Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

'The Last Kulak' and Other Stories of Post-Privatisation Life in Chukotka's Tundra

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

'The Last Kulak' and Other Stories of Post-Privatisation Life in Chukotka's Tundra

Article excerpt

Abstract

Privatisation of state farms in Russia precipitated a crisis in the reindeer herding economy. Chukotka once had the largest domestic reindeer herd in Russia, and the plummet in Chukotka's reindeer headcounts was steeper than anywhere else in the country. At the same time, reindeer herding in some regions of Russia, such as Yamal, remained relatively stable. This paper argues that much of the difference between Chukotka and other regions can be attributed to the particular, and very political, nature of the social relationship between local tundra-dwelling populations and the most immediate representative of the state apparatus that they face: the district administration. Using stories told by tundradwellers in one district of Chukotka, the paper explores the frustrations they experienced as their efforts to take more control of their own local situation were stymied by those in the bureaucracy above them. It concludes that politics and power relations should not be overlooked as a crucial factor in determining regionally-variable outcomes in post-privatisation reindeer herding in the Russian north, and can overpower or exacerbate economic and ecological factors. Keywords: reindeer herding, privatisation, bureaucracy, local politics, obshchina movement, Russian Far East, Chukotka

Introduction (1)

   What stories and histories represent or depict is not precisely
   physical events but human experiences, actions, and sufferings.

David Cart, Time, Narrative, and History, 1986

The Chukchis and Evens of western Chukotka led a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life for hundreds of years, until mid-twentieth-century campaigns by the Soviet state for the most part settled them in permanent villages (Bogoras 1904-09, 1918; Nikolaev 1964: Sverdrup 1978; Vdovin 1965; Tugolukov et al. 1997). Settlement did not mean immobility; Chukotkan reindeer herders in the Soviet period continued to migrate with state herds, but were obligated to follow pasture rotation plans imposed from above, and to work according to a shift method: 12 hours on, 12 hours off, with scheduled trips to their village apartments for periodic breaks from the tundra. Movement of people and supplies eventually became dependent on helicopter transportation, and the easy availability of helicopter flights gave a whole new meaning to nomadic migration. The Soviets brought drastic changes to the lifestyle and social organisation of tundra-dwelling Chukotkans, but at least the Soviet state supported the continuation of the one activity that meant the most to them: herding reindeer. That state support, as well as the ready availability of helicopter transportation, began to break down when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and a sweeping privatisation programme was implemented all across Russia. How are these once-nomadic peoples living today in this post-privatisation context?

In Chukotka, privatisation of the state farms precipitated a crisis in the reindeer herding economy, the details of which have by now been well documented (Gray 2000, 2003; Jernsletten and Klokov 2002; Krupnik 2000; Ulvevadet and Klokov 2004). Chukotka once had the largest domestic reindeer herd in the entire USSR, and the plummet in Chukotka's reindeer headcounts was steeper than anywhere else in the country. Herds were decimated by an unprecedented convergence of detrimental factors, including wolf predation, mismanagement, repeated icing-over of tundra, opportunistic slaughtering by carpet-bagging entrepreneurs, and a startling rise in the wild reindeer population coupled with a change in their migration routes that clashed most unfortuitously with domestic reindeer herds. Statistics can tell a vivid story about these changes: the reindeer headcount in Chukotka plummeted from a peak of 540,000 in 1980 to less than 100,000 by 2001; (2) the number of people employed in reindeer herding dropped from 2,272 in 1976 to 837 in 2001; (3) village populations shifted as former herders moved around seeking other employment opportunities. …

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