Sámi people of Jona: pride and prejudice

The anthropology research team, organised by Anna Stammler-Gossmann, invites to a workshop (in Russian) with  Sámi activist and writer, Aleftina Sergina from Jona village (Kola Peninsula, approx. 30 km from the Finnish border, around 100 inhabitants).

Jona village indicated with "1", further places on the map being Rovaniemi ("2"), Kovdor ("3"), Apatity ("4"), and Murmansk ("5")
Jona village indicated with “1”, further places on the map being Rovaniemi (“2”), Kovdor (“3”), Apatity (“4”), and Murmansk (“5”), to give an idea of the location of this remote yet so centrally located village.

Issues  that we shall discuss at the meeting with Aleftina include

–      Lovozero is not the only Sami village in Russia
–      Sami potatoes project
–      Finnish reindeer in Russia, tundra reindeer in the forest and failed project on reindeer re-introduction in Jona.
–      Sacred sites of Sami
–      Soviet and post-Soviet Jona

Our blogger Nina Meschtyb had earlier been to Jona and written beautifully about that trip here on the blog, illustrated with nice photographs

“Before the Snow” – A documentary about Siberian people published online

The film by Christian Vagt features three important indigenous leaders and story tellers from the Khanty and Forest Nenets communities of Western Siberia – Josif Kechimov, Yuri Vella and Agrafena Pesikova. It is a short documentary filmed in 2007 in the West Siberian Taiga about indigenous concepts of their relationship with ghosts and the danger of inappropriate behaviour towards them.


Josif Kechimov talks about the relationship to the dead and the tragic consequences of encounters with unburied deceased relatives. Against the background of oil development, forced resettlements and the spread of Christian missionizing among his people – and his feelings of danger for the forest live of Khanty reindeer herders and decline of traditions grow.

Juri Vella tells a Forest Nenets tale about the encounter with a supernatural and threatening inhabitant of an abandoned human settlement.  Hunter‘s stories have never a single message or meaning. Yuri Vella leaves it to the listeners to make their conclusions. What to do though if an understanding of the cultural context is missing?

Agrafena Pesikova sends a clear message addressed to the people intruding into the life of the indigenous reindeer herders and hunters.  The interests and interpretations of these people are based on their European and Christian preconceptions. They are not able to understand without careful and respectful interaction with local people. The lesson outsiders can learn from indigenous ghost stories is that distance, silence, and restraint from direct interaction should be part of respectful behaviour. Only if they are able to listen the right way though might they be able to grasp the message.

The film confirms my hypothesis that the indigenous Khanty and Nenets ways of dealing with supernatural beings, the deceased, and animals shape the way of interaction with other strangers be it bureaucrats, anthropologists, oil companies or tourists. The behaviour that is expected from outsiders, the respectful distance needed to avoid conflict and the tragic consequences of inappropriate contact are similar. In the face of the experience of difference, ghost stories teach what respect and disrespect mean.

A German version can be found here:

70 years after Mandalada – the Nenets movement against collectivization in the tundra

One of the biggest tragedies for the Nenets nation happened on 21th June 1943 in the Polar Ural Mountains. Officially Mandalada is known as the struggle of this little tundra nation against new Soviet empire rules. It was heavily suppressed by soviet authorities. It is often referred to as a Nenets uprising. Unofficially – people just tried to survive during that time. It was their reaction against authorities who started to confiscate their last belongings during World War II. How would they survive the winter in the arctic tundra without clothes, food and reindeer?

Near Polar Ural, Yamal,  Western Siberia.

Near Polar Ural. Photo R. Laptander

Therefore people tried to hide with their families in the open tundra and survive this way the pressure of the communist regime. There was a small group of people who were prepared to resist local authorities in case they would take rigorous measures against their families. Soldiers where sent against this people and tried to arrest the men. The Nenets had no means to resist and had to give up after a short skirmish. 36 men were arrested and their belongings confiscated forcing their families to starve and to search for help near the settlements. Most of the arrested men died in prison or on the way to the prison camps.

N. Khudi. His father was among this Mandalada people.

N. Khudi’s father was among the Mandalada people in the Polar Ural Mountains. He tried to hide this fact during all his life. Photo. R. Laptander

It is a pity that there are not so many people left who could tell us about this part of Nenets history. For a long time it was almost a taboo among the Nenets to talk about the time of collectivization. The Mandalada was really a turning point in Nenets history which changed cardinally their relationship to the state authorities.

While doing oral history interviews I was very much surprised that the memories about this movement are still alive among the elder generation of Nenets. Once an old man told me he read in one Russian journal that nobody could tell anymore about what really had happened because all eyewitnesses of the events are dead already. This old Nenets wanted to correct that statement and prove that there are still memories about the Mandalada. People keep them in their collective historical memory. I could tell a lot about the superficial adaptation of Nenets to the Soviet regime, but in reality it has a tragic background. Of course it helped people to integrate into the Soviet regime and society.

Slowly life in the tundra became more or less stable and prosperous again. People tried to forget the Mandalada tragedy and the people who suffered. They even stopped to talk about them. By this way Nenets probably tried to hide their pain. Maybe it was an act of self-defense from the shock, bewilderment, confusion, and fear that this could happen, and that no one is ever protected from the harsh and cruel wheel of the state policy. During my oral history work on the Yamal tundra I managed to collect these stories. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that even if people try to forget their trauma, they have to live with it for a long time and this historical trauma can cause social problems in their communities.

A longer Russian version of this article is available at http://priuralye.ucoz.ru/news/mandalada_70_let_spustja/2013-09-06-1680 and http://www.yasavey.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=678:-70-&catid=67:2013-09-16-09-03-55

More information in English  http://www.academia.edu/479640/Two_Wars_in_Conflict_Resistance_among_Nenets_Reindeer_Herders_in_the_1940s_2005_

Oral History workshop, 23-24 September 2013, Rovaniemi

Everybody with a serious interest is invited to the following event:

Workshop “Intangible oral culturalheritage: documentation, archiving and preservation techniques” Organised by the ORHELIA project team & anthropology research team Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland

Venue: Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Arktikum Building, Pohjoisranta 4, Thule meeting room, 1st floor, take the door up the stairs right after the main entrance into the building.

The blind elder Piotr Khudi with his family just before crossing Bovanenkovo gas deposit, Yamal Peninsula
The blind elder Piotr Khudi with his family just before crossing Bovanenkovo gas deposit, Yamal Peninsula

The anthropology team members interested in oral history are thrilled to get a visit by linguist Michael Riessler from Freiburg, Germany, and Anna Afanasieva from the Barents Institute in Kirkenes, Norway, to join us for a 1.5 day workshop where we explore different ways and best practices of data management, preservation and processing in oral history and sociolinguistics. We will also use this opportunity to think about ways of cooperating with Riessler’s documentation project initatives, as well as for updating each other and anybody who is interested about our recent fieldwork  all over the European and Russian Arctic. That fieldwork report session will be on Tuesday before lunch, 24 September. A detailed programme of the workshop can be found HERE.

Everything is northernmost here (Svalbard fieldwork, June 2013)

Anna Stammler-Gossmann

The Arctic as a place to live

Svalbard is a place where everything is the northernmost – municipality, hotels, hospital, schools, kinder gardens, church and pubs. In Longyearbyen (the administrative center of Svalbard) there even is the northernmost sushi restaurant and kebab stand, which opened up here recently.

The northernmost downtown, Longyearbyen, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann
The northernmost downtown, Longyearbyen, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

On the wall of a local museum you can read that Svalbard today still looks like a landscape from the end of the Ice Age. It is naked, with less than ten percent vegetation and more than half of the land mass covered by glaciers. As Christiane Ritter, an Australian painter (1897–2000), described this landscape: ‘Stone after stone, I am now seeing stones in my sleep and when I am awake. They are going to get on my nerves; I can feel it. This stony land, the total gigantic barrenness, is going to haunt me as a bad dream’. (Christiane Ritter 1935, Longyearbyen museum, June 2013; read more: Christiane Ritter. A woman in the Polar Night, 2010).

Famous Polar Bear sign, Longyearbyen, June 2013. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann
Famous Polar Bear sign, Longyearbyen, June 2013. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

The street where I live in Longyearbyen is called Street 232 (vei 232). ‘The streets in Longyearbyen have no names, they have numbers’ – grown men do not build houses in streets that are named Blueberry Road or Teddy Bear Yard’, say the notes from the Longyearbyen museum. It is indeed a hard working community. To live here you have to have a job or be a part of a household in which one or more people are in employment. According to the Statistics Norway, the local working week is longer than on the mainland – on average, men work 40-hours week, women 35 hours – in comparison to the mainland, where people have 37 and 31 hour weeks respectively (This is Svalbard. 2012. Oslo: Statistics Norway, p.13)
Above all there is the complete darkness of the long winter. There are cases of depression and suicides (personal conversation). Alcohol consumption here is higher than in mainland Norway (This is Svalbard. 2012: p.14). Longyearbyen is not supposed to be a ‘cradle-to-grave’ community. The children should be born on mainland. Svalbard is known, as an editor of ‘the world’s northernmost alternative newspaper’ put it, as a place where ‘dying is forbidden’ (Sabbatini, M. 2009. My first winter near the North Pole. Observer, November 1), there is no cemetery here. The local municipality does not offer services and welfare system on the same level as on the mainland. A small hospital (six beds) is the only accident and emergency unit. The local rescue centre undertakes 50-80 rescue missions on Svalbard each year (This is Svalbard. 2012: 21).
In spite of the harsh living conditions the number of residents on Svalbard is growing constantly since the beginning of 1990s according to the statistics (This is Svalbard 2012: 10). What is the attractive power that brings people to live here if we leave aside material incentives, like an almost tax-free regime, high income, and lower price levels than on the Norwegian mainland?

Power of the North
Maybe it is the excitement of almost being on the top of the earth? Or it is a reflection of the longing for the North to escape from an over-civilized world? Or it is a feeling of going back to basics? Or it is an attraction of being in a very international community? Maybe we need the force of all-too-powerful-nature to live more intensively and to understand the treasure of simple, ‘normal’ patterns of life? For Christiane Ritter it must be that: ‘For the first time in my life I experience the joy of struggling with something stronger than myself. ….I go on working day after day…, with a strength that I did not think I possessed…(Ritter 2010: 95). ‘You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness’ (Ritter 2010: 6)
However, as one local told me, it is not a good thing to escape to Svalbard because of the problems you have on the mainland. Each of us has had our own reason for wanting to go to the North. Here are two personal stories from my field notes that can perhaps give some clues, why people come to Svalbard and decide to stay here.
From Caucasus to Svalbard.
‘I came from the South (Caucasus) three years ago, because I had to help my family when my father went bankrupt. I was the only one, who was good in foreign languages and could work abroad. I went to Svalbard, although it is a bad place to live. The winter is so dark and in the summer the sun is shining 24 hours. Here in Longyearbyen I am probably the only practicing Muslim. Soon it is Ramadan and I have to think how to follow the prayer and fasting schedule under the Arctic conditions when the sun does not go down. Last year I was not taking food for 18 hours a day. I am a young strong man, 28 years old, but my job is hard, I have to carry very heavy stuff the whole day. It is not easy for me to fast and eat only fish.
This is a peaceful place to live. Here, people do not properly lock their house doors, cars or snowmobiles. There is no crime or violence here. Where should the criminals escape to or hide? This is a clean place to live. Only tourists throw their rubbish on the streets. I carry my rubbish in my pocket or bag when I am downtown. Everybody who lives here takes care of the environment.
At the time when I left my home it was easy to come to Svalbard, I did not need a visa or working permission. A few times a year there are direct flights to Longyearbyen from Moscow. I do not know, how long I will stay here’.

From the hospital-nurse to the taxi driver.
‘I lived nearby Tromso and worked for twenty years as a nurse in the hospital. I am 60 years old and arrived to Longyearbyen just some months ago. I came here because I was tired of my job, I wanted to experience something completely different, and start my life from scratch. I am single, and maybe one day I meet a nice lady here, who knows?
I like this place, only my flat is quite small, (40 m2) in comparison to my house that I sold (300m2). However, it does not matter. I can earn money here and buy later something bigger and nicer when I am a pensioner.
Many people here already know me as a taxi driver and I know everybody. In the hotel bar I get a coffee for free and food for half the price. Of course, a receptionist can call me any time during the day or night for the tourists. We all are related to each other.
Let’s see, how it will turn out here. First, I will work here at least for one year or maybe more’.

Back to basics

Many people see this place as an opportunity to strip life back to basics. All people on the street, tourists, workers, residents look very similar – all are in their outdoor clothes. A lady in the airplane mistook my jacket with hers after landing – all passengers had the same look. There are no fashion shops in Longyearbyen – sportswear’s only.
My conversation partner, who spent eight years in Longyearbyen likes it: ‘Nobody here takes care how cool you are dressed today and what kind apartment you have. I just came from Oslo, the people there are concerned how they and their houses look like. Here all flats are quite the same, furnished with basics, everybody is temporarily here and nobody is interested what kind of sofa you have. Maybe it is one of these things which make this place particularly attractive’.

Longyearbyen in June 2013. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann
Longyearbyen in June 2013. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

(ACCESS project, Arctic Climate Change Economies and Societies, ‘European Project supported within the Ocean of Tomorrow call of the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme’ and Research Grant by Norwegian Embassy in Helsinki).

Fishing fieldwork, ORHELIA Arctic Yakutia

My last summer entry from this Yakutia fieldwork finally brings me to the fieldwork PRACTICE there with the inhabitants of the Lena Delta and coastal area in Yakutia. As some of you may know, one of our crucial methodological approaches in the ORHELIA project is to marry intensive life-history interviewing with anthropological participant observation, which we believe enables us to understand better people’s life histories and ask more qualified follow-up questions.

Fishing is on industrial scale,but still a deeply culturally rooted practice  & important identity marker
Fishing is on industrial scale,but still a deeply culturally rooted practice & important identity marker

Our programme for the field was to spend half of the time in the village talking to elders about their recollections of the past and their evaluation of the present. The other half we wanted to go out to the summer fishing place and participate in the summer fishing campaign. Continue reading “Fishing fieldwork, ORHELIA Arctic Yakutia”

Finnish, Lithuanian and local resettlers in the 1940s to the Lena Delta

Today I continue fieldwork reports from the ORHELIA fieldwork in the Lena Delta in cooperation with Yakutsk University (NEFU).

During our first walk through the village of Bykov Mys we found out about the great proud but also sad history in Soviet times. Completely unexpected for us was the news of extensive Finnish resettlement to this far northern corner in the 1940s.

Fieldwork partner Ulyana Prokopievna Koloddeznikova investigating old photographs from the glorious and sad past at Bykov Mys
Fieldwork partner Ulyana Prokopievna Koloddeznikova investigating old photographs from the glorious and sad past at Bykov Mys

Just after the Finnish-Russian war, many Finnish people from the Leningrade and Karelia area were deported to the Lena Delta area. The other dominant resettler nation was Lithuanians. Both groups endured huge suffererings on their way to the North and were dropped off without any preparation on the cold Arctic shore. There they had to fish without any equipment and even footwear, so they stood barefoot in the icy water. As they did not have reindeer skins or other warm clothes, eye-witnesses tell they even put newspaper around their feet for protection against the cold. Continue reading “Finnish, Lithuanian and local resettlers in the 1940s to the Lena Delta”

New field site in East Siberia, Lena Delta and Tiksi

Until last year it used to be very easy to get to this fieldsite in the Lena River Delta, because direct flights from Moscow brought you to Tiksi in 6 hours. But last year the Russian army who used to run the airbase in Tiksi closed it, and shipped out all the security equipment, so planes were not allowed to land anymore. Now the airport has reopened under civilian administration, but planes go only from Yakutsk, which means 1000 eur more airfare, complicated schedules and a lot of paperwork with border guards. Tiksi is an amazingly wild place. Our field partners there remember the golden times from the 1960s up to Perestroika, where only the very best people had the privilege to get to Tiksi, where the supply with food was excellent, the conditions of life very close to those in Moscow, salaries high, and working there in the harbour, high ocean shipping or aviation earned besides money also a lot of prestige.

Tiksi central square. Soviet past and fresh paint in a wild frontier town in the Arctic
Tiksi central square. Soviet past and fresh paint in a wild frontier town in the Arctic

Now the settlement runs still a special permit regime as a border region. But while the main town experiences a slow but steady consolidation (healthy shrinking), the former army base Tiksi three close to the airport looks just like after a heavy bombing. But this atmosphere of living among ruins and broken homes creates a flavour of frontier and freedom that is somehow fascinating.
Lidia Kudrivalova remembers that when she moved to Tiksi in 1978 from the small village of Taymylyr, there were hardly any non-European inhabitants there. On a ship along the northern Sea route that moved between Khatanga and Providenia, she was the only Asian looking person and had to endure what we would call today sexual harrassment. So she settled in town and worked for the sewing workshop. Unlike in the other villages in the Lena Delta, Perestroika time felt very tough in Tiksi: the port and the northern sea route administration there closed down completely, and the army bases were heavily downsized. So 10 000 of the 15 000 inhabitants left.  Apartments were cheap and gradually Sakha, Eveny and Evenki people from the surrounding villages came in and bought up the housing. Nowadays the majority of Tiksi’s population is Sakha, Eveny or Evenki, although Russian is still the dominant language in town.

Prices in town immediately surprise. You have to pay the equivalent of 4 EUR for a litre of sterilised milk, or 5 EUR for a kilo of potatoes. So it’s cheaper to buy precious fish, e.g. Nel’ma, for the same kilo price. The basic salary of a kindergarten teacher is for example 300 EUR, so you can imagine that it’s better to get used to locally available cheap or free food, such as fish, hunted duck or goose, and wild reindeer meat.

Oral History of the Arctic – along the shores of the ocean

The Orhelia researchers in the anthropology research team are having an intensive fieldwork season. We collect material that allows us to compare how the inhabitants of Eurasia’s Arctic shoreline were affected by and respond to different state policies designed in capital cities by governments that are very far from the centres of life of our fieldwork friends.

fieldsites ORHELIA project with new extension to Sakha Yakutia in summer 2013
fieldsites ORHELIA project with new extension to Sakha Yakutia in summer 2013

Fieldwork is ongoing in sites in northernmost Finland among the Skolt Sámi (reearcher Nuccio Mazzullo), among the Sámi of Murmansk Oblast (researchers Nina Meschtyb and Lukas Allemann), in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug among Nenets and Komi (researcher Stephan Dudeck), among the Nenets of Yamal (Western Siberia (researchers Roza Laptander and Nina Meschtyb). I hope we will find out on this blog about the fieldwork of our colleagues.
In addition to these established regions, we are extending our geographical project catchment areas further east thanks to the cooperation with our partners at the North Eastern Federal University of Russia in Yakutsk. They are interested enough in our approach to finance our fieldwork in their area of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Anna Stammler-Gossmann went to work with Sakha agropastoralists in the Churapchi municipality of Yakutia, and Florian Stammler went to the northernmost village in the giant Lena River Delta to work with fishermen. In the following blog entries we will share some impressions from that work.

New book about the history of the Sámi from Russia during Soviet times – online open access

My book “The Sámi of the Kola Peninsula: About the life of an ethnic minority in the

Children from several northern indigenous peoples attending the Northern Peoples university studies preparation faculty at the Herzen Pedagogical University in Leningrad
Children from several northern Indigenous Peoples attending the Northern Peoples university studies preparation faculty at the Herzen Pedagogical University in Leningrad (1955)

Soviet Union” has been recently translated into English and published on the internet within the publication series of the Centre for Sámi Studies at the University of Tromsø. Using extensive biographical interviews as a primary source, this oral history study steps into an important research gap and explores the forced resettlements which most of the Sámi in in the Russian part of Lapland had to undergo during the 1930s till 1970s.

You can download and read the book here: http://septentrio.uit.no/samskrift

I would like to thank the Centre for Sámi Studies of the University of Tromsø (Norway) for suggesting to publish an English version of my book within this series, and the programme “Focal Point North” (Tromsø Forskningstiftelse, University of Tromsø) for providing funding for the translation of the German manuscript into English.

Here’s a short description of the book: Continue reading “New book about the history of the Sámi from Russia during Soviet times – online open access”