Mission to North Siberia – the Nomads

Irina accompanied us on all our ventures into the wild to visit her friends in the “chums” (чум, pronounced choom) – which are the traditional teepee-type tents that Nenets live in. First, I need to tell you how we got there. As the crow flies, the two homes we were to visit were only 7km away from Laborovaya, but we had to get there by foot. This would have been no problem at all, were it not for all that humanitarian aid we had to now take with us that I mentioned in my first post.

Kerith has spent nearly 100 days mountaineering in the wilderness where heavy backpacks are the norm, but they distribute the weight well. We had close to 100 pounds on our backs in plain backpacks. Add to this the tough terrain I described in my second post, and I was struggling to move forward after an hour, not to mention the mighty battle with mosquitoes that we had to constantly fight. Well, I say “we,” but I swear the locals never seemed to struggle like we did. They said part of the problem was my wearing short sleeves, insisting on being cool instead of safe. But they bit right through my shirt. Sure, I could manage “7 with one blow,” or even a dozen at once, but there were so many, it was no real feat. In other words, it was awful.

After an hour, our destination finally came into view:

Our destination was still a few hours away.

Each cluster of white dots represented a family’s “territory.” But I get ahead of myself.

Irina saved the day for us at just this time, as she got the idea to see if someone could come meet us by boat and get our stuff, which is exactly what happened. We even got a tiny ride ourselves to cut off part of the way for us, and then they shipped our goods down shore to meet us later.

Less than an hour later we met our first Nenet host, Peter (well, Pyotr actually). Funny part was, Peter is such a loner, that he didn’t even greet us. He let us come sit in his chum for a few minutes, and then he said he needed to check his fishing nets, and we took the hint and took our leave. The dog, on the other hand, was desperate for company, so Kerith obliged.

After another half hour or so we finally made it to the chum of Peter’s closest neighbor, Nina Vasilievna. Both Peter and Nina are on disability and so do not move their chums around or herd reindeer. We would have to wait until the next day to meet a real nomadic Nenet family. No one greeted us here, either. Igor said they could be slow to warm up, and though it took until the next day for us to feel like we had any traction with them, it ended up being an amazing introduction to the Nenet way of life.

So what are all the white things scattered about the grounds? These are storage sleds where the Nenets keep stuff. Of course they normally go places with them when they travel for the winter or summer, but in the case of stationary Nenets, they still need places to hold and protect things, since it can’t all fit in the tent. The chum itself is simple construction of a couple dozen poles leaning against each other with a covering. Inside it looks like this:

Although there was no formal greeting, our hosts invited us in, where we could finally rest after such a grueling day along the side of the chum, where there are pillows and reindeer skin on the floor. The floor is made of individual planks (they were always orange wherever we went for some reason) except for open ground near the entrance for firewood and brush, and of course under the fire itself. Above the fire hang the fish for drying. The kids were sweet, but they didn’t open up until the next day. They mostly sat on the kids’ side of the chum until much later when they started to warm up to us.

Our host, Nina Vasilievna, had quite the personality, but with quite the life history. Having lost her husband and with health issues herself, she is on disability. Her son, the father of the kids you see here, up and decided to hang himself on a tree nearby one day, leaving his wife Sveta, and the kids behind. Sveta and the kids live with Nina every summer.

One thing I want to mention about Nina Vasilievna that I also noticed about many other Nenets, but which was particularly true for her, was that she was constantly switching back and forth between Russian and Nenets with people – not with us of course, but among themselves. I know bilingual people can go back and forth depending on context, but this struck me as much more random, even in the middle of sentences.

Suddenly appeared a short table full of food.

The meal was fish in two forms: boiled and raw. Kerith was the only one of the three of us with the constitution and character to give the raw fish a go, but he really liked it. They dip it into oil. I thought the plain boiled was just fine, so that was enough for me. The white stuff is just sugar for tea. The cookies behind it are like our animal crackers. The orange stuff is cloudberries with just a bit of sugar. I had never had them (barely even heard of it in English), and I was not crazy about the flavor, but Kerith fell in love with them. They grow up in these parts, and picking them is one way locals can earn money.

And what do you know? They decided to give us some the next day as we were getting ready to leave. And not just a handful – a couple kilograms worth in a big water bottle that we had to manage to get all the way back with us – first to town, then back along The Road to the capital, and then on the two planes home. But it was worth it. When Kerith made a full-blown jam out of it, it was marvelous.

It’s so utterly quiet in this part of the world that even in town there was not a sound to be heard most of the time, except when a car went by. Otherwise, there were no machines, and we never saw a plane. In the tundra it’s even quieter. And on a tangent, alas, if it had not been for White Nights (even greater than in Petersburg), we would have gotten an amazing star show, since there is no light pollution anywhere to be found. So when out of the blue we heard a loud motor, both we and the dogs all took notice. Kerith ran outside in time to see a snowmobile tearing across the tundra way too fast, and arriving at our chum much too fast. Three young men stumbled off the machine, and two swaggered into the tent. In a place like this, even though your neighbors can be miles apart, everyone seems to know everyone. And, true to his reputation, Igor knew one of them from his childhood.

It was nice to let Kerith take over the conversation with these guys, as they were clearly more interested in getting to know an American about their own age. (BTW, Igor thinks we may be the first Americans in the parts ever.) The less visibly drunk fancied himself a rather worldly guy. He talked about and asked Kerith about topics ranging from Paris, to hookers, to how to obtain a private jet. His name was Mikhail, but he called himself Michael Jackson. Nina Vasilievna left them alone, only giving a polite hint after a while that it was bedtime. In a conversation much later with Irina I asked about how values are passed on in Nenet culture. She said that morals and social behavior are not usually directly taught, and that offenders are not treated poorly or called out for their actions. They just get left out of things because of a lack of trust, but they may not even be aware that anything is amiss.

Bedtime was a curious experience. The area we were lounging in became the bedrooms thus: It got dark early because the tent is so dark and because it was cloudy outside, and they hung sheets on the walls which then drop down like partition sheets to separate one “room” from the next. The effect is to provide a measure of privacy (and relief from the mosquitoes, since they did not keep the fire going overnight). Of course this privacy is minimal. All the chums we were in had a diameter of about 6 meters. The family was comprised of three adults and four children, and there were four of us. The south quadrant was entrance-related. The north side was food and stuff-related. So the kids and Nina’s son slept on the west side. The rest of us were on the opposite side, jammed next to each other like kids at summer camp. What I didn’t realize was that this was not yet bedtime. While I was trying to go to sleep, everyone else was talking away. Hey, with no lights, and no TV, what better to do than talk? Igor spent what seemed like hours with the kids (before they actually went to bed on the other side) snuggled up next to him looking at all the pictures on his phone, listening patiently to a story for each and every one. He had photos going back so far that he even surprised himself when he found one of his daughter with my boys when they were all little kids at school. Then someone else came home, and it was tea time. Igor sang songs with motions for the kids. They watched with interest, but they didn’t much care to join in. Then it was finally bed time for real.

Something magical seemed to happen overnight because the next day the kids were ready to interact with us, which ended up mostly meaning Kerith. It probably started with his phone, but then he started showing them his camera (you know the old-fashioned digital kind that you have to focus and change settings on?). This was utterly enchanting for them, and when he showed them how to use it and let them run free, they found a new lease on life. It was also convenient for us, since they could take portraits without the awkwardness of having to ask permission.

Kerith has never been much of a kid person, but you wouldn’t know it from how he interacted with them. He was fun, patient, a great teacher, and played whatever role they asked of him.

From there it only got better. Little Matvey was fascinated with Kerith’s long hair:

Then somehow the canned goods we brought became an object of fun:

By the time we left after just one day, I had had several interesting conversations with Irina and Nina about the Nenet culture. Sveta, who was just a wallflower the day before, was now just as sweet and pleasant as could be. I had even led a Bible study with the adults (more in the next blog). Our hearts were melting for these people just as it was time to move on. They must have felt the same way, because Sveta and the kids decided to accompany us part of the way on our journey.

The trek to our next destination was arduous. The family we just left gave me and Kerith some galoshes to navigate the wetlands. Half way through, Irina told me she expected we were done with the soggy parts, and I changed back to my boots, but her memory must have failed her, and the terrain became extremely uneven, difficult to walk through, with heavy underbrush, and like a bog in places. Kerith stayed dry but rubbed his heel to an open wound, and so was in agony.

The views, however, were incredible.

Our third chum visit was to a family that, by comparison to the first two, seemed downright wealthy. Notice the wood stove, the quality tent, beautiful sheets, and nice floor boards.

We had met the parents a couple of days before in town. The wife’s name is Nekuchi, which is finally someone who has a real Nenet name. I had learned that they had suffered the sudden loss of their son in an accident right before their eyes. Igor hoped that I could minister to the wife, who seems to be unable to move through her grieving process. Unfortunately, during our time there she did not get comfortable enough to open up on this subject with us.

Nomads don’t have to pay for their real estate, and they can change views any time they want!

Two things about the family stood out to me. First was the fact that this was the only actual reindeer herders I met. Yegor had entrusted his herd (trivia moment: it turns out you can call them a bunch, mob, parcel, or a rangale) to a friend for the summer. He enjoyed telling me about life as a herder. They go south for the winter, a journey which takes 8 days, setting up and breaking down this very home every time – a task that takes only an hour and 20 minutes, respectively. He told me how you get to know each deer’s personality, how they hate mosquitoes as much as we do, and more.

The second thing that stood out to me was their daughter Nadya. She was 18 and a rising sophomore in college, studying pre-law. She immediately caught my attention as bright, engaging, very well-raised, and mature. Unfortunately she doesn’t like her picture being taken, so Kerith asked me to pull the photos with her. Kerith and she hit it off immediately, so much so that they spent several hours that evening and many more the next day together. No, it wasn’t romantic, but he was absolutely blown away with how much they had in common, and she was his intellectual equal to boot. Fancy that! Kerith had to travel to remote Siberia and meet a reindeer herder to find someone so similar to himself – not only intellectually, but in interests and in ways of thinking about many things.

Here are a few more pics of their place. The next day before we left I actually found myself tired of conversation, and tired in general, and spent a few hours just lying in the sun and being amazed. It was the warmest and least buggy day we had the whole time, so it was incredible.

We got a family portrait when we were about to leave, but only Yegor and his little boy were willing to be in it.

Family portrait without half the family

Yegor offered to save us the trouble of walking back the 4km to town, which we were all too happy to accept.

Our fourth and last visit to a chum was two days later to the cousin of Irina Yegorovna herself. He lived on the hill opposite her house at the end of Laborovaya. Kerith and I had discovered it by accident several days before when we were just out exploring. We later learned that it would have been perfectly acceptable to have gone in for a visit, as it is part of Nenet culture to receive strangers with hospitality.

Irina was eager to go with us, but she was also nervous, because she was concerned Simyon might not be very engaging. Those fears were quickly laid to rest when we entered the chum. Simyon (Simon) was the most open, receptive, and quick to warm to us of any of the others we had visited. Maybe it was a factor that he had been drinking, but Irina said afterwards that she thought that, if anything, it would have gone better otherwise. In any event, he was not just eager to speak, but he had lots of questions. Irina introduced us, interestingly, as missionaries. He assumed that this meant Baptist for some reason, to which we protested – no, just generic Christians.

He was clearly delighted to have company and said that he had just finished shaving and was wondering if that meant company was coming. Simyon was the only Nenet we met whose Russian was poor enough that he preferred to mostly speak in Nenet through Irina, but he did understood us. In case of difficulties in conversation, I had rehearsed with Irina ahead of time what I might say, and even though we were not desperate, I played that card, asking, “I hear that you have undergone quite a bit of loss, and as a counselor I was wondering how you are doing.” Both his wife and son had died, and he was raising his two teenage grandchildren alone. He answered that he had much to be thankful for, so he was not focused on the past. Rather than try to play the interrogator and suspect his reasons for saying so, I just went with his answers, turning whatever he said into another question to go deeper. It ended up being one of the two best conversations I had (the other with Irina herself), because I just did what I do well, and the other person enjoyed the process of being enjoyed. He brought up spiritual matters himself, and we talked easily without tension. Igor, more the evangelist, had some points he wanted to make, but I was content to follow the Spirit’s leading without doing anything that would have seemed to me unnatural. He was, though, somewhat concerned, perhaps from some kinds of past conversations, that we would have a problem with his icons and his orthodox faith. But as Igor pointed out icons are not an issue for the one who has Christ in his heart and not just on the wall. Then his native Nenet faith came out as he spoke of a more universalistic view of God for everyone. His wording was, “We all find God as best we can.” My reply was, “But what is even more amazing is that God went to the trouble of finding us in Jesus so that we don’t have to find God.”

Irina seemed more interested in talking about his drinking problem. I think she wanted us to take over and help convict him of something. If so, however, he wasn’t playing. He said once, “you know, I can’t say I like alcohol. I adore it.”

I asked him what principles he wanted to pass down to his children. He answered that he wanted them to stay close to nature. As I dug further I saw that this was no mere romantic Thoreau-esque exposition. He said he is worried about the younger generations who do not have the challenges that come with living in the tundra. Having to live in the wild gives you a fortitude and character that the easy life in the city can’t provide. Amen.

I felt a leading to offer to pray for him and his arm, which was largely unusable. I couldn’t tell if he had a problem with the idea or not, because Irina seemed to spend some time explaining it to him. Her main point she said she was trying to make to him was, “Simyon, these people want to say good things about you that your friends only do when they are drunk.” So he let us. We laid hands on him and blessed him real good all around, including his arm. It actually brought him to tears, and Irina was almost in tears to see it. She told me on the way home, “You showed real interest in him, and it allowed him to open up and be himself and let you into his life.”

This is why I came to Siberia. Simyon probably gave me as much or more than he got.


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