Siberia Project

Florian Stammler

e-mail: stammler@eth.mpg.de

curriculum vitae

Report from the second congress of Russian reindeer herders, Salekhard, YNAO (March 11-14, 2002)

When nomads meet the market: Property and economy among reindeer herders of Yamal, Western Siberia

The researcher (left)and a friend eating fresh wild reindeer hunted on White Island.

I was born in Stuttgart, and already as I child I had early experiences with different cultures. This instilled a wish to go deeper into the study of intercultural relations, which led me to study anthropology. My focus on Siberia came out of a search for a case study on relations between indigenous peoples and oil & gas workers in the former Soviet Union. Since West Siberia bears most of Russia's oil and gas reserves as well as the biggest herds of domestic reindeer in the world, my first field study was on Khanty and Nenets reindeer herders in this region. It was financed by the UN IDNDR (International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction) and was the basis for my Master thesis at the University of Cologne (2000).


 

The chum, nomadic tent, of a private reindeer herder on the Northern Yamal peninsula

My Dissertation project at the Max Planck Institute has the working title When nomads meet the market: Property and economy among reindeer herders of Yamal, Western Siberia. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug at the first glance looks like a success story in reindeer herding, continuing even in the difficult times of transformation after the Soviet Union. The number of domestic reindeer is constantly increasing, up to 523 000, which is the largest concentration in Russia and the world. Selling the main production of reindeer, meat and 'panty' (fresh antlers), is no problem for the herders, since private commercial enterprises compete with the still existing 'Sovkhozy' (state farms). Thus, reindeer herding provides a secure basis for economic existence and the indigenous cultural identity of the herders. Such a development is unique in the Post-Soviet Russian North, where reindeer herding in all other regions either collapsed or is experiencing a major crisis. It is even more remarkable, given that Yamal provides 90% of the Russian natural gas production and the share of the native population is only 5 %.


The chum, nomadic tent, of a private reindeer herder on the Northern Yamal peninsula

The dissertation project tries to give an explanation for this particular development, with attention being paid to the nature of property relations in land and animals among the Yamal-Nenets, and the way in which they engage in the evolving market economy of the region. From July 2000 till August 2001, I did fieldwork for the PhD project mainly among the Nenets of the Yamal peninsula, but also among Khanty of the subarctic Ural Mountains. I tried to cover a range of organisational forms of reindeer herding, having worked among Sovkhoz brigades, private herders, members of registered clan-communities (obshchina) and herders employed by commercial reindeer processing enterprises. The focus of this work was the herders' perceptions of the Soviet past, of the transitional processes around them and their strategies for making use of the recent developments. To answer the main question of herding success by encountering property relations and market economy, the most of the fieldwork consisted of nomadic migration with the herders. Apart from this participant observation and narrative interviews, I collected data through a micro-survey of 25 nomadic reindeer herding households. This survey consisted mainly of questions on property regarding land and animals, patterns of land use, especially migration routes, and strategies to act in the recently evolving market economy.


A brigade crossing a river on their migration towards the village, where reindeer are slaughtered

Reindeer breeding should also not only be seen in its meaning for the nomads or in political programs, but also in its contribution to the region as a whole. Therefore, statistics on herd sizes, forms of property in reindeer, and the share of the migrating population were gathered on all levels starting from the local administrative unit and ending in Moscow for the whole Russian Federation.


 

Transport is one decisive economic factor for reindeer herding as well as for field research in Yamal.

Logistical difficulties and the lack of transport in a region without roads and railways automatically bring the fieldworker in contact with the oil and gas exploration or extraction workers. Interesting supplementary materials were gathered on the image that reindeer herders have among industrial workers, and concerning their interactions among each other.


 

Disassembling a chum in the Taiga among the Khanty of the Polar Ural mountains.

Page last updated:January 29, 2002