The Nenets - nomadic indigenous reindeer herders of Arctic Russia

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August 10th 2008
Published: August 25th 2008
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"She's a gypsy," Jury told me, pointing at an elderly woman moving along the sand embankment below us. Several ancient boats clung to the banks of the Pechora River at Naryan-Mar's river station, all of them looking on the verge of collapse. The woman was bent double under a large, bulging sack slung over her shoulder. Something about her hept my attention: despite the weight she was carrying, this was not the agonizingly slow shuffle of the pensioners of her age you see in Moscow, battling against the elements to reach the office where she will collect the handful of dollars on which she must struggle to survive for the next month - this woman's walk had a certain briskness to it, a strength and liveliness that immediately struck me as unusual, almost unnatural.
"She's arrived by boat from the Komi Republic," Jury said. No roads lead to Naryan-Mar: it is isolated by the tundra, a vast wasteland of grass, scrub, water and swamp. It is a depressing, ugly town of about 20,000 with no pretty buildings, few shops and fewer cafes. "She's not one of these drug-addict hippy gypsies you guys have in Europe," Jury continued, "she's a true gypsy, a Romany."
"What's she doing here?" I asked.
"She's come to sell stuff. Look, she's got a friend," he replied, pointing at a similar-looking woman who had descended from the boat, dressed in a similar shawl, head scarf and long black dress and carrying an equally-sized sack. "These people travel all over Russia selling their stuff. They might travel up to some of the villages north of here tomorrow. Who knows, maybe they'll even be on the boat with you. If they are, just don't buy anything from them - they always cheat you. Don't even talk to them. And never, ever look in their eyes. Once you look in their eyes, you're lost."

We walked back from the river port along a typical Naryan-Mar street lined with tall, bleak, concrete buildings. There were very few people on the street; it was the height of summer but still cold enough that I had to wear a jumper and a coat. On top of that swarms of mosquitoes constantly attacked me and every few seconds I had to brush large numbers of them out of my hair and spit them from my mouth. Naryan-Mar was not a place where being outside was easy or pleasant.
The people we did pass were of varying ethnicities. Some were ethnic Russians, as pale-skinned as any European or American. Others were darker-skinned and had features that seemed like a cross between those of a Mongolian and a native American. They were the Nenets, the people indigenous to this part of Russia.
Despite the cold weather, Naryan-Mar was currently experiencing 24-hour daylight. I commented on this apparent contradiction.
"Yes, that's just the way it is here. We have two or three months like this, then about six months when it's dark all the time apart from one or two hours a day, then three months when it really is night without end. The temperature can drop to minus fifty centigrade. Come on, let's go for a meal."

We were on a rare thirty-minute break from Jury's workaholic lifestyle. He owned three businesses and worked a seven-hour day for each of them every day of the week. During my week-long stay with him, during which we battled with endless permit headaches (you need to supply various documents to the police, border guards and intelligence agency to access the area I wanted to go to), he had even worked two days straight on one occasion without a minute's sleep. Perhaps it was his own way of distracting himself from the place he lived in - other than work, what other activities were there to fill your time with in this bleak, northernmost corner of the inhabited world?
We drove at break-neck speed to the airport where, if Jury had time, he usually ate lunch. He punched a number into his mobile phone and held it to his ear.
"Tovarish," he yelled, using the old Soviet word for "comrade" which I had discovered was still in full use up here. "Last week I flew to Arkhangelsk for business and while I was there I purchased a TV in your store. I said I'd pick it up later but when I came back they said I couldn't have it because I didn't have the receipt! It's outrageous! Fifty thousand rubles I paid for it!" The conversation continued for a minute or so, eventually ending in some vague arrangement to try to get the TV shipped to Naryan-Mar.
"I haven't got time for this shit," Jury said angrily, entering another number into his phone.
"Tovarish! Yes, I've got your stuff ready! I'll deliver it to you in five minutes!"
Another brief phone call later and we were at the airport. We ran up the stairs, into the canteen, ordered our meals, ate them in two minutes and left again, careering back down the road at a speed that, anywhere with heavier traffic, would have been near suicidal.
It was only in the centre of town that there were concrete buildings. Out here near the tiny airport everything was built of wood.
"Are there ever fires?" I asked.
"Yes, we had a very bad one last year. About forty people died and many more lost their houses."

Dinner - pasta, mayonnaise and ketchup - was slightly less frantic. Jury even poured me a glass of vodka.
"You're not drinking?" I asked.
"No, in the evenings I'm too tired, if I drink I'll just go to sleep and won't be able to work at night. I only ever drink at breakfast. It puts me in a better mood for the rest of the day."
I decided to ask Jury about the history of Naryan-Mar. "When was it founded?"
"There's been a settlement here for a long time, no one knows exactly how long, although at first it was tiny, just a few Russians up here cutting timber. I've traced my own family back seven generations here. The Soviets started to develop the area in 1931 and founded the town in 1935."
"What was the relationship like between the Russians and the Nenets before Soviet times?"
"There was some trade, some conflict. We don't know too much because there aren't many records. But during Soviet times most of the Nenets were forced to settle into villages and collective farms, or kolkhoz. Many committed suicide or drank themselves to death, you know, they just didn't know how to live this new way of life. Imagine if it had been the other way around, and you or me had been taken to the tundra and left there! All the Nenets children were taken away from families, educated in Soviet boarding schools then sent back to their parents in a place where they could not use their Soviet education but were also useless at reindeer herding."
"It's amazing there are any reindeer herders left at all," I commented.
"You know, since the collapse of the Soviet Union reindeer herding has experienced something of a revival. There are very few other ways for these people to make money so they're returning to the way of life of their forefathers."
The goal of my trip was to experience this way of life.

The nest morning I borded I tiny, forty-person passenger boat bound north up the Pechora River and found that the gypsy we had seen the previous day was indeed coming with me. I was glad to leave Naryan-Mar. To me it epitomised everything that had been wrong with the Soviet regime: construction without a thought for aesthetics, development without a thought for culture, the building of cities in environments so inhospitable that it was impossible for anyone to be happy or healthy there, industrial progress at the cost of gladness, warmth, beauty and life.
For four hours we chugged upstream, stopping at a couple of villages on the way, ramshackle collections of ragged wooden houses clinging to the banks of the river. The gypsy woman got off at the second one where she would presumably attempt to sell her wares before bording the boat on its return journey. I got off at the final stop, a village called Nelmin Nos, to be greeted by swarms of mosquitoes that I did not escape for the rest of that day. They were constantly in my hair, mouth, eyes, nose, ears and I never lost the urge to wave my arms around at them and brush them out of my hair every few seconds. However, mosquitoes were not the worst blight that Nelmin Nos suffered from. Like Naryan-Mar, it had been constructed in the 1930s when the Nenets were first being forced out of the tundra to lead settled lives. Today, the population is still 90% Nenets and torn apart by the alcoholism that descended on its people after their lives, culture and system of beliefs were destroyed. 1000 people live there in the rickety wooden houses, separated from each other either by muddy streets or by swamps above which wooden walkways run. There is no industry, little employment and less happiness. After dark it is safer not to go out.

At midnight I set out with two men in a motorboat. We went north for two hours until we reached a small cabin in which two hunters from Nelmin Nos were sleeping. I got out with Styopa, my guide, while the owner of the motorboat returned to the village. I had made the mistake of letting Styopa know that I had with me a bottle of Armenian home-brewed vodka as a remedy against the cold and he kept demanding sips, becoming quite insistent if I tried to delay his next dose. Fortunately, fairly soon after our arrival, he began crawling around on all fours, spouting nonsense, before finally collapsing on the floor.

The next day Styopa and I set out into the tundra. Vast, flat and green, the tundra was a mixture of grass, scrub and small bushes but no trees, small hills but no mountains. It stretched almost unchanging as far as the eye could see, the only variety in colour provided by bright red and yellow berries called marozhki.

There were lots of lakes and bogs, and often I could only move forward by using both hands to yank one leg out of a bog, putting that leg forward, yanking my other leg out, and then repeating the whole procedure. As the hours passed I began to recognize which parts of a bog to walk through to avoid sinking too deep, which types of grass / plant provided the most reliable stepping stone. I picked this up during an eight-hour walk; what vast libraries of tundra knowledge the Nenets must have built up over their years spent there.

"Watch out for bears," Styopa told me. "If you see one, don't move and don't look at it. Like that it won't attack."
Great. That was probably the last thing I would have done if I had seen a bear.
"Are you sure that works I asked?"
"Of course," he replied irritably, waving a hand.
"Has you ever had a confrontation with a bear here?"
"What happened?"
"I had a gun that time, so I shot it."
Wonderful. Absolutely no proof that his stand-still-and-don't-look theory worked.

Soon it became apparent that Styopa was suffering from the mother of all hangovers. He kept stopping for a rest, and the stops became more and more frequent until we were barely going 20 paces in between them. Eventually I had to let him go to sleep for 15 minutes to recharge his batteries.

Depression and fear swept over me as I watched him sleep. I thought that we were not going to find the nomads. Styopa claimed to be able to see their chum (conical tent similar to the North American teepee) on the horizon but my camera with its 100x zoom could pick up nothing. Yesterday, in Nelmin Nos, his eyesight had been so bad that he had been unable to read, but he had claimed that his long distance vision was much better. Should I trust this man, who had been born and had spent much of his life in the tundra, but who was not so hungover and drunk that he could hardly move? Should I let him lead me deeper into the tundra, possibly not knowing where we're going, or should I cut my losses and head back while I still can? As had happened on the first day of my trek through the West Papuan highlands almost exactly a year before, the words "What the hell am I doing here?" kept appearing in my head. Aside from all that, I had been warned about bears in this area. Styopa had told me to stand still and not look it in the eye if we saw one, but the only time he had met one he had shot it, so we had no proof that his tactic would actually work.

After I woke him up he seemed better, especially as I was now carrying my 20kg bag which had previously been his burden. We walked for a couple of hours until I was exhausted. "It's OK," Styopa said, "look!" I saw a speck on the horizon that was so far away it could have been a trick of the eye, but my camera magnified it to the unmistakable outline of a sledge against the horizon. My spirits lifted and I pushed on for the next hour until we arrived, to crushing disappointment: it was only an abandoned sledge. The nomads had moved on.

We walked for hours more, Styopa assuring me that he knew where they would be and getting more and more infuriated at my constant doubting queries. Eventually I could go no further and had to ask him to take my bag again.

We arrived in the evening. There was one white chum, with a dozen sledges scattered around it, some supporting the structure which was erected on slightly raised ground in between two lakes. A few meters to the side was the herd of 1300 reindeer. We went in and I asked the chief's permission to stay with them for the next week. He was a very skinny man with a deeply weathered face and sunken eyes whose age was impossible to guess. He wore a large reindeer skin jacket (malitsa) with a colourful stripe at the bottom and fur lining in the hood. He said it would be fine for me to stay, and told me to eat whatever I wanted.

Inside the chum the ground was covered in reindeer furs and there was a huge metal container in the middle inside which a fire constantly burned and on top of which meat was boiled and tea brewed. A hollowed out tree trunk conducted the smoke up and out through a hole in the roof. A few tree stump stools sat around a low wooden table where people took it in turns to eat or drink tea. The structure of the chum was supported by a number of long wooden poles stuck into the ground in a circle, cleverly interlocked at the top and balancing on one another so that they formed the conical shape of the chum. Only three were tied together with rope.

I wandered around the site for a while. No one questioned my arrival at all; in fact they all acted somewhat indifferently towards me. I had been the first Englishmen to visit Nelmin Nos, let alone this place, so I was surprised that they weren't more surprised.

Everything was a mix of old and new. Some of them wore traditional clothes made from reindeer skin and fur, others Western clothes. Some tools were modern, some fashioned from reindeer bones. As for food, they had some rock solid bread but mainly they lived entirely off reindeer meat. The day after my arrival, while dipping a bit of bread in my tea at breakfast, I had the shock of my life; the man sitting opposite me pulled out a bowl of raw flesh and blood and began devouring it. Organs, fat, flesh, everything went down. When one particular tendon proved too tough to chew through he brought out his knife and sawed through it until it snapped and flew back at him, blood splattering into his moustache before being licked clean by his tongue. From the gusto and regularity with which they ate raw meat, I judged that they preferred it like this than cooked. In a life where tiny marozhki berries constitute the only fruit or vegetables, blood must be a very important source of vitamins.

They never drank water, only tea brewed from a dry green herb of which they had vast reserves. The only water available in this place was muddy and full of pond life, so had to be boiled anyway before being drunk. Washing in this water was a problem for several reasons: it was dirty, it was usually too cold to take off your clothes and the bottom of the lake could be a bog anyway. Washing was in fact something that happened on rare occasions.

Even now, in the height of summer, it was unbearably cold. I never slept properly, despite using 2 shirts, 2 wool jumpers, a huge sailing jacket, hat, gloves, scarf and sleeping in an aluminium foil bag which was supposed to retain 90% of my body heat. It wasn't snowy, it was just very cold and the wind made it so much colder. One night I simply couldn't bear it any more and I had to get up and go running. It was a difficult choice, getting up and going out into that cold, but it was the only possible way of getting any warmer too.

It wasn't even snowy, just very, very cold. In winter the temperature often drops below minus 30, something that, combined with that horrendous wind, so close to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, I can't even imagine. The harshness of their lives is reflected in the faces of the nomads. They all look older and more weathered than they should, and they rarely talk. They were hardened, reserved people who spent a lot of time staring out into the tundra in silence. It was strange, after Armenia, where people can even be TOO hospitable - constantly offering more food and drink - to be with people who didn't want to talk to me much, and who didn't make such an effort to make me feel at home.

The first few days were very interesting. Every evening, two herders drove the reindeer off to new pastures and stayed up all night with them, returning around 9am. This happened every night. In the morning, after they had returned, everyone, including the dogs, got the reindeer running round in circles so that they could select ones to lasso for the sledges. Those not lassoing would stand at intervals in a huge circle to form a boundary past which the reindeer would not pass. As the herd thundered past, people waited for particularly strong-looking ones before launching their lassos. Once the rope had caught on a pair of antlers, the beast would be roped in and attached to a sledge. After about 40 had been caught, the chum was disassembled, everything was packed up, and the group moved on. The women and people who had not slept would travel by sledge and the others would walk with dogs behind the reindeer, driving them on. Trying to get 1300 reindeer to travel in exactly the same direction and, what's more, exactly he direction you wanted them to, was a predictably chaotic affair. Whole groups kept escaping, and if they managed to break through our line then the dogs would go after them. The dogs had obviously been very well trained, because they always knew the right way to get in front of the reindeer and chase them back in the direction of the main herd.

On arrival at a new site with suitable grazing, a place for the chum would be chosen. First a place for a fire would be made, then wooden planks laid on either side for a walkway. Then the skeleton of the chum would be made in a circle around the fire and the men would poke the covers up onto it using more poles. Then the herd would graze for several hours and people would take it in turns to come inside, warm up and drink tea at the table. People did not take kindly to someone (usually me) spending too long on their tea at this time as there was only room for four people at the table. In order to speed up the process, everyone would pour their tea into a saucer bit by bit and drink it from there. Tea drinking, along with meals, was always a noisy affair with plenty of slurping and burping.

It was the night duty that seemed the most terrible to me. One night of unbearable wind, rain and cold it was the turn of the chief and a sixty year old man to go out with the reindeer. They spent 18 hours out their on a night when a 30 second trip to the toilet was enough to reduce me to a teeth-chattering, shaking mess, despite being dressed like an Eskimo. When they returned the chief looked positively skeletal, as though the elements had devoured every last ounce of body fat on him and stretched his skin out over his bones. The old man said nothing all day, but when a dog started whining uncontrollably he grabbed a reindeer herding pole and started beating it savagely, wheezing and snarling at the yelping animal.

I had a great feeling of uselessness and inferiority while living with these people. Sometimes I could help them a little bit with menial tasks but generally my comfortable Western upbringing and lack of experience of tundra life just ensured that I got in the way. One time when they were about to lasso reindeer I decided to try to help by forming part of the boundary to block any possible escape attempts by the animals. As I walked towards my intended position one of the herders turned, noticed me and started yelling, "Get back in the chum!" Alarmed by the frantic tone of his voice, I turned and started walking back. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the entire herd thundering towards me and had to sprint for cover.

On the fourth day everything changed. We arrived at the shores of an enormous bay which emptied into the Barents Sea. Various people arrived in motorboats from Nelmin Nos and brought with them large amounts of vodka. I remembered my first night with Styopa and thought back to a warning Jury had given me back in Naryan-Mar: "Don't ever drink alcohol with Nenets. They have something inside them, some gene, it can make them go crazy when they drink. One of the main causes of death here is murder, from when people are drinking together and get into an argument. We even have a special word for this type of murder, where the killer wakes up the next morning and doesn't know why he killed the victim."
I decided to make my presence scarce that evening, opting for an early retreat to my tent.
Some time in the early morning I was awoken by the sound of my tent door being unzipped. I shot upright as, to my horror, someone crawled into my tent which was so small I had to lie diagonally from corner to corner. Suddenly I was inches away from a hard, dark face, bloodshot eyes, a mouth full of missing teeth and a reek of vodka. For a split second I froze, terrified, unable to react. Then the face broke into a grin, shouted something and a hand began shaking my shoulder. It was then that I realised this was one of the hunters with whom I had spent my first night before trekking off into the tundra with Styopa.
Soon the other one crawled into my tent.
"Ed, Ed, come drink with us!" was repeated several times. After several explanations that I was very tired and needed to sleep they agreed to leave my tent and left, nearly making it collapse on the way. This whole incident was repeated in exactly the same way no less than four times before dawn.

The next morning I emerged from my tent to a scene of carnage. The area around the chum was strewn with vodka bottles and sleeping bodies, one poor man even sleeping in a thorn bush. I could hear voices from inside the chum so I headed over in the hope of getting a tea to warm me up. I stooped, entered and said my good mornings.
"Tovarish!" said a voice to my side that I did not recognise. It was a young, white-skinned man, surely not a Nenets, with hair shaved on the sides and back but very long on top, so long that it hung right down to his chin. "Tovarish, where are you from?"
"I'm from England," I replied, "and you?"
"Belarus," he answered.
"What are you doing here?" I said, my head spinning with sleep-deprived confusion. Was this guy a journalist or something?
"I'm up here doing some fishing. Sit down, Tovarish," he said, patting the seat next to him. I did as he said, and was enveloped by the reek of vodka. Over the next twenty minutes he made it his mission to teach me how to skin a fish. By the end I had proved so inept at the task that I feared he would lose his temper, but in fact, although he was clearly mildly irritated, he still seemd very keen to talk to me and invited me back for breakfast in the same place I had spent my first night in.
We borded the boat with the two hunters and set out into the bay at about eight o'clock in the morning. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the small cabin to find another, older, white-skinned man standing outside. "That's my stepdad," said Kyrill, the Belarussiam I had met back at the chum. "It's his cabin. He's the inspector here, you know, you're not really allowed to fish here but he allows a certain amount of it. We're all brocanieri." Poachers.
"Did you bring my beer?" Kyrill's stepfather asked as we approached. One of the hunters produced to large plastic bottles of extra strength lager from a bag and handed them over. The older Belarussian opened one and took a large swig.
Kyrill and I went into the cabin while the other three disappeared into the nearby tundra, to what ends I do not know. Kyrill cooked me a breakfast of fried tinned meat, onions and stale bread. Simple, unhealthy, but a welcome change after several days on just reindeer meat.
"Thank you very much," I said.
"Don't mention it. If I came to your home, wouldn't you host me in the same way?"
"Of course," I said. Probably without the tinned meat, but still.
"So do you stay here all the time with your stepdad?"
"No, I live in Naryan-Mar. I'm just here to get some fish, earn some money."
"What do you do in Naryan-Mar?"
"What do you mean? For work? I just do whatever work I can find. And I drink, every day. Last night I drank two bottles of vodka, slept for two hours and today I'll do the same. It's all I ever want to do. And I take heroin as well," he said, lifting his sleeve to show me the syringe marks but at the same time exposing an arm almost destroyed by the long red scars left by self-inflicted slashes.
"Jesus Christ," I said.
"Yeh, and look at this." He took of his coat, jumper and shirt; his entire belly and chest was, like his arm, covered in red, mutilated flesh.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I didn't want to live. I have no job, no real family, all the girls I meet are fucking whores. I had nothing to live for. But it's been a long time since I last cut myself." Not too long judging by the freshness of the scars.
While it was nice to actually be having a conversation with someone after four days spent with almost entirely silent people, I was beginning to get slightly worried about being on my own with this young man who, although very friendly towards me, was also clearly rather unstable, still drunk and heavily sleep-deprived.
"Hey, you know what?" he asked, perhaps sensing that I was worried. "Let's collect some marozhki. We'll put them in a jar, add some sugar, make a drink out of it. Can you imagine a better present for your parents when you get back to England? Make sure you tell them it's from me." So out we went, and for the next hour we plodded around, bent double, picking as many of the small, red and yellow fruit as we could find.

When his father announced that he was going to Nelmin Nos to buy more alcohol I asked him to drop me off back at the chum. Kyrill was obviously disappointed that I was leaving and I too would have liked to stay longer; despite all his problems it was very obvious to me that he was really a very nice guy underneath it all. However, I had the feeling that to be here when he started drinking might have been a big mistake and decided not to take my chances.

After a week I returned to Naryan-Mar with mixed feelings. It had been one of the most interesting experiences of my life but at the same time it had been extremely difficult: the cold, the hardness of the people, the lack of conversation or personal connections with anyone other than Kyrill. Only one or two people had ever got annoyed with me; for the most part they were just indifferent to my presence, only exchanging the occasional words with me, as with each other. Perhaps they have just spent so much time together that they have run out of things to say. Perhaps in a place where life is so difficult, people just have no time and energy to expend on hospitality. Still, I felt privileged to have shared in their lives with them, even if only for a few days.

"Do all Nenets drink so much?" I asked Jury.
"No, it's really just here, in the more accessible communities. Here reindeer herding is shuttle work - they do three months in the tundra, then drink for three months in Nelmin Nos. If you go to the Yamal Peninsula they are still much more traditional. Everyone, even the children, speak Nenets as their first language, whereas here only people over the age of 30 do. Everyone on the Yamal still wears the really traditional malitsa, you know the big furry jacket that's the stereotypical eskimo clothing, and no one drinks, or maybe just a glass before bed agaiinst the cold."
I had researched a trip to the Yamal but had abandoned the idea, realising that it was so inaccessible that it would be impossible without hiring a helicopter. Now, however, I had fresh motivation and left Naryan-Mar determined that when I returned to Russia, I would find a way to visit the people of the Yamal.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug

Click this link for advice on independent travel on the Yamal Peninsula

Click this link for information on guided travel to the Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula as well as some information on Nenets culture and spirituality


4th October 2008

What language did you speak to the Nenets? I assume they all speak Russian, but do they also have their own language or dialect?
4th October 2008

The Nenets have their own language. For people over 30 it's their first language, whereas most people under 30 don't speak it. This at least is the case in the NAO; I think the language is much more alive on the Yamal Peninsula.
15th October 2008

I have read the blog several times. It is really interesting, especially with the photos to illustrate what you are describing. It was a surprise not to see deep snow in the pictures as I hadn't realised that the Arctic could be snow-free at some times of the year. Do you know how much of the year the Nenets spend in green pastures? A couple more questions: what do they use to navigate and are there chums for sleeping as well as the main one for cooking and drinking tea?
15th October 2008

I think it's snow-free for 2 or 3 months. They don't use anything to navigate - they just know the tundra. I guess they just use landmarks. The chum is for sleeping, cooking, everything!
13th November 2008

An informative and charming story - thanks. J.
6th March 2009

wow, seems that they got a really tough life in there ...
21st March 2009

The most amazing adventure I've ever heard about from the people I know. Edward, you are a real hero in my opinion! Living in Moscow I had no chance to find out what is the live in distant regions of Russia. Thank you for your travelling experience that you share with us.
26th December 2009

did you ever get there man? just printed this out and read it in my bed! super!

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