The is one of the least famous, but most important, regions of the Russian Federation. With a territory around 1.5 times the size of France, the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (YNAO) is located in the West Siberian north, just northeast of the geographic border between Europe and Asia above the Arctic Circle. Today more than 10,000 nomads herd 300,000 domestic reindeer on the pastures of the Arctic tundra. Under those pastures are huge gas deposits holding almost a quarter of the world’s known reserves.
There are traces of indigenous reindeer economies on this peninsula that stretch back a thousand years, but it is recent history that shapes the current Nenets way of life. In 1961 the Soviets collectivised reindeer herds and created several large state farms, or 'Sovkhoz', and reindeer herding was organised into teams of Soviet workers known as 'Brigady'. Subsequently the term 'Brigade' came to refer to the groups that were formed (animals and people) and each of these brigades had a head-man, or 'Brigadier'. This is how nomadic herding became part of the soviet economy and how the tundra effectively became an open-air meat factory where the nomads were workers of the soviet agricultural system with fixed contracts and salaries. Few regional administrations changed the national state-farm template, but there were some that were sensitive to the unique needs of the herders. For example, in Yamal there was a less forceful approach to settling women and children and they were (and still are) able to migrate with their whole families across the tundra. After the Soviet Union, the private reindeer economy began to thrive and state farms dwindled. Today, 80% of the reindeer are privately owned by the herders with the remaining 20% owned by the current state-farms, most of which today belong to the municipality.
The Nenets herder economy is driven by the reindeer meat that they sell. The salary they get from herding state-farm reindeer is minimal when compared to the income they get from selling private reindeer, and from sawing off their antlers to be exported to China as a male potency drug. Aside from its market value, reindeer meat is a source of food, shelter, clothing, transport, spiritual fulfilment and means of socialising. For example, it is still common that a bride price in the form of reindeer is paid, and a dowry is brought into the young family when a tundra couple marries. The reindeer is also revered as a symbol. It’s believed the people and the deer entered a kind of social contract, where reindeer offered themselves to humans for their subsistence and transport, and humans agree to accompany them on their seasonal migrations and protect them from predators. Such is the importance of reindeer to the whole district (and not just to the Nenets) that the reindeer symbol made it to the centre of the YNAO .
The size of Nenets’ herds varies, depending not only on the owner but also on the seasons. In summer, for example, herds need to be larger to act as a natural defence against mosquitoes. The herds on the Yamal Peninsula will range from 50 in small private herds to 7,000 in the largest 8th Brigade of the Yar-Sale state farm. The migration pattern (see map above) depends on seasons and on sustainability of lichen pastures on which the reindeer feed. The large herds will have their winter pastures in the forest-tundra just to the south of the Arctic Circle, and in spring the brigades begin their migration northwards as fast as possible until the thaw comes. They spend a short summer in the northern tundra close to the Kara Sea and then return southwards to the forest tundra in November. The entire migration covers around 1100 kilometres and includes a 48 km crossing of the frozen waters of the Ob River. For these journeys the reindeer are used to pull sledges that carry the people and their camp. These enormous single-file reindeer trains can stretch out to 8 km in length, as far as the eye can see. A daily migration covers distances between 8-20 km during snow-covered time, and 3-11 km in summer, when the reindeer pull their sledges over the grass. On their winter migration to the south they stop at the administrative centre of Yar-Sale for the annual slaughter, which is where the salaries are paid to the herders and where they are able to make most of their money.
The Nenets still rely on traditional clothing sewn by the women. A Nenets man wears a Malitsa which is a coat made of around 4 reindeer skins, the fur being closest to the skin on the inside and the leather on the outside. The Malitsa has an integrated hood and gloves and is similar to a poncho with no zips or buttons. New Malitsas (just like all other fur clothing) are used in winter time but they do begin to molt and within several years have to be replaced - the worn out clothing is used during milder weather. In extreme cold conditions men wear yet another layer of reindeer fur, known as a Gus. Unlike the Malitsa the Gus has leather on the inside and fur on the outside and equipped with these two layers a man can stay outside overnight and sleep with the herd in temperatures down to -50C and below. The women wear a Yagushka which has a double layer of around 8 reindeer skins and which is buttoned at the front. Both men and women wear hip-high reindeer skin boots which consist of an inner (tobaki) and outer boot (kisy) that are worn together and tied up with a belt.
At the center of this food web, supporting all of this life, are phytoplankton and algae that produce organic material using energy from the sun.The Arctic’s extreme environmental conditions have limited our opportunities to study this complex food web.
In Canada and the Arctic tundra they are a protected animal
Morning: We will transfer by motorcoach to immerse ourselves in the stunning beauty of Aurora Borealis by watching a live planetarium presentation at the Manitoba Museum, recorded over seven months in the Arctic Circle.