Twilight Of The Reindeer Herders?

At first glance, Russkinskaya looks like any Russian village on the edge of the great northern forests, called the taiga: painted wooden houses, a store, and a school under a silent covering of snow and ringed by endless ghostly birches. Then, with a swish of snow and diesel, the taiga comes alive.

Mounted on a snowmobile, pulling a bulging blood-red sack of berries on a wooden sled, a family of Khanti people sweeps in from the north. Dressed in exquisitely decorated reindeer-skin coats and boots, the weatherworn couple and their tiny granddaughter cruise into the school yard and park their sputtering machine on the icy path beside the school canteen.

Winter, when ice provides a firm path across the swamps, is the time the Khanti are on the move. These reindeer-herding people of the River Ob in Western Siberia mount their snowmobiles and travel across the untracked taiga. Volodya Soropchin and his wife have journeyed for two days to reach Russkinskaya, spending the night in the woods in a deerskin tent. They have come 100 miles to sell 100 pounds or so of cranberries they gathered last summer from the boggy forests around their home.

Russkinskaya is a frontier community. Located where the road from Surgut--the big oil town 99 miles south--ends and the forest begins, it's a meeting place for Soviet industry and the Khanti people. It's a world of fur trapping and reindeer herding, of bear-hunt feasts and holy men. Khanti hunters come to Russkinskaya to trade the fruits of the forest for basic supplies.

FROZEN DELIGHT. The Khanti must also come to town to see their children. The local budget does not stretch far enough to provide schools on the upper reaches of the Ob, so from the age of 6 or 7, all children are taken away by helicopter to the lonely boarding school in Russkinskaya. The system has never been popular. In fact, in the 1930s, when it began, the Khanti rose up in bloody but futile rebellion against the commissars over compulsory education. Herders such as Soropchin, whose children must still attend school here, accept it now.

The school provides Soropchin, 47, with a market for the berries he and his wife have collected. The sack they sell will earn them $105, about the average Russian monthly wage. After Soropchin completes his transaction at the canteen, he invites me to the bare brick house he and his extended family use when they come to town. There he serves me stroganino, the all-purpose Khanti winter food of river fish, thinly sliced and eaten frozen. The Khanti carry this with them on their travels, as snacks. The stroganino I share with Soropchin has a delicate taste that goes well with vodka.

Maintaining these traditional ways in this remote corner of Siberia has become increasingly difficult for the Khanti. In the 1950s, giant oil fields were discovered in the region. In the ensuing decades, the Khanti mutely accepted the incursions of state oil companies. Production here, which represents two-thirds of Russia's crude oil, is worth $20 billion annually. For 30 years, oil companies such as Lukoil and Surgutneftegaz treated this 202,000 square mile region as a colony. They drilled and destroyed the land without asking permission from the Khanti or compensating them.

But the political and economic reforms brought on by the collapse of communism are reaching even this village. With their newly won political and economic freedom, the 23,000 Khanti are fighting for a stake in the oil reserves beneath their land and for the preservation of their lifestyle and their forests. The top priority is to halt the environmental devastation. As oil derricks are built deeper and deeper into the taiga and up the remote tributaries of the Ob, Russian oil companies are causing ecological and social disaster for the Khanti. These days, the fish Soropchin drags from the rivers smell of oil. The berries that sprout from the oily bogs in spring poison his reindeer, and he must be careful to pick only clean berries for the school. The oilmen are everywhere, shooting the game and vandalizing the huts for storage and for prayer, Soropchin says.

The depredation of hunting grounds has caused a shift of native population to the towns, a rise in health and social problems such as alcoholism and crime, and a decline of traditional culture, says Soropchin, speaking in the basic Russian he learned during six years at a Soviet boarding school. In the 1950s, 80% of Khanti spoke their native language; today, only 60% do. Many must work as laborers since they no longer can make a living as hunter-gatherers.

TITLED LAND. But now, the Khanti see an opportunity. Soropchin and others have lived on their family land as a matter of tradition--but without legal ownership. Finally, the government is giving them title. In the past few years, it has granted about a third of the land in this region to the natives as "family domains," similar to the reservations occupied by Native Americans and Canadian Inuits. Soropchin expects to apply to the local council for such an agreement. Once he has been granted a family domain, he'll have the right--in theory, anyway--to refuse oil and mining companies access or at least to set terms and to ask for compensation.

Owning the land should bring the Khanti both wealth and control over their hunting grounds. But Russian life is lawless, and Russia's giant oil companies are powerful. While the government supports giving rights to the Khanti, it is cowed by the oil companies, so enforcing those rights is difficult. The Khanti leaders are left envying their reindeer-farming counterparts in Canada and Scandinavia, who have grown rich from oil royalties. The most a land-owning Khanti can expect in compensation is that an oil company will pay for fuel, basic food, and perhaps a snowmobile or a house. With an annual income below the Russian average of $1,000, many Khanti would welcome that. Some, such as Soropchin, want the Khanti to unite and use their rights to exclude oil companies from their territory altogether. "It is useless trying to stop it alone," he says. Several Khanti have staged protests, including blocking highways. Yeremei D. Aipin, a writer and Khanti leader, briefly held a seat in Parliament but was defeated in December's elections by oil company candidates.


In addition to land compensation, all members of the tribe profit from the recent privatization of Russia's oil industry. About 5% of the shares in the region's oil companies, including Lukoil and Yukos, went into a $70 million mutual fund. Half of those fund shares were sold to investors, and the other half were divided among the Khanti. They're worth about $500 per individual.

Unfortunately, these hunter-gatherers are not sophisticated investors. There are reports that sharpies are buying $500 shares for a bottle of vodka. Lydia, Soropchin's sister, who runs the local Khanti cultural center, is convinced that the shares are bad news. "I don't trust them. I will sell them as soon as possible," she says. Soropchin is unsure what to do with his shares. They represent one more dilemma the Khanti face as they come to terms with their newfound freedom.

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