By Paul Goble
Russian officials, nominally in order to fight the spread of disease but in fact to assist oil and gas companies in their drive to take over increasingly large parts of the North have called for reducing the size of the reindeer herds on which the people of the Russian North have from time immemorial depended for their livelihoods.
Given the power imbalance between the officials and the reindeer hunters, the former are likely to get their way; but today in “Novaya gazeta,” Tatyana Britskaya recalls that the last time Moscow tried to do this – under Stalin in 1941 – the reindeer herders revolted and called for an end to Soviet power there (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/10/05/70069-my-ostalis-bez-oleney-i-o-nas-zabyli).
Officials in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Oblast created the current situation by ending the reindeer vaccination program a decade ago, ignoring warning signs of the spread of various diseases, and then calling for the massive destruction of the reindeer herds on which the population relies.
They then tried to cover up what they are doing by suggesting that they aren’t planning to destroy as many reindeer as the local people say – officials put the cull at 70,000 reindeer; local people say it is “a minimum of 250,000” – and by announcing plans to help local people buy at least some replacements.
The region’s governor, Dmitry Kobylkin, recently declared that the reindeer herds in his area should not number more than 110,000. Given that today, there are 733,000 reindeer there, the Russian journalist says, it appears likely that the authorities are planning to destroy far more of the herds than they have announced.
Seventy percent of these reindeer belong to the numerically small peoples of the North who live there. If these herds are destroyed, so too will be their historical way of life. Not surprisingly, these people are angry; and they are convinced that the officials are acting in a “conspiratorial” and underhanded way.
Some have even suggested that there was no outbreak of disease at all or that the officials caused it because they wanted, in the words of one reindeer herder, “to drive people into a sedentary way of life” where they could be more easily controlled than the situation Moscow now faces where these herders are nomadic or semi-nomadic.
In support of their fears, the reindeer herders point to official statements calling for the remaining herds to be fenced in and fed with food brought in from the south, something that would be beyond the means of the herders to pay for and that would mark the end of reindeer herding as a way of life.
Britskaya writes that it is far from clear how the authorities think they will be able to do this. And she points out that when Moscow has tried to do something like this before, it has failed, provoking exactly the kind of actions the center does not want.
“An attempt to destroy the way of life of herders occurred” in 1941, she says, after what Soviet officials then said was an outbreak of plague. “That attempt led to an uprising, whose participants in fact demanded the replacement of Soviet power in the tundra.” She implies that the reindeer herders again feel they have been pushed into a corner and must resist.