a receptionist then again, having gone through a door she had pointed me to, to a short, stocky Saami man with a moustache and hair of such an ashen shade of brown that at first I mistook it for grey. He asked me to sit down on a chair opposite his desk and introduced himself as Victor.
“I’ve visited Nenets reindeer herders lots of times,” I added, “as well as Evens on Kamchatka and Dukha in Mongolia. I’m really keen to see how reindeer herding here differs from in those places.”
“Well here the main difference is that the herders migrate less and have less control over the reindeer,” he began. “As you know, Nenets move camp at least twice a week and migrate over 1000km
every year. Here, on the other hand, there’s only 70km between summer and winter pastures. The herd migrates twice a year and covers that distance in about three days. Their winter pastures are high up in the mountains. Why? Because there’s a lot of good lichen to keep them fed through the winter and because snow on mountain slopes is softer than in the flat tundra so they can’t spread out so far. Anyway, around now the spring migration takes place. All the herders drive the reindeer down from the mountains, through the forest and into the tundra in the north. From May to late June the herders will stay with them during calving then from late June until September the reindeer will be allowed to run wild. There’s not so much lichen there so they have to be allowed to do their own thing and find it themselves rather than being forced to stay together in one spot. During that time the herders from each brigade will take it in turns to work twenty-day shifts in pairs keeping an eye on the reindeer.”
“How many brigades are there?” I asked.
“Seven,” he replied.
“And how many
herders in each?”
“Six. Anyway, from September to December all the herders are back out in the tundra, rounding up the reindeer, counting them up, slaughtering, then moving them back to the mountains. From January to April again its just shift work, two herders at a time working twenty-day shifts looking out for the reindeer.”
“And what do they live in while they’re out with the reindeer?” I asked.
“It depends on the brigade,” he answered. “In the summer there are some wooden huts that some brigades live in while others have chums [conical tents]. In winter when it’s colder there are metal cabins near the pastures. Chums and huts aren’t always good.”
“So what do you think? Might I be able to go out and visit them somehow?” I asked.
“Well most of the brigades have already moved from the mountains to the tundra,” he told me, “but there is one that’s still in the mountains. One of the herders is here in the village at the moment. He’s going back tomorrow I think so maybe he could take you with him and you could watch them bring the herd down from the mountains.
Otherwise a brigadier is coming from the tundra the day after tomorrow then going back in a few days’ time. You could go with him and watch calving, but you’d have to stay for two months as nobody will be coming back here from there until the end of June.”
“I can’t stay until the end of June unfortunately,” I replied, “but it would be great to watch the reindeer being driven down the mountain.”
“Ok,” Victor said. “I’ll get in touch with the reindeer herder who’s in the village. Come back here between five and six.”
“Great, thank you very much,” I said. “Also, do you know anywhere it’s possible to stay cheaply in the village?” I asked.
“There’s an empty apartment that belongs to the Collective Farm. You can stay there for free. Come with me and we’ll go and find the keys.”
We went downstairs, Victor found a Collective Farm driver and we all got into a van that was parked outside. We went to one building, Victor popped inside and got the keys, then we continued on to another right on the very outskirts of the village. He took me up
to the third floor, opened the door to the apartment and showed me around. There was a kitchen, a bathroom, and two bedrooms with several beds in each and no other furniture. It gave the impression of having been thoroughly cleaned a long time ago but of nobody having come here since that last clean. A layer of dust coated everything and dozens of dead flies lay at the base of every window.
“Do you need any water?” he asked as he was about to leave. “You can’t drink from the taps here.”
“Yes but I’ll just buy some,” I said.
“Why buy? You can get much better water for free from the well. When you come back at five I’ll give you some.”
* * *
At five I met Victor, got my fresh well water, learned that it would be possible to go out to the mountains and by six was meeting with a reindeer herder, Kolya, outside the Collective Farm building.
“So I can take you out with me no problem,” he said. He was chubby, in his early thirties and blond. At first glance, as with
Victor, his features were not noticeably different from those of ethnic Russians. It was only under closer observation, or when looking at his face from a certain angle or in direct sunlight, that a slight Asian look became apparent.
“Thank you…” I began.
“Where do you live?” asked Kolya’s skinny, pale-skinned son who looked as though he was seven or eight.
“I’m English but I live in Moscow,” I replied.
“You live in Moscow?” the little boy repeated. “Have you seen Putin?”
“No,” I answered.
“What about any singers?”
“Let me think… No,” I replied.
“How can you live in Moscow and not see Putin or the singers?” he asked.
“Well, Moscow’s a big city,” I answered.
“The thing is,” Kolya continued, “I can’t say for sure when you’ll be able to come back to the village. Sometimes we manage to get the reindeer down from the mountains in a day but sometimes it takes a week. You have to wait for good weather, or else the animals are just too nervous and keep breaking up so it’s impossible to herd them. And even in good weather, the herd sometimes
breaks up and scatters while you’re herding them down and you have to start again from scratch the next day.
“It’s ok,” I told him. “I’m not in a rush.”
“Is Moscow beautiful?” his son asked.
“Probably not as beautiful as the tundra and mountains here,” I said.
“The tundra’s really beautiful,” he reflected.
“So anyway,” Kolya said, “I’ll come and meet you outside your apartment at 9am the day after tomorrow and we’ll head off on my snowmobile.”
“Really, thank you very much,” I said. “What about provisions, what should I buy?”
“Whatever you want,” he answered, “but don’t worry too much, we’ve got lots of stuff out there.”
* * *
Kolya was waiting for me at 9am as he had said, his smowmobile parked on the brown but snow-streaked tundra that began a few metres from the apartment block had stayed in. Attached to the snowmobile was a sledge, all the space on which was taken up by one huge oil drum.
"Sit on the back of that and make sure the dog doesn't fall off," Kolya said, pointing to the drum and
a black and white dog that was lying on it, tied to a rope that was attached to the sledge somewhere.
We set off, Kolya swirving from side to side every now and then to keep the snowmobile on the patches of snow, which were getting fewer and further between by the day, but most of the time just driving over the naked tundra. Every swerve, jolt, bounce and bump caused me to slither around on the back of the oil drum, grabbing for support at its smooth surface that offered little in the way of help while at the same time trying to stop the dog from falling off and getting hanged by the foot-long rope to which it was attached.
We got out onto the ice of Lake Lovozero after about ten minutes, meaning that the bumps and jolts became less frequent but the swirves increased in both regularity and amplitude. On top of that the lake was at an advanced stage of thawing so every few seconds we would career into a deep sludgy puddle of partially-melted ice and drive through it for several moments, spraying said sludge all over ourselves.
The dog had
soon had enough and began growling and biting me, necessitating a retreat on my part to the back of the oil drum as we skated towards the forest on the far shore. We did arrive though after about half an hour and Kolya parked up outside a lttle metal cabin poking out of the forest and facing the lake. Despite the greyness of the day, a mountain was visible, rising abruptly out of the trees not more than a kilometre from the cabin, its dark lower slopes gradually becoming flecked with white until its highest visible point, a long flat ridge, was entirely snow-coated.
"That's where the herd is," Kolya told me, pointing at it as we walked towards the cabin.
In front of you as you entered the cabin was a rusted metal furnace with a thin chimney shooting up and out of the roof, firewood piled high against the wall next to it. To the left was a door to a small room with a gas stove, junk all over the floor, a mattress and ilow in a corner and a window from which all the panes had been removed and through which a chill wind
was blowing. To the right of the furnace were two bunk beds, one against each wall, and a table between them. On the lower bunks, arms resting on the table, were three men. They introduced themselves as Vanya, Kolya and Andrey but, rather than showing any surprise at my arrival or asking what I was doing there, went straight into a discussion with Kolya of the condition and location of the herd.
To describe the nature of their conversation, I'll first need to explain a certain feature of the Russian language. That is that, unlike in English, it is possible in Russian to speak using only words of such extreme offensiveness and vulgarity that it is illegal to put them in print or say them on television. Using three root words (one of them a verb, the other two parts of the anatomy) you can add all sorts of prefixes, suffixes and infixes, making verbs, adjectives, nouns, participles, and any part of speech you desire. This sort of language, called mat, is heard everywhere all over Russia, from the Moscow metro to the Arctic tundra, but the degree to which people fill each sentence with it varies greatly. In
five years of travel in Russia, never, not among reindeer herders, bear hunters, fish police, winter road ice testers or anyone else, had I ever encountered people who littered their speech with it as much as these Saami in Lovozero Region. At least 50% of the words they said were mat, and many of them just rude connecting words that added to real information to the sentence but just served to make it more vulgar. Rarely did an ordinary verb rear its head amid the deluge of vulgarity that flowed from their lips. When I heard one I would pounce on it greedily as one of the few clues from which the meaning of their conversation might be ascertained.
“C$%*:#@ F#$%^ F$**# C%^*## A$(#$@ F$%$$% we don’t have the right to F#@$$%**#,” Kolya was saying. I had some sort of idea they were talking about hunting.
“F%$@#* S#$&*@ C$$%*@,” Vanya replied.
“So, Ed,” Kolya said after a pause, turning to me and dropping the more complex structures of vulgarity from his speech to leave only such simple rude words as “why,” “talk,” “come,” “lots,” and so on. “Why have you come here? You want to take lots
of photos of the reindeer or you just want to talk with us to collect information?"
“The main thing isn’t to take photos, although it’d be nice to get a few good ones,” I replied. “The main thing is I’m just keen to understand how you work with the reindeer and how that differs from other herders I’ve spent time with like the Nenets.”
"Well, ask me then."
"Well, Victor already explained the basics to me... I guess in general I just need to watch you working and chat to you guys for a few days. But ok, what about the Saami language? Do you speak it?"
“I understand it a bit." Kolya said. "The thing is it was discouraged under the USSR, the government had this policy of trying to get rid of it. So parents were told to speak to their children only in Russian so that they could speak it before they started school and understand the teachers. Russian kids and teachers would give you beats if they heard you speaking in Saami. So bit by bit it was all lost.”
“But that was going on even in the 1980s?” I asked.
“Especially in the 1980s,” he replied.
“But your parents can speak Sami?”
“Yes, and so can I when I drink.”
Again the conversation degenerated into endless swearing. When asked why I’ve devoted effort to learning Russian rude words, situations like this provide the answer: sometimes you just can’t make head or tail of what people are saying unless you know certain words.
Two other herders who had been checking up on the herd, Yury and Sasha, arrived after a couple of hours.
"Ed, you know Vanka's a Komi?" Kolya said, pointing at the youngest, darkest skinned one of the bunch who was missing almost all of his teeth. Komi are an indigenous group from another part of the Russian North, a small number of whom had moved to the Kola Peninsula even before the USSR.
"Do you speak Komi?" I asked.
“Are there many Komi in Lovozero?”
“As many as Saami?”
“So where else have you met reindeer herders?” Kolya asked me.
“The Nenets Autonomous Republic, Yamal Peninsula, Nadym Region, Mongolia and Kamchatka.”
“Ah, Kamchatka, they’re also ours,” he said,
using the Russian words “ours” in its meaning of “the same nationality as us.”
“I mean Kamchatka’s Russia,” he replied.
“Ah. So if someone asked what nationality you were, would you say Russian or Saami?” I asked.
“Saami, of course. I haven’t had, heard or seen anything good from these Russians. If only the border with Scandanavia could have been made a few kilometers further east – then we’d be living with out Saami relatives in Scandanavia! We should be Finns, not Russians! Do you have any photos of those other reindeer herders?”
I began showing them my pictures of my Nenets friends. They nodded appreciatively at the beautiful fur clothing, marveled at a picture of nine chums [conical reindeer hide tents] standing together in one encampment surrounded by over 100 sledges, reeled with disgust at the sight of people drinking fresh blood.
"So women and children all move camp with the men?" Kolya asked. The others did not seem interested in talking to me, merely swearing among themselves instead.
"Yes, whole families live in chums and move camp by sledge year round," I replied.
"And the children don't get
bored?" he asked.
"No, they have lots of toys, a small sledge, a miniature chum to play in and so on."
"All these traditions have been lost here," he said.
It had happened under the Soviet Union: in most parts of Russia, reindeer herders had been given a place to live in villages and forced to settle, men working shifts with the reindeer away from their families, the tundra quickly becoming the workplace rather than the home. Under the influence of the village values and traditions had been quickly lost and alcoholism rapidly spread.
For two days the weather was terrible, a mixture of rain, wet snow, fog and grey skies, weather during which it would apparently have been impossible to herd the reindeer down from the mountain. A couple of times a day the men would walk to a clearing fifteen minutes away where the transport reindeer were tied to trees, feed them some bread, untie them and attach them to a new tree, giving them access to fresh lichen. Occasionally a herder would also head off onto the lake on his snowmobile to check from stray reindeer. Mostly we just sat in the cabin
eating low quality food and drinking tea, the smoke from over a packet of cigarettes a day smoked by each of the herders keeping visibility low and the endless stream of foul language gradually sapping at my strength. Although they drank no alcohol, stories were constantly being exchanged of how much they used to drink, month long benders, getting lost in the forest for a week and losing reindeer due to drunkeness, an acquaintance who had tried to stay off the drink but had recently given in, got drunk then hanged himself.
On the third day the weather showed signs of improvement and the herders decided to gather up the reindeer in preparation for actually bringing them down the mountain.
"Can I come with you?" I asked Kolya.
"Tomorrow, not today. Today we're going right to the top of the mountains, there's loads of canyons, ravines, extremely steep slopes," he said, showing a near vertical angle with his hand. "It'd be impossible with two people on the snowmobile."
So they left, three on snowmobiles and three on reindeer-drawn sledges. I stayed all day in the cabin on my own, doing some writing and occasionally going for
a stroll in the woods or on the lake, althouh the top layer of ice had by now become very sludgy and necessitated hopping from patch to patch of solid ice to find a path across the surface. The sky was still grey but the fog that had been clinging to the tree tops and obscuring the mountains from view had lifted. Far in the distance the gurgle of the snowmobiles' engines could be heard constantly.
"Some bears have been following the heard," Kolya said when they got back in the afternoon. "We found their tracks."
"Have they been killing reindeer?" I asked.
"Maybe. Probably. I don't know, we haven't counted."
I was surprised. Among the Nenets, who as well as the system universal among reindeer herders everywhere of cutting marks into the animals' ears to identify the owner know each of their animals by its face and fur, a missing reindeer is almost immediately noticed.
The next day the fog that had been shrouding the mountains lifted, the sky turned blue the sun lit up the world around us. The trees turned from dark, grim forms hugging the shore to beautiful, glowing, green precursors
of the coming spring, the grey of the vast frozen lake dispersing to be replaced by a myriad of different icy colours ranging from blue to silver to yellow. We drove along the lake shore on snowmobiles and reindeer-drawn sledges for five minutes before veering into the forest and setting off upwards.
The forest disappeared some distance up the mountain slope to be replaced by short, brown, springy tundra vegetation interspersed by scattered boulders and the occasional patch of snow. A kilometre or so further up the snow fully reclaimed the landscape.
"Right Ed," Kolya said, stopping the snowmobile after we had come out of the forest. "I'm going to leave you here because it's too steep for both of us to ride further up. You're going to have to walk up on your own."
"No problem," I said. "Where will the reindeer be coming down?"
"Go and stand there where the ground's completely covered in snow," he said pointing a long way up the mountain. "That way we'll be able to see you, we'll heard the reindeer around you and if necessary one of us will come and pick you up."
"Ok, thanks," I
I began trudging up the mountainside, the trees and lake gradually shrinking behind me to become part of a vast patchwork of green forests and icy white and blue rivers and island-dotted lakes that made up the area around Lovozero. The grim concrete of the village itself became visible after a while in the distance, rising like a deathly spectre above the natural glory that surrounded it as far as the eye could see. Something else also became visible off to the left: six towers, so thin as to be almost invisible but rising hundreds of metres into the air from the forest. One of the peninsula's many secret military installations perhaps, I thought to myself.
When the forest with its network of rivers and lakes was so far below me that it gave the impression of being a picture rather than a real landscape, the lighter shades of the frozen water melting into the darker ones of the forest in a sort of giant watercolour hung around my field of vision, I came across an interesting discovery on the mountainnside: an area covered in seid stones. These ancient sites, where large boulders have been placed, obviously
intentionally, on top of tiny rocks, are thought to sacred places of an ancient Stone Age culture that lived on the peninsula. As I climbed the mountainside I passed dozens of them.
Suddenly I came up over a ridge to find myself perhaps fifty metres from a long column of reindeer galloping across the mountainside perpendicular to me. To my right and further up the mountain this column was breaking off a huge, milling herd of the animals and 500 metres to my left the reindeer were collecting on a ridge overlooking the forest below. I stood photographing them for a minute before Kolya's snowmobile came into view, drove up to me and stopped.
"Get on," he said. "We're going to bring them down this way."
He drove me around the herd and dropped me off in the snow above them. Over a period of several hours other herders appeared and, slowly driving towards the herd on snowmobiles, got them onto the part of the mountain slope they wanted. Gradually the disorganised, milling mass of animals formed the giant, flowing ring described at the beginning of this blog, sometimes walking and sometimes galloping around and around in
a five hundred metre-long, perfectly formed oblong.
Further along the mountainside I saw the herders had all gathered together a few hundred metres above the circling reindeer so I walked over to them. Kolya and Andrey were in the middle of cutting open and carving up a reindeer carcass, unceremoniously letting blood flow out onto the snow which the Nenets would have drunk fresh from the carcass.
"Do the reindeer always circle like that?" I asked Kolya.
"Always," he replied, "here and on the tundra."
We ate some liver and kidney raw from the carcass. Vanya then cut some wood from a small copse slightly further down the mountain and built a fire. Everyone took a piece of meat from the carcass, impaled it on a small stick and began roasting it. At first I did not take any.
"Why aren't you roasting any meat, Ed?" Kolya asked after a few seconds, noticing me hanging around awkwardly and pointing to two portions of ribs lying on the ground. "You're our guest, don't be shy, come on."
"Thanks," I said, impaling some ribs on a stick. "By the way, what are those six tall, thin
towers in the distance over there?"
"Haha," Kolya laughed, "that's not for you to know, English spy."
"Ah, I see," I said, grinning.
"We ourselves don't know," Andrey added. "No one's allowed to go near it."
I roasted those ribs, drank some tea from a thermos and after half a day on the cold, windy mountain slope it was absolutely delicious. We then got up pretty quickly and descended to where the reindeer were still circling, three herders standing not more than twenty metres from the herd and the other three about fifty metres behind them, everyone having left their snowmobiles and sledges behind.
Over the course of several hours the herders nearest to the reindeer moved very slowly forward, usually just a few paces at a time, choosing the right moments to alter the position of the constantly circling herd or the angle of its flow so that it continued moving gradually downhill. The sun went in, a chill wind kicked up, the sky turned grey and occasionally a little drizzle would spatter down on us. Gradually the patchwork of forest and lakes below became larger and larger, turning from the almost surreal picture
it had been when we had been at the top of the mountain to a real landscape where even individual trees were discernible amid the forest.
At this time of year at this latitude the sun was going down after midnight, rose a few hours later and even at night the world remained pretty light, but as the reindeer got further and further down the mountain slope the weather worsened to such an extent that the world became darker and more menacing than I had ever seen it yet on Kola. Shivering, tired and with wet feet rapidly becoming very cold, I was glad that we were nearly at the bottom of the mountain. At this rate the herd would be down in the forest within a couple of hours tops, hopefully.
"Will they or won't they go?" I heard Yury wondering aloud as the circling reindeer approached a ridge after which the land fell away steeply to the beginning of the forest. They were just starting to pass over the ridge, still circling, the left end of the circle (or rather oblong) flowing down over the ridge and out of sight, the right end flowing up from
under the ridge and into sight. I remembered Kolya's words that good weather was essential to bring them down off the mountain, because in bad weather they would get too nervous and break up. I looked at the black skies and wished the reindeer were as domesticated as Yamal Nenets reindeer which move camp in a very orderly column, kept strictly in place by well trained dogs.
The herders kept moving slowly downhill, pushing the herd forward. Each man was carrying a branch with which he constantly tapped the mountainside and which he occasionally waved at any reindeer who got too close. Then, as the reindeer were passing over an area lightly forested by skinny, leafless trees, I saw Yury leap forward and wave his arms at the reindeer in a move more abrupt than anything I had seen so far. The nearest reindeer were startled and a group of ten or fifteen broke off from the main herd, galloping up the mountainside. I was standing on the other side of the trees from the reindeer but there was a passage through them about a metre wide leading from the herd to me and, suddenly, another group of reindeer
broke off and galloped towards me through that passage.
"Shiiiit..." I shouted, unsure what to do.
"Stop them! Don't let them through!" Yury yelled. But I had already dived out of the way and the animals had charged past me and up the mountain. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back. After that dozens of groups all across the mountain side stopped circling and broke off from the herd, flowing back uphill. The main herd itself, depleted by about half, also stopped circling and began moving back up the mountain.
"Ed," Kolya yelled, as everyone began running back uphill, "try to stay in the open, on snow where we can see you. If we can't get them back together quickly we may have to spend the night out here."
I began trudging up the mountain again, the formerly so tantalisingly close idea of our return to the warm cabin, a good night's sleep and a good dinner now seemingly impossible.
In the gathering darkness it was hard to see what was going on but down below some people had got the much reduced herd circling again while others were off chasing stragglers
around in the upper reaches of the mountains. A couple of hours passed before Andrey came and stopped near me.
"What bad luck, eh?" I said to him.
"What do you mean?" he asked, lighting a cigarette.
"Well, I thought we were nearly done, about to go home, before they broke up."
"Yes, so did I," Andrey said, exhaling smoke. "Anyway we're done now, the reindeer are all down below and Kolya and Yury are driving them towards the tundra?"
"Are you serious?" I asked. "You got them all down?"
"Yes," he replied.
"So are you lot going off with Kolya and Yury?"
"No," he said, "we're going to go back to Lovozero tonight then meet them in the tundra tomorrow or the next day."
The trip back to Lovozero was a wet one. It was now the beginning of May and parts of the lake were at such an extreme stage of melting that the sledge we travelled on sunk deep into sludge every few seconds, letting icy water through the cracks in its bottom to soak us. At times we got stuck and had to get out and walk through knee deep freezing water but eventually we were back amid the wooden shacks of Lovozero's outskirts, then the crumbling concrete of its centre, then I was lying down in the Collective Farm appartment and falling asleep.