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Now Fly Away
By Margaret Black

The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

By Piers Vitebsky

Houghton Mifflin Company, 464 pages, $28

When the great ice sheets retreated, many cold-adapted animals followed them, closely pursued by Paleolithic human hunters. But eventually humans reached places where winter cold was so intense, and food sources so negligible, that their movement north might have halted, had it not been for the reindeer (caribou in America). At some point an extraordinary kind of semi-domestication—more a temporary partnership—took place. Reindeer travel enormous distances at such speed that the ancients believed they could fly, a myth kept alive even today with Santa Claus. By riding certain amenable reindeer and persuading others to draw sledges, humans could keep up with the ever-moving herds, thereby maintaining ready access to meat, milk, and the skins necessary for their survival. Reindeer fur, with its highly evolved hollow hairs, is so insulating that the organs of a dead reindeer will ferment beneath uncut skin, rather than freeze solid as they will with other animals.

For millennia, a culture of self-sufficient nomadic reindeer herders flourished across the furthermost reaches of northern Europe and Asia. Even when explorers from tsarist Russia “discovered” such people in Siberia—bringing smallpox and alcohol along with trade—they left the nomads’ way of life largely undisturbed. Then came the Soviet revolution. These new overlords wanted to exploit natural resources located in the inhospitable north, but they also intended to “modernize” everyone, including the nomads.

Piers Vitebsky, author of The Reindeer People, is an anthropologist at Cambridge University who specializes in shamanistic practices (the word “shaman” originates in Siberia). In 1988, with perestroika slowly opening Soviet doors, he finally received grudging permission to visit the Eveny, a reindeer-herding community far north of Yakutsk. Over succeeding years, as the Soviet Union devolved into Russia and assorted pieces, Vitebsky visited many times, in all seasons. He became deeply involved with several families, learning their practices, their relationships, their beliefs, and their own vision of themselves. He also witnessed the collapse—and response to it—of almost all markets and services that the Soviet state had once forcibly integrated into Eveny life.

This book covers an enormous array of material, but it does so with unusual ease and grace. Vitebsky combines conversational stories of moving camp, rounding up strays, sawing off antlers, eating reindeer stew, and hunting sables in the dead of winter with analytic paragraphs deftly packed with information. Even the loose narrative sections convey a great deal of information beyond surface description. On his winter hunt, Vitebsky comes across an old couple living independent of the village, and one herding brigade is stubbornly composed from a single family, including females: Granny, a supposedly “simple” daughter, and a granddaughter—showing how at least some individuals managed to evade central management directives.

The Soviet goal “was to convert northern native peoples to a ‘sedentary’ way of life. But this created a Catch-22, which remains the central problem of the reindeer herders’ existence today. Apart from mining, there is no way that humans can make a living on this landscape except in partnership with the reindeer; and they cannot live with the reindeer except by following their perpetual migration.” Inevitably the villages became the locus of women (ordered to sew fur garments and perform other jobs), children (going to school), and non-native specialists (vets, teachers, party administrators), so village “culture” came to diverge almost completely from that of the men out in the taiga caring for the herds. Since the 1990s, with the evaporation of state services (vets, doctors, markets, regular helicopter flights, salaries, retirement income), the locals have been thrust back upon themselves. But now, alas, they are also debilitated by dissatisfaction, despair, and vodka. In addition, enormous, continuing environmental damage, including significant radioactive contamination, has come to light, in part through its disastrous impact on local health.

Disruption of relations between the sexes is probably the most destructive Soviet legacy. “Their own women see the herders as coarse and uncouth. . . . The sight of a drunken herder in his home, surrounded by sober women, is made all the more painful by the knowledge that this is the twisted outcome of a systematic policy to undermine the family.” And yet these men are not total clods. They read—Lermontov, Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Emperor Hadrian, a book on the Inca gods. They talk about the effect of the Channel Tunnel on tariffs. Their riding reindeer have names like Sancho Panza, Cleopatra, and Margaret Thatcher.

Not only did the Soviets liquidate old chiefs and shamans, they also continued to silence any voice that deviated from party directives. This makes it difficult now to find leaders capable of reorganizing Eveny life. But subversive thinking and action did exist. Sometimes the realities of herding required it. Other ideas, however—making gifts to the land, the fire, to water; interpreting dreams; having animal doubles—seem to represent irrepressible elements of the old culture. All village burials, even of accountants and administrators, include a sacrificed reindeer, so the dead can fly to a new life.

But best of all in this excellent book is Vitebsky’s discussion of the reindeer themselves, a fascinating species and still a mystery. Why can’t wild reindeer be tamed at all now when at one time it must have happened? Why don’t “domesticated” reindeer stay domesticated? Reindeer so profoundly affected ancient peoples living in more southerly regions that generations after the reindeer disappeared to the far north, the people would bury horses wearing helmets of artificial reindeer antlers and would tattoo their bodies with reindeer flying to the sun. In the author’s hands, these animals do indeed appear a magical species.

 


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