Eva Toulouze, Liivo Niglas

Abstract. In 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 since 1999.

    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 their rights.
    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 of 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.
    A 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 on the 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).
    We invite 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 sources).

Figure 1. The Forest Nenets area in Western Siberia

Figure 1

Native 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 locals 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 industry on native life in the Middle Ob region, researchers usually describe its devastating nature (Wiget & Balalaeva 2011; Dudeck 2012). But 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 gas 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 drastic.
    These socio-economic differences mean that the 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 rivers 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 other 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 political aims.

Native 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 and 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 village and the camps, they must rely on their own transportation means. Snowmobile penetration occurred in the late 1970s.(7) Since then, reindeer 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 camp, 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 the 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 again.
    Therefore, looking for reindeer, following 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; 2014b).
    There are also other obligations that require 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.

Fixed 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, which was founded in the 1920s, and where a boarding school was opened in 1939(12) (Varyogan Secondary School). There were around 700 inhabitants in the village in 2010.
    In general, the sedentary way of life is seen 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 villages are 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 sedentary. 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 dwelling 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.

Willing meetings

    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.
    When the 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 forest.
    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 infrastructure has 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 cars, 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 companies.

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 those 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 reindeer is 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

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
Where all must be peaceful
And quiet
As in the nursery,
Where one must hear
Only the cries
Of the newborn children
And the deer calves,
Where the peace must be guarded
against the car exhaust pipes,
against the barking of dogs,
against marksmanship over emptied bottles,
against forest fires from the hunters’
And fishermen’s fires –
Now is the hunting ground
Of the LUKOIL Company.

And with the opening of the autumn hunting season,
When the deer
Have their Love time,
In that white,
World peaceful before,

The oilmen rush
Not for the drilling of oil and gas,
not for the strengthening of the state,
Not for the prospering of the people,
for a hunter’s sport,
for the ranging of guns,
for the training of dogs,
for the testing of snowmobiles,
for picking mushrooms and berries,
for spending nights
beside the fishermen’s fires,
for enlightening the children
in ‘national hunting’ [...]
(Vella 2010, 34‒35)

    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 the oil 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:

For 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, 36‒37)(16)

    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 sacred 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 2012, 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 life 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 sober.
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 its requirements.
    While earlier newcomers, who arrived in the 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) or ‘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

   The 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 assert 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.

Figure 3
Figure 3. “Native camp, entrance prohibited”: the entrance to the camp of Boris Ayvaseda, a Forest Nenets reindeer herder, nearby Yuri Vella’s camp in 2009.

     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 borders. 
    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 2014e; 2014f).(19) 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 reindeer in 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 the herd 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.

Figure 6. 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.
    These discussions 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.

Figure 7. Letter from the Governor of the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region, Aleksandr Filipenko, entrusting the Vatyogan area to Lukoil’s hunting society, 2009.

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 maintain a 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 fuel.

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 that 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 efficient 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 interested 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 moment? 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 the 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 available 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 materials

Fieldwork was conducted in the Eastern Khanty and Forest Nenets regions, Russia, 1999–2009. Materials at the authors’ disposal.

Video clips
All video clips are available in the electronic version of the chapter, see http://cect.ut.ee/docs/Toulouze_Niglas.html

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 Vella’s World].
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.

Internet sources

Borodyansky, G. (2014) The last camping ground, openDemocracy, 28 March. http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/georgy-borodyansky/last-camping-ground [accessed 19 January 2016].
Juri Vella = Юрий Вэлла – Juri Vella. www.jurivella.ru [accessed 14 January 2016].
Juri Vella – Books = Юрий Вэлла – Juri Vella. Original‘nye literaturnye proizvedenia [Оригинальные литературные произведения]. Original literary works. Originaalteosed. http://jurivella.ru/vanaweb/index.php/--raamatud--books [accessed 14 January 2016].
Varyogan Secondary School = MBOY “Var‘eganskaia obshcheobrazovatel‘naia sredniaia shkola” [МБОУ “Варьёганская общеобразовательная средняя школа”]. http://www.86nvr-varyogan.edusite.ru/p5aa1.html [accessed 14 January 2016].
Virtual CECT = CECT book series: Volume VI. Virtual CECT. http://virtual.cect.ut.ee/?page_id=2692〈=en [accessed 10 March 2016].


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Niglas 2003 = see Filmography.
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Brigaad [The Brigade] (2000) directed by Liivo Niglas. 57 min. F-Seitse.
Juri Vella maailm [Yuri Vella's World] (2003) directed by Liivo Niglas. 58 min. F-Seitse.

Osobennosti natsional‘noi okhoty [Особенности национальной охоты] [Peculiarities of the National Hunt] (1995), directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Film Company Lenfilm. 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.
Osobennosti natsional‘noi rybalki [Особенности национальной рыбалки] [Peculiarities of the National Fishing] (1998), directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Film Company STV.
Putem khoziaiki Agana [Путем хозяйки Агана] [On the Way of the Agan River Goddess] (1998) directed by Olga Kornienko. Surgut Television.

Sources of illustrations

Figure 2 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, September 2005.
Figures 3, 4 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 23 July 2009.
Figures 5, 10 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 30 July 2009.
Figure 6 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, February 1999.
Figure 7 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 31 July 2009.
Figure 8 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, March 1999.
Figure 9 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 1 August 2009.
Figure 11 – Photo: Eva Toulouze, 14 September 2000.


This 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).

1. 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 workers.
2. ‘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).
3. For more details, see Juri Vella homepage (Internet sources).
4. 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).
5. 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).
6. Oysya Yussi, for example, left as soon as 1953 and never again visited the village.
7. 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).
8. 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).
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. See Varyogan Secondary School homepage (Internet sources).
13. 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).
14. 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).
15. 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 – Books).
16. See also a film by Olga Kornienko (1998).
17. 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.
18. 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).
19. See also Niglas 2014b.
20. See Yuri Vella’s enlightening short story “How the KGB man taught fishermen to catch fish” (Vella 2010, 51‒55).
21. 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.


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