“Seryoga, how on earth did you get this thing here?”
My question evokes a smile from the driver of the beat-up old Niva. The SUV shakes and skids a bit in the sand as we drive along the central and, truth be told, only road through one of the northernmost settlements on the Yamal Peninsula.
“Yeah, my parents moved us here when I was young... They just wanted to earn enough to buy their own car. Then they changed their mind and stayed.”
The snow lies on the ground here from September to June. The rest of the year there is endless rain, wind and dense fog. But this is The North. It casts a spell on you.
It’s possible to get from the regional capital, Salekhard, to distant peninsular villages via regularly scheduled helicopter flights... if you are lucky with the weather and can wrangle a ticket.
I opt instead to travel by boat, and for the next 20 hours float down the Ob River, soaking in views of the deserted tundra. From time to time our ship is engulfed in a cloud of “milk” fog. We enter into something like an alternate reality: all sense of direction or movement is lost, only to be interrupted by the occasional sound of foghorns from boats passing nearby.
Fortuitously, I fall asleep and don’t have to keep listening to the patriotic diatribes of my neighbor, a former police offer.
His words acquire significance a few days later, however, when I find myself nearly 50 kilometers beyond the Polar Circle. Behind me, as far as I can see, is the tundra; before me – to the extent it is visible – is the limitless expanse of the Ob Gulf.
In a place like this, a person stops associating the landscape with this or that country, and begins to wonder if he is even on his home planet...
Surprisingly, two different modes of life exist harmoniously side-by-side on Yamal: the nomadic and the village. Historically, they need one another, as the majority of the populated settlements emerged as trading posts, supplying reindeer herders with vital goods.
In every village the entirety of post-Soviet geography is represented. Ask twenty random people in the same village where they came from, and it is rare to hear the same answer twice.
My most memorable encounter in the tundra is with the head of a large family, the proprietor of two chums (tents). He whisks me away in a boat that is uncommonly ugly, but which boasts a huge Yamaha engine. Inside his chum, I am immediately directed to rest on a pile of skins, placing some sort of pillow beneath my spine for comfort. The reindeer herders’ rules of hospitality are very clear: first you are to be provided with tea and something to eat, and only then may conversation begin.
I ask questions about religion, mysticism and everyday problems: “What do you do if the reindeer run off into the tundra?”
The head of the family does not hesitate with his reply. “We have our ‘mistresses of the chum,’ ” he says, “special ‘dolls’ that have been passed on from generation to generation. I put them upon the table and ask for their help with any business whatever. Here they are...”
He rummages beneath the skins, locating two figurines, at the same time shooing from the chum a dog that somehow snuck into the tent, hiding in the warmth. “I can’t seem to find the third ‘mistress,’” he says.
Most likely I am sitting atop a family relic.
Everyone who has gotten stuck here originally planned to work here for two or three years, earning their higher northern salaries until they were tapped out. So why did they stick around? What drew them to this emptiness that stretches to every horizon? And the winters, when everything is transformed into a barren white slate, when no matter which direction you go, you are up to your waist in snow?
In reply to my questions, people throw up their hands.
Yes, it is difficult to live here, and many leave... only to return.
Because it is impossible to live without the North.
The wide-open spaces and the possibility of living in harmony with nature require a population density of no greater than one person per square kilometer. And if you ask the locals what they think about Moscow, the most pleasant response you will get is that it is a “human cesspit.”
One evening there is a very beautiful sunset, and I am walking pleasantly along the steep shore of the Ob Gulf. I come across a fellow in large, rubber boots — the most practical footwear here, given the constant dirt and the swampland that greets you in all directions.
“I’m former KGB,” he says. “They sent me here by lot. Then they laid me off. Now I repair televisions and computers for the tundra dwellers. My education was on Soviet technology! There’s nothing here to learn on...”
He boasts that he succeeded in purchasing some sort of military base for kopeks, and now has a huge house, several hangars and a rather large acreage.
“But I can’t leave,” he says. “I can’t live where it’s warm. I tried it – I immediately come down with something.”
I have endless questions.
I walk through an old graveyard. The Nenets do not bury their dead below ground. The large wooden boxes filled with remains impart a sense of mystery to the hallowed ground. Nonetheless, Soviet engineers, in their “wisdom,” resolved to place a helicopter landing site all but among the gravesites. Now, several times a day, those in their eternal rest are tormented by the sound of rotors.
On another hill nearby is a dump, its trash blown about by the Yamal winds. A bulldozer driver knits his brows and says the local administration promised to build a trash recycling plant, that soon the tundra will be cleaner than clean.
There is no internet here.
Once again I attempt to understand things through one of my new acquaintances.
“What do you like about living here?”
“All the guys here are normal. One’s a driver, another a teacher — but all are hunters. And everyone has a snowmobile. On Saturdays we get together and go hunting. Then fishing. You tell me, what else does one need to be happy?”
The worldview from here seems very simple: there is Yamal and there is “the mainland,” that is, the rest of the country.
“Where did you go?”
“To the mainland.”
Given the northern salary supplements, it is not uncommon to hear a common public sector worker talk of how he took his whole family to the Mediterranean for his two-week vacation.
And children say to their father, “Papa, bring me back an iPad from the mainland...”
The younger generation here is unusual. Very independent. Driven to be well educated. And in love with their little corner of the world beyond the Polar Circle.
I have seen many places in the North. But Yamal is something different. It is very difficult to get to. And after living here for three weeks, you have no interest in leaving.
In big cities, you can lose yourself like an ant in a swarming anthill, struggling not to be beaten down by life. In a small village, the challenge is different: to become fully a part of that world, in order to share in all of its joys and sorrows. When you are surrounded by a polar winter, by permafrost, you can only find salvation through complete mutual trust and support. And if you leave, you are cutting the nourishing string that connects you, like an umbilical cord, to your life’s energy source.
Come visit. Test yourself and see if you have the strength to fall in love with Yamal, to walk along the edge of the world, where even in good weather you seem to be standing atop the North Pole. RL
The word Yamal derives from the Nenets people’s words for “world” (ya) and “end” (mal).
The Yamal Peninsula is roughly 700 kilometers long and 240 kilometers wide. It comprises just under half of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Republic, which has a population of just under 600,000.
Its shores are washed by the Yamal Sea in the West and the Gulf of Ob in the East. Geologically, this permafrost region is rather young. Some places are less than 10,000 years old.
Yamal is also home to about half a million reindeer and some 7500 Nenets people, whose ancestors have been herding reindeer here for over a millenium. Yamal is perhaps the place in Russia where the nomadic reindeer herding life is best preserved.
The world’s largest gas reserves, and fully 20 percent of those in Russia, are buried beneath Yamal, most in five uncommonly large deposits. For this reason, Gazprom, Russia’s gas giant, is constructing here the world’s northernmost railroad, which in 2011 opened up a route stretching 572 km from Salekhard to the Bovanenkovsky deposit, about halfway up the peninsula (with eventual extensions planned to both coasts). A massive gas pipeline is also in the works.
Originally, Russians referred to natives of the region (first discovered in the eighteenth century) simply as Samoyeds, a corrupted ethnonym from the indigenous people’s name for themselves, saamodi. The name referred at first to the Nenets people, by far the most numerous indigenous group in the region, but then also encompassed Enets, Nganasans, Selkups and others, and now refers to a linguistic grouping, not a cultural one. The name has a pejorative connotation, given that samoyed, in Russian, implies cannibalism. By the 1930s, some Russian ethnologists proposed a different ethnonym, samodeic.
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