March 01, 2019

Women at the Top of the World

Women at the Top of the World
Zoya and Maxim. Yevgenia Volunkova

In 2017 a new occupation appeared on Russia’s official list of professions: chumwife. A chumwife is the wife of a reindeer herder, a.k.a. “the mistress of the chum,” who takes care of the children and the family’s everyday needs.

In reality, of course, there have always been chumwives. In the Soviet era, sovkhozes (state collective farms) simply designated women as grade three reindeer herders, and their wages, when they were lucky enough to get them, were miniscule. But starting in January 2018, when chumwives became “official,” they received a boost in pay and a new inscription in their labor books: grade three chumwife. The governor of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO), Dmitry Kobylkin, proudly announced that the region had “fought and struggled” for acceptance of this important profession.

Recently, Lidia Okotetto, head of the Yedey Il reindeer herding community, declared on the floor of the YNAO legislative assembly that the salaries of chumwives needed to be raised. Okotetto, an honored citizen of Yamal, is herself a former chumwife. “Reindeer herders receive very little,” she said, “and chumwives get kopeks. In the tundra, a man is nobody without a wife, and these wives have few joys trying to make a livable home, following their husbands around with six children in tow.”

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