Russia's Nenets communities live beyond the Artic Circle, where nature is truly wild.To this day, their main livelihood comes from hunting and reindeer herding. Using reindeer as a draft animals throughout the year enables them to cover great distances across the tundra. The Nenets have earned a reputation for extreme resilience and are known as the fastest-travelling nomadic people of the far north.
This is the vast green tundra. Territories below the Arctic Circle enjoy a truly virgin nature. It seems modern civilization has not yet crept in here.
The Kanin Peninsula neighbors on the Kola Peninsula. It separates the White Sea from the Barents Sea in European Russia. The area is covered with thick bushes, grass, moss, stones and numerous rivulets. Fogs and never ending rains are often the case here. In summer, the Kanin Peninsula turns into a harbour for huge deer herds traveling across the boundless tundra.The village of Oma is one of the few in this region. It is an outpost of settled nomads. Further on is tundra stretching for 20 kilometers up to the Barents Sea coast. The village is populated by the Nenets people who dropped the nomadic lifestyle to settle here for various reasons. Their main occupations are fishing, mushroom and berry picking. Ivan Barakulev is 80 years old. The last quarter of a century he has spent in Oma. The Soviet authorities believed nomadic lifestyle was not the best thing for old men. As a result, they settled nomads in villages. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“I retired in 1981 and settled here. The collective farm granted me a house. I was born in the tundra and spent my life with my deer. I got a title of a Merited Deer Breeder. Perhaps, I am the oldest deer breeder. I am the last to keep the ancient traditions of our predecessors.”Scientists believe Southern Siberia, namely the Altai and Sayans mountains, is the homeland for the Nenets. A lot of centuries ago their predecessors tamed deer and were forced to leave the area to give way to belligerent Turk tribes. Then they were forced from West Siberia – Khants and Mants refused to accept them. Neither did the unfriendly tundra and its inhabitants welcome the Nenets. But they won that particular battle and tamed deer helped them settle. It was the Nenets who possessed this weapon something that the locals did not have. Their later attacks on forests where they once used to live scared the inhabitants out of their wits. The Nenets were invulnerable thanks to their fast deer. They spent winters in forests close to villages. They used carts to get to the nearest city and exchange deer or ice fox skins for fish, gun powder, cartridges, flour and cakes. The Nenets have always lived in tents called ‘chooms’. They are traditionally made from wood and deer skin. This design helps air circulate within the tent preserving the heat. Deer breeder Ivan Barakulev lives alone. He is the only surviving member of his family. The happiest day for him now is the annual meeting of nomadic deer breeders. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“Once a year, on August 2 all nomads across the tundra get together. A motor boat or a helicopter brings parcels for deer breeders up the Kanin peaks.”Ivan Barakulev takes a flight across the Tundra to meet the other nomads. Deer breeders with their herds come to the Kanin Peninsula in summer. The strong wind on the hills blows away midges who are deer’s main enemy. Nomads meet every year here, something they all look forward to throughout the year. They can’t afford to get together often. Each group follows a certain path year on year to prevent their herds from mixing or grazing on someone else’s pastures. Friends and relative only get the chance to see each other at the beginning of August to catch up on the latest news and share their events, anything they’ve been through during the whole year of nomadic life. Ivan, a Nenets elder, is always a welcome guest at such get-togethers. The Nenets show great respect for their older members of the community. The hills of Kanin, like the centre of the nomadic world, the crossroad of generations. Even today, the Nenets occupying a third of the Russian Arctic, from the Kanin to the Taimyr peninsula, are believed the most mobile nomads in the world. Each year, they and they and their herds cover a territory of 400 to 2,000km. The speed of a deer proves more vital than nomad’s own physical force. The larger the herd, the faster you have to move through the tundra. The shortest stop is two days before the herd moves from summer to winter pastures. Things that cease to be necessary are left along the route. In the autumn you usually don’t need summer clothes, in the spring winter things become useless. If any villages lie along the route they leave things with their numerous friends and relatives. A settled friend is of great value for a modern nomad. During the Soviet times, attempts were made to modernize deer breeding. This included a more settled life for deer, working in shifts for shepherds and sewing workshops for women. But innovations were ineffective. Deer breeding does not make any sense to the actual breeder, if he is settled. So only those who stuck to traditional ways of life survived. They lived as their predecessors did, thinking of something more that money and the lures of progress. The Nenets children get to know nomadic life from their cradle. Many of them were born here, among the deer. The vast expanses of the tundra is their home, their sledge is their pram. Such a sledge is the perfect cradle for little nomads. When it’s time to go to school they attend it just like other children. It’s a hard test of loyalty to nomadic life and traditions. Children study at school centres located in nearby villages. They don’t complain, although they have to live in two different worlds, a civilized settled lifestyle and their native nomadic life of their parents who they usually see during their vacation. They feel at ease here, especially with the new things in the tundra – a TV-set and a video player. Movies are watched together during stops. Games imitate real life. Most popular is playing deer and shepherds. This is the way children learn the skills of nomadic life. Among other northern tribes, the Nenets children are most oriented towards traditions. It happens because from early years on their interests copy the interests of their parents. By the time they go to school they have a clear system of values passed on by their elders. he Nenets have always lived beyond the Arctic Circle. This archive footage shot 70 years ago is the first evidence on film of their lifestyle. The long polar days follow the long polar nights. That’s why the normal year becomes two, the one is the light year of summer, the other is the dark year of winter. They used to hold the celebration on August, 2. Previously, the Nenets made sacrifices to their gods on this day. During the Soviet period, sacrifices were banned, but the holiday remained. It has now turned into Day of Reindeer. The Nenets always celebrate this holiday in style. A fair with fascinating dances and sport competitions are part and parcel of Day of the Reindeer. Races were traditionally held on Reindeer Day. They started training reindeer for these races many months ahead. Race reindeer were a source of pride for many breeders. The passions at the races were high.
Each jockey had his own style and secrets: someone harnessed only male deer in the sledge, others used females, others used just harnesses. Today reindeer races can be seen only on old films. Though the festival is already a matter of the past, the nomads get together every year on August 2. Ivan Barakulev won many reindeer races. It was sunny and windless and no one paid attention to a long and thin cloud that was approaching from the north. Thick dense fog, normal for these parts, covered Kanin. It means it’s going to be cold and that it will also rain. Everybody was waiting for a pasturing reindeer herd to return. But the shepherds could easily get lost in the tundra in such weather, so the reindeer return was delayed. The nomad camp is slowly resettling into tents. The life of contemporary Nenets nomads has changed little since the time of their ancestors. They only moved from huts to tarpaulin tents 30 years ago. Large nomadic families often live in one tent. The young and old live side by side. A wife often foes on the house in Nenets homes. Almost every tent has a housewife. They not only cook but also sew and mend clothes. They bake bread from yeast dough every day. The fog paralyses life at nomad camp. Such days are a perfect time for long conversations. Ivan Barakulev also decided to speak about his heroic past. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“I brought these awards and decorations from Oma to show them to you. I fought in three wars – the Finnish war, the Second World War . I was first decorated during the Finnish war where I was an intelligence officer. I was wounded then. The winter was severe that year.”Many Nenets fought in the Finnish war between 1939 and 1940. The frontline stretched across a vast northern territory – from the Gulf of Finland to the Barents Sea. Severe frosts of minus 45 degrees Celsius made it impossible for military hardware to move. Therefore, the Nenets delivered food and ammunition to the frontline in dog and reindeer sledges. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“See how old I am. I wish I could live long enough to teach you something. Take your time, let’s eat something and have some tea.”Tobacco and tea have been the staple foods in northern life since olden days along with deer meat and fish. The Nenets consider feast to be a male prerogative. Women and children sit at the table only after the men. It is an old tradition.” The Nenets cuisine is modest and the local residents’ idea of delicacies is very different from European. A wild goose is a special treat. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“In old days goose meat was soured with willow leaves for approximately six months.”“For many years sour goose used to be the main course many Nenets family. When the Nenets learned to salt fish from the Russians, canned food became unnecessary. Sour goose Is a rare dish now and,
therefore, it is one of the most valuable. The fog hang over Kanin took several days to clear – a clear sign to the reindeer breeders that the herds will start returning soon. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“It has cleared up. The herd will be back soon. It’s time to prepare the lassos.”Despite his old age Ivan Barakulev didn’t lose his knack of weaving the lasso. It is the main tool of any reindeer breeder. Previously, it used to be made out of skins of marine animals. Now 15-metre-long lassos are weaved from synthetic materials. A large herd appeared on the horizon at last. Everybody – the old and the young – came out to meet it. Nenets keep a special ancient breed of dogs to help them herd their reindeer, a Samoyed Husky. Nenets have a legend: they believe the Heavenly Creator instructed the dogs to take care of the reindeer. However, quite soon He realized that all the reindeer have been eaten by the pack. Then He became angry and assigned man to lead the dogs. Nenets respect them a lot; they believe that a dog, if mistreated by its master, can complain to its canine god, and he will strike its master with a plague. Deer breeders are extremely skilled at harnessing the animals. It is important part of their culture.
For convenience they move the reindeer they have caught from a common herd to pen. Then each breeder looks for its animals. The Nenets dedicate their life to their reindeer, food, clothes and shelter. As soon as the breeders find their animals they calm down and then they can be takes to the tents. The Nenets harness is believed to be a perfect. It consists of a system of blocks which are fixed to a dog-sledge and allow to balance the reindeer strength. Moreover, any number of animals can be put into a harness. The Nenets dog-sledge are rather large. They can move across any terrain, grass and snow. They can also cope with bogs, which are very common to the area. The Nenets use sledges all year round. Life in the camp has been gradually improving. It became possible to write a letter to relatives on the mainland. But even on clear days the tundra brings surprises and they are not always pleasant. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“The wind is fierce here. It’s good. And on calm days mosquitoes attack our herds.”The nomads have an old and reliable method to fight mosquitoes. All the men of the settlement light fires to kill them. Mosquitoes arrive mainly in morning and evening, and this is why nomads have no rest this time. They have to save their herds. The nomad meeting is over and it is time to think about returning to their native camps. The way back is likely to be long and difficult, so the reindeer have to be prepared. However, the sunset is a good sign. For many years the Nenets have preformed a sacred ritual to secure the spirits’ support during the journey. The Nenets also sacrificed reindeer to their gods. The ritual happened on holy places, far from the nomad camps. The heads were given to the gods while meat
become a festive meal. This ritual still exists today. It has been the same for around five hundred years. The nomads believe that raw meat is good for your health. Even the children eat sweet reindeer bone. “The deer is our bread.” This is an old Nenets saying. The Nenets aren’t accustomed for long goodbyes. The camp gets empty. The guests start packing sledges and ready to depart. Ivan Barakulev is among them, even though he is reluctant to move. SOUNDBITE, Ivan Barakulev, village elder (speaking Nenets):
“I would like so much to go on a trip with reindeer breeders, but they allow the old to live only in a village. It’s a shame. I look forward to next summer to return here. I’m already 80, but a nomad spirit lives inside me and will never die.”The nomads cross boundless and spacious tundra using the reindeer. They set out on their long journeys after the dense mist and will meet each other again right here in the Kanin Hills on August 2. Any Nenets legend begins with a road. A shaman can summon the spirits to any camp. But most of the nomads take a ride on reindeer to a place where they can speak to the Gods and ask them for life’s essentials.
A loyal convoy of sledges pulled by reindeer makes the annual pilgrimage to the Kanin Hills. Then it heads towards the horizon for the next phase of their nomadic lives.