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An Economic View from the Tundra Camp: Field Experience With Reindeer Herders in the Kola Peninslua
by Dessislav Sabev
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Chapter 1 - Memory of Sovkhoz

In 1994, the sovkhoz officially ended as a state economic unit and the "Memory of Lenin" became Tovarishestvo s Ogranichennoy Otvetstvennost’yu’, a kind of Ltd. company through the so-called “insider privatisation” by the “Workers’-and-managers’ collectives”. In this form of privatisation, managers and employees of the concerned state firm get the majority of the shares at a state-subsidised price (stressed also by Nikula, 1998: 155). “Memory of Lenin Ltd.” is a representative product of that system. In late 1998, it was formally transformed into a ‘cooperative’ named ‘Olenevod’ (‘Reindeer herder’). These name changes didn’t imply structural ones in the economic relationship between the administrative centre situated in Krasnoschelie and the tundra collectives.

This chapter discuss how the social meaning of the former state farm has been perpetuated into the new “private” form. One real change that herders feel in their relationship to the farm’s administration is their lack of money and social security. It is however significant that they continue to call the Farm 'The sovkhoz', and so do I in this paper, emphasising an old model perpetuated in a new form. Hence, the brigade is still managed by a planning-economy relationship with the ex-sovkhoz, and there are more than one planning: one for the kilograms of slaughtered meat, another for the number and the inner structure of the herd (percents of females, males, castrates, calves). All reindeer meat is sold by the farm, which pay the herders mostly with products and services in the village (but not in the tundra camps): electricity, health care, children care, etc. Brigade workers are also supposed to receive salary, which happens less often during the last years. Here is a representative discussion with herders:

“ - It was much better before, of course (collective approval).
  - What was better? (I asked).
  - There were salaries, regularly paid ... and advances at the beginning of the month. We had paid vacancies, could go to the sovkhoz’ villas (recreational centres belonging to the Soviet ‘professional unions’), you could travel, go to the Black Sea, to Bulgaria[1]!  - Now, you can’t go anywhere... You have no money... And they don’t pay salaries anymore, you live just on the advance ... What a bloody misery!”

            Economic and geographic isolation have reinforced each other since the deterioration of the Soviet economy and this created an anxious feeling of social insecurity among the tundra collectives. The periphery feels abandoned by the centre(s). This context of isolation is reinforced by the lack of female workers in the tundra camps in the last years, so herders feel isolated from both the decision-makers and the family. The response to this is a stronger and valuable relation to the ex-sovkhoz, the only conceivable source of security. Even the relation with the family pass through the sovkhoz, as many of the herder’s wives work in there and children go to the sovkhoz’ school or kindergarten. 

“ - So when did the ‘misery’ begin ? I asked.
  - With this fucking perestroïka, you know...
  - With Gorbachev ?
  - No, later ... In 1990 ... (others:) - In 1991 (the beginning of the privatisation of the Russian state farms).
  - How this changed things here, in the brigade ?
   - In no way. As it has ever been, so it is (This is a Komi proverb and was said in Komi, while all the discussion(s) was done in Russian) ... The only difference is that there’s no money now... ”.

            The main structural change operates indeed beyond the herder-administration relationship, as it concerns the relation of the farm to the buyer. After the ‘privatisation’, the state ceased to provide subsidies and a market for the reindeer meat. Consequently, the farm administration is left to find a market for its production, as well as to negotiate the deal with the buyer. Thus, beyond the substantial economic relationship of the brigades to the ex-sovkhoz, the private Buyer appears as a new economic actor in the tundra. The Swedish slaughter-house “Norfrys-Polarica” serves as the unique buyer of reindeer meat in the whole Peninsula. Located near Lovozero, it deserves both Lovozero’ and Krasnoschelie’ ex-sovkhoz’s. Paradoxically, this new, western, and private enterprise has not changed the economic relations between the herders and the sovkhoz (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The economic relationships between the producer, the farm administration and the buyer in the current reindeer husbandry in Krasnoschelie. Despite the "insider privatisation" in 1994, the ex-sovkhoz has perpetuated its middleman's role between the reindeer herding brigades and the buyer of their production. Hence the brigades continue to relate to the farm in a "central-planning" fashion while the latter is in a market relationship with the Swedish buyer. The sovkhoz redistributes goods, services and sometimes salaries to the brigades.

            The herding collectives have no (economic) relation to the buyer. Preserving the crucial role of mediator, the sovkhoz’ administration continues to control the flow of goods between the Producer and the Buyer through a Soviet-like system of redistribution that is practically cash-free. Even more, the Western private buyer took some of the roles played before by the former State. Being in a monopoly situation, it provides at the same time a non-market economic ‘security’ to the reindeer husbandry production, and through this, a precious social security to the tundra collectives.

            The brigade workers legitimise this system by refusing to become independent economic actors outside the sovkhoz. The brigade is still the basic social unit for the reindeer herders in the Kola Peninsula. After ‘the privatisation’ of the sovkhoz, one can notice the increased solidarity within the herding collectives as a response to perceived threats, or abandonment, from the outside. From herder’s perspective, the brigade remains even the only imaginable herding unit. As in some other regions of the Russian north (Fondahl, 1998), the anticipated initiatives for private reindeer herding after the adoption of the law for the privatisation of the Russian state-owned enterprises (Zakon O privatizatzii gosudarstviennyh i munitzipial’nyh predpriiatiy v RSFSR, 1991) did not happen. Brigade workers are reluctant to the idea of private herds sold directly to the buyer. Even they consider this project as “impossible”. Almost each herder has indeed some ‘private’ animals which are grazed together with the sovkhoz’ herd on the summer pasture. These ‘private’ reindeer are bred for subsistence only. They are very useful especially in the village, for both transport and meat. But there is no market-oriented private herding as well as there are no private owners. And this despite of the appearance of a private buyer and a kind of market. Herders don’t look excited by the possibility to sell own production to the buyer. They feel certainly more secure being managed by a familiar middleman as the sovkhoz and are not enthusiastic about any entrepreneurship. I looked strange with my ‘fix-idea’ of possible private herding, while initiating discussions again and again with the herders on this subject. I was making efforts to understand their point, so were they regarding my question. This makes me say that from the tundra perspective, the private herding is a hardly imaginable option in the region. The main reasons are social, indeed:

1. “The Sovkhoz would not accept this.”

This statement expresses not just a power relation between the centre and the periphery. It also stresses a necessity of co-operation between the tundra camps and the village. The sovkhoz is still the main and even the only economic actor in Krasnoschelie. According to the herders, "no sovkhoz - no village".

            The Soviet concept of 'agrocentre' has been built on this concentration of all the rural economy in a big centre. Consequently, the sovkhoz has been managing, controlling and securing all the activities in the village. Even after the significant "April decree" ("On the programme for the social development of the village", Pravda, 1989), the key-role of the state farm in the village was perpetuated, as reported by Palloit (1990: 663)

“Despite the enhanced role envisaged for regional and republic bodies in the development of collective and state farm villages, the April decree perpetuates the assumption made since the 1960s that these settlements are a farm's responsibility [...]”

In this way the farm encompasses the social universe of the village. Even habitants non employed by the farm “must rely on farm management for the provision of a whole range of services. [...] Reforms since 1960s have attempted to extend local authority power in rural areas but farms have continued to exercise the decisive role in village development.” (Palloit, 1990: 663).

            After the so-called "Chubais' privatisation" in 1991, state farms on the Kola peninsula continued to exercise, with less cash, this decisive role. They were financially abandoned by the state but  enjoy support from both the village and the tundra brigades. The latter are socially connected to the sovkhoz by their family and social networks: their relatives, friends and neighbours work there. This network of mutual support is hardly thinkable out of the centralized social institution.

2. “You'd have big problems with the other herds.”

The second reason for the unwillingness to begin private herding is the complicated structure of the reindeer herds in the area. Contrary to other parts in the Russian north, the herds in this sovkhoz' area are situated relatively close to each other, especially in the winter pastures. This makes them mix quite often , which is a constant problem in the tundra camps. The extensive reindeer husbandry practised during the sovkhoz was based on the Komi principle of a year-round herding. Since 1990 it has being replaced by the practice of volny vipus’ (leaving the herd on its own from June to October), which is close to the Sami pre-revolution model of husbandry. Since the brigades don't herd year-round, they mark less often their reindeer with the brigade’s mark (in spring 1999, for instance, there wasn't any marking coral for the herd No. 1). In this way the herds increasingly fall out of the brigades' control and become mixed with neighbouring herds. Hence, when the reindeer populations get mixed, it is difficult to separate "ours" from "the others". Historically, there are two different traditional approaches to deal with this situation. Until the end of the 19th century, Sami herders, who were leaving the herd on its own in the summer, were regulating this frequent problem by a kind of ethical code. Each owner finding 'foreigners' in his herd had to catch them and give them back to their herder. But this code changed after the arrival of the Komi at the end of the century. Practising the year-round herding, they tried to control permanently the herd. In terms of ethics, this resulted in the responsibility of each owner to take care for his herd. 'Immigrants' were considered as part of the herd.

            In some ways this conception is still acting nowadays. The difference is that there is no private ownership. Somehow “everybody is equal in the eyes of the sovkhoz” so the migration of animals from one herd to another doesn't change the ownership. In this sense it is an administrative problem rather than a social one. Regarding the management of the herd, brigade workers deal with the village-based administration accountancy through more or less abstract numbers; and not with other tundra actors. This is one more 'security' point supporting the sovkhoz. Herders consider their current situation as already exposed to too much risk to leave the farm and take alone the whole responsibility for the herd. A change in the ownership would totally change the present status. For example, the herd No. 1 of Krasnoschelie is now in contact with the herds No. 1 and No. 8 of Lovozero in the north and with the fourth herd of Krasnoschelie to the east (as well as with the already non-existent fifth herd, 50% of which disappeared mysteriously[2] during the economic crisis in 1998). So, if the herd No. 1 become private, there would be serious problems with the (already mixed) neighbouring herds belonging to the sovkhoz. This would create a tough deal between two actors with different status: sovkhoz' workers and private owners. A situation like this could deteriorate the social network in the both tundra camps and village. Furthermore, it would threat the social structure because one would get cash but not access to the services, while the other will continue to work underpaid but with access to the sovkhoz' services, products and network. So this potential 'social differentiation', or rather social 'disintegration' is perceived as the worst scenario. The sovkhoz, as a unique owner, is a warranty against such kind of social insecurity.

3. “You cannot cope yourself with this.”

There is neither adequate infrastructure nor economic environment to develop private herding. A private herder could not rely on any help from the so-far existing institutions, neither formal (administration, brigades, municipality) nor informal (networks). Unlike the herders from Lovozero, brigades from Krasnoschelie are situated too far from the Swedish slaughterhouse, so they have even less physical possibility to direct access to the buyer. All of this makes them highly dependant on the sovkhoz as mediator. The case of Sosnovka, another remote village in the area of "Pamyat' Lenina" sovkhoz, has been often reported as an example during our discussions in the camp. One brigade there tried to begin private herding. The next year “those guys returned with awful shame to the sovkhoz, begging the administration to forgive them and to accept them again”.

Nikula (1998: 157) stresses the specific non-market relationship between managers and workers in the Russian ‘insider privatisation’:

Managers are not interested in ownership as such, but they are interested in maintaining their power to control the distribution of profits and benefits. Workers are also not so much interested in ownership, but care more about economic gains and secure employment.

Based on the above, one may argue that the structure of the insider privatised ‘Memory of Lenin’ is significantly charged with the memory of the Soviet economic system[3]. Fig. 3 shows the “security environment” seen from the reindeer herders.

Fig. 3. "Security environment" as seemed to be perceived by the reindeer herders. It emphasises the substantial links between the tundra-located brigade, the village-based administration and the village social network (relatives, friends, neighbours). This triangle acts as a "redistributive system", the sovkhoz supporting both the brigades and the village. The figure shows one of the main reasons for the brigades to continue herding the sovkhoz' herds instead of starting private herding and selling meat directly to the buyer. In their view, this scenario would deteriorate the social network in the village and would even threat the existence of the latter.

[1] Because I am originally from Bulgaria, herders did this clin d’oeil on the former vacancies on the Bulgarian sea coast, which was part of the international recreational infrastructure inside the Socialist Bloc.

[2]There are contradictious rumors about loss, some of the herders said the animals were poached by military people.

[3] The title of the article ‘Memory of Lenin Ltd.’ (Konstantinov, 1997) express in my view the same idea.

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An Economic View from the Tundra Camp by Dessislav Sabev.
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