Sudden loss of a great research facilitator

This is dedicated to a long term and very good friend, Konstantin Ochepkov, who passed away in Siberia way too early yesterday, just a little over 50 years old. His body was not able to retain victory over covid-19. I have known Kostya (how most of us called him) since I first came to Yamal in the late 1990s, when he lived in the then small village of Yar-Sale, the administrative centre of the Yamal Peninsula.

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This was way before Yamal came to the international headlines. There was no Yamal LNG yet, the exploration of Bovanenkovo and Sabetta had come to a stand still, the Yar Sale reindeer herding entreprise struggled with restructuring and bancruptcy, and Kostya navigated himself and his young family through the chaotic 1990s. In spite of these challenges, he managed to work with colleagues continuously on the study of the history – ancient and more recent – of the Yamal Peninsula. This is how many of our colleagues met him: as an open-minded interested historian with a great passion and enthusiasm for his home – the Yamal Peninsula .

When Russia stabilised in the early 21st century, all these big industrial projects resumed and developed, and a key issue was the turnover of land from the use of reindeer pastures to the industrial extraction of gas and gas condensate – of which Yamal holds the world’s largest deposits. Kostya became the head of the land allocation committee of the Yamal Peninsula municipality, and was with his team responsible for solving that incredible tension: on the one hand having to grant land for industrial development, because that is the main fuel for the economy of the world’s largest country (Russia); on the other hand, keeping the land intact as home for his (and our) Nenets nomadic friends, who herd the world’s most numerous herds of domestic reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula, with a fully nomadic livelihood, which many of our colleagues have written about (search for articles by Andrei Golovnev, Florian Stammler, Bruce Forbes, David Anderson, and their respective teams, to name but a few). I remember when we came in 2005 or so to Yar Sale, and needed to meet the head of the municipality Kugaevski for a research permit for our fieldwork on the impacts of the gas development, mainly the Bovanenkovo deposit. The whole municipal government was there. Kostya was very supportive of our research, but was forced to remain silent as others were telling us “you have nothing to offer here what our own Russian scholars could not already provide, so we don’t need you foreigners here”. Kostya thoroughly disagreed, but in his official position his hands were bound. Nonetheless, with his silent support we got things done, which led later to a publication that celebrated the reindeer herders stamina in these difficult times, and showed the recipe for their resilience.

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Kostya (on the back left standing), during a tundra-trip with family and friends on a nice spring day in 1998.

It was probably – hopefully – not because of this that Kostya no longer continued in this key position for the municpality, and established his own company, Yamal-Zemlya, meaning the Land of Yamal, offering his services for land-related paperwork. During all this time he never stopped to further study his own homeland, mostly now as an archaeologist. His organisational skills made him to one of – if not THE principal fieldwork-facilitator for the Yamal Peninsula. His company Yamal-Archaeology was a reliable partner for many international research and other teams who needed logistical and bureaucratic support in Yamal. Kostya knew everybody, could organised whatever trip at whatever time to where ever on the Peninsula. Be it with helicopter, Trekol-ATV, passenger-tank (vezdekhod), snowmobiles, reindeer, or later train or truck. As anthropologist who often preferred to go alone or with just one companion to the tundra, I did not need these services very often – but I would find out during yearly Yamal-visits lovely stories behind Kostya’s engagement with the interdisciplinary international research teams from all over the place.

In Rovaniemi at the Arctic Centre, Kostya in the beige jumper on the far back left, 10 Dec 2007, at a workshop that drafted our “Ilebts” coexistence declaration, photo by Bryan Alexander

Even though relations between Russia and the West became more tensioned, this did not inhibit us to cooperate closely, and I remember well when we invited Kostya and his wife Katya to a project meeting in Rovaniemi, and I lent them my old car and they explored the wintery Lapland with daughter in a subsequent small family holiday. I will never forget the philosophical talk we had in the sauna in the University of Lapland’s Pyhatunturi cottage about how can men overcome their midlife crises:)

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Julia Aitalina Stammler and Kostya packing tundra food for a field trip with the BBC, joining a Panaevsk brigade in their spring migration, 2019

The most recent – and tragic – coincidence for me is that covid-19 in spring brought me again even closer to Kostya, and now just half a year later covid-19 is what took him off this world so unexpectedly. Due to borders closed, I got sort of stuck in Yamal between March and July just with a little break in between.

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With Kostya and his wife Katya (front left) and his son Nikita (front right) enjoying a picnic with friends at the mouth of the Ob, May 2020

During these months – besides Nenets friends – Kostya and Katya became part of that social network that made me feel integrated in Salekhard. We would have joint dinners, spend some weekends together, watched the ledokhod (breaking up of the ice) on the Ob River,

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Can’t believe it would be their last jointly watched river breakup: Kostya and Katya on 12 May 2020 in Gornoknyazevsk, where they invited me to join and watch the ice going

and were in frequent contact about all kinds of things. Among others, I got to admire their most recent private project, a beautiful house construction site overlooking the Polui River in Salekhard. Kostya was full of ideas and enthusiasm in anticipation of their move from their city-apartment to their home. I still can’t believe that he does not see this happening any more. This makes us realise how fragile life is.

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There was so much enthusiasm in planning and implementing their new family home, overlooking the mouth of the Polui in Salekhard, May 2020.

Kostya’s departure from this life is a big loss for the Yamal research world, but first and foremost as a friend, I still can’t believe that covid-19 has taken him from us before the vaccine could protect the population from this plague. My thoughts are with Katya, and the family. For those on facebook, there is also an obituary page there.

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