Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Is Siberian Reindeer Herding in Crisis? Living with Reindeer Fifteen Years after the End of State Socialism

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Is Siberian Reindeer Herding in Crisis? Living with Reindeer Fifteen Years after the End of State Socialism

Article excerpt


Most commentators on Siberian reindeer herding conclude that the dramatic drop in the numbers of domestic reindeer after the collapse of state socialism point to a crisis in reindeer husbandry. This article argues that instead of focusing on numbers we should focus on the way people form new relationships with reindeer in order to take advantage of opportunities thrown up by the post-Soviet landscape. By making reference to two case studies in the taiga and treeline areas, the author gives examples of 'interstitial practices' that reindeer herders use to survive and profit from fractured and over-regulated spaces. The author argues that the unique skills of reindeer herding, which allow people to alter the way that they use space and react to temporal pressures, give post-Soviet reindeer herders a unique adaptive strategy in a post-Soviet economy.

Keywords: Siberia, reindeer-herding, Zabaikal'e, Evenkiia, Evenki, World-systems theory, globalisation


It has been almost fifteen years since market reforms crept out of the central Russian cities to reach the taiga and tundra of Central Siberia. (1) Although most rural hunters and herders greeted the reforms to Soviet central planning with great initial enthusiasm, the aftermath of privatisation has been dramatic. Almost all commentators note a dramatic decline if not collapse of reindeer numbers all across the taiga zone and in many places across the tundra. The apocalyptic language of crisis is used in academic works, in the newspapers, and in the anxious proposals of non-governmental organisations.

While I would agree that the Soviet reindeer herding industry (olenevodstvo) was greatly damaged, in many places mortally so, by the removal of state subsidies, I do not think that the same can be said of people's relationships with reindeer. Undoubtedly the way people keep reindeer in Siberia has changed since the end of Soviet times. What is required, however, is careful attention to how it has changed instead of a requiem. In this article, I would like to review the changes in the relationship between people and reindeer in two places across central Siberia: in the tundra-taiga borderzone of north-eastern Evenkiia, and in the taiga of Zabaikal'e. In all places there has been a dramatic drop in reindeer numbers, so much so that we can safely conclude that industrial reindeer herding no longer exists. However, the small-scale, almost autarkic, way people stay with reindeer continues to function in a complex way in the newly privatised landscape. While it would be wrong to claim that people's lives are easy in regions suffering the total collapse of public transport, health care, the national insurance system, and of the monetary economy, it is striking that conditions today are not unlike the way that they were before the arrival of Soviet modernity. I do not wish to present a naive picture of wily herders triumphing over socio-economic chaos. As I will demonstrate in the conclusion, following David Harvey (1996), the new forms of oligarchic economic liberalism in the region have generated changes in the way that people relate to space, time and the perception of their surroundings. However, I will argue that these changes are not unprecedented within the tradition of how one lives with reindeer in these regions. Elaborating on Anna Sirina's work (2002, 2006), it is possible to identify a particular way that Evenki herders 'order their living environment' (organizatsiia sredy zhiznedeiatel'nosti). In so doing they recognise and take advantage of opportunities that the chaos of restructuring opens up. I wish to leave the reader with an image of Siberian practices of living with reindeer as an interstitial practice that adjusts itself not so much to dislocations caused by the wider economy, but to opportunities created by changes in the way that capital is reclassified in the global economy.

Reindeer Relationships in the Global Economy

For most people, reindeer-herding seems to be an anachronistic occupation which is blissfully isolated from the main currents of economic change. …

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