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

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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 , ,

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.

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

“Drinking and Driving is so much Fun” – Arctic Workshop at the University of Tartu in Estonia May 31 – June 1, 2013

“Drinking and driving is so much fun” is an unusual title for an anthropological workshop. It was just the right provocation to induce serious reflections on something that anthropologists usually reserve for the famous “corridor talk” during conferences, when they discuss ambivalent fieldwork experiences difficult to integrate into the success stories of anthropological research.

The drunken native is such a powerful stereotype in the Russian North serving mostly disrespect and marginalisation that it is quite a risky endeavour for outsiders to discuss drinking in Siberia. The theme is such a blind spot in the anthropology of Siberia that it is high time to skip the superficial and stereotypical images and develop some deeper understanding of the manifold aspects linked to alcohol.

Alcohol the Еnemy of Reason - from Russia with irony

Alcohol the Еnemy of Reason – from Russia with irony (photo by Laura Siragusa)

The presentations of the workshop took up the task of challenging these stereotypes by careful ethnographic description and analysis, but also to understand the powerful role stereotypes play in the public discourse. Art Leete traced them back to antiquity where the northern barbarian neighbours of the Greeks where already believed to be heavy drinkers of undiluted wine. He followed this image of drinking northerners through Montesquieu up to the ethnographic literature of the 19th and early 20th century. Explanations for this north-south distinction in drinking changed over time but were always linked to some kind of “nature” of the North or the northerners. The nowadays most popular and widespread of these “natural” reasons of deviant drinking habits of northern people was taken up by Aimar Ventsel. His presentation shed light on the belief that the lack of an enzyme or gene dooms the indigenous peoples of Siberia to suffer from serious alcohol problems. He was not the only one during the workshop who made the important point, that stereotypes are not only used to marginalise indigenous groups. They serve as well the arguments of ethnic movements that criticise alcohol by declaring it to be foreign to their groups and an instrument of colonial domination. Genes that influence the ability to metabolise alcohol were mentioned also in the keynote speech of Jaanus Harro. He revealed that in certain populations in Asia the percentage of people having a genetically determined lack of particular enzymes is higher than in Europe. This slows down metabolising and let these people feel the effects of alcohol stronger. Substances that block the same enzymes are used in therapies of alcohol addiction to cause an aversion effect. One could therefore conclude quite opposite to the public belief that people genetically lacking the described enzymes are naturally protected from the long-time effects of excessive drinking.

Anna Stammler Gossmann investigated the role of stereotypes in national self-stylisation. She used the term “alcoholity” to describe how self-images but also state regulations are determining different conventions linked to alcohol consume in nation states. One of the main insights of anthropology in the human consumption of alcohol is that even the most uncontrolled and deviant drunken behaviour is framed by expectations and conventions in the respecting social environment. The “alcoholities” of nations like the Russians or the Finns are setting the reference point that the drinking habits of minority groups are judged from.

Most of the presented research centred either on the Khanty and Nenets of Western Siberia and the Northern Russian tundra or on cases from the Republic of Sakha/Yakutia. Ina Schröder, Karina Lukin, Kirill Istomin, Laur Vallikivi and I described drinking cultures from the first mentioned region. It became obvious that practices reaching from excessive or almost self-destructive drinking (described by Ina, Karina, Kirill and myself) to temperance of women (described by myself) or protestant converts (described by Laur) structure the internal distinctions of gender-, age-, and local groups as well as the differences to the mainstream society. They determine even settlement geography and movements of the nomadic reindeer herders as Kirill Istomin exemplified. Drunkenness enables dangerous contacts with the dead and is a source of humour as Ina Schröder reported. It produces persistent negative images that influenced seriously ethnographic fieldwork in the case of Karina Lukin. I focussed on the impact of transgressive behaviour that aims at the joint losing of face.

Norman Prell, Tatiana Argunova-Low, Otto Habeck and Yuri Zhegusov

Norman Prell, Tatiana Argunova-Low, Otto Habeck and Yuri Zhegusov (photo by Laura Siragusa)

For Yakutia Tatiana Argunova-Low and Yuri Zhegusov used sociological and anthropological methods to describe the ethnic differences in drinking and how concepts of agency and responsibility for alcohol related problems are influenced by the dominant therapy of alcoholism in the Russian Federation called “coding”.  Norman Prell and Eleanor Peers described very different social contexts in which alcohol and the absence of alcohol play an important role. Norman Prell discussed communities of migrant workers on a construction site and Russian settlers on the road from Yakutsk to Magadan. Eleanor focussed on the role of drinking in the main Sakha ritual, the Yhyakh festival, and how the nationalist revival promoted an alcohol ban during the festival.

Only Laura Siragusa presented an exclusion of these two regional foci with her talk about the Veps minority of the Russian North. Drinking problems are often considered to be the result of assimilation processes. Laura’s future research will test this hypothesis by exploring the link of language and alcohol in a broader sense going beyond the focus on language shift and the negative consequences of heavy drinking.

Otto Habeck's presentation - from the US with irony

Otto Habeck’s presentation – from the US with irony (photo by Laura Siragusa)

Joachim Otto Habeck’s presentation touched again an overarching but often neglected theme connected with drinking practices – hangover. Like Jaanus Harro he provided important insides from medical research that provide the background for a better understanding of the rich folklore and popular practices how to evaluate and treat the hangover. Hangover is probably also connected to a very specific drinking pattern called “zapoi” in Russian. The periodic and episodic drinking formerly associated with the medical concept of dipsomania was mentioned several times as a common and even accepted drinking phenomenon. Another current theme was the link of feelings of guilt, inferiority, and shame associated with drinking but also appearing with the hangover. Shame as a guardian of behavioural borders linked to social reputation and respect is often involved in drinking that transgresses these borders. The phrase “Do you respect me?” as a mean to force ones vis-à-vis to keep up with drinking is well known to all (male) researchers in Russia. It prevents the invited person to induce a shameful situation of unequal drunkenness. I observed this pressure to join excessive drinking mostly among young males that suffer from the feeling of status insecurity that rises while consuming alcohol. Shame serves also to keep information about drinking practices and the practices itself hidden inside narrow social groups. This way it helps to maintain the borders of the drinking groups as collectives of complicity and enables the ritual inclusion of outsiders by drinking into these collectives.

Does alcohol as a potent drink have itself agency? And if so what kind of agency? This was another important question raised during the discussion. Alcohol has obviously the ability to influence the possibilities and responsibilities of human action severely. My impression is that the allocation of power to alcohol itself is only obscuring the agency of social relationships that are at work when people engage in drinking. I would consider alcohol only the catalyst for these relationships to reinforce their power or deprive other social relationships of their agency. In the same way in which agency attributed to money hides the power of economic relationships that define the monetary system, social relationships are hiding behind the agency of alcohol or of the treatment of alcoholism. It will be the future task of anthropological research in Siberia to investigate the correlation of alcohol and agency more deeply.

The discussion revealed a lot of other themes that where not or only superficially touched in the papers and would deserve to be discussed in detail in a following workshop. Such peculiar places for drinking parties as the Russian sweat bath “bania” as well as the summerhouse “datcha” where not discussed. Characteristic drinking traditions like the practice of otmyvat’ (wash) achievements and acquisitions and the episodic “zapoi” where touched only shortly in the discussion. The eminent influence of the drinking habits of settlers and migrant workers, which is so influential for the local drinking cultures in Siberia, was only touched in Norman Prell’s paper. Aimar Ventsel discussed shortly the present changes in gendered drinking practices, the on-going switch from vodka to beer, and the diversification process in drinking habits. Tatiana Argunova-Low pointed on the methodological difficulties that research and writing about alcohol constitute for anthropologist working in Siberia. Stereotypes about marginalised social groups and the morally charged discourse about alcohol make it difficult to write about drinking. The physical and social effects of alcohol and personal security make it difficult to engage in participant observation of drinking.

The Russian restaurant Vassilissa in the heart of Tartu

The Russian restaurant Vassilissa in the heart of Tartu (photo by Laura Siragusa)

There is a lot to do in the research on drinking in Siberia and I hope that the ambivalence of fun and hangover and the moral taboos will not prevent anthropologists to focus on this topic. The workshop in Tartu was a wonderful opportunity to get an impression how huge and unexplored is the field of alcohol studies in Siberia. The anthropology of drinking in Siberia was taken out of its niche of „corridor talk“, but Tartu was also the perfect place to discuss very personal experiences of Siberian fieldwork with good friends under the influence of the one or the other glass of vodka or alcohol free beverages in the evenings. As the majority of participants I am very much looking for a follow up of “Drinking and Driving is so much Fun”!

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Anthropology of polar bears

“Polar bear, polar bear what do you see?   I see an anthropologist fearing of me.”

polar bear safe areas on the settlement map

polar bear safe areas on the settlement map

The city map of Longyearbyen is colored according to the secure areas without polar bear protection – the darker the color, the safer is to walk around. The house where I am located is one of the last houses, between the Sukkertoppen hill (371 m) and the shore (last dark brownish house in the middle row on the map). It is an area, colored in light pink, between intensive ‘secure’ pink (down town, around 1 km) and almost white, ‘unsecure’ color. Continue reading

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Svalbard Spitzbergen Arctic logistic: From the Arctic Circle to the very North – through the very South

Greetings from Svalbard!

From North to the Arctic through the South

From North to the Arctic through the South

It is a bit chilly here in Longyearbyen, especially if you come from the South, I mean from the Arctic Circle, where it was +24 when I left Rovaniemi. Some snowflakes were falling down during the day and there are still some snow islands in

the town. It is my solo expedition to the almost top of the world – Svalbard, between the North Pole and Norway mainland. To come up here I made a loop from the Arctic Circle (Rovaniemi, Lapland) to the South – first to Helsinki, then to Oslo. From Oslo – back to the North (Tromso) and then finally to Svalbard.

Anyway, every place from here is in the very South.  The distance between Oslo and Svalbard is approximately the same like between Oslo and Tunisia in Africa. Great opportunity to do my community research on the anthropology of sea water is supported by Norwegian embassy in Helsinki and EU ACCESS project.

Here are first picture impressions from flying in to this: beautiful landscape.

Arctic Snowscape in June

Arctic Snowscape in June

landing soon

landing soon


Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Posted in All, Announcements, Fennoscandia

Teaching abroad (in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia, Russia)

Writing blog entries is definitely not my life element. However, sometimes you realize that it is a good place to highlight some activities going on at the Arctic Centre and thank our supporting funding agencies, which make these activities possible. Anthropology of climate change, sea water, snow as well as indigeneity and space issues were in the focus of my lectures series and workshops in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia. There were active, curious students and interested docents. The only difference between teaching at our Arctic Studies Program in Finland and teaching at the Yakutsk University and Arctic State Institute was the number of students: up to 30 in Lapland University and up to 200 in Yakutsk.

My activities in the Far North were supported by the University of Arctic and EU FP 7 ACCESS project (Arctic Climate Change Economies and Society)

Anna Stammler-Gossmann

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