Eva Toulouze, Liivo Niglas
the last centuries, the indigenous peoples of Western Siberia have been
nomads or semi-nomads. One part of them, those who live in the forest
or the tundra with reindeer, are still mobile, steering their herds
toward available pastures. But in the last fifty years another economic
and social actor has occupied the territory they lived in: the oil
industry. The focus of this chapter is how these human and animal
societies interact with one another, how their movement patterns meet
and divide and how their coexistence has pragmatically led, in addition
to unavoidable conflicts, to a kind of symbiosis and mutual dependence.
The chapter relies on on-going fieldwork carried out by the authors
With the development of the oil industry in Western Siberia, two very
different populations ‒ the oil workers(1) and the natives ‒ started to
coexist and to interact. Movement and fixity characterise both ways of
life, but the backgrounds, the values and the ways of thinking differ
deeply. This occasional coexistence, when paths meet, may lead to
conflicts between the two groups, and in order to avoid this, both must
learn to handle the way they relate to their environment and to one
another. The aim of this chapter is to map the present situation. It
describes the movement and fixity patterns of both groups and shows the
strategies natives implement to regulate their relations in order to
avoid conflict with oil workers. Prospective conflicts would be
dangerous mainly for the natives in the light of the political and
economic power of both groups. But in certain situations, conflict
behaviour is the only strategy the natives can use to stand up for
The area covered by this chapter
is situated in the basins of rivers Pim, Agan and Tromagan, which are
part of the Middle Ob region in Western Siberia (the southern portion
of the grey area in Figure 1). It is a taiga and forest tundra zone,
inhabited by indigenous people – the Eastern Khanty and Forest Nenets,
whose traditional subsistence activities are semi-nomadic reindeer
herding, hunting and fishing ‒ as well as by Russian(2) newcomers, most
whom work for the oil industry. We have been stimulated to reflect on
the patterns of movement and its absence both by our experience in
fieldwork over the long term and by some theoretical discussions about
Western Siberian nomadism. The data rely on our fieldwork, which began
in 1999. The authors of this chapter, both separately and together,
have spent several months in the seasonal camps of Yuri Vella
(1948‒2013), the Forest Nenets poet, reindeer herder and activist.
Moreover, Eva has moved around in the Pim and Tromagan basins in 2005.
This chapter reflects our observations and information gathered from
our host as well as from the local population. Yuri Vella was certainly
an exceptional person,(3) and his experience vis-à-vis the oil workers
cannot be generalised to the local native community. However, we
believe that many aspects of his interaction with newcomers are similar
to those of many other reindeer herders in the region. Yuri Vella was
part of the community that has settled in the village of Varyogan and
in the forest area that is historically connected to it. His forest
territory, with several seasonal camps, is 140 km north of the village,
in an area bordering the Tromagan Khanty district and he has both
Nenets and Khanty neighbours.
Since the 1960s,
when oil was first discovered in massive deposits, it has been, and
continues to be, exploited. This industrialisation in areas mainly
inhabited by indigenous peoples living in villages, whose activities
rely on nature (hunting, fishing, reindeer herding), induced manifold
changes. We shall concentrate in this chapter on the unavoidable
contacts between such extreme communities through the point of view of
fixity and movement in the Pim, Agan and Tromagan basins, where Eastern
Khanty and Forest Nenets live together. Moreover, our previous
experience in different regions of Western Siberia since the beginning
of the 1990s has been of further assistance.
considerable part of the information and insights presented in the
chapter have been acquired in the course of the ethnographic filmmaking
that Liivo, alone as well as with Eva, has carried out since 2000.
Therefore, many of these observations have been recorded on video and
serve as a source of fieldwork experiences that can be revisited and
analysed for the needs of research. We also use these video recordings
to represent the observed events and to present some of our findings
for the reader.
Filming is not just a tool that helps a
researcher observe the research subjects’ behaviour in more detail ‒ it
is not only a device for audio-visual note taking. It is also a
specific way of achieving anthropological understanding. Video
recording makes it possible to capture and represent the research
subject’s or fieldworker’s lived experiences, conveying many of the
emotional and sensory subtleties that are often left unaddressed in
written note taking: the subject’s face, body movements and voice as
well as the film maker’s way of filming (the ability or disability to
hold a steady shot, camera movements and movements with the camera,
etc.) can be an important source of understanding the psychological and
physical conditions in which the filmed/filming experience takes place.
The captured video material can be edited into short video clips or
feature length ethnographic films to offer a means for the audience to
share the lived experiences of the film subject and the
filmmaker/researcher. In this way the understanding of anthropological
signification of the observed/filmed event is reached through active
experience rather than through reflection on that experience
(MacDougall 1998, 79).
In this chapter we do not aim to focus
filmic side of our research, neither do we want to emphasise sensory or
emotional aspects of the encounters between natives and oil workers. We
mentioned filmmaking and what it can offer to anthropological research
only to underline that while reading the following text one should keep
in mind that the coexistence of native reindeer herders and oil workers
in Western Siberia is on both sides loaded with strong emotional stress
caused by profound mutual mistrust as well as by genuine efforts to
find ways to improve the situation. Quite often this contradictory
psychological state of conflict and cooperation is discernible in
people’s micro-behaviour (gestures, posture, intonation) rather than in
their outward action and speech. Sometimes a bold attack is the best
way to hide the insecurity and fear that is visible only for a
microsecond in the attacker’s eyes, sometimes reckless bullying is the
most effective way to proceed if you wish to be left alone.
As the conflict and the co-operation we are dealing with is in essence
a cross-cultural one, the idiosyncrasies of ethnic ways of verbal and
extra-verbal communication also have to be taken into consideration.
The silence that seems to be agreement to one side could mean the
strongest disagreement to the other; what is a friendly gesture in one
culture could be taken as a sign of aggression in another. Watching
video recordings or ethnographic films can help us notice and interpret
these microscopic behavioural units more easily. Even if we missed them
during the actual event, we can discover them in a later viewing of the
recordings. But the most important aspect of ethnographic film is that
it prevents us from forgetting that we are dealing with real people,
that what we see on the screen is not a manifestation of an abstract
cultural practice but a unique person for whom this ‘interesting
cultural phenomenon’ can be the question of life and death. As Lucien
Taylor reminds us, “ethnographic film is tied to the particularities of
the person before it is to the […] generalities of culture” and “its
indexical attachment to its subject prevents it from playing fast and
loose with the person in ways that are par for the course with
expository prose” (Taylor 1998, 535).
those who are interested, apart from the more abstract treatment of the
issue presented in this chapter, in “more intimate structures of
culture” (MacDougall 1998, 62) to watch video clips that are available
in the electronic version of this chapter (Virtual CECT, see Internet
Figure 1. The Forest Nenets area in Western
nomads and the oil industry
The relationship between nomads and the outside world has been a
challenging topic for anthropologists all around the world (for an
overview, see Khazanov 1994; Barfield 1993). No type of pastoral
nomadism is self-sufficient and it cannot function in isolation. All
nomadic groups have to find ways and means of adapting to wider
economic and political realities. The outside world does not usually
act as a passive background for the nomadic way of life. It is an
active force that has a great impact on the lives of pastoral nomads.
But this interaction is not a one-directional cause-effect chain;
rather it can be explained as a series of feedback links between nomads
and the outside world. Thus, the choice of specific ways in which
nomadic society can adapt to the outside world depends on the needs of
its members and the specific opportunities and limitations offered by
the wider economic and political environment (Khazanov 1994, 198).
The Middle Ob region was connected with the outside world mainly
through military conflicts with neighbouring people and trade networks
that reached as far as the Middle East (Golovnev 1995). It seems that
in former times, when trade partners did not share a language and were
scared of one another, trade relations with outsiders were executed
mainly through a strategy that is described as ‘silent trade’: natives
avoided direct contact with outsiders by leaving their trade goods at a
certain spot in the forest, and their trade partners exchanged them
with their own goods a little later (Leete 1999; Dudeck 2012, 96‒97;
Etkind 2011, 165‒166).
The arrival of Russians
signalled the beginning of a new area in the region: colonialism that
combined commerce with coercion and was based on ruthless extraction of
natural resources, first fur animals and later oil and gas (Etkind
2011).(4) At first the Russians came in small numbers as they used
to do the highly skilled job of hunting and skinning animals, and
contact between natives and outsiders was limited. With the huge
migration of oil workers to the forest, the natives had to find ways to
continue their way of life in the context of rapid industrialisation in
their immediate neighbourhood. Could the old strategy of avoiding
unnecessary contact with newcomers also work in this new situation?
When analysing the impact of the oil
on native life in the Middle Ob region, researchers usually describe
its devastating nature (Wiget & Balalaeva 2011; Dudeck 2012).
if we turn our attention to the Yamal region, which is not very far
from there and features both nomadic reindeer husbandry and the oil and
gas industry, the situation seems to be far less dramatic. According to
a study that analyses industrial impact and climate change in Yamal,
the native socio-ecological system “has experienced significant
social/ecological shocks and increasing pressures, yet appears to have
reorganized in ways that allow the overall system to continue to
function, even thrive” (Forbes et al 2009, 22042).(5)
Why has the coexistence of industrial development and the natives’
traditional way of life resulted in a much more drastic situation in
the Middle Ob region than in Yamal? Although there are many important
socio-economic similarities between the two areas, there are also some
fundamental differences. One critical difference is the way reindeer
are herded. The Yamal region is situated mainly in an open tundra zone
suitable for large-scale and fully nomadic reindeer pastoralism that is
characterised by regular, linear and meridional yearlong migrations
(Khazanov 1994; Niglas 1997; Stammler 2005; Krupnik 2000; see also
Niglas 2000). The Middle Ob river basin’s environment is dominated by
forest tundra (pine groves alternating with marshland) and reindeer are
herded in a circular movement between seasonal pastures in much smaller
herds, while hunting and fishing plays an important role in the
economy. In this so-called semi-nomadism, mobility is limited and the
pastoral migrations are shorter than those of pure nomadism, both
spatially and temporally (Khazanov 1994; Verbov 1936).
The difference in the scale of oil and
development is also very important. In the Middle Ob region the oil
industry has been flourishing since the 1960s, resulting in a huge
influx of migrant workers and the development of numerous new
settlements, while on the Yamal Peninsula natural gas deposits were
opened for production relatively recently, two or three decades ago,
and the population increase due to the arriving newcomers has been less
These socio-economic differences mean
open space needed for nomadic activities is much more available in the
Yamal tundra than in the Middle Ob forest area. In order to avoid
ecological pressure and conflict with newcomers the Yamal reindeer
herders were able to use the adaptive strategy that has worked for
nomadic groups in many different parts of the world – they simply moved
away (see Khazanov 1994; Barfield 1993). In fact that is how Nenets
herders have responded to the presence of the oil industry in Yamal.
The researchers found that free access to open space has been critical
for success in adjusting to institutional constraints and ecological
changes ‒ the ability to roam freely enables people and animals to
exploit or avoid a wide range of natural and manmade habitats. The
Yamal Nenets have adjusted their migration routes and timing in order
to keep away from disturbed and degraded areas (Forbes et al 2009).
For natives living in the basins of the
Pim, Agan and Tromagan moving away from ecologically and socially
challenging places is usually not an option, although many have
attempted it. The land use there is much less flexible ‒ Eastern Khanty
and Forest Nenets families can migrate with their herds and households
only within the limits of their kinship or family territory (Ru.
rodavye ugodia) as there is simply no free land in the midst of
neighbouring family territories, oil production sites, roads, villages
and towns. Moving within their small family territories is how they
have tried to adapt to the ecological destructions of oil development.
Their seasonal settlements were originally concentrated along the main
waterways. However, with the approach of first geologists and then oil
workers, they moved up the river into the swamps towards the watershed
as their “settlements were destroyed, huts were removed by bulldozers,
the waterways were dammed up when roads were built over the marshland,
reindeer pastures on the riverbanks destroyed” (Dudeck 2012, 90).
The industrial pressure on land and
natural resources is ever increasing in the current economic situation,
where the Russian State budget depends heavily on oil revenues, and the
Middle Ob region is still one of the most important oil producers in
the country. The new oilfields are explored by building main roads
along the rivers and then expanding in branches into the marshland
between the rivers. In this way oil development has reached even the
remotest parts of the taiga, putting high pressure on native
territories. Many people cannot withstand the economic, administrative
and psychological pressure of state and oil authorities and sign away
parts of their land for oil production. This usually results in
degradation of reindeer pasture, hunting and fishing grounds, and the
family’s reliance on different forms of material compensation from the
oil company. This also means that roads to the oilfields connect
natives with the existing towns and with the new emerging settlements
of oil workers. As a result, the frequent contacts between the natives
and oil workers are becoming unavoidable and both sides use
co-operation as well as conflict to achieve their economic and
community and movement
While Khanty and Forest Nenets are considered two different
communities, as they speak different languages which are only remotely
akin, their way of life is very similar. They have a long tradition of
interaction and intermarriage, in which interethnic exogamy was
regulated (Verbov 1936). They are also developing, under pressure from
newcomers, a common indigenous identity (Toulouze 2012) and will be
treated in this chapter mainly from this point of view. As mentioned,
their traditional way of life is characterised by semi-nomadic reindeer
herding, hunting and fishing. How much is this way of life currently
followed? It has certainly not disappeared. Even in the Soviet period
it existed marginally, and, despite the fact that the indigenous
population had been sedentarised, i.e. gathered into villages and
employed in collective farms (kolkhozes) for which they hunted, fished
or pastured reindeer, they did not entirely lose connection with the
nomadic way of life. Some individuals managed to leave the collective
farm and migrate on their own with their reindeer.(6)
After the breakdown of the Soviet economic and legal systems, numerous
indigenous households, while keeping their houses in the village, moved
back into their family’s territory in the forest as soon as it was
possible in order to live as the previous generations had. In 1996,
Yuri Vella even organised the delivery of 1000 reindeer from the Yamal
region to natives wishing to re-establish reindeer herding in the area.
This movement back to the forest was also encouraged by the villages’
situation in post-Soviet Russia: the kolkhozes collapsed, and thus most
of the villagers’ employment disappeared.
Living in the forest provides activity
motivation and is a more or less efficient antidote to the alcoholism
that is widespread in the villages: people have much to do not in order
to get money or social status, but merely in order to survive. One
needs to prepare the firewood, fetch water, and hunt and fish in order
to survive in the forest. Every activity has both motivation and
justification. Moreover, stores are scarce; vodka is less accessible
than in the villages. Often, people who are constantly drunk in the
village are sober in the forest. However, this is not an absolute rule;
it happens that frequent visitors bring vodka and alcoholism cannot be
totally avoided. Some families, older and younger, started modulating
their lives between the villages, where they have a house, where there
are shops, where the administration provided services, medical care and
a post office, and camps in the forest, which may be further than 100
km from the village. Movement between the villages and the ‘wild’ now
makes up double the traditional movement in the forest.
When people wish to move between the
and the camps, they must rely on their own transportation means.
Snowmobile penetration occurred in the late 1970s.(7) Since then,
have been used less and less for transportation. Snowmobiles, which
have also been provided by oil companies as compensation for drilling
on the natives’ territory, have become an appreciated commodity. Thus
they have become quite widespread in the region, and at the turn of the
millennium most natives owned snowmobiles. Notwithstanding this, moving
between villages and camps was quite an adventure. By snowmobile, it
could take several hours of driving in extreme cold and heavy wind
before a traveller reached his or her destination. It was even more
difficult before the mobile phone era began in Western Siberia
(Stammler 2009), for it was very complicated to organise logistics.
However, mobile phones came to the region in 2000; at the same time,
car use, which had started earlier, developed (Niglas 2011) allowing
more fluidity in movement between the village and the camp, and
conferring more flexibility to movement patterns.
The more traditional sort of movement of local indigenous people has
been described as typical of semi-nomadism (Khazanov 1994, 42): this
means that families have several camps in a relatively small territory
(approximately 20x20 km) and move between them according to seasons and
needs. They have a winter camp and a summer camp, today with several
log huts;(8) in addition, they may also use other more mobile dwelling
places. For example, in 1999 Yuri Vella had a balyk (a small house with
wheels) close to a corral one hour from the winter camp, and a choom
(conical tent) in which the family lived in spring, and which was set
close to the place where the reindeer calved (see Niglas 2003a).
Later on he replaced the tent with a light structure that was designed
by local art students: it had a platform that allowed observation of
the herd during the calving period from far enough away that the
reindeer were not disturbed and it could be moved to a new place with
the help of a tank-like all-terrain vehicle (Ru. vezdehod) (see also
Niglas 2011, 54). Movement between these seasonal camps is either on
foot, by ski, by dugout canoe, by snowmobile or by car.
When the natives make a seasonal change of camp, they move with
everything they need to live. When speaking in Russian, they use the
same term that tundra nomads have for their everyday migration (Ru.
kaslanie). Although the movement to a new camp is today done mainly by
car and has become faster and physically much easier than in the past,
when people travelled on reindeer sledges, it has still retained
psychological and emotional importance for those involved. Liivo has
documented the stressful but exciting process of loading the car,
driving and unloading everything in another camp several times on
video. According to Yuri Vella, moving the camp was always a joyful and
festive activity (Niglas 2014a;
see also Niglas 2003b).
Even when the natives are not changing
movement is part of their everyday life. Many households have some
reindeer, and despite most of the natives losing their herds during
collectivisation and sedentarisation, most of those who returned to
their ancestors’ territories started reindeer herding again. Forest
reindeer herding techniques depend on the season. In winter the
reindeer are supposed to come every day to a corral in the winter camp.
In the afternoons they go freely to the pasture the herder has oriented
them to and either come back in the morning or the herder goes and
fetches them. In summer, when mosquitoes torment man and beast, the
pasturing is mostly free: the reindeer look for food during the night
and then come ‘home’ again, because in the summer camp corral there is
a permanent smoke source that protects them from the insects.(9) After
mosquito period, pasturing is free. The reindeer choose the place for
the rut and the herder takes care that they are undisturbed. As soon as
the first snows fall, the herd is gathered and winter pasturing starts
Therefore, looking for reindeer,
their movement, is one of the everyday obligations of the herder, if he
wishes to keep in touch with his herd and not have it turn wild. A
skilled herder is supposed to know where his animals went during the
night and is usually able to find them in the morning. Usually this
tour is made on foot, but snowmobile or car may be used as well if
needed (see Niglas 2003c;
There are also other obligations that
movement in the forest: even though today shop food is widely present
as a source of native nutrition, they still hunt and fish. Hunting and
fishing are carried out mainly using different kinds of trap. Traps
must be set on animal paths or in rivers and lakes, and must be
checked. Some families, like Yuri Vella’s, do not hunt regularly.
Usually he shot a bird or a squirrel that might cross his path while
looking for reindeer. But in summer his family fishes regularly. It is
necessary to check and empty the fish traps every day or two.
points and their inhabitants
The fixed points are first of all, historically, the ‘national
villages’, which were created during the collectivisation process in
order to settle nomadic natives and use them as labour in collective
farms. In the Middle Ob region, the national villages were founded in
the 1930s, although the sedentarisation(10) process lasted much longer
(Forsyth 1992, 293‒299). The national villages have a population that
is mainly native, although the villages are often run by non-native
officials.(11) We have generally worked in the village of Varyogan,
was founded in the 1920s, and where a boarding school was opened in
1939(12) (Varyogan Secondary School). There were around 700 inhabitants
the village in 2010.
In general, the sedentary way of life is
as the antithesis of nomadic life. Clearly there are major differences
between the conditions in which the two exist that justify this kind of
dichotomy. However, this view also exists because of a certain ideology
that is cultivated sometimes consciously or unconsciously by the nomads
themselves. This ideology is usually fundamental in the negative
attitude towards the sedentary world (Khazanov 1994, 199). That is also
the case in the Middle Ob region: for many natives, the sedentary life
seems less fulfilling and harmonious than living in the forest.
However, this attitude does not prevent the Forest Nenets and Khanty
from enjoying the opportunities and conveyances of village life now and
then. Even those natives who live in the forest were officially
included in housing projects, and many reindeer herders received houses
or apartments in the villages. However, they did not move there
permanently, preferring to travel between the forest and the village
whenever needed. At the same time most of the native people who live
and work in villages have close ties to their nomadic relatives. We
agree with Elena Lyarskaya, who has proposed an interesting insight
into the Yamal region: while recognising that “life in the tundra and
life in the village are clearly distinguished and opposed”, she argues
that the Nenets society in Yamal is represented by a continuum and
cannot be separated into only tundra people and only village people
(Lyarskaya 2003, 269). This is a keen observation, the aim of which is
not to draw absolute lines where they do not exist and to acknowledge a
deeper fluidity between two opposite models as a way for Siberian
natives to adapt to the alien structures that have been imposed upon
them. However, while in Yamal most of the villages are still dominated
by Nenets (see Vallikivi, forthcoming), in the Middle Ob region
intensive oil exploitation has resulted in the development of various
kinds of settlement with an absolute majority of newcomers.
In our research area, the national
like islands of native populations, separated from each other by long
distances and numerous newcomer settlements. For example, the nearest
national village to Varyogan is Agan, situated 100 km down the river
Agan; to get there by car takes more than four hours. The closest small
town (Ru. poselok gorodskogo tipa), Novoagansk, is just 8 km away from
Varyogan; it was founded in 1966, and has around 10,000 inhabitants.
The closest bigger town (Ru. gorod) is Raduzhny; it was established in
1973 and has a population of 43,500. As these data show, the foundation
of these towns is quite recent and accompanies oil industry
development. The nearest non-native settlements that were founded
before the discovery of oil are the two largest cities in the region ‒
Surgut (est 1594) and Nizhnevartovsk (est 1909), both having more than
a quarter of a million inhabitants. While in Varyogan the population is
two thirds native (Khanty and Forest Nenets), in towns there are only
tiny percentages of indigenous people, the others being people
initially connected with oil industry and coming from elsewhere.
These ‘new’ people are more or less mobile and undoubtedly they are
migrants. Their mere presence is the result of a very decisive movement
that led these people to build their lives in an ecosystem very
different from the one from which they originated. They came with a
strong motivation, often (but not always) two-fold: firstly for money,
as salaries are higher in the North, in order to attract newcomers,
and, secondly, for adventure, for pioneering and to have the feeling of
achieving something. Usually, these people, mainly young men, came in
connection with oil industry work. The oil industry has been expanding
for about fifty years, and the massive migration and the multiplication
of families has demanded the creation and development of all kinds of
administrative service: industrial (construction, road building),
commercial (trade and distribution) and services (banking, insurance,
school, medicine, culture). Many of the inhabitants of these towns are
today no longer directly connected to the oil industry. The life they
lead in this environment is not so different from the life they left: a
sedentary, urban, modern life.
Not all of the newcomers are fully
First of all, those who are involved in the oil industry do not always
actually live in town. In Russia, long-distance commute labour or shift
work (Ru. vakhtoviki) is increasingly becoming a means of meeting the
need for labour in the expanding oil and gas industry. Both
intraregional shift workers who commute within their region, and
interregional workers who travel to the region from outside, are used
to exploiting the oil fields in Western Siberia (Eilmsteiner-Saxinger
2011; Spies 2009). Most of them are younger single men who live in
camps not far from the oil fields. They usually spend a month in camp
with quasi-military discipline and then go back to their homes “in the
South” for the same amount of time (Eilmsteiner-Saxinger 2011; Spies
2009).(13) This means that in addition to historical cities and
mono-industrial towns that were developed during the first oil boom
between the 1970s and 1990s, there are also shift-labour villages (Ru.
vakhtovoi posyolok) with the capacity of several thousand oil workers.
Clearly these workers are less attached to the land where they work,
for they keep a strong connection with their place of origin.
So, as a rule the natives and newcomers live in different environments.
Even most of the natives who are settled in villages have close ties
with the traditional way of life. At the same time, they have had very
little involvement with the oil industry. For a long time, the
‘newcomers’ ignored the natives because they were considered ‘wild
people’ who were a hindrance rather than an asset to the industrial
development of the region. Apparently, this attitude is changing and
many reindeer families have some family members working for oil
companies (Dudeck 2012, 97).
We already see that the forest, a
place for some and a place for work and entertainment for others, may
very well be a place for conflict relations between the two
communities. Oil production sites have been built not in compliance
with taiga logics, but according to industrial criteria. Production
sites are built where oil is found, and shift-workers’ villages where
it is convenient for people to go to work from. The needs of reindeer
and herders are ignored. Oil pumps may be just a few hundred meters
from a seasonal campsite. Contact between the natives and oil workers
in the forest are thus unavoidable, and in order to understand the
interrelations between the two groups, we must describe some of the
more typical situations in which their interaction takes place.
The initiative for meeting may come from either of the sides concerned.
For example, it can come when a newcomer visits a native in his camp,
which could be for different reasons. The newcomer may be lost in the
forest and happen to arrive at a native’s place. He will then stop,
enter the hut and be given the usual welcome a visitor, albeit
unexpected, is supposed to receive in a camp. He will be offered tea
and whatever eatables are available. News and comments will be
exchanged. Life in the tundra or in the taiga is pretty monotonous; any
unexpected visit is welcome indeed.
places are known it may happen that somebody passing by will decide to
make a stop and have a chat. They might for example ask whether they
can buy reindeer meat. Individual relations exist and are often quite
friendly. The usual racism of newcomers (see below) is not actualised
in the presence of a real person, and every native family has a network
of superficial acquaintances, with which they exchange slight services
and mutual help.
At Yuri Vella’s camps visits
were much more frequent than the average: Yuri Vella was a well-known
personality and he was consulted by very different kinds of people. As
an example, in winter 1999 in the course of three weeks that Eva spent
in his camp, Yuri Vella was visited by a filmmaker, the head of a
nature park looking for advice on reindeer herding, and entrepreneurs
who were trying to sell biological toilets to people living in the
Willing meetings can also happen when a
native goes to an oil production site. These sites have become places
in which problems connected with what both the natives and the
newcomers call ‘civilisation’ may be solved. Different kinds of people
and professions are concentrated on these sites: drivers and mechanics,
welders and metal workers, geologists and engineers, etc.
The presence of oil industry
allowed the spread of modern technology in the reindeer herders’ camps.
Most families have electricity generators and can use various
electronic devices as well as other modern tools in their everyday
life. In Yuri Vella’s camps there are electric ovens, televisions,
video recorders, computers, water pumps and mobile phones, not to
mention chain saws, snowmobiles and cars. Some of these devices are
easy to repair in the camp but sometimes more specific skills and tools
are needed, and those are often available at some bigger oil site.
These oil sites are also urban culture representatives ‘in the wild’ in
other ways. There are refectories where everybody can buy a meal and
some basic groceries. Yuri Vella visited these refectories almost every
time he drove past one in order to have a Russian style lunch and to
buy biscuits, cakes, chicken, sweets and other food that would
introduce variety into the everyday diet.
As Yuri Vella and other natives use
electricity generators and other fuel consuming technology, they have
to find ways to obtain petrol without driving long distances to a
filling station in a town. Since the beginning of the 1990s, when the
regional parliament approved the law about family territories, the oil
industry has been compelled to ask for the natives’ approval to extract
oil on their territory. In exchange, the companies are supposed to sign
“economic agreements” (Ru. ekonomicheskie soglashenia) and compensate
the loss of reindeer pastures and fishing and hunting grounds. Apart
from money, goods and different services, this compensation usually
includes petrol. In this way, many natives get the opportunity to use
generators, snowmobiles and cars – but they have also become more and
more dependent on petrol. Compensation tends only to be paid to those
natives who are docile and do not cause too much trouble. As Yuri Vella
was actively trying to discipline Lukoil to change its working ethics
towards the natives and towards nature, the company stopped fulfilling
the economic agreement and Yuri Vella had to find other local sources
of fuel. He either had to drive to a filling station in the nearest
town or buy it from oil workers, who had obtained it illegally from
their company (see Niglas 2011, 47). So, the native population may
visit these oil sites and oil workers’ towns to get fuel or to
negotiate the economic agreements with representatives of the oil
Difficulties of coexistence
Meetings between reindeer herders and oil workers often result in
conflict. For ethnic Russians and for those who have assimilated
Russian culture into their everyday life, the forest is a location of
recreational activities and entertainment. Therefore, it often happens
that natives meet oil workers in the forest when these people are
either hunting, fishing, picking mushrooms or simply relaxing in
nature, i.e. drinking. These meetings are potential sources of
confrontation because the presence of strangers in the forest can be
highly damaging for indigenous people and for their reindeer. For most
of the newcomers the forest is a world unknown, even hostile, something
of an antithesis to life in the towns. It is certainly not a civilised
place that compels one to be responsible and to think about the
consequences of one’s actions. As they have no direct impact on the
newcomers’ lives, the rules of safety as well as of respectful
behaviour are generally ignored.
The main danger for the forest, and for
who depend on it, is fire. Dry summers increase the danger of forest
fires, which can destroy huge parts of the woods and reindeer pasture.
Lightning may cause fires, but people who do not extinguish their
campfire before leaving, or throw their burning cigarette butts onto
dry moss, can also cause them. According to Yuri Vella, that is what
had happened repeatedly on his territory: after strangers fished,
hunted or worked in certain parts of the forest, fire started there.
How dreadful forest fires can be for the lives of people became clear
in 2011, when lightning started a forest fire that destroyed one of
Yuri Vella’s camps and the family lost most of their winter clothes and
many household items along with the entire VHS archive that Yuri had
collected over decades.
A further danger for the forest and
also the habit of leaving trash in the forest. When walking on the
forest roads of Yuri Vella’s territory one can see empty beer cans and
bottles almost everywhere. Campsites that oil workers use for fishing,
hunting or mushroom picking are literally littered with garbage that
leaves no doubt about the role of alcohol in those recreational
activities. For example, in August 2005, after having spent a couple of
days at a Khanty camp in the Pim River basin, Eva and her companions
cleaned the forest of dozens of empty vodka bottles that had been left
there during the two previous weeks. The garbage left behind in the
forest is not only unpleasant for the eye but also dangerous for
reindeer as they might harm their legs by stepping on broken bottles
and beer cans with sharp edges. That is also the case with waste that
oil companies have left in the forest in the course of their industrial
activities: broken wires, pieces of iron sheeting, toxic materials and
oil pollution pose a serious threat to the reindeer (see Niglas 2003d).
Figure 2. Pim
River taiga, Estonian poetess Kristiina Ehin and Khanty linguist
Agrafena Pesikova clean the forest near Pesikova’s camp, gathering
empty bottles left in the forest in 2005.
The increasing number of people who move around in the forest either
for work or for entertainment threatens the security of the reindeer.
All reindeer, although they move unchecked in the wild, belong to
someone. They are domesticated animals, as cows and sheep are. But
while it would be unconceivable for an ordinary person to shoot a cow,
reindeer are treated as game animals in the taiga. This situation was
especially bad in the early 1990s, when oil workers shot reindeer from
helicopters in the Varyogan area. This triggered native action: the
Khanty and Forest Nenets blocked a road used by oil workers, called the
press and protested against the danger their herds were exposed to.
While in recent years this kind of attack has ceased, it is still
dangerous for reindeer to move too close to oil sites.
Another danger for the reindeer is being
disturbed by the presence of strangers in the forest. Reindeers are
easily frightened. Even the noise of a passing car or a gunshot can
make them scatter and run. Dogs, brought to the forest by oil workers,
are also dangerous to the herd as they usually start chasing a reindeer
whenever they see one, not to mention the harm the packs of stray dogs
that have been left behind in the forest by their owners can do to the
herd. A frightened reindeer runs away and can become isolated from the
rest of the herd for a long time. A single reindeer is much easier prey
for beasts and poachers, and a herder can lose several reindeer this
way every year.
The herd is especially vulnerable to
disturbance during the time of the rut. For the reindeer, the rut is
very limited in time. Many females accept males for only a few hours a
year. It is thus important for the herder to make sure that his
reindeer are not disturbed during this crucial moment if he wants his
herd to reproduce. The reindeer rut usually happens in late September
and early October. This autumn period is also very good for hunting.
Hunting is considered one of the privileges of people who are compelled
to work so far from the pleasures of the city, and the oil companies
have their own hunting societies. The regional authorities provide
these societies with hunting grounds that sometimes correspond to areas
where native people pasture their reindeer. When oil workers go hunting
they usually use heavy transportation and dogs. If they pass rutting
reindeer, it is very much to be expected that the herd’s reproduction
will be a failure. The rutting grounds of one of Yuri Vella’s herds was
on land that was simultaneously his family territory and a hunting area
for the Lukoil hunting society. He expresses his anguish in a poem:
But the Land of Love
all must be peaceful
one must hear
the newborn children
the deer calves,
the peace must be guarded
the car exhaust pipes,
the barking of dogs,
marksmanship over emptied bottles,
forest fires from the hunters’
fishermen’s fires –
is the hunting ground
the LUKOIL Company.
with the opening of the autumn hunting season,
their Love time,
for the drilling of oil and gas,
for the strengthening of the state,
for the prospering of the people,
the ranging of guns,
the training of dogs,
the testing of snowmobiles,
picking mushrooms and berries,
the fishermen’s fires,
enlightening the children
‘national hunting’ [...]
The movement of newcomers in the forest can also be dangerous for
forest dwellers for a reason that may be summed up by the word
‘vandalism’. Oil workers who are hunting or working in the forest might
come upon a hut, a storehouse, a fish trap or a dugout boat. All these
objects are someone’s property; somebody has made them and uses them,
even if they are just left unprotected in the forest. According to the
forest rules, the use of these items in the absence of the owner is
natural. When natives leave their camp, they usually leave some
firewood in the hut, to allow anybody who passes by to make tea or to
stay overnight, if needed. But this taiga hospitality, where nothing is
locked up, is thoroughly unknown to people accustomed to a westernised
urban culture in which it is natural to protect ownership. When there
is no clear hint that property is protected, a sign is given that there
is no need to respect the ownership. All over the taiga, natives have
had the sad experience of finding their stores and cabins vandalised,
their canoes burnt, instruments and furs stolen.(14) For example, twenty
years ago someone burned down Yuri Vella’s hunting cabin.
There are even worse transgressions by
workers, at least from the symbolic point of view. Destroying graves is
unacceptable in every culture, no less so in Russian culture than in
the native culture. Nevertheless, desecration of graves is often
observed in the northern areas. Many graves have been destroyed in
order to make way for industrial development in the region. Often a
native clan cemetery is turned into a sand quarry or into new
settlements, as it is usually located on high and dry ground between
marshlands. For example, the towns of Novoagansk and Raduzhnyi are both
partly built on the cemeteries of the Aipin clan. But there are also
many examples of cemeteries being destroyed for no obvious reason. Is
it because native cemeteries look different from the Christian ones,
and therefore are not recognised as places deserving respect? Yuri
Vella has written a strong text about his experience when visiting one
of these desecrated cemeteries:
what reason? Yesterday I was passing by the clan cemetery of the Aipin.
What I saw beats any reasonable explanation. The majority of graves are
dug up. These are not the traces of animal claws, they are traces of
spades, used by human beings. What were they looking for here? Why? The
hidden treasures they didn’t find in the storage huts at the sacred
grove? [...] Here lies the discarded rotten boot of the singer
Shchimka. One can see a piece of bone – perhaps, the former foot? Is it
the one he mangled once when, in his youth, he was bringing the fish
train to Surgut, after the war? And the neighbouring grave of Аyzer,
plundered as well? Here are the traces of the fireplace somebody had
arranged. Two sticks and a kettle with a hole, put on a horizontal
stick, swinging like a pendulum. And inside, a white skull. What on
earth does this mean, o you people! By instinct, I close my eyes
imagining. Here I lie, at the end of the cemetery, dug out by some
hooligan. And a curious and gnarled unfinished thought scratches into
my weather-beaten skull: What have I done to you?(15) (Vella 2008,
Apart from cemeteries, which are also clearly distinguished as such by
newcomers, there are other parts of the sacred landscape that oil
workers destroy without even knowing it. Even ordinary places in the
forest, which for newcomers appear empty, can be of the highest
significance for natives. For example, Liivo filmed Yuri explaining at
the oil company’s truck depot where he went to get his things repaired
that the depot was built on the site where his grandmother’s aunt was
buried. It is kind of surreal to watch Yuri explaining the whereabouts
of the grave, using an oil pump and a filling station as reference
points, and then talking about casual issues with the oil worker who
has no idea what sort of meaning his working place has for the native (Niglas 2014c).
Another important source of conflict between reindeer herders and oil
workers is the destruction of sacred places where natives worship their
gods. Travelling to the sacred place and gathering there for animal
sacrifices is an important aspect of the social interaction inside a
community and is mirrored in the spiritual communication with the deity
who protects that community (Dudeck 2012, 96). Unfortunately, these
important communal sites are under great pressure from the oil
industry: like the cemeteries, sacred places are usually situated on
elevated and dry locations, which makes them ideal for sand quarries
and for other industrial development. The main sacred place close to
Yuri’s camps has been completely destroyed: now there is the oil
workers’ village of Povkh.
There is a still-functioning communal
place not far from Yuri’s autumn camp, where he sometimes performed
rituals. It is a sacred place on top of a hill, overlooking the
marshland and the Vatyogan River. According to Yuri, there were many
reindeer antlers and skins hanging on the trees in the 1980s as the
local Forest Nenets and Khanty visited it often to make sacrifices and
offerings. But in 2009, we could see only a few very recent ones on
trees. Yuri accused the oil workers of removing them. Yuri also said
that the oil workers have desecrated the place in other ways, too: they
used to drive their heavy trucks over the hill, and he also showed us a
metal pole that was planted on the hill top as geodesic mark. Showing
us the geodesic pole, Yuri made a remark that the oil workers would
never think of doing the same in a church (Toulouze & Niglas
146‒151; see Niglas 2014d).
There must be some reasons for behaviour that seems extreme and does
not fit with the image of the civilised people the oil workers are
supposed to be. We have already mentioned the ignorance of rules of
proper conduct in the ecological and cultural system that is new for
people coming mostly from urban and Western settings.
Alcohol is certainly one possible
reason, or at
least cause of such mischief. It is important to understand that for
newcomers the forest is an environment full of ambiguity. It is
attractive as a place for recreation and entertainment, but at the same
time it is frightening: the forest is something exceptional, it is an
environment that is non-domesticated. In 2005, the Russian truck driver
who gave Eva and her companions a lift to Lyantor commented: “Of
course, the forest is frightening. One has to drink.” So, the forest is
relaxing, exciting, and also frightening, and in order to feel
comfortable one has to drink.(17) As the forest is beyond the ordinary
environment, visitors do not feel any responsibility towards it. But
alcohol consumption could also explain the actions of ordinary people,
who would not carry out these actions in their own environment, being
Probably the main reason lies not so much in the newcomers’ love
of alcohol and in their ignorance of decent behaviour in the forest,
but in their lack of willingness to understand this new environment and
While earlier newcomers, who arrived in
region individually in different periods from the Tsarist era to the
1920s and 1930s, tried to merge into the local society by learning the
new rules and in many cases even languages, those who came here during
the oil boom arrived in completely different conditions. They migrated
in massive numbers, bringing habits and values from the world from
which they originated. Instead of revising them according to the new
environment, they imposed their own preconceived worldview. The
imported world they live in has very little to do with the new location
of their life. Their values are confirmed by their community, which
lives in a world of its own. They have no wish to change their habits
and ideas. It is a comfort to rely on well-known ideas, especially when
one is convinced of their superiority, rooted in instinctive racism.
Racism towards native people is a general feature of Russia (see Pika
1999; Gray 2004, 95, 150, 204; Rethmann 2001; Bloch 2003, 143; Xanthaki
2004), even though it is often not backed by acknowledged awareness. It
relies on a clear evolutionist understanding of culture, whose roots
are deep in Soviet positivism and materialism. There is a universal
scale of culture, of ‘civilisation’, according to which communities are
judged and positioned.
The notion of ‘culture’ (Ru. kul‘tura)
‘civilisation’ (Ru. tsivilizatsiya) is a central one in Russia’s
ideological landscape, as Bruce Grant and Alexander D. King emphasise
(Grant 1995, 15‒16; King 2011). The concept of culture has two
different but interlinked meanings. On one hand, culture stands for
everything that is peculiar to a specific ethnic group, as in the
understanding that ‘every people has its own culture’; on the other
hand, culture is seen as a universal attribute of humanity (King 2011,
71, 115‒116; Grant 1995, 16). We would like to insist upon this
universalistic understanding of culture as being a crucial notion in
the North. ‘Culture’ and ‘civilisation’ are absolute notions(18) that
denote the higher step on the evolutionary ladder of different forms of
culture. They are opposed to primitiveness, backwardness, which is at
the bottom of the ladder. The features that characterise civilisation
are manifold: upbringing with school and written culture, urban ways of
living, integration of progress and the refinement that is supposed to
go with it. It may also be Christianity versus animism. Anything seen
as archaic or primitive is considered as lower in the universal scale
of values. The indigenous peoples are primitive and thus at the bottom
of the scale. Moreover, they have themselves interiorised this category
(Toulouze & Niglas 2012, 139). What is usually outside the
awareness of the people who use these categories, is that what they
consider to be a universal rule is actually the pre-eminence of one
form of culture, more precisely Russian (cf Vallikivi, forthcoming).
Native adaptation strategies
natives respond to the presence of oil workers in the forest by
implementing different strategies to protect them from conscious or
unconscious aggression. They try to find ways to co-exist more or less
peacefully with the newcomers, as it is not realistically possible to
get rid of them.
One way of doing this is to attempt to
more control over land. The natives’ concept of land ownership is much
more flexible and more fluid than in the West. In Western thinking a
formal land title and rigid borders define ownership of the land, which
is then enforced by a legal system. However, in order to control the
usage of land and resources, and to provide for the transfer of land
rights between generations, an indigenous society usually relies on
oral records and communal understanding. Thus, there was no need to
delineate the borders of family territories. The arrival of oil workers
close to reindeer herders’ camps introduced the necessity to mark
clearly the boundary between the reindeer pasture and the rest of the
forest. Oil workers tend to consider the forest just as a kind of no
man’s land and feel free to drive wherever possible. One of the
natives’ strategies to prevent outsiders from entering their
territories and so avoid contact with them is to delimit their
territory with the help of road signs, written warnings and gates. Many
reindeer owning families have also erected wooden fences to isolate
their territory. Yuri Vella himself built several kilometres of fence.
The main aim is not so much to keep outsiders out – it is quite easy to
open the gate and to get in –, rather it is to keep the reindeer in.
Thus, reindeer should not be tempted to go wandering towards the oil
sites, putting their lives in peril.
“Native camp, entrance prohibited”: the entrance to the camp of Boris
Ayvaseda, a Forest Nenets reindeer herder, nearby Yuri Vella’s camp in
Actually, speaking about ‘the natives’ territory’ is somewhat
misleading. In Russia, indigenous minorities do not have property
rights for the territories on which they live. They are allowed to use
the land for free, but they cannot own it. They have no rights on the
subsoil and for the raw material it contains, although they may use the
surface area for traditional activities like hunting, fishing and
herding. The majority of the landmass in Russia, including the
territories of traditional natural resource use, is owned by the
Russian Government (Yakovleva 2011, 9‒10). In the Khanty-Mansi
autonomous region the natives were granted the right to use their
ancestral territories in 1992. The territories, called ‘kinship
territories’ (Ru. rodovye ugodja) are officially confirmed to families
wishing to lead a traditional way of life and have clearly determined
Apart from using different ways of demarking the borders of their land,
some reindeer herders have convinced the oil companies to construct
physical barriers, like metal gates and ditches that make entering
their family territories very difficult (Dudeck 2012). Sometimes oil
companies use the argument of protecting reindeer herders from
outsiders in order to demonstrate their capability of controlling the
natives’ movements in the forest. For example, Yuri Vella discovered
one day that he could not drive to his autumn pasture on the Vatyogan
River as someone had erected a metal barrier on the road. The barrier
was locked and it had a sign attached to it with the information that
the key could be found in Yuri Vella’s camp. According to Yuri, it was
deliberate attempt to cause mistrust inside a local community as the
barrier also blocked the way to an important sacred place that native
people used for rituals. The natives’ movement in the forest may also
be controlled by checkpoints that oil companies have established on the
roads to oil fields. Officially the checkpoints are there to protect
oilfields and natives from outside threats like alcoholics, poachers
and vandals, but quite often the companies’ security guards make it
hard for natives or their visitors to enter the forest.
Figure 4. The fence
built by Yuri Vella and his wife around the kinship territory to
protect his reindeer in 2009.
Figure 5. Metal
barrier as a border to native territory on the Vatyogan River, 2009.
There is another, more active way of protecting the family territory
and the herd – chasing the trespassers out from the reindeer pastures,
although not all natives have enough determination and skill to do
this. One of those who was quite successful in this was Yuri Vella.
Yuri insisted on catching the strangers who had entered his territory
for hunting or fishing trips and teaching them a lesson. Lesson
teaching did not naturally encompass either physical retaliation or
brutal action, but was achieved with words – a means that Vella was
probably much more skilled at using against Russians than most of the
natives in the area. Vella tried to catch the people who circulated
unduly on his lands, to identify them and to threaten them with
denunciation to their bosses and to other authorities. This practise
sometimes involved a nerve-racking car chase, skilful verbal attacks
and a great deal of bluffing (see Niglas
However, this strategy, which is based on a kind of conflict behaviour,
can be dangerous for the natives. The trespassers may have guns and may
be intoxicated, and hence unaccountable. In fact, we do not know anyone
other than Yuri Vella who uses it systematically to keep outsiders
away. Thus, we can consider that this practice is not used very often
among the reindeer herders in the region.
The best strategy to protect the
the region is active herding. In the forest, the herds are much smaller
than in the tundra, where they can contain thousands of domestic
reindeers. Some Forest Nenets and Eastern Khantys have herds with as
few as 20 animals, while others have bigger herds, up to a couple of
hundred animals. The small size of herds allows the herder to better
protect his reindeer through close contact with his animals. Usually
herders want to check their herd every day, either by visiting them in
the forest, especially during the times of rutting and calving, or
luring them home with the help of smoke in summer and treats like dry
bread and salty fish soup in winter.
Yuri Vella tried to have contact with
as often as possible, and was therefore constantly looking for them in
the forest, either on foot, by snowmobile or by car (see Niglas 2014b; 2003c).
Being close to his reindeer helped him to discover the disappearance of
animals from the herd early on, so he could find them before they ended
up in the vicinity of oil sites and were killed there by oil workers.
It also prevented the reindeer from turning wild. That is what happened
with Vella’s younger neighbours: they did not take enough care of their
reindeer, mostly due to alcohol, and their big herd became so wild that
the herders had to shoot deer in order to get meat. This herd has now
scattered and is no more.
Active herding means being close to the reindeer and getting them used
to human presence. Yuri Vella among his herd in February 1999.
Another method to maintain a sustainable way of life in the forest is
to negotiate with oil workers, to develop contacts with them and to
convince them to remove the elements in their policy that disturb the
natives most. As oil companies and regional authorities have promised
that the natives’ territories would remain free of outsiders, herders
may rely on this promise to protest when they have proof that it has
not been respected. Negotiations between the two groups have developed
in the last decades as the law on family territories has compelled the
oil companies to address personally the natives in order to receive
their agreement to oil drilling on their land. Further, the need to
sign “economic agreements” has led to closer discussions between the
natives and the oil workers.
are unequal and difficult for the natives: the company and state
representatives are masters in rhetoric and, moreover, speak in their
mother tongue, while the native’s culture gives a secondary place to
verbal communication and they speak a language in which they are not so
proficient. Often negotiation is not favourable to the natives, who
sign whatever the company wants them to sign. It also happens,
especially in the case of negotiations with the state, that an
agreement has been reached but the next administrative level’s
requirement is not fulfilled, and the agreement may never be confirmed
and implemented. For example, according to Yuri, in 1996 an agreement
was reached between the heads of families and the local administration
about the borders of the land allotted to each family. The natives were
satisfied and considered that the measure was implemented. But this
agreement was never confirmed at a higher level and, in fact, some
months later a letter from the governor ascribed the same land to
Lukoil’s hunting society. The natives were not informed of this: Yuri
Vella found out about it more than 10 years later, in 2009. So
negotiations are important, but people have no illusions about them.
Letter from the Governor of the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region,
Aleksandr Filipenko, entrusting the Vatyogan area to Lukoil’s hunting
A new kind of symbiosis
Nonetheless, negotiation and cooperation seems to be the only way to
survive. Actually, the natives are those who are most in need of
negotiation because they have no real strength to oppose the newcomers.
In the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region, the indigenous population
represents, according to the 2010 census, around 1% of the population.
It is clearly not a percentage that allows much hope in terms of power
struggle. Moreover, the natives do not fight the intruders actively.
First of all, they are accustomed to avoiding conflicts, and secondly,
they know that if they would dare to, it would be an easy task for oil
companies to squash them. In 2000, when Yuri Vella attempted to prevent
Lukoil from destroying a bridge that was vital to his movement between
his camp and the village of Varyogan by cutting the bulldozer’s tyres
with an axe, the result was a lawsuit, which Vella lost.
It seems that the key for natives to
sustainable life in the forest it is to take an active part in
negotiations and to try to have access to the goods and services that
can be offered by oil workers. But what does this mean in practice?
An idealistic vision would perhaps be
that of a
forest without oil workers. But the reality is that they are there, and
that they have brought with them a world that cannot be undone. In this
way, new needs have been created for reindeer herders that only oil
workers are capable of fulfilling. These needs have been partly created
by oil workers, but they come also, more generally speaking, from the
wish to live a life in the forest that has some aspects of modern
comfort. Modern life demands energy, which is produced from the oil
that the newcomers extract from the forest. Fuel is used for cars and
snowmobiles, and for electricity generators. Electricity is needed in
order to have light in the evening and during the long winter darkness,
to charge mobile phones and computer batteries, to watch films or
television, to pump water for the sauna, to bake bread in an electric
oven, etc. Today, all natives in the forest have a crucial need for
Figure 8. An
electricity generator in Yuri Vella’s winter camp, 1999.
Figure 9. Liivo
Niglas and Yuri Vella after the purchase of oil, 2009.
The natives also have a need for technical help, as mentioned earlier.
Many modern tools, such as cars, snowmobiles and electrical instruments
cannot be repaired in the reindeer herders’ camp, they have to be
brought to a place where proper tools and technical skills are
available. So, the natives have to go either to a nearby town or to an
oil site. Sometimes, they even may need to use heavy transportation.
For example, when they want to move a log house to another place, they
need a truck to transport all the pieces it is composed of. During the
Soviet period, Vella decided to bring different kinds of cabin and
storage house from abandoned campsites in the forest to the village of
Varyogan in order to make an open-air museum there. He was able to do
that thanks to the oil companies’ cooperation.
Figure 10. Iron
stoves in Yuri Vella’s car ready to be taken to Lukoil’s site, 2009.
But what can the natives offer the oil workers? Obviously, the oil
companies are interested in native signatures on land use contracts for
oil exploitation. Is there anything else that could interest the
newcomers, such as they are? First of all, the natives can offer
symbolic assistance. They may give shelter. After all, that is what
they would do to anybody passing through the forest, and today the
people more frequently lost are indeed newcomers looking for oil sites.
The natives also have skills and knowledge that can powerfully
contribute to the newcomers’ understanding and management of the forest
environment. Unfortunately, these skills are usually not recognised.
Being humans ‘at the bottom of the civilisation ladder’, their
knowledge is too often dismissed as unscientific.(20) Yuri Vella said
he repeatedly proposed helping Lukoil to work out a plan for how to
exploit oil in his territory in a way that was ecologically sustainable
and had little impact on reindeer. Yuri believed that his model, which
was based on his intimate knowledge of the forest ecosystem and the
needs of the reindeer, could have served as a model for other oil
companies in order to change their environmentally disastrous policies.
There are even more practical and
fields for cooperation. What the natives have, and the newcomers are
interested in, is connected with the traditional way of life. The
natives are the only ones to have reindeer. While a reindeer meat
market is still not organised in the region,(21) oil workers and other
newcomers might be more interested in buying or exchanging meat with
the natives, instead of obtaining it illegally by killing a lost
reindeer near an oil site. The other commodity natives have is
connected to recreational activities in the forest. The oil workers’
hunting, fishing, berry picking and mushroom gathering could be
coordinated and agreed with the natives, if a proper relation system
between the two parties were to be established: instead of entering to
the natives’ territory without their permission and disturbing the
herd, the oil workers could be welcomed to the areas where reindeer
were not present at that moment. There could be basis for negotiation
and cooperation that would eliminate some of the potentialities for
everyday conflict between natives and oil workers.
Neither of the two sides is really
in confrontation. Oil workers at all levels are mainly interested in
working, living and relaxing without any hindrance. From the natives’
perspective, the main problem of course is the oil production that
competes for land with reindeer herding. But they know that this cannot
be solved according to their wishes: oil is so vital for Russia’s
economy that to expect any compromise on this point would be extremely
naive. Yet other sources of conflict could be avoided through dialogue:
at the moment, the oil workers work, live and relax without taking into
account the interests of other people living in the area. Better
coordination between natives and oil workers could make things easier
for both sides.
What is the state of the dialogue at the
On the one hand, relations with the oil companies as institutions are
tense in our fieldwork region. The companies’ attempt to keep the local
population under thorough control has led to conflict, especially in
Yuri Vella’s case. Yuri was a skilled and active fighter for his rights
demonstrating that sometimes there is no other option to protect
natives’ interests than to engage in an open conflict with the oil
industry. Yuri Vella had a long confrontation with Lukoil that lasted
for almost 20 years ‒ from the time the oil company decided to stop
fulfilling the economic agreement in mid 1990s, as a reaction to Yuri’s
demands for environmentally responsible oil production, to the very end
of his life in 2013. He was quite successful in this fight and proved
that a native person can withstand the economic and political pressure
from a giant oil company and state authorities, while maintaining a
sustainable way of life in the forest. Yuri Vella’s neighbours had
slightly better relations with Lukoil, but at a price: some of the
neighbours have yielded large parts of their family territory to oil
exploitation and are experiencing a serious impact on reindeer herding
and other subsistence activities. Recent developments in the region
testify that there are other natives who have decided to put up a
serious fight with oil companies in order to save their traditional way
of life in the forest. Some have gone even as far as challenging the
state authorities with the fact that they have the legal right to
self-determination (Borodyansky 2014).
However, ‘official’ relations are not
everything. The big bosses of oil companies sit in city offices and are
almost never seen. In the field, relations are characterised by
compromise and dialogue, sometimes peppered up by occasional conflicts.
People meet, and stereotyped relations become more personalised. The
relations Yuri Vella developed with the head of a Lukoil transport unit
close to his camp offers a good example. Vella allowed him to hunt on
his family territory and sometimes provided him with reindeer meat. In
return, he helped Yuri Vella when needed. When Vella brought him his
old iron stoves to be welded, there was a very interesting dialogue
between the two men that illustrates eloquently the relations between
the two groups of people that have to find ways to co-exist in the
forest: they looked like antagonists and accomplices, and playfully
embodied the ‘civilised’ and the ‘native’. But behind the words was a
hint of friendship, mutual understanding and a long experience in
dialogue (for details, see also Niglas 2011, 46; 2014c).
Figure 11. A bridge vital to the natives, destroyed on the orders of Lukoil. September 2000.
The natives living in the Pim, Agan and Tromagan river basins cannot
use their traditional strategy of avoidance of outsiders when it comes
to finding ways of co-existing with oil workers. Unlike the fully
nomadic Tundra Nenets, who can avoid disturbed and degraded areas by
changing their migration routes, the semi-nomadic Forest Nenets and
Eastern Khanty have no option of keeping away from the areas of
intensive oil production. Thus, they have to find specific ways in
which they can adapt their way of life as reindeer herders and hunters
to the world of oil extraction, migrant workers and energy dependence.
In doing so, the native communities have to consider the needs of their
members and the specific opportunities and limitations offered by the
wider economic and political environment.
In the relations between oil workers and
indigenous population that live on the same land, there are always
multiple levels. As far as the regional authorities are concerned, they
naturally express support to both sides. The oil industry is the
backbone in the regional authorities’ relations with federal power, so
it is vital for the local administration to give it as much support as
required. At the same time, the regional and state authorities have the
moral duty to support the indigenous people living on its territory,
and in discourse they do so. But clearly, what is at stake is too big
for the interests of the natives to be really protected.
On the other hand, relations between oil
companies and the population are even more complicated. It is a
well-known fact that the oil industry disrupts the ecological balance
in the forest and that this is a huge disturbance for the indigenous
population, whose living environment and resources are damaged.
However, the consequences of the oil industry on natives’ lives reach
further: there is also the human aspect. People from all over Russia
and the former Soviet Union have migrated to these areas, of their own
volition and also to accomplish tasks useful to their countries (and to
their families). They arrive with their own needs, their own habits and
their own worldview. As little as the indigenous population likes their
presence, they are a reality and cannot be ignored. The northern
aborigines are pragmatic: they know that in order to survive they must
find a way to live with the nuisances that accompany the presence of
outsiders in the forest and to lessen them as much as possible. They
have adapted and built their lives on relations with newcomers, often
using both conflict and cooperation to maintain their traditional way
of life in the forest. As a result, a kind of accidental symbiosis has
emerged, based on dependence relations. We have tried in this chapter
to explicate the conditions and the outcome of this symbiosis. The main
concern in the chapter is that the dependence is rather unilateral.
We hope that the video clips that are
in the electronic version of the chapter help the reader to remember
that what we have presented here is a part of the everyday existence of
real people, both natives and oil workers. In Yuri Vella’s case, these
video recordings are also a testimony to a great man: a reindeer
herder, a poet and a social activist who is no longer among us.
Fieldwork was conducted in the
Eastern Khanty and Forest Nenets regions, Russia, 1999–2009. Materials
at the authors’ disposal.
All video clips are available in the electronic version of the chapter,
Niglas 2003a = Niglas, Liivo (2003a) Tshumm. In: Juri Vella maailm [Yuri Vella’s World].
Niglas 2003b = Niglas, Liivo (2003b) Moving camps. In: Juri Vella maailm [Yuri Vella’s World].
Niglas 2003c = Niglas, Liivo (2003c) Herding by foot and snowmobile.
In: Juri Vella maailm
[Yuri Vella’s World].
Niglas 2003d = Niglas, Liivo (2003d)
Pollution. In: Juri
Vella maailm [Yuri
Niglas 2014a = Niglas, Liivo (2014a) Moving Camp.
Niglas 2014b = Niglas, Liivo (2014b) Herding by Car.
Niglas 2014c = Niglas, Liivo (2014c) At the Oil Site.
Niglas 2014d = Niglas, Liivo (2014d) On the Sacred Hill.
Niglas 2014e = Niglas, Liivo (2014e) Car Chase I.
Niglas 2014f = Niglas, Liivo (2014f) Car Chase II.
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Brigaad [The Brigade] (2000)
directed by Liivo Niglas. 57 min. F-Seitse.
Vella maailm [Yuri
Vella's World] (2003) directed by Liivo Niglas. 58 min.
natsional‘noi okhoty [Особенности национальной охоты] [Peculiarities of
the National Hunt] (1995), directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Film
Osobennosti natsional‘noi okhoty v zimnii period [Особенности национальной охоты в зимний период] [Peculiarities of the Russian Hunt in the Winter] (2001), directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Film Company Ursus-Film.
natsional‘noi rybalki [Особенности национальной рыбалки] [Peculiarities
of the National Fishing] (1998), directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Film
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Sources of illustrations
Figure 2 – Photo: Eva Toulouze,
3, 4 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 23 July 2009.
5, 10 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 30 July 2009.
6 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, February 1999.
7 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 31 July 2009.
8 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, March 1999.
9 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 1 August 2009.
11 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 14 September 2000.
research was supported by the Estonian Ministry of Education and
Research (PUT590), and the European Union through the European Regional
Development Fund (Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory).
Oil worker (Ru. neftjanniki) is an overarching term that embraces all
people who are connected with the oil industry, from ordinary workers
to heads of the oil companies, including drillers, drivers, office
workers and also their families. Actually the oil workers are those
who, according to Yuri Vella, behave as no native would. As a matter of
fact, there are no other non-native people in the area besides the oil
‘Russian’ here is not a purely ethnic term: it covers a diverse
community of workers who are united by Russian as a lingua franca and a
Russian or Soviet way of life, and are of different origins – from
Russia and the former Soviet Union (Vallikivi, forthcoming).
For more details, see Juri Vella homepage (Internet sources).
There are interesting parallels between the medieval fur trade and
today’s oil and gas industry in Russia. Alexander Etkind has
demonstrated that “the same geographical areas that fed the fur trade
of medieval Novgorod and Moscow have provided the Soviet Union and
post-Soviet Russia with their means for existence. The oil and gas
fields of Western Siberia have been found in those very spaces that the
greedy sons of Novgorod colonized for fur trade with the Iugra, Hanty,
Mansi, and others […] The main consumers of Russian gas and oil are
also located in many of those same places, from Hamburg to London,
which consumed Russian fur” (Etkind 2011, 170).
Yamal has done surprisingly well compared with many other northern
regions in post-Soviet Russia: some regions experienced almost total
collapse in reindeer herding after the demise of the Soviet Union
(Forbes et al 2009). Igor Krupnik has labelled the crisis the “great
reindeer crash” (Krupnik 2000).
Oysya Yussi, for example, left as soon as 1953 and never again visited
While its penetration has been wide indeed, it has not induced a social
revolution similar to that which Pertti J. Pelto analysed among the
Sami (Pelto 1973).
The log hut is the traditional habitat for the Khanty. Until quite
recently, Nenets preferred to dwell in conical tents. The
above-mentioned Oysya Yusi was the last Nenets in the Varyogan region
to use a choom. The others have gone over to Khanty tradition and live
in what they call a kapi mya’ (Khanty house).
In recent years, since 2008‒2009, mosquitoes have been scarce. This
causes concern to the herders, who have to look, sometimes quite far,
for their reindeer as they are not motivated to ‘come home’. In 2013,
Yuri Vella came to the conclusion that mosquitoes are being
systematically exterminated by the oil workers, who want to work
undisturbed in the oil sites.
Sedentarisation of nomads was one of the main issues of the
sovietisation agenda. It began intensely at the beginning of the 1930s
and was achieved by the end of the 1950s.
For example, the administrative autonomy of Varyogan village has been
thoroughly reduced in the last years: while in the 1980s and at the
beginning of the 1990s sometimes the head of the administration was a
native, in the late 1990s and the 2000s natives were supposed not to be
able to administrate a village and at the end of the decade, the
administration was transferred to the closest small towns.
See Varyogan Secondary School homepage (Internet sources).
In some parts of the Russian North, a kind of long-distance commuting
was also practised in reindeer pastoralism, although it was never
implemented in Western Siberia. This industrial nomadism (Ru.
proizvodstvennoye kochevanie) implied a shift system in which herders
alternated between working in herding brigades and living in the
village with their families. It was an attempt to sedentarise nomadic
families that was modelled after the oil industry (Vitebsky 2005, 44;
Vitebsky & Wolfe 2001, 81‒94; Stammler 2005, 149).
Khanty writer Eremey Aipin even wrote a short story in 1977 about a man
who refuses to put a lock on his door (Aipin 1995, 65‒74).
All the quoted English translations from Breeze from the Lake are made
by Aleksandr Vashchenko, a non-native English speaker and Russian
academic who helped and supported Yuri Vella and died some months
before the Forest Nenets poet. To enjoy Yuri’s literary talent, please
consult the original Russian text (see Internet sources, Juri Vella –
See also a film by Olga Kornienko (1998).
This attitude is revealed in the stereotype about Russian hunting and
fishing culture. Several popular films have been dedicated to the
phenomenon of Russian hunting and fishing, in which alcohol plays the
central role. The titles of the films clearly hint at the national
character of the behaviour: Osobennosti natsional‘noi okhoty
(Peculiarities of National Hunt) (1995), Osobennosti natsional‘noi
rybalki (Peculiarities of National Fishing) (1998), Osobennosti
natsional‘noi okhoty v zimnii period (Peculiarities of the National
Hunt in the Winter) (2001). Actually, in the poem about the Lukoil
hunting society we cited earlier in the chapter, Yuri Vella indirectly
refers to them.
There are many comments on these terms as used in Russian, for example
Piers Vitebsky and Sally Wolfe comment on Yakutia: “The current terms
kul‘tura and tsivilizatsiya are Russian words which carry heavy Soviet
ethical baggage. This scale is mapped out across the face of the earth,
along a continuum from wilderness, through the village, to various
provincial towns and the city of Yakutsk” (2001, 90).
See also Niglas 2014b.
See Yuri Vella’s enlightening short story “How the KGB man taught
fishermen to catch fish” (Vella 2010, 51‒55).
Unlike the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district to the north, where
reindeer meat is commercialised, in towns of Khanty-Mansiisk district
it is still very difficult to have access to reindeer meat.