Finished The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky yesterday. Vitebsky has worked with the native people of Siberia, especially the Even, since 1988. He was one of the few Western scholars to be invited to the USSR to do research there before the breakup and he has a unique perspective. He also has the advantage of working there for nearly 20 years and not just visiting a few times like so many others who write about Siberia.
The book only got better as it went along. I found the first two parts a bit slowgoing, as I was trying to figure out who people were, where they were living, and follow all the details about reindeer herding; but by the time I got to “Interlude: Solitude and Silence,” I was completely entranced.
Vitebsky writes a lot about children and family (his own family goes to Siberia with him in 1996, in chapter 14). He is especially concerned about the Soviet disregard for the family and how family life for the reindeer herders was almost completely destroyed in the last 30 years of the Soviet Union. He writes about the schools the children attended in the villages:
No child’s voice would be heard in the taiga for nine months until the following June. For thousands of miles, from the border of Finland to the border with Japan, there was not a single native child of school age left to experience the migrations and activities of late autumn, winter, spring, or early summer.
During the Soviet years, these were boarding schools where the children almost never saw their parents, even during the summers. After the breakup, the boarding schools were usually closed and the mothers lived in the villages with their children, although by that point almost all of the women had moved to the villages even though their children were still living in the boarding schools:
There were [in 1990] virtually no children left of school age whose mothers still lived out in the taiga. The scope of womanhood there had been greatly reduced. The intimate space that women had controlled around the fire related not only to warmth and cooking, but also to childbirth and motherhood. By now, giving birth in the taiga, being a mother, just being a wife, had become almost impossible.
Vitebsky did spend quite a bit of time with a family who was living together in the taiga. The mother was well-educated, a Sakha veterinarian who had come to work with the reindeer and had married her husband, an Even man, and was happy living in the taiga. Reading about their family at the beginning of chapter 8 was one of the highlights of the book. But when their children were old enough to go to school, she went with them to the village where she lives with them today.
But there are no other choices there if you want to educate your children. And the result is that Even woman have almost no connection to their land. One girl told the author that the characters in a popular Mexican soap opera about the super-rich that was shown all over the former USSR from Siberia to Moscow to Karakalpakstan were “just like us!”
The removal of the women to the villages took a heavy toll on the men who were left to herd the reindeer. It can be very difficult to get married, and even if they could, it’s very unlikely that you’ll see your wife very often. And there are a high number of accidental deaths, murders, and suicides- 1/3 of all deaths across the far north (186,00 people in 30 different ethnic groups) are from these three causes. Alcohol plays a major role in these deaths. One man even portrayed the rampant alcohol use (especially after the breakup) as a form of protest: "Tolya painted a terrifying picture of a generation of young men who could see no scope for taking control of their destinies, and for whom drinking and killing themselves were equivalent. It was as if their drunkenness were already a kind of living suicide."
This thirst for vodka has in contributed to the destruction of the economy and even the reindeer herds in some parts of Russia. In 1995, a liter of vodka was worth 20 kilos of reindeer meat, or a quarter of a whole reindeer. As Vitebsky puts it, “For a few truckloads of this distilled fluid, one could buy out the entire reindeer industry of Russia, half a million years of symbosis. Like the bomblets of biological warfare, these bottles could destroy indigenous humanity on one-tenth of the earth’s surface.”
The Chukchi in the farthest eastern parts of nothern Siberia have suffered the most from vodka. Some reindee herds have been competely decimated in return for groceries and vodka, leaving the people with nothing once the food was gone.
The chapter on his family’s first visit to Siberia was very interesting as he talks about their reactions to the places he loves, his fears about their visit, and their insights into the lives of the Even. In the chapter that comes the closest to a travelogue, “How to summon a helicopter,” he writes of their adventures in getting out of their camp when helicopters couldn’t get through for days.
I had only two minor irritations with the book. First, the author refers to the people as Eveny throughout the book instead of Even. He decided to do this because “even” is also a word in English and it could be confusing to the reader, a reasonable concern. “Eveny” is the Russian plural of the word. I’d have preferred to see Even used, but when this is a book that’s probably going to be read by people who’ve never heard of the Even anyway, it’s understandable.
I also wished that he wrote more about the years between 1995 and today (the book was published in 2005). Throughout the former Soviet Union things were pretty bad for a few years, and then started to improve in many places. I was, and still am, curious to know if that was the case in Siberia also. Those improvements certainly came more quickly in some places than in other places, but quite a few people in Kyrgyzstan said that it was in about 1995 or 1996 that things weren’t so awful.
There really was very little about shamanism in the book despite its title; shamanism has been almost completely destroyed in Siberia, even more so than Islam was dismantled in Central Asia. Still the last part does talk about shamanism and the religious beliefs of the people (chapter 11, “Animal souls and human destiny” was particularly good).
So that’s my very long review of an excellent book. Definitely worth reading and highly recommended.