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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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

Posted in All, Fennoscandia, Fieldwork, oral history, Russian North | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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

Posted in All, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, Russian North, Theoretical Issues | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

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