Arctic anthropology of Arctic biology (Svalbard fieldwork, June 2013)

Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Polar bear and community of Longyearbyen

Of course, the polar bear is the most prominent animal symbol of Svalbard. Once an animal is charged with this representational status, it means, as Franklin states, that every positive act towards it simultaneously endorses the nation or group that it represents (Franklin, A. 2006. Animal Nation: the True Story of Animals in Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, p.7; more about animal symbolism see Anna Stammler-Gossmann. 2010. Political animals of Sakha Yakutia. Stammler F., Takakura H. eds., Good to eat, good to live with: Nomads and animals in Northern Eurasia and Africa. Sendai: Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku university, p. 153-178). Maybe we can apply this statement to the Longyearbyen community?

Different images of the polar bear represent the variety of forms related to this animal upon governmental regulations, tourist activities, scientific research and media. It should be protected, it should attract tourists, it is a soft toy and it is a predator. Maybe the different values attributed to this animal symbol contribute to building a symbolic ‘common place’ for this diverse and fluctuating society? Definitely, there is an interesting interplay between rational and social values attributed to this animal.

Polar bear in the church. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Polar bear in the church. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

When you land in Longyearbyen, the first thing you hear of when you read in the safety instructions and the “Svalbard Rules of Common Sense” or start talking with the tourists or locals is the polar bear. Polar bears have become the charismatic symbol for all climate change related issues: melting sea ice, environmental awareness, global warming and the most vulnerable species.

‘Environmental’ T-Shirt: The North Pole today and in 50 years. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

‘Environmental’ T-Shirt: The North Pole today and in 50 years. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

They are carefully protected by law, there are no polar bear safaris on Svalbard. Global hunt for polar bear guard attracts 300 applicants (Icepeople 5/25, July 9, 2013). Local officials are concerned about the increasing number of film crews, both Norwegian and from abroad, that are perhaps too keen to film the protected polar bears in action. A film team working for the BBC on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is being fined NOK 50,000 (nearly USD 10,000) for allegedly disturbing a polar bear mother and her two cubs. (http://www.newsinenglish.no/2013/03/19/film-team-fined-on-svalbard/).

 

However, it is the world’s largest land carnivores and humans are considered as an alien element in the polar bear’s habitat (Norwegian Polar Institute http://www.svalbard.net/en/Svalbard/?News=4). Usually one bear is shot every year due to the endangerment of people’s life. This year, it was already two bears (personal conversation). One of the ‘Longyearbyen bears’ is displayed in the hospital entry hall. It is related to a dramatic story from 1987.

Polar bear of the Longyearbyen hospital. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Polar bear of the Longyearbyen hospital. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Drama of 1987 on Edgeøya. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Drama of 1987 on Edgeøya. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

That year two Dutch biologists at the Kapp Lee station on Edgeøya, Piet Oosterveid and Georg Visser, were badly injured by this young polar bear. As Hacquebord pointed it out, indirectly, this event led to the end of a Dutch research station in the High Arctic.  In 1989 it was sold for a symbolic sum to the Norwegian Polar Institute. On the instruction of Piet Oosterveld, the executive committee terminated the Foundation for Arctic Biological Research that supported his research activities, thus putting an end to one of the most important Dutch research initiatives in the Arctic since the Second World War.  (Hacquebord, L. 2004. Permanence in diversity. A life in the service of Arctic Biological Research. Boschman, N., Hacquebord, L. (eds). 2004. Permanence in diversity. Netherlands Ecological Research on Edgeøya, Spitsbergen. Groningen: Arctic Centre, RUG. p.10).

The residents of Longyearbyen to whom I talked, definitely did not like to talk about current accidents with polar bears, which happened in the last years (see http://www.sysselmannen.no/en/News/No-criminal-charges-after-the-polar-bear-accident-at-Von-Postbreen/).  I suppose, it is not a pleasant topic to discuss with visitors. It may harm the charismatic image of the polar bear and may have an impact on tourist activities, governmental safety efforts, scientific research, and finally on this small Arctic community. Living in this environment, where the risk of this wild animal is very high and at the same time, where the polar bear symbol is so important, animal symbolism reveals a potential to constitute community commonalities.

Svalbard reindeer

When I showed a picture of a Svalbard reindeer to my Sami reindeer herder friend, his first reaction was: ‘that’s not a reindeer’. A sharp difference to the Eurasian mainland reindeer shows in short-legs, relatively round heads and a thick coat. This reindeer population represents the morphology typical on artcic islands and the Greenland origin of the Svalbard reindeer seems probable (Hakala, A. et al. 1986. Taxonomy and history of Arctic island reindeer with special reference to Svalbard reindeer. Rangifer, Special issues 1: 360).

Svalbard reindeer, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Svalbard reindeer, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Their behavior is also different from reindeer that I have observed in Finland and Russia. Svalbard reindeer are not nomadic and live individually or in small groups (see Reimers, E. 2012. Svalbard reindeer population size and trends in four sub-areas of Edgeøya. Polar Research 31). They are less dependent on the lichens then relatives on the mainland and feed on almost any type of vegetation. All the plants in question are more resistant to grazing and trampling. And that is why the pastures’ carrying capacity becomes ‘a floating concept’ in Svalbard, as Reimers states (Reimers 2012).

I haven’t seen any polar bears roaming around, but I have met a reindeer almost every day. They do not have any natural enemies, except for some cases where polar bears or Arctic foxes occasionally prey on weak or newborn animals. There are no mosquito clouds around the reindeer like I observed in the Nenets tundra and the Verkhoiansk mountains (Barents region and Siberia, Russia) – they harass and can even kill a reindeer. Svalbard reindeer are not afraid of people and you may see them peacefully grazing around the houses. Restricted hunting is allowed in some areas of Nordensköld Land (The governor of Svalbard. http://www.sysselmannen.no/en/Toppmeny/About-Svalbard/Animals/). Reindeer population appears to be at a record high this year. There have not been so many reindeer since records began in 1979 (Icepeople 5/25, July 9, 2013)

 

Svalbard reindeer, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Svalbard reindeer, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

‘Exotic’ species.

There are not so many pets in this permanently fluctuating community on Svalbard. I have not seen anybody working with a dog. To bring a dog to Svalbard requires permission from the Norwegian Food Safety Authority. The permit is granted for one year at a time. No permissions to bring cat to Svalbard are given (the governor of Svalbard http://www.sysselmannen.no/en/Shortcuts/Pets/). However, these two cats I saw in the Russian settlement of Svalbard, Barentsburg. Maybe it is a post-Soviet cats’ generation? Anyway, they are great companions, who comfort the – mainly single – males, who are working hard, away from their home.

Cats of Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Cats of Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

 

In Barentsburg I discovered another ‘post-Soviet’ animal – a pig. There is a small pig shed still left over from Soviet times, whereas only abandoned houses with a cow’s picture on the wall remain of the former cow farm. Pork is almost the only fresh product in the local canteen menu. The community receives basic food supplies one or two times a year by boat from Murmansk.

‘Pig house’ in Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

‘Pig house’ in Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Pig of Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Pig of Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

 

Pig of Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Pig of Barentsburg. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

A really exotic animal for this latitude is a penguin in the shopping centre that holds the sign of the sushi restaurant. Why penguin? I became curious as far as I always thought that there are no penguins in the Arctic. Or are there? I just asked the people in the sushi restaurant and found out that ‘they were here’.

‘Arctic’ penguin. Sushi canteen in Longyearbyen. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

‘Arctic’ penguin. Sushi canteen in Longyearbyen. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

 

Snow crab

In September 2011 the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen (Norway) published information that one alien species, the snow crab, was caught in the eastern part of Svalbard waters (Institute of Marine Research. Fant snøkrabbe ved Svalbard, September 6, 2011,  http://www.imr.no/nyhetsarkiv/2011/september/fant_snokrabbe_ved_svalbard/nb-no). Recent findings of Russian scientists in relation to the biomass of snow crab in the Barents Sea were unexpected: it is ten times higher than another alien species, the King Crab (Institute of marine research, Ti ganger mer snøkrabbe enn kongekrabbe,  April 24, 2013, http://www.imr.no/nyhetsarkiv/2013/april/ti_ganger_mer_snokrabbe_enn_kongekrabbe/nb-no). The King Crab was intentionally introduced to the Barents Sea in the 1960s by Soviet scientists. There are different views on the scale of changes caused by these species in the Barents Sea ecosystem (see Herbold, B. and Moyle, P.B. 1986. Introduced species and vacant niches. Am. Nat. 128:751-760; Owen, J. 2004. Giant Crab ‘red army’ invades Norway, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/0309_040309_giantcrabs.html;  Norwegian Ministry of the Environment. 2007. Strategy on invasive alien species; Fishnet.ru. 2008 Камчатский краб не наносит серьезного ущерба донной фауне Баренцева моря, http://www.fishnet.ru/news/novosti_otrasli/8363.html ).

However, it has brought new economic activities for the coastal communities of Eastern Norway, as I observed during my fieldwork in 2012 (Blog entries June 2012 Kings, predators and research on the northern top of Europe. https://arcticanthropology.org/2012/06/14/kings-predators-and-research-on-the-northern-top-of-europe/; Havet (ocean) – is giving and taking. https://arcticanthropology.org/2012/06/19/access-project-arctic-climate-change-economy-and-society/; see  Karlsbakk, J.2013. Cold king Crab catch. http://barentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2013/01/cold-king-crab-catch-04-01) .

It is not clear yet how the snow crab has spread to the area – by ballast water or by natural migration (Institute for Marine Research, Ibid). Are the ‘newcomers’ burden or asset of the Barents Sea and for the coastal communities? Is it a serious threat to biodiversity or a valuable resource?

The Svalbard governor’s office is concerned about the growth of the snow crab population and has decided to delay the official release of its invasive species action plan in order to incorporate this new information (Barents Observer, June 24, 2013; http://barentsobserver.com/en/nature/2013/06/storm-snow-crabs-24-06; Icepeople 5/25, June 25).

(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)

 

Posted in All, Fennoscandia, Fieldwork

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).

Posted in All, Fennoscandia, Fieldwork, oral history

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

Posted in All, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Russian North, Theoretical Issues | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

From the Gold Road to the Golden River of Ivalo and its People (June 2013)

(text by Terhi Vuojala-Magga, photos Stephan Dudeck)

Visiting Terhi in Kuttura was an adventure, once again – and meeting Stephan was a joy, once again (or Steppa, as we call him, in a more familiar way). We don‘t know how much anthropology plays a role in our lives, or the other way around, are we such people that everything taking place in our everyday life seems to bring out new curios questions and interests? Maybe we anthropologist are allowed to be children of naïve curiosity. Sometimes research interests and our professional and personal encounters just mingle together, spontaneously. While meeting new friends and having new talks common questions suddenly rise up. In our case, we went to meet Terhi´s husband’s brother on the other side of the river. Stephan sees this tall wooden female figure made by one gold digger. At this blood stunning moment – a story starts taking us around the gold lands of Sámi people and gold diggers that are called ‘migrating birds’ according to a song of Souvarit.

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The Two Gold Diggers’ Place

In a few days’ time we dived in the world of encounters of the local Sámi and gold diggers – altogether nice and friendly people. We started from a place of two different gold diggers in the forest. It was not a gold claim in its traditional way – Terhi’s husband took us to the abandoned place that revealed the story of two different men.

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Terhi and her Husband at the Place

This place is on the private land of one Kuttura man, but we learned that friendship is more than land. It offered a place for an old gold digger to settle down nearby the village next to the people who would be close to him in case he needs help. He had known the people of Kuttura for decades. At the beginning his claim was 10 km away from Kuttura but finally he ended up in this place of physical closeness to villagers. How did we feel? One of the most touching impressions was that this place keeps up the memory of these two men – a home in the wilderness.

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Wooden Art by Runoränni

The second day was a beautiful day with a lot of sunshine and our story carries on. Funny to remember afterwards – when the best things happen, and you live them, there is no camera. We went to the gold diggers´ cafeteria – in the middle of nowhere on a crossroads in the forest – but it is a place crowded with gold people during the summer months. Having an hour or two we had talks with some people from the forest. How small is the world: from the very first people to talked with we heard quite many stories about the two people whose place we visited the previous day.

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Terhi with the Gold Diggers Pans

The other couple we met did not have those happy stories to tell, just because they were facing serious problems with the Sami Parliament. Their application to use machinery digging was refused, and the case was appointed to the high court of Vaasa. However, they were happy enough to be allowed to do the shovel work – and they were good friends with some of the local reindeer herders of Kuttura. Their argument was based on a trustful relationship with the locals. According to them, they would not do anything, which could harm the reindeer husbandry of the local people.

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Gold Digger’s Old Car

In the nearby ski resort of Saariselkä there is a pub called Panimo, which is the other meeting point of gold men, and women. The discussions were spreading all around different issues – from the sailor’s international language to the life of rich Finns living in Palm Beach of Florida. Once again, the people with whom we talked were gold diggers. Some of them had already found their permanent place in Saariselkä and they lived in the north for the year around. An old gold digger told a story of Jaakko. “Jaakko lived most of his life in the wilderness, in a stave cabin. There was a simple fire place made out of stones. Throughout the year, he wore frieze clothes. When the temperature was below -50°C he stated: “Yes, I had to warm the cabin a bit more often”. When he was over 80 years old and had a sore leg, social workers had to force him to the old people´s nursery home. Otherwise that cold winter would have been his destiny.”

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Bridge over the Ivalo River near Kuttura

Before returning back to Kuttura, we visited one of the claims. We had a nice talk about life itself in the wilderness. No more talks about gold, but wild life. These people had have three cats; some years ago a white one disappeared for good, last year the other one disappeared for one week, and the owner had stayed one week longer, just to wait for the cat to come, and eventually she had appeared. People had encounters with white elks (moose), with bears and foxes. One of the foxes had been so tamed that it had come to eat from the hand.

Kuttura Road

Kuttura Road

This land of Lapland – it is so rich with its people and animals. Winters are full of reindeer work, winter animals – but summers, with day and night sun shine, are those times of new encounters of peoples and birds from the south. It would be interesting to study more stories of gold people and locals – for our ears and eyes some of the conflicts we read from newspapers or academic works become less important, at least on a local level.

Posted in All, Extractive Industries, Fennoscandia, Sámi | Tagged ,

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

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Bykov Mys, fuzzy ethnic identities at the edge of an eroding Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean

From Tiksi you go another 50 km by motor boat to the village of Cape Bykov (Bykov Mys), where 500 people engage at 72 degrees northern latitude and harsh climate engage in coastal fishing all over the Lena River Delta.

Bykov Mys, fishing village at the mouth of the Lena River at the Laptev Sea

Bykov Mys, fishing village at the mouth of the Lena River at the Laptev Sea

Continue reading

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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.

Posted in All, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Russian North | Tagged , ,