The ArcticMainpage
circumpolarmap.gif (34861 bytes)

PDF version 
of this article
An Economic View from the Tundra Camp: Field Experience With Reindeer Herders in the Kola Peninslua
by Dessislav Sabev
Previous chapter Next chapter
Chapter 2 - Survival after the sovkhoz: Herders and hunters in the tundra

Against the formal vertical relationship with the village-centred administration, herders raise informal types of horizontal relations with other tundra actors, such as hunters, militaries or geologists. The reindeer herding brigades hardly do any hunting. When a need arises, they kill a reindeer from the herd for meat. A majority of the hunters are poachers who come from the industrialised or military towns. Propelled in the tundra by the changing social context, these new actors have rapidly taken place and provoked a reinterpretation of the traditional social relationships. Arriving on tracked vehicles or on snowmobile (usually in its Russian version, Buran), they are the guys who recreate the tundra’s connection with the town. Contrary to my expectations, I witnessed hunters and herders working together and helping each other after being “abandoned by the State”, according to their expression. Their collaboration took the form of a series of informal negotiations and barter deals.

            Herders sheltered hunters in the camp while hunters were helping herders with their tracked vehicle, especially precious for collecting wood. They also used it while returning to the village - because in a lack of vehicles, the Farm sent just one vehicle to assist the return of several brigades. The meeting point was the traditional winter camp (pogozd) of Semyostrovie, situated between the Iokanga camp and the village of Krasnoshchelie. Hence, the herding brigade No. 1 joined Semyostrovie with the vehicle offered by the hunters.

            Following this implied agreement with the herders, and maybe because of a “researcher’s” presence in “witness” position, the hunters never shut reindeer during our stay, even after we moved from the tundra camp in June. Before the thaw of the Iokanga river at the beginning of June, they were hunting mostly geese and ducks, and preparing for the fishing season, especially for the June's salmon fishing. During our stay near the area of the brigade No. 4 and No. 5 (called “brigade 45” by the herders), they managed also to kill one elk (moose, Alces alces), which was their only poaching apart of the salmon fishing (the legal season to hunt elks and fish salmon is from September 1 to November 15). Their dream “to meet the bear” failed unrealised.

Hunters bring meat back to the town for various subsistence purposes. Meat is used mostly to feed the hunter’s families; then it is redistributed to the informal network of relatives, friends and neighbours. Finally, it is given to local key-employees against some services (such as having access to military vehicle, obtaining easier hunting permits, for the direction of the school their children go, etc.). In any case they don’t sale the meat (there is no market) and so participate in the dominant cash-less economy of the tundra region.

During our daily discussions hunters have been expressing a strong desire to escape the industrialised town unable to provide them “a normal living”. One of them had worked for 19 years as a coal miner in the town of Revda. “There, you are in the very ‘system of Mendeleiev’: Cobalt, Radium, Uranium, heavy water...”. One year before reaching retirement age he had left the mine to devote himself to a hunting life in the tundra. The following discussion was done while we two were salting the first 60 kilograms of fish caught by our nets in the semi-thrown Iokanga river on May 27, 1999:  

“ - My brother is a great hunter. Look at this... I have this knife from him. He has made it himself. Look at this, the handle is made from birch, so your hand doesn’t freeze in winter. Hey, try it (to clean the fish), give me your silly knife, yours is for herding, not for fishing... See the difference?...
- Do you have other brothers?
- I have three of them. But the two others don’t hunt often. They work in the mine. I have also a sister, in Chelyabinsk, our mother left an apartment there for us but I have nothing to do in the town. There is no job, no food, no freedom. What can I do in the fucking town? To stay on the little balcony (na balkonchike) and admire it? Or maybe to angle those chemical fish at the little river? ... No, I can’t imagine to live without the tundra. Tundra is everything for me, you know... Food, freedom ... There is nothing of this in the town, just radioactivity, the system of Mendeleiev (sist’ema Mendel’eeva) ...”

            The other hunter, 40, born in Byelorussia, is still working as driver in Revda but “can’t food the family with one salary”. His wife, daughter of a Komi reindeer herder who has been chief-brigadier of Krasnoschelie brigade No. 4, is unemployed. They have four children, three of them go to school, the youngest is one year old. “If I don’t go hunt and fish in the tundra, we’d eat nothing but this (showing our dry ‘soldier’s bread’). In the tundra, I am depending of no one but myself”.

            This is the way town hunters live the wilderness paradigm which leads them to the tundra camp. After 1991, escaping to the wilderness quickly evolved and became a reality for the both town population and tundra reindeer husbandry. Military, geologists and miners from the town lost their jobs and were forced to reorient themselves towards accessing the resources of the tundra in order to make a living (Honneland & Jorgensen, 1999). According to their own definition, they are following “the call of the wild” and for them this is a kind of survival strategy.

            However, the situation is different regarding the military staff neighbouring the reindeer pastures. Although isolated from the centre and in lack of money since the post Cold War reforms in the Russian army, the military bases on the eastern Kola inherited good internal infrastructure and equipment. In the informal economy of the tundra, this enables them to provide services and goods for barter deals. In this context reindeer herders have often to deal with militaries. As mentioned above, the latter cause sometimes serious poaching problems, but the relationship with the herders in general is not an antagonistic one. Beyond the practical reasons for establishing good relations with the militaries, herders have in my view also a kind of ‘sentimental’ reasons for this. In the first chapter I mentioned the impact of the ‘syndrome of isolation’ on the herders’ “quest for security”. The idea of overcoming the geographic and social isolation has also been many times expressed through the herders’ ‘individual military story’. Each of the nine herders in the tundra camp No. 1 has done his military service for at least three years in the Soviet army, so everyone told me his military story. Since I also did my military service in an army of the Warsaw pact and I did not appreciate it too highly, I was surprised by the very positive way my brigade mates were talking about their military experience. The idea behind these stories was ‘escaping the isolation’, travel to the south and living with other people. Two of the brigade had been soldiers abroad, in the Soviet bases in East Germany, so they were the most nostalgic about the years spent in the army. The army, as the Sovkhoz, have been meant to provide both social security and social network, as well as one’s feeling to “participate in the real world”, which is “go to the centre” (Sabev 2002: 35-36). Somehow the Memory of the army has joined the Memory of the Sovkhoz.

            This perception has certainly impacted on the herder-military relationships in the tundra. Today, the main poaching problems come from the military. Herders are directly concerned by the loss of animals and someone even reported that the reason for the sharply decreased number of animals in herds No. 4 and No. 5 in fall 1998 was due to military poaching. This loss was so important that the sovkhoz was forced to fusion the two herds in order to obtain the planned number of animals for one herd. This automatically implied a fusion of the two brigades, reducing the number of the tundra workers. Nevertheless, herders are in rather good relationship with the neighbouring military communities (Honneland & Jorgensen, 1999). Perceived as abandoned by the state in the same way that herders are abandoned by the regional centre, military still enjoy a good infrastructure: helicopters, tracked vehicles, fuel, and often help herders with transport. In absence of the sovkhoz, the military complex could provide a kind of security to the tundra collectives.

            In this way surviving strategies and informal network interact with the Soviet type of reindeer-herding management, and so produce a social syncretism in the tundra. This ambiguous position of the reindeer-herding brigade between a formal and an informal economy, between old and new actors is represented by Fig. 4.



Fig. 4. The ambiguous position of the reindeer herders between an old and "secure" central-planning system and new actors in the tundra. The arrows follow the way of the reindeer meat which go through various economic relationships. The meat comes from one and same source in the tundra but changes its social meaning and economic "raison d'ętre" depending of the actors dealing with it. Hence it express respectively central-planning system, market relationships and subsistence economy in the Kola peninsula.


At the same time both hunters and herders feel threatened by the invasion of several large industrial enterprises, which are destroying the living resources in the tundra. The area is rich with underground ores. Almost all towns on the Kola Peninsula were created during the “industrial colonisation” in the 1930s. The town of Revda for example was created and survived thanks to the rare metals. It developed itself around the geological survey base Alluaivstroy, transformed into the metallurgical plant Lovozero ore mining and processing  enterprise. Since the 1930s, it has been progressively filled with labour migrants from the south working in the mining industry. Even its ethnography museum emphasises more the local ores than the traditional reindeer herding. In the early 1990s, while the subsidised industry failed, new joint-stock mining companies began to enter the tundra and became major players in the fight for resources This threat is perceived as constant in the tundra collectives and so increase the feeling of “insecurity”. Finally, the ideological discourse of both herders and hunters in the tundra, directed mostly against some centres of power located in the town (as Lovozero, Revda, Voronya Minerals Ltd., Murmansk, even Moscow), often contributes to unify, this time at a political level, otherwise antagonistic tundra actors.

Previous chapter Next chapter
An Economic View from the Tundra Camp by Dessislav Sabev.
Copyright Stefansson Arctic Institute and individual authors ©2000
Developed in partnership with the EU Raphael Programme