Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Review: 'The Reindeer People' by Piers Vitebsky

The Siberian reindeer herders’ camp is a fairly intimate collection of perhaps a dozen people and a few small tents, surrounded by thousands of square miles of space. One might mistakenly describe the space as empty, but in fact it is manifestly full. Stands of larch, lichen, grasses, bogs and lakes adorn the mountain ranges and river systems that feed into the Arctic Ocean. Bears, wolves, marmots, and other fur-bearing mammals, as well as birds, fish and spirits live here. Graves are carefully placed in the landscape, many on platforms or stilts in an older style. Their inhabitants require offerings from passersby, and they have stories, as do many of the mountain passes and other landmarks.

There are blueberries here, and even in a dry year Emmie knows exactly where to find them. There are mushrooms here, and when the reindeer flock to them in a late-summer feeding frenzy, Kostya can retrieve his animals, spread over many miles of territory, with amazing ease. The inconceivably large Siberian taiga, though austere and even deadly, especially during the bitter winter and the treacherous spring thaw, is portrayed in this book as well-ordered and peaceful. Each herding “brigade” (to use the Soviet term) knows the land as it knows its own mother.

Within the camp all is orderly and calm, too, which is nothing short of miraculous, considering that these people pack up their things and move every few days as they shepherd their reindeer through a yearly migration cycle, making use of the best grazing land while, as much as possible, avoiding stinging, parasitic insects and hungry wolves. (These two categories of creatures seem to be the bad guys of the taiga.) Every few days the herders pack tents, gear, books, journals, clothing and bedding, as well as kitchen items from utensils and pots to provisions and even the stove itself. These items are loaded into saddlebags carried by specially trained reindeer. All that remains behind is a stack of wooden poles (for the tents) and perhaps a platform with appropriate supplies neatly tied down under a reindeer skin or tarp, ready for use when the brigade returns to this spot in a year’s time. When the herders arrive several hours later at their next location, everything must be unpacked and reassembled for immediate occupation and use.

The village of Sebyan, around which the herds in their Soviet incarnation revolve, is the foil to the open, spacious, calm, orderly taiga. It is crowded and noisy with gossip, bureaucratic paper rustling, and wheeling and dealing. The government-run village and its mandatory state school rob men of their families, women of their traditional role as partners in a family enterprise, and children of their culture, replacing them with vodka, sugar and phony folkloric performances. The State Farm bureaucracy is a purveyor of revenge on successful families and an instigator of rage, despair, murder and suicide.

If space is telling in The Reindeer People, so, too, is time, underpinning the entire story. There are the thousands of years during which, in symbiosis with the reindeer, the Eveny culture was crafted; the scant generations since the Soviets tortured it into a mundane system of post-capitalist production; and the relatively few years since perestroika introduced its own set of difficulties. There is also the time spent by Dr. Vitebsky and his Eveny hosts: quiet time, hour upon hour invested in building the personal relationships that give this study its depth. Also described here is the elegant yearly cycle of migration, traced over and over on the vast landscape of the Russian Arctic, which lies underneath the multitude of stomping, crunching reindeer hooves like a living, calendrical carpet. In this way of life, the movement through space is a concrete representation of the movement through time.

Since the retreat of the glaciers after the last Ice Age, reindeer have lived in the northernmost reaches of Siberia, moving through the river systems and mountain ranges. The Eveny are just one group among several who live with these partly wild, partly domesticated animals, managing them with techniques taken from psychology as well as animal husbandry. Over thousands of years the Eveny and their kin created a home in the coldest place on earth—a culture that is physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially sustaining. In The Reindeer People, Dr. Vitebsky’s experiences illuminate for us the interrelated beliefs, habits, dreams, and turns of tongue that deepen the many meetings and farewells, arrivals and departures of this still (for the herders) essentially nomadic life. Dr. Vitebsky provides fascinating background and history, and, I think, to his credit, he acknowledges his place as a participant on the ground (his wife and children even join him and Brigade 7 one summer) and as an anthropologist trying to make sense of it all, but to a large extent he lets the herders tell their own stories.

Before the Soviets, the yearly migration cycles were apparently augmented by other, longer travels over thousands of miles, made possible by the reindeer who, when winter snow and ice blanket uneven or boggy terrain, can virtually fly. There is also reference to a traditional midsummer ritual which symbolized the flight of each person to the sun on the back of a winged reindeer. Before the Soviets exterminated them, Eveny shamans also flew to the realm of spirits on missions of healing. (And the platform graves, are these a form of flight as well?) The centralized Soviet system disallowed these earlier forms of flying; its introduction of helicopters to move people and supplies, ironically but predictably, fostered dependence rather than healing or transcendence. This condition has been exacerbated by the post-Soviet reduction of transportation and other support.

Change is inevitable, both in natural systems (how will climate change impact this land and its inhabitants?) and in human affairs. There will always be a conquering people, a natural disaster, political discord, religious missions or schisms, new technologies or some other eventuality to catalyze cultural change, whether gradual or abrupt, violent or peaceful. The unrecoverable loss that results is acute and painful—in this case it is traumatic. Certainly, as I read this book, I mourned the loss of self-determination and freedom, the destruction of culture and tradition, the irradiation of the environment and its people, the breakup of families, and the impersonal cruelty of a morally bankrupt system that encourages treachery and death.

As Lidia, one of the herder’s wives, explains to Dr. Vitebsky, it is difficult for a herder to adjust to the village, because his soul is open from living in the taiga. I hope that the thousands of years of Eveny culture can ultimately transcend the destruction of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, and that the people can, in some fashion, metaphorically or actually, return to the well-ordered space which they created and which is rightfully theirs. Dr. Vitebsky’s friend Tolya (Anatoly Alekseyev), an Eveny anthropologist, is perhaps the pivotal person in this story, if not in the book itself. As Dr. Vitebsky points out, Tolya, in his use of aviation to contact otherworldly beings, is like a modern shaman, flying from the taiga to the world of scholars and activists on a mission of healing for his people. I wish him all the best on his journey.

The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia is a winner of the Kiriyama Prize for Nonfiction and a recipient of the Victor Turner Prize Honorable Mention.

Piers Vitebsky is the head of anthropology and Russian northern studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. He was the first Westerner to live with Siberian reindeer people since the Russian Revolution.

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