Map of Russian Federation

Map of Russian Federation

The River Yenisei

The Yenisei river  
The river Yenisei rises in the Sayan mountains of Tyva and the Darkhad valley in Mongolia and flows to the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean, where it is icebound for more than half the year. The river widens to a 50 km estuary, the Yenisei Gulf, for its final 250 km and the shipping lanes are kept open by icebreaker. At 5,539 km miles, the Yenisei is the fifth longest river in the world. In the middle section, massive hydroelectric dams partly built by Gulag labour fuel Russian industry of the region, in particular the nickel-processing factories of Norilsk, which contaminate the environment with acid rain.

Through Siberia the Land of the Future by Fridtjof Nansen was published in English in 1914. Nansen was a Norwegian professor who designed and built a ship called the Fram to explore the Arctic. Nansen traveled by ship to the Kara Sea and up the Yenisei river. Along the way, he encounters many natives as there is an ethnic mix of peoples living along the river.Nansen comments on the ethnic diversity of the region. “Here, going up the Yenisei, before we come to Yeniseisk, we have races enough: first the so-called Yenisei-Samoyedes [now known as the Enets], then Yuraks, then another branch of the Samoyedes [now known as Nenets], then, between the Yenisei and the Obi, Ostiaks [now known as the Khanty], who are a Finno-Ugrian stem, then, on the eastern side of the Yenisei, Dolgans, then that mysterious people, the Yenisei-Ostiaks, quite different from the others and probably a last remnant of a great and mighty people that once occupied vast tracts of Siberia [now known as the Ket]...”He encounters many Russian convicts and exiles, many of whom live in huts and fish for a living. He mentions that the Russians he meets in Siberia look healthy and beautiful and have very white teeth. As elsewhere in Siberia, the natives are prone to alcohol abuse[6].On the Yamal Peninsula, he encounters Samoyedic people (probably Enets) who keep huge reindeer herds, sometimes with thousands of animals. Indeed, a man who has only 200 animals is considered poor according to Nansen. He describes these people as handsome, of average height and clad in reindeer hides. In summer, to avoid mosquitoes and gadflies, they migrate north to the tundra along the coast, where they also have boats and fish. In winter they move south to the taiga – the migration in each direction takes two months.Nansen comments on the women’s situation; he says that wives are purchased and seen as the property of men, however they can return to their father without the return of the dowry being required. He also notes that despite this, they are treated as equals in the home, and comments that some men are in fact ‘henpecked’.

The Enets
Today, the Enets people live on the east bank, near the mouth, of the
Yenisei river. They are now nearly extinct – the 2002 census counted 237 Enets. The Enets were traditionally a nomadic people, wandering on the tundras between the left bank of the Yenisey river and the Taymyr peninsula. They made a living of reindeer husbandry, fishing, and sea mammal hunting. Their society was organised into clans, each with their own grazing, hunting and fishing lands, as well as nomadic routes.During the 16th and 17th centuries, contacts with Russians who collected the fur tax, brought alcohol and diseases, causing a rapid decrease in the Enets population. Their numbers were further reduced by the hardships brought under Soviet rule, including forced collectivisation and acid rain from the nickel smelters at Norilsk.Collectivisation met with strong resistance among Enets, but to no avail. The government established "cultural bases", with schools, hospitals and day-care centres in an effort to minimize the nomadic lifestyle of the Enets and other groups. Boarding schools were built for Enets children, and from 1938, Russian was the language of instruction. As with other peoples, Enets religion and shamanism was also attacked.

In the late 1990s Colin Thubron visited the town of Potapovo, where most Enets live today, and describes it as hopeless and depressing: “Only a scatter of beached fishing-boats showed that the place was still inhabited. I climbed the steep track up the grass-covered slope […]. On the summit we found and administrative building which appeared to have been boarded up for years. Dogs were scavenging in its foundations. […] This was Potalovo, and it was dying. Duckboards sagged and wandered between its huts, and its tracks were all of compacted coal-dust, laid down against the shifting autumn mud. The air reeked of it. Rubbish lay everywhere, and long-broken tractors rusted in their own debris[7].”Thubron describes the Enets as demoralized by the loss of their culture, unemployment, environmental pollution and general decay, and beset with problems of alcoholism. The Enets eke out a living by fishing in the
Yenisei River. Some social services continued to be provided by the Russian government. The electric plant had recently burned and electricity was provided intermittently by a generator. Life expectancy was 45 with many dying violent deaths due to family violence and fighting[8].Returning to the early 20th century, up the river Nansen encounters the ‘Yenisei-Ostyaks’, now known as the Ket, whom he describes as very poor. Their culture seems to be falling apart – they wear shabby Russian clothes and have taken up reindeer husbandry from other natives, however without any great success and with tiny herds, e.g., 20 animals. The men wear headscarves and look like gypsies. Nansen expresses sadness over the tragedy of this ‘dying race’, which at this time he estimates at around 900 people living along the Yenisei:

There is something unspeakably tragic in a destiny like that of the Yenisei-Ostiaks; formerly; it seems, the dominant people over a great extent of this country to the south - on the northern side, and no doubt also for a long way to the south, of the Altai mountains. Now all that is left of them is this small, poor, rapidly disappearing tribe along the Yenisei and some of its tributaries, where they eke out a wretched existence by doubtful and uncertain hunting and fishing, which moreover are declining every year. Thus, one of their former great sources of income, the sable, is now almost extinct, and the Russian Government will soon entirely prohibit its being caught. The Yenisei-Ostiaks complained bitterly of this, as may be imagined, since it means taking away their livelihood. True, there are not many of them to catch, but one or two might be picked up in the course of a winter, and a little animal like that pays a lot of debts. How were they going to pay them now? a people doomed to perish.

He describes the rampant alcoholism:

At seven o’ clock we reached Sumar—Ékova, where we were to take in oil for the engine. There was plenty of life on the shore when we arrived; people walking hither and thither, shouting and bawling; and along the low, sandy beach lay over 30 Yenisei-Ostiak boats, with a forest of masts. This was a joyful sight; now, at last, we should have a good look at these people... The noise and shouting increased as we came nearer. It was easy to guess that vodka had been flowing freely, and Russians and natives seemed about equally drunk.As we landed, we were immediately surrounded by reeling Yenisei-Ostiaks, half drunk and whole drunk, but all quite placid and in extraordinarily good humour. Here and there drunken people lay on the ground, bellowing and rattling in their throats like dying animals. They were mostly elderly women that I found lying among the nets hung up to dry and the boats of the village, which were drawn up on land. Others sat in an almost insensible state, leaning against the side of a boat. Some of them cautiously got on to their feet and staggered a few steps, but soon fell down again and lay prostrate. I saw young girls stop and talk to these old people, as if there was nothing the matter with them and it was all quite natural.When once the native has had a drop, he will sell anything he possesses to get more liquor… for a bottle of vodka he will sell again the goods he has just got on credit from the trader. This is the weakness of which many unscrupulous people avail themselves, in this part of the world as elsewhere, to fleece the natives; and for this devilish drink they can often coax them out of their treasures, especially, of course, the valuable furs they collect in the winter.


The Ket 
Today, there are around 1100 Ket. They live a settled life in small riverside villages and fewer than half of their people speak the Ket language.

The Ket people are the sole survivors of a group of ancient peoples that are believed to have inhabited most of southern
Siberia and that included Kotts, Assans, Arins, Baikots and Pumpokols, who all lived further up-river and became assimilated with other peoples such as Russians, Evenks and Khakass. The Ket are the northern most people of this group and the only one to survive. It is thought that the Ket originate from the Sayan Mountains and migrated north due to invasions by other peoples.Linguists are very interested in the Ket language, which they think will become extinct within one generation. The people no longer use it in their everyday life, and only very old people speak it with any real fluency. Some linguists believe that the Ket language may be a ‘descendant’ of a language that is also related to Basque, Caucasian and even Native American languages. All these languages may stem from one common ancestor, they think, which may have been spoken up to 20,000 years ago. Studying the Ket language may help to piece together this puzzle.

The Ket were traditionally nomadic hunter gatherers who hunted in the taiga in autumn and winter and fished in the rivers in the summer. In the summer they lived in tent-like structures made of poles covered with bark, and in the winter in semi-underground dugouts. They hunted with sharp wooden arrows tipped with poison made of fish oil and fished in canoes made of hollowed treetrunks. Dogs were kept to help them hunt and as traction animals.

The northern most Ket kept and bred reindeer, a custom which they picked up from their Samoyedic neighbours, but this was always secondary to the hunting and gathering. Hunting and fishing were carried out on a collective basis, with a clan moving together from winter to summer lodgings; hunting and fishing equipment were owned by the group and not individuals and the catch was shared among the group.

Like other Siberian native peoples, the Ket practised shamanism and believed that the world was populated by spirits. The sky spirit, Es, was male and the embodiment of good, while his wife, the earth spirit Hosedam was the embodiment of evil. The Ket buried their dead in the earth together with the deceased’s personal belongings.

The Ket came under Russian influence in the early 1600s, when Cossacks started collecting tribute in the form of fur. Many Ket built up massive debts, as they had little inkling of the value of the fur provided to the Russians in relation to various goods (such as tea and sugar) bought from them. Their numbers dwindled as a result of epidemic diseases brought by the Russian settlers and alcoholism. Until Soviet times, aspects of the nomadic lifestyle survived.

[6] Fridtjof Nansen, Through Siberia the Land of the Future, 1914
[7] Colin Thubron, In Siberia, p. 129-30
[8] Ibid., pp. 139-145