Nomads of the tundra The herder: An elder struggles to lead his clan into a world of free markets, efficiency and profit.

August 19, 1996|By Clara Germani

CHOKURDAKH, Russia - A moment after Vladimir Sleptsov cuts the roar of his snowmobile engine, the Siberian wind nearly erases his tracks.

On the treeless, white tundra above the Arctic Circle, the whistle of the wind, the howl of wolves and the whisper of the spirits sound to Sleptsov just as they did to his Siberian ancestors.

Two bumpy hours from the village of Chokurdakh, Sleptsov has stopped - fur boots squeaking in the snowpack - to point out a brownish stain on the all-white horizon.

"Alen," he grunts from deep inside his hooded fur and chamois overcoat. Reindeer - 1,500 of them. The heart and soul of his

people's nomadic herding, hunting and fishing culture.

It's a simple existence. But the fall of communism in 1991 swept in like a violent gust of Siberian wind, and uncertainty still swirls in its wake.

Sleptsov is a legend. He was the region's champion fisherman in 1983. In 1959, at the age of 14, the Soviet government named him the best reindeer herder in all of Yakutia, a Siberian republic, now called Sakha, that is more than four times the size of Texas.

Now he is struggling to lead his people into a world of free markets, efficiency and profit. But they aren't prepared, the respected elder says of his Even people.

"Will we be like the mammoth?" he wonders, noting that the bones of the extinct species that once thrived here are found frequently in the permafrost, covered and uncovered by the same shifting winds that instantaneously erase Sleptsov's tracks.

Sleptsov's Even people total only about 9,000 throughout Siberia. They are one of 29 native peoples - barely a quarter-million in all - who inhabit the vast tract of northern Siberia and Arctic Russia, a region that reaches across 11 time zones from the Pacific to Scandinavia.

More than 12,000 indigenous people call themselves reindeer herders, working for private or state-run herding cooperatives, wandering vast designated territories of empty tundra up to 900 miles long by 90 miles wide.

Those herders and many others, like Sleptsov, also work their own private plots, fishing and hunting for mink.

Their way of life has survived the brutalities of Czarist Russia and Soviet collectivization. But much like the Native American experience, indigenous culture here has been much diluted.

Vladimir Sleptsov's very name is a purely Russian label for a purely un-Russian man whose first languages are Even and Yakutsk, the Turkic language of the region's majority Yakuti population. The nomadic men travel alone, their families staying behind in far-flung villages of a couple of thousand people, such as Chokurdakh, where Sleptsov's large family lives in a two-bedroom apartment.

Learning capitalism

The isolation of Chokurdakh is difficult to conceive. Here, locals call the rest of Russia "the continent," the nearest major town, Yakutsk, is 900 miles away, and there is no road or river access for nine frozen months of the year.

They lived before in the tight social and economic control of communism. Massive reindeer herds, 20,000 strong, were state owned, and herders handed over their meat, hides and antlers to the collective. Decisions about their lives and their economy were made far from the tundra.

But now the big state subsidies are gone. Herders, who still get a small monthly social security check from the Russian government, must take what price they can get for their meat. They have to pay high air transit fees to get their reindeer carcasses to larger markets farther south. They must find ways to market their meat more broadly now that the state is no longer their only customer.

Sleptsov is trying, with all that his fourth-grade education and forward-thinking leadership will allow, to guide his people to a style of life that he has always dreamed of but only recently learned to call "capitalism."

At 51, he is a large, quiet man who composes songs about the tundra and the babies whose fat cheeks he can't resist kissing. Though almost 10 years beyond the average life expectancy of his people - who die early of everything from alcoholism to frostbite - he is still unanimously considered the best hunter, fisherman and herder for hundreds of miles.

They say that he can chip a fishing hole in 3-foot-deep river ice in 15 minutes, that he has shot 60 geese in a single day and that his talent for fishing is "God-given." He can sweep his net through the water several times in 20 minutes and catch 50 fish, the same number it takes an average man an hour and a half to catch.

Sleptsov seems most at home talking as he lounges on the soft blankets inside the clan's yurt, the tent in which the herders live while tending their grazing reindeer. The thin hide separates the sauna-like heat inside from the wintry 20 degrees below zero outside. Nearby, the reindeer paw the snowpack to rubble as they dig for lichen to graze on.

Herders from his clan - who call themselves the Ayutong Community for business purposes - sit drinking tea in the dusky interior of the yurt.

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