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
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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.

Reindeer nomadism as profession, lifestyle, passion and love: Sergei Serotetto

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One of the world’s most respected reindeer nomads, 1954-2021, mourning for a friend (all photos in this post © by Florian Stammler) Один из самых уважаемых оленводов , друг ушёл из жизни

The news from the tundra was a shock: last year we celebrated Sergei Serotetto’s 66th birthday together in his chum in the tundra of Yamal. Full of his typical humour and warmheartedness, surrounded by his family of three generations. Now he passed away, on the 27th May, in the tundra. Sergei Serotetto was one of the best-known reindeer herders in the Soviet Union, in post-Soviet Russia, as well as in the rest of the world probably.

Continue reading “Reindeer nomadism as profession, lifestyle, passion and love: Sergei Serotetto”

Rain on snow – how do people and reindeer learn to survive?

This winter and spring we hear again disastrous news from sudden temperature rises and falls, leading to thick ice-crusts on reindeer pastures that block reindeer’s access to their pastures. While the most famous of these events happened in 2014 in the Centre of the Yamal Peninsula, West Siberia, the phenomenon is known probably to reindeer herders all over the Arctic, and several of our colleagues have extensively published on this. In Yamal, however, this does not endanger reindeer herding as a livelihood altogether. The scale in the world’s number one reindeer herding region is different from more marginal regions, which also have less possibilities to help with emergency measures in comparison to the Yamal government that is one of Russia’s richest financially. The winter/spring 2021 icing event in northernmost Yamal raises to me a new question on how we study the movement of adaptation-knowledge between wild animals, domestic animals and humans. Read below how.

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Trust Versus Paranoia: Can the Siberian fire spirit explain the spectacular failure of the UK Covid track and trace app?

Piers Vitebsky and Roza Laptander are going to give an interesting example on how to de-provincialise Arctic social sciences. This time on a topic that could hardly be more timely: they refer to their elaborate ethnographies of indigenous Siberians’ communications with the fire spirit to explain why apps to track the corona virus may fail.

They hold their talk virtually on May 4, 2021, 4.30-6.00 PM (London time) in the University of Cambridge MIASU seminar series. The link was sent to the email list of MIASU only. If you want to listen to their talk, please contact one of the authors ask them if they can share the link with you directly. The event is announced at the MIASU website here

Below is their abstract. I have read a draft paper and can only recommend it. It’s thought provoking for its link of two so contrasting settings, and for its reflections on theories of subjectivity, privacy, anonymity and – of course – spiritual encounters.

Abstract: “We contrast how the UK’s Covid-19 track and trace system gives warnings about exposure to infection, with how the domestic fire in a nomadic reindeer herder’s tent crackles warning about dangers of the Siberian landscape.  This is an issue less of epistemology than of signalling, trust and coherence.  We locate differing configurations of trust and suspicion in social and political context.  The technocratic Covid app de-personalizes tracing, as individualism and concerns about privacy block channels of knowing and narrativity, and encourage non-compliance and conspiracy theories.  In its sociality and acute attention to the environment, the nomad’s fire evokes not the epidemiological model of the besieged bounded body but a divinatory openness to space, time and event which ironically resembles an alternative model of the viral encounter.”

The Northern Sea Route and waterway infrastructure in the Russian Arctic: a seminar on anthropological perspectives

The European University at Saint Petersburg will host a seminar on the Northern Sea Route at its research Center for Arctic Social Studies. The seminar will be held in Russian and English and is organized in collaboration with Tyumen State University.

The seminar will take place in St. Petersburg 23-23 November 2021. Please apply with an abstract (up to 500 words) and a short biography (150 words) until the 31st of May 2021 at sevmorput2021@gmail.com. There will be a limited number of travel grants available and you might indicate your need and potential costs. The results of the selection of speakers will be announced until 30th June 2021.
The participants will be asked to submit a manuscript of their paper until 1st November 2021 (around 5000 words) to be circulated among participants before the seminar. See more detail below in Russian

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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.

KostyaOchep_YSA_98b

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Long live the tundra nomads!

Just found out from the local news that in the Novyi Urengoy hospital two Nenets elders survived covid-19 and recovered from pneumonia, at the age of more than 100 years! These elders are so tough! I have also had the honour of meeting quite many people over 100 years old in the tundra particularly during our oral history project, who lived most of their lives with minimal imported stuff: eating mostly meat and fish, bread and tea. Little sugar, being outdoors 24/7 in Yamal, or in the chum, which in terms of fresh air is basically also outdoors:) . This shows that a lifestyle like that is perfectly healthy for the human body, much more so than a life in towns, let alone apartment blocks in skyscrapers… I dedicate this entry to all elders friends I have encountered throughout my field trips since the 1990s, and thank them for their openness, cooperation and their teachings.

Pupta_Pudanasevich_Yamal_2001
Pupta Pudanasevich Yamal, Tambei tundra, spring 2001. He was the ‘father’ of our oral history project, gave the idea for it. He was then over 100 years old, and remembers how Evladov came to visit him the tundra in the 1920s!

Language, silence and climate in Yamal

In spring we were proud to host the world’s first anthropological PhD defence in english by a Nenets colleague, Roza Laptander. Now we are happy that she got her first postdoc employment in the big EU Charter project that looks at biodiversity changes, reindeer herding and the climate. We continue working with Roza in work package three of that project, and in this function she shared thoughts on socio-linguistic research, the Yamal Nenets and her work on silence and stories in a video, which you can watch here.