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Without bride or mortgage. How Nenets and Komi deer herders live

Their lifestyle continues unchanged for centuries

MOSCOW, March 3. /TASS/. The life of these nomadic peoples is focused on deer. Deer is the base, the food, the source of income, and the transport. The Nenets and Komi follow deer from summer to winter pastures. This lifestyle continues unchanged for centuries. Nowadays, the nomads have almost forgotten the mother languages, and only those who live and work in the tundra follow the traditional living.

When life stops

The Nenets have settled far away: 188km from Arkhangelsk to Golubino and another 280km - via Mezen towards the tundra. The road is tough, the frosts drop to minus 40. And - the deeply blue sky, the snow, which flows up from the feet, and the transparent mist between trees.

- Nyan-nyan! - this is how they are calling for deer, trained to take bread.

The deer runs, stirring up the snow, poking into the palms - "give-give." Takes the dry bread very delicately. Without waiting for a new treat, walks away to dig out thin strips of deer moss from under the thick snow.

The Nenets husky, on the contrary, are short-tempered. They peep into pockets, into the backpack, also insisting "give" - though differently, in the dogs’ manner and very insistently.

The Nenets and Komi, who migrate together, usually come to winter pastures in January, and remain there till early April - they will leave as soon as the weather allows.

'When calving is nearby, we have to leave. The deer must calve in the tundra," Alexei Vanyuta, a herder of the Kanin family community said. "In fact, you can’t say - who leads who - they may leave on their own. It is we who need them, not that they need us."

The nomads nowadays live in canvas tents: they are easy to put up, they are lighter, which is an advantage for those who is on the road.

The family team is of seven herders. In winter, they do not stay with the animals all the time, just come to check whether everything is fine. As soon as they move towards Kanin, to the summer pastures, they will be on guard all the time, working in shifts.

Between the tents we see snow bikes, TV dishes, roaring electricity generators; the people carry satellite and mobile telephones, and here, right next to these modern devices are traditional sledges, kids in panitsas (national outfit, fur outside), men in malitsas (national working outfit, fur inside).

"In winter, snow bikes are quicker. We use them all the time now, and in the past we skied to follow the deer. We use too much fuel. We mostly have Russian-made Buran - they are better, and in case something fails we know how to fix it. Even on the road."

All deer seem alike, but the nomads can tell their animals from others. By the branding.

"In summer, when the fawns get older, we bring them into a holding pen between two lakes. And when every doe brings its fawns we breed them after the mother."

Alexei speaks Russian fluently, like everyone in the tundra, and knows his mother language - Komi. His children know just a few words, but cannot use them in a sentence. Sometimes, Alexei speaks Komi, but Russian remains the main language.

"We have fewer teams now: used to have eleven, now only eight. At other farms, there is a shortage of young people and herders. We have a few young families. But we are short of young girls. Many leave for cities to study and never come back."

Raya, a "housewife" (a tent keeper) agrees with Alexei adding - to her daughters she wishes different future.

"Girls would not wish to return to the tundra. I wish my daughters had easier lives. It is complicated here, you see? I even would not show them how to make skins and sew. I wouldn’t!"

Raya’s son, a school student at the sixth grade, on the contrary, wants to be a herder and nomad.

Raya’s tent is cozy. The oven is to the left, further down is a kitchenette, to the right - folded blankets and pillows, and in the middle are painted boards - the floor and the table. Officially, Raya has been working as a ten keeper for more than ten years. The wages, she said, are too small. Last time, she was paid about 6,000 rubles ($80). This is why she has to take orders from clients to sew clothes. Not quite traditionally though - not with veins, but with regular threads.

"Our life is the nature, " Alexei grasps the collar - the deer knows its name. " It’s a matter of habit. In order to preserve deer farming, the youth should stay in the tundra, we need good pasturelands here, and the deer."

In the past, herders suffered from poachers, who stole animals when the herders moved the livestock from summer fields to the winter pastures, and could do nothing about it. "We take the animals, and here they are, following us on snow bikes, waiting for any animal to lag behind," Alexei said.

In 2013, the Arkhangelsk Region’s Governor Igor Orlov came to the tent camp on a snow bike, and learned about that problem. He asked the police to guard the livestock, and the situation has improved.

The former team leader migrates with the rest, despite the age.

"He says, in the tundra people are in motion, busy all the time, while for a man staying in the village means to fall apart. No sense. And then, there, life stops."

Alexei would not talk about it. He does not feel like discussing the freedom of taiga, which is impossible in the village. He enjoys the life with its all contradictions, problems, roads leading to two seas - White and Barents, enjoys the land which begins by your feet and runs to the far, barely seen horizon.

Gucci for a party, malitsa for the frost

"Generations change, some prefer to stay in the tundra, others leave for cities. Parents migrate, children live in the village. Or vice versa," Director of the Nenets Company for Electric Communication Vladislav Peskov said. His mother is a Nenets, father is Russian. "A man from Yamal told me once: you must take the best from two nations and promote your little ethnic group. Everything should develop. A deer herder should migrate. I am all for this movement."

Preserving the indigenous people requires not only a support from the state, but also a request from the people, from that ethnic group, he continued.

"I am for the harmony: Gucci for a party, malitsa - for the frosts. In development, no nation envies another nation. Simply get united and move on."

Vladislav tries to attract the youth to programming. "I’ve made certain things for the Internet in Nenets, but failed to find supporters. Nobody wanted to join me. There should be a certain amount of people who would say: yes, this is great, let’s move on together!"

"As for the language, we do not have the youth who would want to speak it. They should be interested. The older generation has that interest, because in Nenets they can discuss something personal, " he said. "You can’t make a nation wish to speak its language. What could be done is to keep it, to record. For those, who would want to study it in future."

It is not just about losing the language, but also about the educational system. Children from nomadic families at the age of seven are sent away to boarding schools. They are cut off families and traditions.

"Life at a boarding school has to offer everyday work. So that the kids could eat traditional food. The boarding school must have a tent, and kids could go into it every day. Must have deer and sledges. The kids must be taught to fix a boat, to serve a snow bike. A kid in the village has to know how to fish, how to herd deer."

Vladislav is the author of the Windows into Nenets Region project. The idea is elementary: online cameras. The project has brought many surprising results and ideas.

"It all began with one camera. In Naryan Mar removing snow was far from desired. We install a camera, and everything becomes apparent. Then another one next to the Pechora River - boats and vessels in summer and snow bikes in winter. That camera was very popular."

Nowadays, some would check the weather forecast, the elderly in a far-away village may see whether the grand children are on the way to them, some enjoy watching the nature and Northern Lights, and, surely,endless hi from everyone!

The project is six years old. Nowadays, we have about 30 public cameras in the region, he added.

"It is elementary: to demonstrate the beauty of your city or village. Viewers would see their native places, and even could wish to return there."

Sensitive aspect

Yuri Sumarokov, head of the International Cooperation Department at the Northern State Medical University, for recent ten years has been studying a top-important problem: the high level of suicides among the world’s indigenous peoples - from the Nenets Region to North America.

He says, the situation in Russia has been improving: between 2002 and 2012, the Nenets Region topped the list of suicides (in certain years more than 100 suicides per 100,000), and in 2019 the region reported 25 cases per 100,000.

"It is a very complicated and sensitive aspect. On one hand, we explain the suicide level by alcohol addiction. On the other hand, by the feeling of lost connection with the family, with the nation."

The expert agrees: there are books, student books, but no demand for learning the language. The number of people in the Nenets Region, who speak the language, shrunk from 2002 to 2010 by three times. It is a very important element of psychic wellbeing, since "the language is the shortest route to the brain," he added.

"The older generation is leaving, and the youth do not speak the language. It is a global problem of most indigenous peoples. As for the Nenets Region, the language is an instrument only for those, who continue the traditional lifestyle - they need it because many things cannot be explained in Russian. On the other hand, why learn it at the boarding school? What’s the motivation?"

Another problem is a gender misbalance. Girls do not want to remain in the tundra. "Their dream is to get educated and leave," he said. "But keeping the traditional lifestyle without women is not possible - they keep home."

"Universal solutions do not exist. As for the language, it is important to have a state program. Nowadays, many nomadic tents are connected to the Internet, and it would be correct to begin with some elementary programs and applications. And further on, hopefully, we will get to psychological and psychiatric support in the national language, respecting traditions and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples."