April 9, 2018
In my last post, I forgot to mention the size of our group. In addition to Yan, Irina,Toby, Kelly and me, we had picked up several other people. We had a news crew consisting of a TV journalist, Dmitry Pishuhin, his wife, Yevgeniya, and his photographer. We also had another photojournalist, Antone Tayberey and some sort of a government official, Taleh Shamilov. We all thought he was a spy
Yan had told us that the Nenets reindeer herders had been very reluctant to to let tourists visit them. This is the first time he had been able to convince them to try it. So there were ten of us descending on them.
The news crew was nice in person but totally obnoxious on camera. They kept making us do dumb things that made it look like we were Americans patronizingly greeting the natives, plus making us put on our shawls over our tundra outfits, or making us go outside without hats so our headbands would show. I almost got frostbite on my ears, and it was just ridiculous. Yan feels it will be good exposure for the project, so we went along with it. Yan told us we have alre1dy been on Tass, as well as some other news organiions.
In the picture below, Dmitry and Yevgenia are the ones making peace signs.
The way of life represented by the shums on the tundra with their reindeer herds may be on its way out. The Russian economy has been in a state of flux since the end of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had tried to collectivize the reindeer herds. This didn’t work well, but many herds are in collectives still. The owners of this herd, Alexei Ledkov and his son Nicolai, are trying something different. They have formed an independent organization called an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). We have NGOs in the states, but they are usually non-profit corporations that contract with governments and/or private charitable foundations to work on projects that improve communities, and arts, and humanities projects that are good for the general welfare. Here NGO is used as a term for what most Americans would call free enterprise.
Alexei and the other herders were reserved at first, but after the news crew went off duty, we were able to have some good conversations with them. One thing comes through very clearly: reindeer herders love what they do and they are convinced that they will be the last generations of herders who live as they do.
As I see it, the biggest problem is government interference. A few decades ago, the Russian government mandated that Nenets children attend school in the villages, or settlements, as they call them. So they built boarding schools. The children attend school for ten years, going home in the summer. I got conflicting reports about whether the children we allowed to use the Nenets language at school, but classes are taught in Russian.
This has had potentially devastating effects. First, the children are separated from their parents (can any one say indoctrination?). They speak Russian most of the time and are losing the Nenets language. The moms don’t like being separated from the kids and have started living in the villages. After everybody lives in the village for awhile, nobody wants to go back to the tundra. The men live out on the tundra herding for at least six months of the year. So instead of being families living, working, traveling together on the tundra, the family system has been destroyed. The ironic part is that many of the people we talk to think the government is just trying to help them. (Schools! Healthcare! Subsidies!) It is hard for them to see the destruction that is going on. This all seems both familiar and depressing.
Kelly talking to Nenets children in Naryan-Mar. They are learning English.