Happy new year Yamal style

First of all, happy new year to all our readers, followers, and a big thank you to all those who contribute to making this blog a success.

This is my first ever new years trip to the Russian Arctic. Flying from Finland to Yamal, one of the first visible impressions is the extensive use of light here in the Russian North beyond the Arctic Circle. Immediately after arrival friends take me proudly to the city-park in Salekhard. It’s a sea of light installations, with lit sculptures of Arctic animals, such as moose, polar fox, reindeer.

Immediately after meeting me at the airport, Lena and Ivan proudly presented me the decorated city park of Salekhard
Continue reading “Happy new year Yamal style”

PhD scholarship Canada community economic development

Colleagues from the University of Manitoba have shared this generous scholarship opportunity. If you are interested in economics of Communities in the Canadian North, and would like to get a funded position for a PhD on this, you should read on:

For Research on Community Economic Development in the Canadian North The John Loxley PhD. Scholarship – sponsored by Oceans North supports a PhD student in undertaking doctoral thesis research on Community Economic Development in the Canadian North. The scholarship provides $20,000, renewable on an annual basis, for up to four years and a total amount of $80,000, to a PhD student in the Economy and Society Stream of the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba.

The holder of the scholarship will be expected to conduct thesis research on a topic or topics of importance to Arctic Economies/Nunavut/ Northern Canada. They will be expected to work closely with local institutions in these areas as well as with the staff of Oceans North, who will help shape the research proposal and monitor and assist progress. Preference will be given to Indigenous/Inuit candidates but all interested students are encouraged to apply.

Applicants must be able to meet the entrance requirements for the PhD program in Economics (Economics and Society Stream) at the University of Manitoba. Information on the PhD entry requirements are available here:

Please send enquiries to John Serieux (at) umanitoba.ca , Chair, Graduate Committee, Economics and Society, University of Manitoba with a copy to Betty McGregor (at) umanitoba.ca. Interested applicants should enquire by December 20th, 2021 for award and acceptance for the Fall 2022 term. Final determination will be made by the Economics and Society Graduate Committee during the admission process to the PhD program (applications to the PhD program for Fall 2022 are due by January 15th, 2022).

Who was John Loxley, after whom this scholarship is named?

As the leader of a group of progressive economists in the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba (where he served for many years as Chair), Loxley helped to educate a generation of radical scholars and activists and was a leading scholar in the areas of community economic development, public–private partnerships and the IFIs. Here is more information about him

What makes the “ness” in Geel?

Distinctive doctrines of the Church, and their place in contemporary society, are at times, argued to bring about changes in the Arctic – the people, their land, and traditions. Could such be the case elsewhere in Western Europe? I recently travelled to Belgium, on a work trip for an EU project. There is a lot of curiosity about the destination’s culture, its people, and what makes the ‘ness’ in this destination – a suffix to indicate the meaningfulness of something. I begin by listening to local narratives about Geel (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. A walk around Geel (Field data, 2021)

Classical anthropologists, from Margaret Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, to Gregory Bateson, to name a few, have at times use narratives in their ethnography about people to provide knowledge about the socio-cultural context of places. Going by this thinking, in a taxi to my hotel, from Brussels to the city Geel (about an hour’s drive from the Brussels National Zaventem airport), I immediately get into a talk with the driver on what is so special about Geel. He tells me: “the people are known for their hospitality, using their homes voluntarily, to look after the mentally ill. And so, you can say, they are good people and welcoming.”

I am intrigued by the sense of ‘generosity’ in this quotation. Also puzzled as to how mental illness came about on the land. A few meters from my hotel, I walk by the St. Dymphna Catholic Church following a day of project meetings and meet with Pascal, an elderly in his 70s walking his dog. He appears to be a retired French soldier whose relatives were Nuns who worked in Churches with sanatoriums, and made mention of how the locals used their homes (nowadays guest houses) to accommodate persons who are mentally ill – a disease some of the locals observed as a side effect of epilepsy.

According to Pascal, the Nuns believed mentally-related diseases were brought by rats in merchant ships that sailed through the North Sea from the far east and some from Russia. Not sure, what breed of rats they were or are, especially when I think of the cold winter temperatures in the North even though a few breeds have been known to adapt well in harsh weather conditions. Maybe, a reason why rats preferred living in the warm sailing ships? Or, because of the foods traded in these ships? This account makes me think whether the locals back in the days and even those working in the Church were certified medical doctors.

To Pascal, the Nuns working for the Church had persons who practiced various forms of traditional medicine, for example “these persons often go to the forest in search of the mole’s burrow, waiting silently for several hours and at times days. When the mole comes out, it is killed with a knock to its head using some tool made of metal. The mole is then baked for three days and its ashes used for treating epilepsy when combined with an antidote as a drink.” Not to ignore similar forms of treatment one might find in contemporary systems of traditional medicine. However, might be freaky, hearing this example, when compared to today’s practice of medicine where a certified and trained medical doctor follows already well recognized scientific procedures of consultation, testing and diagnoses, prescription and treatment with drugs that have had clinical trials and legal or institutional approval.

Further, the legend of ‘Dymphna’ lies at the heart of this place, its people, and their hospitality – what I call ‘Geelness’. Geel is known historically for the death of a Christian Saint, Dymphna, who lived in the 7th century after moving away from Ireland in fled of her father’s (petty king of Oriel, Ireland) intentions to marry her. In Geel, Dymphna built several homes to look after the mentally ill. Aware of Dymphna’s location, she was later murdered by her dad who was accused of attempting to commit incest. Today, Dymphna is honored in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and the name is used in several ways: naming various centers and buildings around the city, parents naming their daughters after Dymphna, while some of the locals continue the tradition of helping the mentally ill. And even some of the local Belgian beers are named after Dymphna. Dymphna’s bones are well preserved here in one of the Museums (Fig. 2) and I am told her bones are paraded every 6 years around the city in commemoration.

Figure 2. The Holy Relics of St. Dymphna, Gasthuismuseum, Geel (Field data, 2021)

I have come to conclude that it is rather intriguing when I think of how Catholicism, and in particular, its place as an institution prior to and after the 13th century, is still very much kept alive in Geel and nearby places I visited as Brugge, Leuven, Lier, and Antwerp, which is what makes this ‘ness’ in Geel. This also suggests that, long traditions of the Church, along with its social practices that have long fitted in the every-day live of people, might not always be a “threat to the local culture” as we see in the Arctic – but here, seems to be a part of this “local culture” in itself.

Job offer in Aberdeen: lecturer anthropology

Our colleague Tatiana Agrounova-Low shares a job-opening for a lecturer in anthropology at the department in Aberdeen. By the way, congratulations to her for becoming Head of Department in Aberdeen! Most of you know that the department in Aberdeen is one of the top addresses for Arctic Anthropology worldwide, since the time Tim Ingold and David Anderson advanced it to that level with their colleagues. The job offer does not specify the Arctic as a specific field. Rather they emphasize that competence in museum issues is of advantage. However, given the orientation of other staff there one would assume that Arctic specialisation is at least not excluded… The job duration is advertised as “substantive”, whatever that means in the job-seekers jargon. Here is the link to the ad.

Mobility in the tundra: how to use the old snowmobiles in the summer

From my field notes: “It is still early morning, 4th of August, 2021. I am waiting for a telephone call from a Nenets woman whom I had met yesterday in Aksarka. She had said that she is from Laborovaia and is going to travel there by a rented car. For her it was the only opportunity to travel to the tundra with her three little children. The price of the trip is rather high, therefore she was looking for poputchiki – ‘fellow travellers’. We had made an agreement that she would call me when she would arrive in Salekhard, the capital city of the Yamal region, which is along the way to Laborovaia, another village near the Ural Mountains”.

Roads in Salekhard. Photo. Roza Laptander.

I did all the necessary shopping and bought a big bag of fresh bread, too, which is a classical way of travelling to the tundra, with no bakery around for many kilometers. When, at last, a car, called in Russian bukhanka – “a loaf of bread” because of it’s form, arrived at Salekhard, it was around lunch time. I loaded all my bags into the car and we started our long trip. 

The UAZ-452 or in Russian ‘bukhanka’ is a family of cab over off road vans  produced at the Ulianovsk Automobile Plant (UAZ) since 1965. Photo. Roza Laptander.

Originally, we had planned that the trip to Laborovaia would take us 5 hours. In reality, it took much more time. 

We only left Labytnangy and went for 10 kilometers along the moto-way to the north, when our driver said that the car needs reparation. We returned back to Labytnangy and stayed there for three more hours. Even after checking out three different car service centres, no one wanted to repair our old bukhanka. So, our driver asked somebody to help him.

The road Labytnangy-Laborovaia. Photo. Roza Laptander.

Only at six o’clock in the evening the car got the needed repairs and was ready to travel along the mountains and rocky road to our final destination – the village of Laborovaia. At that point we were tired and hungry, but only a few kilometers away from the crowded human habitation, when we saw the beautiful landscape of the Ural Mountains, we forgot about our difficult beginning of the trip.

Only mountains can be better than mountains. Photo. Roza Laptander. 

On some points of the rocky road, with pits and potholes, our wreck of a car could only drive 20 km/h. We arrived at Laborovaia at night, around two o’clock. After a quick tea and putting on tundra clothes, we started another exciting part of our trip to the tundra, this time on a snowmobile. It was much easier and faster than by car. 

People in the tundra had started to use their snowmobiles for travelling in the summer several years ago.

In the Laborovskaia tundra. Photo Roza Laptander.

Even though some people have ATVs and they are aware it is not good for the condition of the vehicles, it is still the only means of transportation, which is very suitable and good for travelling in the tundra, even in the summer. This means that tundra people use means of transportation in a way that is suitable for their contemporary life.  As I understand, they use the snowmobiles for travelling in the summer only on the wet and flat landscape. While in the rocky mountains it is better to travel on ATVs. 

On the way. Photo. Roza Laptander.

A snapshot of contemporary indigenous life – with emphasis on Sámi perspectives

A new publication on Arctic Indigenous Peoples from The Sámi Council and German Arctic Office (at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research) was just recently launched. While shortly browsing through it, I found that it is written very shortly and concisively and for a broad lay audience including decision makers. It is a publication written mostly by indigenous representatives (mostly Sámi) who are active politically in promoting Arctic indigenous rights. I particularly liked the illustrations.

“This collaborative project between the Sámi Council and the German Arctic Office depicts the ways of life Indigenous Peoples lead in the Arctic. As resilient cultures, Arctic Indigenous Peoples hold distinct knowledge on how to respectfully use the environment to co-exist within the ecosystems. Even though resilience is enclosed within these cultures, the challenge of coping with both environmental changes and domestic regulations affects the practice and development of Indigenous Knowledge. This text describes how Arctic Indigenous Peoples use Indigenous Knowledge as a generationally refined way of knowing to ensure the vivid development of cultures and livelihoods. It further illustrates how Indigenous Peoples have traditionally developed circular governance systems that sustainably care for the environment instead of dominating it. Indigenous Knowledge, as the foundation of these ways of life, is therefore central for Arctic Indigenous Peoples cultures and how they collectively preserve the stability of Arctic and sub-Arctic environments.”

From an anthropological point of view, it catches our eyes that the publication does not really have identifiable authors. It bears the name of the two organisations – the Saami Council and the German Arctic Office. Then there is an editorial team consisting mostly of interns. Not sure was the editorial team actually responsible for the content and wrote the text? Was it reviewed by someone? I found it slightly irritating that the sources they cite are actually not part of the pdf of the publication, but you need to click on their website on a separate link. Looking at the sources, it caught my eye that most of them is literature intended for a general or professional audience. Of over 40 sources, less than 10 were scholarly publications, including from the IPCC or the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. A lot of the sources are published by indigenous peoples organisations, the Arctic Council, the Nordic Council of ministers etc. So this piece is a good source for us to make sense of the view of indigenous peoples and decision makers.

Spirituality of abandoned Arctic Infrastructure

So-called ‘ghost towns’ attract people in a certain sense, the ailing beauty of their ruins and the atmosphere of silence that is so different from the silence that you experience when you are somewhere out on the tundra in the Arctic in a snow-desert. But when I recently walked with a friend through an abandoned building and felt the fascination of that atmosphere, I got also confronted with the opposite: for some people abandoned infrastructure feels threatening and scary for its association with death, decease and decline, and such people would stay away as much as they could from this kind of places. This reminded me of the relations between people and graveyards in the Arctic: that among some you are not supposed to go back to the graves of the relative after the funeral, or if so, then only in groups and on special occasions. Because the world of the spirits of the deceased is different from our world, and it may be dangerous for us is we engage with it in inappropriate ways. In my first field trip to the tundra, when I was going to take a photo of a Nenets graveyard in the tundra, the herder who was with me advised me: better don’t take a picture. “Not that I would mind, but we don’t know if this would be bad for yourself – who knows if the spirits like you taking this picture”.

So I wonder what is the spiritual implications of this ghost-town tourism in the Arctic? In many places people do not even take away the movable infrastructure of these places, although it certainly would have some value to sell. E.g. in the Komi ghost-town of Tsementozavodsk close to Vorkuta, there is a huge amount of trucks left behind, alongside the houses where nobody lived in the last decade.

Abandoned trucks in Tsementozavodsk, c Anadolu agency via Getty images

This place made it to the British Daily Mail newspaper with a detailed photo gallery of the abandoned infrastructure, and there is impressive air imagery from there by Reuters . Someone told me that it’s just more expensive to bring all this away from such remote places than the value that you get for it when you sell it. Hard to imagine. But I find a certain parallel to what I heard in 2013 in the village of Bykov Mys on the Laptev shore: there when the cemetery was being taken to the Sea by coastal erosion, the locals would not dare to go and recover some of the graves. One told me “if some Finns and Lithuanians whose ancestors are buried here would like to, they can come and exhume the remains – we are not going to do that. The Sea can take the cemeteries as all souls have left from there long ago”.

But in Tsementozavodsk this huge amount of abandoned trucks that actually look rather recent impressed me. How come that nobody took them at least to Vorkuta, which is just 17 km away. Surely they could be used there somehow? Maybe that has to do with the legal notion of escheated propertry (vymorochnoe imushestvo in Russian). According to the Russian Civil Code, the Russian Federation inherits such property if there are no legal heirs (article 1151, Law 146-FZ). But this may be only the superficial outside reason of why we see so much abandoned infrastructure in the Russian Arctic. It becomes part of the region’s environmental history. Speaking of which: this is a good occasion to congratulate our colleague Dmitry Arzyutov for his excellent PhD on environmental history in the Russian Arctic. It’s here open access. Congratulations!!!

Forest fires create hell on earth: Yakutia

related to the recent post about the forest fires in Siberia, here I share some footage from local people. This is not official news, it’s private people’s videos, often shot from their phones. It shows close up how Sakha people struggle to save their land and their homes from the inferno – mostly in vein. There is not much commentary in the videos, so people from any language background will find this shocking. (For those knowing Russian: please note this contains some dirty language):

20 minutes watching hell on earth. Words can’t tell the extent. But what is more: the fires leave behind the melted permafrost with all the terrible consequences. For us anthropologists first and foremost: where are local and indigenous people are going to graze their herds, and hunt for many years before these millions of hectares are going to be forests and pastures again – if ever? Some more pictures follow
Continue reading “Forest fires create hell on earth: Yakutia”

The North is innovative!

our university r&d department just shared an EU report, where Finland and Sweden lead their EU-internal rating for innovativeness.

Nice to see that the North leads the way there! We know that the Arctic is at the forefront when it comes to noticing the changing climate, and people in the North, particularly those who live in close contact with the environment round the year, have proved their impressive adaptability to these changing conditions. Good that this tendency also translates into a national level. If countries in the Arctic can lead innovations towards a better life on our planet, so should anthropology from and on the Arctic aim to lead the way for innovative research on social and cultural diversity and the ways how human social groups thrive in a changing environment!

Of course as anthropologists doing fieldwork with a focus on qualitative long-term participation in people’s life, we may be skeptical of the methods of these ratings and reports that base solely on statistical indicators such as numbers of university graduates, share of budgets invested in research, numbers of registered patents and designs, level of broadband internet penetration throughout the country, and the like. We are used to looking beyond these numbers and explain the deeper reasons for the ways in which societies and cultures innovate. Innovation is nothing new. Indigenous and local people in the Arctic have applied innovations as long as they lived in that environment, and continue to do so. We can explain the principles of such processes. Let’s live up to this expectation:)

Arctic climate amplification and Siberia’s burning forests

Usually Arctic amplification is referred to as the reason why the Arctic is warming faster than the earth’s average, as the Arctic’s surface gets darker (due to less sea ice and snow), and the surface absorbs more heat.
What we see currently in Siberia with the burning forests sheds yet another light on how this affects people’s life in the region concretely. Right now in Yakutsk, usually the world’s coldest big city, you can hardly breathe through the smog from the burning forests in Siberia.

In Yakutsk the afternoon sun hardly cuts through the smog, foto 16/07/2021

This seems to be having really bad health consequences for local people. Last night I couldn’t sleep because dry cough kicking in, and the usual option of ‘going out to get some fresh air’ doesn’t work: outside the air is still worse than in any room, as the entire region is full of smoke.
Friends told me last night that they hardly saw any sun for the last three weeks, even when there were no clouds. And in cloudy weather, some of the rain didn’t make it all the way to the ground through the thick smog. So I started reading the local news and was shocked: as of yesterday in the city the heavy particle concentration exceeded the legal maximum 8 times, and so did the nitrogen dioxide concentration. Therefore the authorities recommend not to go out, not do physical exercise, and wear masks with particle filters – good that people got used to wearing masks for the last 1.5 years anyway:( . But what on earth can all our friends do who live in the forests herding their reindeer, horses, cattle in the area? They don’t have houses where they can isolate themselves with air condition behind windows from this ‘fresh’ air. They’ve got to breathe it 24/7. And they will hardly wear masks in their nomadic tents…
One commentary to that news said that recently they measured exceeded limits by 36 times and he wondered how the air got so much cleaner that it’s now ‘only’ 8 times? They must have adjusted the legal limits to make it look less severe, he argues.

One could say ‘yes, forests and land is burning all over the place: last year Australia, every year US, so what’s special about Siberia’s burning land?
I am not an expert, and surely the colleagues from the Yakutsk permafrost institute could say more – but I think the difference to forests in non-Arctic forests is this: here the plants, forests, tundra grow on permafrost ground. Long-term fires heat up that ground even further than usual. Thus, the permafrost thaws even deeper, the active layer gets even bigger. This might amplify the unearthing of all kinds of ingredients, for better or worse: mammoth tusks, anthrax bacteria, methane, and all sorts of stuff. So the forest fires’ impact on the permafrost might be another dimension of the Arctic amplification, with consequences for the entire planet. Maybe the American and Australian forest fires were also pretty bad for the entire planet, but it seems in Siberia that impact on the permafrost is another addition.
Ironically, Yakutia is the world’s only place (as far as I know) where the authorities have passed a law on the protection of the permafrost (22.05.2018 2006-З № 1571-V) . As beautiful as it sounds – what does this help if the forest fires cannot be fought effectively locally? In the local news commentaries, the authorities have been criticized heavily for their disaster response

As of the 17 July noon there are still 134 fires burning in Yakutia. . I have been mostly in the city so far, and even there local people have to pay the local toll for this ecological disaster. Even more so people in villages and in the forest, who depend on the treasures of the land for their traditional livelihood.