The Social Life of the State in Subarctic Siberia

Article excerpt

Nikolai V. Ssorin-Chaikov. The Social Life of the State in Subarctic Siberia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. xiv, 261 pages. Illustrations. Bibliographical references. Index. Cloth.

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov in The Social Life of the State in Subarctic Siberia provides an intriguing anthropological history of the state stretching from imperial Russia's expansion into Siberia and the Russian Far East to the post-Soviet legacy of contemporary Russia. His work is rich both in its theory and its integration of lived ethnographic experiences that break down the facile distinctions between modern and traditional (or primitive depending on the particular ideology and perspective), the state and the stateless and the forever changing and the timeless. In tracing back the history of one population the Evenki of the Katonga area, he provides an intriguing social history of both the region and that of the state and states that have sought to control, govern and continually reform the region, while using the "failures" generated by past reforms to justify new and different reforms.

The underlying paradox of the state in Siberia is both its weakness and it ability to infiltrate and influence social life at all levels. It is both a Potemkin village in that the imperial Russian state as well as the Soviet state at its apex were not as overwhelmingly powerful as they appeared from the outside. In the case of the former, "conquered" populations were to pay tribute, but often deftly evaded paying tribute in spite of the state's best efforts. Likewise, it was claimed that Soviet power arrived in the Evenki region of Katonga in the 1950's in spite of the ample evidence that Soviet officials had been actively reforming the region since the 1920's, each generation of reformers claiming to bring modernity to the Evenki, the "stateless" "children of nature" seen as leading a "traditional" life that was either a form of "pure socialism" or inegalitarian society dominated by rich kulak reindeer-herders exploiting the poor and the weak depending of the ideological point of view being adopted at a given time.

In his account of the Evenki, Chaikov provides an intriguing account of the logic of the Soviet system that was based on the building of an ideal in which the end point was always deferred and the unfinished construction was the justification for continual reform and even more resources. This is chronicled in Chaikov's account whereby, over the course of the Soviet period, increasing numbers people herded fewer reindeer and "traditional" reindeer herders spent less time and energy herding, relying upon state subsidies that encouraged the development of an Evenki lumpenproletariat that it was seeking to modernize.

Chaikov's account builds upon other accounts of the internal logic of communist economies and societies such as Katherine Verdery's and Caroline Humphrey's accounts of socialist societies, to fully explain the continual and unending social change occurring in the Siberian periphery. Chaikov, for example, examines the role of the collective farm in the decline in reindeer herding and the concurrent growth of the personnel and the rise in foraging at the expense of herding. Chaikov argues: "the existing collective-farm system was a bargaining structure for the allocation of labour, the latter, in turn, was a lifestyle that was within the state economic sector yet based mostly on subsistence and trapping" (p. 128). In the same vein, rather than undermining state socialism, shortages were the driving force of an expanding Soviet-style economy in which they reinforced the "bureaucratic incentive to maximize redistributive power" (p. 120).

The process of declining herds and increasing subsistence activities was fuelled as reindeer herders worked within the system to avoid herding in favour of trapping, and new workers were brought in to herd, who in turn would also seek to hunt instead of trapping or would simply finds ways of staying in the village. …