Academic journal article Human Ecology

Viliui Sakha Post-Soviet Adaptation: A Subarctic Test of Netting's Smallholder-Householder Theory

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Viliui Sakha Post-Soviet Adaptation: A Subarctic Test of Netting's Smallholder-Householder Theory

Article excerpt

The Sakha of northeastern Siberia, Russia, are the highest latitude contemporary agropastoralists practicing horse and cattle husbandry. In the last 100 years their rural livelihood has gone from household-level subsistence food production in clan clusters of single-family homesteads scattered across the landscape, to village-level state agribusiness farm production in compact settlements dependent on Soviet socialist infrastructure, to the present-day post-socialist reliance on household-level subsistence food production. This paper explores how Viliui Sakha are adapting in the post-Soviet context. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the concomitant dissolution of the centralized state farm system, rural inhabitants have developed household and interhousehold food production capacities based on keeping cows and relying on exchange among kin. One of the basic tenets of Robert Netting's smallholder--householder theory is that in times of change, the household system is the most resilient subsistence production unit because of specific qualities including intimate ecological knowledge and implicit labor contracts. This research shows in what ways Netting's householder theory applies for subarctic agropastoralists.

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KEY WORDS: Viliui Sakha; cultural ecology; circumpolar indigenous peoples; agropastoralism; post-Soviet.

INTRODUCTION

The transition from a communist infrastructure to a market economy presents a great challenge to indigenous agropastoralists of the former Soviet Union. The Sakha (Yakut) are a Turkic-speaking people today numbering approximately 360,000 and inhabiting the Sakha Republic of northeastern Siberia, Russia (Fig. 1). (2) Rural Sakha practice horse and cattle breeding, a subsistence strategy brought to the northern latitudes by their southern Turkic ancestors in approximately the fifteenth century (Forsyth, 1992; Gogolov, 1980, 1993; Ksenofontov, 1992). Tungus, most notably Evenk, and nonagropastoralist Sakha were the reindeer-herding inhabitants of the Viliui Regions prior to colonization by Sakha agropastoralists. Today rural Evenk, Even, Yukagir, and Dolgan are the other ethnic groups inhabiting the Sakha Republic. They herd reindeer, hunt, fish, and forage. Viliui Sakha inhabit the Viliui River watershed areas of the western Sakha Republic. They, along with the Sakha of the central region, make up the two ethnic enclaves of horse and cattle breeding Sakha, the highest latitude practicing agropastoralists in the world today. Sakha constitute the majority of the Viliui watershed where one third of the total Sakha population live.

Prior to the seventeenth century, Sakha practiced subsistence horse and cattle husbandry in relative isolation from the outside world. The centuries that followed saw increasing infringement by Russian colonists on Sakhas' lands and resource wealth. With the twentieth-century Soviet collectivization process, Sakha were forced to give up their traditional subsistence lifestyle, including their private holdings, and live in compact villages to work in some facet of the Soviet agroindustrial farming system. The early 1990s demise of Soviet power and the concomitant loss of those encompassing agrarian infrastructures presents Sakha with a variety of problems related to adopting new subsistence strategies in the post-socialist context.

In this paper I show that subsistence survival in the twenty-first century for rural Viliui Sakha is based on household-level cultural ecology, focusing on keeping cows and exchanging labor and products with kin (Crate, 2001). This paper takes up Robert Netting's smallholder--householder theory (1993). Netting argues that in times of change, the household system is the most resilient unit for subsistence production, having both integrity and longevity through ethnic, political, and geographic changes because of its specific qualities. First, the household is a repository of ecological knowledge with which its members are able to make the most effective use of resources on the basis of their intimate understanding of the specific microenvironments of their smallholding. …

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