Map of Russian Federation

Map of Russian Federation

Tyumenskaya Oblast

The Yamal Peninsula

Tyumenskaya Oblast is a huge region with an area of 1,435,200 sq. km, or four times the size of Germany. In the north is the Yamalo-Nenetskyi Avtonomnyi okrug, the autonomous region of the Nenets, an indigenous people of the area. The central part of the Oblast is the Khanty-Mansiiskyi Avtonomnyi okrug, the autonomous region of the Khanty and Mansi indigenous peoples. In the 1960s, oil was discovered here, causing the USSR's largest internal migration since the Second World War. Today, the Mansi and Khanty constitute slightly more than one percent of the district's population. At the same time their homeland has been massively devastated by thirty years of oil extraction.The Nenets still maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle and herd reindeer. They live on the Yamal Peninsula at the north of the Oblast. The landscape of the peninsula is covered with fragile mosses and dwarf vegetation on permafrost, which means that the animals and people must travel continuously to find new pasturelands.

The Nenets
The Nenets are a Uralic people speaking a Samoyedic language.Under Soviet rules the nomadic Nenets began to work in brigades organised by the state. The brigade system is still in use today. Reindeer are the property of state-owned farms and the brigades administer this property and graze the reindeer throughout the year. Once a year, in autumn a certain number of animals is taken to the slaughterhouse in the state farm. Although compulsory collectivization has removed private ownership of the animals, the Nenets still follow their traditional lifestyle. This makes them an attractive study-object for anthropologists and explorers. Bruce Parry, in making the TV series ‘Tribe’ for the BBC, stayed with the Nenets and commented in the press:

During the first three days of being in the Yamal peninsula in western Siberia with the Nenets I must have pinched myself on at least three occasions. I thought: "Oh my God, I've never seen anything in my life remotely approaching this before." The landscape was the most spectacular I'd ever seen. […]On the first morning, I woke as the sun was very slowly beginning to rise to find more than 7,000 reindeer, and their massive antlers, backlit against the horizon. That was awesome. Because of the latitude, the sun takes hours to break the horizon and then hours to set. The result? Hour after hour of scarlet skies that mix into sunset in what seems like no time at all. Imagine the crimson glow on the reindeer and the chums with smoke billowing out of the top. Totally blinding. The Nenets then lassoed some of the reindeer and tied them to 300 sledges. Next, we travelled in a long, long line. As I looked over my shoulder I could see about six miles of sled behind me being pulled by the huge-antlered reindeer. Could life get any more gripping? I was freezing cold even though I was wearing a big fur suit as temperatures can plummet to -50C. I thought: "No one has ever seen anything like this." The sweat on the backs of the deer froze and crystallized. It caught the slight breeze and fell on the snow like small particles of ice dust falling in slow motion. [11] 

Traditionally, the Nenets lived and worked as large extended families, where the head of the family had authority to make important decisions. These days, the brigade leader, appointed by the management of the state farm, is in charge. Today the brigade still very often consists of close relatives.In fact it would be impossible to fulfil all the tasks involved in herding the reindeer and leading a nomadic lifestyle without the help of extended families. While the men are in charge of taking care of the animals, the women collect firewood and water, cook, take care of the children and sow. Small children and old people help other members of the family according to their abilities. Often several families share a tent making it quicker and easier to move on.The Nenets constantly migrate, moving from one grazing ground to the next. Most of the time the brigade spends no more than a few days in one camp, but sometimes, if there is enough fresh pastureland, they can stay longer. In summer they migrate north to the tundra and in the winter they go south to the forest south of the polar circle. The distance that has to be covered twice a year going from north to south and from south to north is more than 400 kilometres. The brigade moves from camp to camp in long caravans by harnessing sledges to the reindeer, which hold all their possessions, tents, dishes, tools, clothes and food. Due to constant migration and isolation from infrastructures, the reindeer and sledges are still the most practical and widely used means of transport.During Soviet times the brigades could communicate with the state farm by radio and in case of an emergency a helicopter could be sent to rescue anyone in trouble. These days this equipment is out of use.

Reindeer breeding and herding is a practice common to the traditional lifestyles of several peoples in Siberia and gives some cultural unity to this vast region. From the Sami, who live on the Kola peninsula in the White Sea in the West; to the Chukchi, who live on the Chukotka Peninsula in the East; to the Nganasan, who live on the Taymyr Peninsula in the Arctic Sea in the North; to the Orok, who live on Sakhalin Island in the southeast; all have in common that they traditionally practice reindeer husbandry.Reindeer herding peoples lead nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles. Because of the need to move frequently, their homes are portable and usually made of a structure of poles covered with reindeer hides in winter and sometimes bark in the summer. They are called chums or yarangas. It is relatively quick and easy to set up camp. In the centre is a fire, and a hole in the roof above lets the smoke out. Some peoples such as the Koryaks, the Evenk and, up to the 18th century, the Evens used to live in semi-underground houses in winter. They had flat roofs and an entry through a hole in the roof which also served to let the smoke out. Other peoples, in the south of Siberia, were influenced by Mongol peoples and lived in yurtas, which are essentially similar to chums and yarangas in that they are portable.Unsurprisingly, the diet of reindeer people typically consists mainly of reindeer meat, blood, fat and milk. This can be supplemented with fish from the rivers and products of the sea, gathered berries, roots and herbs. Some peoples also hunt for fur. People who keep a small number of reindeer primarily for transport purposes, such as the Evens, also hunt for food. Tobacco, tea and sugar and other goods could be obtained by trading with other peoples.As mentioned above, reindeer were also used for transport purposes, and some peoples even trained them for the saddle. Dogs were often kept for transport purposes as well. In southern Siberia, some peoples bred horses. During winter skis and sledges pulled by reindeer or dogs were used as a means of transport.Clothes were made out of reindeer and other hide and fur. Tendons were used to make threads for sewing. Reindeer hide was used to make tents and harnesses for the draught animals. Bones were often used to make buttons and knife handles. No part of the animal was wasted.

The worldviews of reindeer peoples were intimately linked with their reindeer. They lived together with their herd from early childhood and learned to categorise and interpret the world around them through the activities connected with the reindeer. For them the reindeer was the source of living - a man who has reindeer has food, transport, clothes and housing. It was also the main indicator of prestige, since the bigger the number of reindeer, the deeper the respect towards their owner. For reindeer peoples, the reindeer was often a sacrificial animal; it was sacrificed to the spirits in order to achieve a good relationship with them. Both the mental and physical welfare of reindeer people depended to a great extent on the existence of the reindeer – a man’s relationship with other people and with the spiritual world was largely a function of his relationship with the reindeer. The reindeer were (and in some cases still are) as central to the lives of these peoples as money is to most peoples in the developed world. The reindeer were indeed in some ways comparable to a currency; they were a measure of value. But they were much more than that. Like all pastoralists, the relationship of reindeer herders with their herd was often affectionate. They were often given names. Since they were so precious, the reindeer were generally treated with great respect. It was the herder’s job to protect the animals from all sorts of dangers and nuisances, such as mosquitoes, diseases and wolves. Often taboos on human activities were intended to protect the reindeer from harm.

The rivers Ob and Yugra and the Khanty
For thousands of years, the Khanty have lived in the taiga along the Ob river. In the east and north they continue to lead a traditional lifestyle as hunters, fisherman, and, in the north, reindeer herders. From September to December, they hunt elk, wildfowl, fox, and squirrels. In winter they live in huts where fire is the only form of lighting and heat. In mid-January, the hunters travel to market to sell furs and hides and to exchange products with other tribes. Hunting continues from January until mid-April when the rivers thaw and the hunters move towards the rivers for summer fishing. Although guns are sometimes used, hunting is still done today with bows and spears.The Khanty people are grouped into clans, and extended families live on hunting territories around the river systems of the Ob. The clans claim a right to use these territories on the basis that they believe their lineage was founded by divine ancestors who also created the river systems. Therefore the landscape and their ancestry are intimately connected. In the 2002 census, 28,678 persons identified themselves as Khanty. The Khanty language is a language belonging to the Ugric branch of the Uralic languages, and closely related to the Mansi language.

Yugra, the land of the Ugric peoples, was a tributary to Novgorod in the 13th century. The Khanty lands were partially included in the Khanate of Sibir, a Turkic Khanate that was founded in the 15th century after the end of the Mongol Empire. The khan tried to convert some of the local population, who were shamanists, to Islam. The capital of the Khanate was Chimgi-Tura, ruins of which remain near the city of Tyumen. The Cossack Yermak defeated the Khanate of Sibir in 1582, but was himself killed in battle in 1584 by the khan. In 1598 the khan was finally defeated by the Russians and forced to flee. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, there were attempts to introduce Christianity in the region, but shamanism and animism have persisted, even to this day. An early description of the Khanty can be found in Three Years Travel from Moscow Overland to Peking by Evert Ysbrandtszoon Ides. Ides (1657-1708) was a Dutch merchant who traded in Russia and eventually moved to Moscow where he became acquainted with Peter the Great, who sent him on a diplomatic mission to China. Ides talks of Ostyaks living along the banks of the river Ob, and who are probably Khanty. The men, he says, have several wives, and if a man becomes jealous and suspicious that another man has slept with one of them, he takes a piece of bearskin and goes to this man asking him to tell the truth while touching the bearskin. If a man lies whilst touching the bearskin, it is believed the angered bear will come alive in three days and that the lying man will encounter it in the forest. Most men therefore tell the truth out of fear, and having done so, a price is agreed for the transfer of the wife. The author is condescending in his description of the way of life of the Ostyaks – they are ‘lazy’, and can’t be bothered to till the land. He is aghast at their religion[12].

In the 1930's the Khanty were subjected to the Soviet collectivization policies, and tribal chiefs and shamans were deported or executed. Children were sent to Russian speaking boarding schools. This provoked a national revolt called the Kazym rebellion. The revolt centred around the new town of Kazym, which had been established by the Soviet authorities as a base with schools, hospitals and shops. Many Khanty and forest Nenets took part in the revolt, and wanted to oust the Russians from their territory. They held some Russian officials hostage and killed them by strangulation (and possibly scalping) on a frozen lake that was traditionally considered to be sacred[13].

The uprising was crushed by the Red Army who are said to have killed dozens of villagers and burned their homes, and bombed several remote settlements. After the revolt, traditional practices connected with Khanty culture were forbidden. These laws were relaxed in the 1980s.

Interviews made by Russian sociologists suggest that most Khanty thought that abandoning the nomadic way of life of reindeer breeders and the education of children in boarding schools away from their families and traditional life was negative. The same interviews show that most also thought that the literacy development and the establishment of a national autonomous okrug were positive developments under Soviet rule[14]. 

Since the 1960s when oil was first discovered here, much has changed in the region. Vast numbers of workers from all over the former Soviet Union have immigrated and two cities have been built – Surgut and Nizhnevartovsk. Since 1993, several private oil companies have moved in.This has created problems. The technology used by Soviet oil companies sometimes caused unnecessary environmental damage; for example, oil pipelines running through Siberia often leaked, and no technology was installed to allow track these leaks. Until it was discovered, the leaking oil polluted the ground and the water and poisoned fish and other animals. In the post-communist era, private companies have unfortunately often been more concerned with maximising their profits than with preserving the environment. Forest has been cut down to build roads, houses for workers and pipelines. Immigrant workers also often go hunting in their leisure time, which depletes animal stock necessary to the survival of the Khanty.

The consequences for the Khanty have been that their hunting grounds have been depleted as many animals have died or become more scant.  The Khanty who still lead a traditional lifestyle are dependent on the wildlife resources available to them. Reindeer are used for food and clothing, fish are the principal source of food, and timber is used to make huts and hollowed out canoes. Wild berries are also an important source of food. Reindeer pasture and forest has disappeared as vast areas have been developed. Many Khanty have opted to move to urban centres and take up jobs in the oil industry. Sometimes this has increased social problems, such as alcoholism and crime. Traditional communities are now in danger of disappearing.Although there is some legislation aiming to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples and giving them some limited rights to the land they inhabit, it is poorly drafted and often not implemented or enforced in reality. Oil companies are powerful and bring a lot of revenue to the local administration. The Mansi, who live south of the Khanty, are generally more assimilated than their Northern neighbours. The Mansi traditionally made a living from hunting and forest apiculture. The hive trees were private property. Fishing played a less significant role in their economy than among the Khanty. In the west and south, some Mansi bred cattle and farmed. In the north, some were reindeer herders. Together with the Khanty people, the Mansi are politically represented by the association "Spasensie Yugra" ("Save Yugra" - "Yugra" is the historical name of the region), which is an association which aims to promote traditional culture and values and to protect the land.

[11] Bruce Parry, 25 September 2007
[12] David N. Collins, Siberian Discovery, Volume 1, Curzon Press 2000
[13] Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, The Tenacity of Ethnicity, Princeton University Press, 1999
[14] Ibid.