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Faces of Russia

EVENKS. THE HERMITS OF KAMCHATKA

"Have you got any horses? Do you fi sh pink salmon?"
Upon hearing my negative reply, four-year-old Lyubachan turned around and left . It was the summer of 1994, during my very fi rst ethnographic expedition to the nomad camp of the Evenks, who led a reclusive life on the river Manaysh, which was 200km away from the administrative centre the big village of Esso on Kamchatka peninsula. Later, at another nomad camp, I asked a young mother who had given birth to three children all by herself if she would fancy moving to Esso. Her answer was simple: "I am a forest woman."

The Fishing Nomad Camp

I was studying the ethnicity of the Evenks, whose ancestors had migrated from mainland Russia to Kamchatka in the 19th century, having covered thousands of perilous kilometres by reindeer. Th ey had chosen to separate from their fellow tribesmen to live in recluse as families or as individuals far away from creature comforts. I attempted to fi nd out the cause behind this phenomenon and, aft er years of research, came to the conclusion that the answer lay in their genetic predisposition to nomadic lifestyles, which made them look for greener pastures, literally, as new territories for breeding their reindeer and for hunting meant better lives for the itinerant Evenks. Another characteristic trait of this people is reclusiveness, a proclivity to living in solitude, which is typical of today's Evenks, too. Some years ago, I fl ew together with representatives of the WWF and a CNN crew to one of the camps in the forest, where a family consisting of three generations lived. Aft er the foreign visitors were told that 500 metres away, just across the river, there was the camp of another Evenk family, they asked me to invite them for an interview as well. As I reached the other settlement, I conveyed the request, to which the head of the family clan replied: "Well, let's go. It's been so many years that I haven't visited my neighbours." Here, I want to stress that these two Evenk families were on good terms and lived peacefully.

Th ese settlements are called fi shing nomad camps as they are always situated along riverbanks. How did they come about? In the 1920s to '60s, they were seasonal camps used for fi shing, but today the term has stuck to denote the site of the Evenks' permanent settlement. It comprises a complex of simplistic structures, which haven't undergone any changes since the 1920s. Th e only recent addition to the nomads' dwelling complex are winter log cabins, usually 3m by 7m in size. In summer, the cabins are not used, while in winter, they may house from eight to 10 people. From spring until autumn, the Evenks live in cylindrical conical yurts with an open hearth at the centre. In winter, they sleep wrapped in a sort of sleeping bag made from deer or bighorn hide upon makeshift wooden cots on deer wool-stuff ed mattresses. Electricity produced by small power generators is only used at a few of those fi shing camps, while the rest use kerosene lamps and candles. Ubiquitous elements are yukolniks (a contraption for drying yukola fi sh) and food storage raised high above the ground to prevent it from getting wet, which is accessible by ladder only. To communicate with the outside world, some fi shing camps use Panda Communications radio stations provided by the WWF. But the Evenks consider these gadgets a luxury.

The Fall and the Revival

On Kamchatka peninsula, the ancestors of today's Evenks were engaged in mass breeding of reindeer. Th e deer were used as rides and pack animals, their hides were transformed into clothes and their meat was a staple food. Come winter, the Evenk families would migrate together with their herds, while from summer until autumn, women, small children and the elderly stayed by the riverbanks to stock up on fi sh. From the mid-1930s, the Soviet power began forcing the nomads to settle within the territories in Kamchatka, where their ancestors had come in the 19th century. Th e majority of the Evenks began leading a sedentary life in small villages and towns, however, they continued to be engaged in traditional ways of life: pasturing deer, hunting and fi shing. It remained so until the 1950s when state policy prescribed for economically unpromising settlements to be shut down, and such were the Evenk villages. While the older generation was still allowed to breed deer and migrate from place to place, their children were forcefully placed in boarding schools where they spent the lion's share of the year following a state-approved syllabus.

Th is government programme was explained as caring for minority peoples but, in reality, it turned out to be the beginning of the end, as the Evenks' traditional system of self-sustenance and passing on lore from generation to generation was destroyed. In the mid-1990s, the rebuilding of Russia's economy deepened the destruction of the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. Th e disruption of governmental fi nancial support caused the degradation of the deerbreeding sector, which was followed by unemployment. Many Evenk families faced the task of surviving. Th e fi shing nomad camps came in handy in this regard: preschoolers would live there permanently, while senior hermits would help their village-settled relatives by providing them with fi sh and game obtained in the vicinity of the camp.
No doubt the Evenks' mentality reclusiveness, a genetic predisposition for living in the forest and dislike of urban lifestyles played a part, too. For the Evenks, the "call of the wild" is not a poetic expression, but a state of mind.

A Fish Diet for Both Men and Dogs

All summer long, the Evenks store up fi sh to last them through the long winter in Kamchatka. Every single gram of the fi sh is used: entails are fed to dogs and bones are ground into fl our called ulte, while fresh salmon heads are considered a delicacy. In autumn, the Evenks hunt bear and bighorn for their meat and hides. In winter, regardless of the weather, hunting for fur-bearing animals takes place. A large stock of fi rewood is a must and this is done in springtime. Daily care is given to horses, the main means of transportation during the summer migrations.
Living in the forest is all about the details, all of which serve only one goal: survival. But neither the meagre diet nor the deprivation of living in the forest scare young hermits away.
It's interesting to see how the so-called "sour pit" is made to store fi sh for dogs in winter. On the riverbanks, a waist-deep hole is dug up, approximately 1.5m by 1.5m. It's lined with freshly-cut grass, then fi lled with raw salmon caught the day before. Th e last, top-most batch of fi sh is covered with a thick layer of grass and earth and tamped. Th is is to prevent fl ies from penetrating and laying eggs inside, which would spoil the fi sh. If the procedure is carried out right, the fi sh inside the pit will undergo fermentation and won't rot. As a last resort, people can eat this fi sh, too. However, one may faint if one is not accustomed to the sour smell the fi sh oozes.
For the last decade, a state social programme aimed at the revival of the material and spiritual culture of indigenous peoples has been actively carried out in Kamchatka. Local Evenks are given quotas for fi shing for sustenance and allocated money for the acquisition of skimobiles, as well as fishing and hunting tackle. Once a year, a helicopter from the village of Esso reaches their camps to deliver the goods and equipment the Evenks had bought earlier in Esso's shops. Luckily, the hermits are aware that the fi shing camps and deerbreeding are their last course of action, which are to be saved at any cost.

A Guest from the Flame

I was astounded by the Evenks' superstitions, which were documented by 19th-century ethnographers. Th e Evenks' omens usually come true, so even I, who consider myself if not an atheist then at least a materialist, gradually started having faith in them. One particular incident turned me into a strong believer.
Imagine the situation. It's the dead of night, the fi re in the yurt is dying out and I am falling asleep, when suddenly I hear the whisper of an old lady, the owner of the yurt in which my guide and his daughter and I found lodging for the night:
"Ira (that was the name of the girl), take the cinders from the fi re, sprinkle them over this small piece of Courtesy of V.Zlotnikov coal and tell the guest: 'We are feeding you. Now it is late, you sleep where you are, but tomorrow, we will welcome you.'"
Aft er the Evenk girl carried out her instructions to the letter, the old woman added: "Ira, now you have to put the guest to bed carefully. You must not let the standing coal fall. Our guest will be harmed. He may even die."
Th e old lady told us a story that had happened years before. Young people were sitting around a fire when suddenly an old Evenk woman asked them to feed the guest, a small piece of charcoal, and put it to sleep. Instead, somebody hit it with a stick and smashed it. Th e following day, a guest came. He was a young chap. His visit was celebrated with merrymaking and dancing. But soon the young man came down with a terrible disease and died within days. When he was undressed, everyone saw that his back was black all over. My story with the guest continued the following day. Th e sun was about to set when I shared my doubts about the previous night's incident around the probable guest with my guide. And what a coincidence! As soon as I expressed my scepticism, we heard a bell jingling! Some guests were visiting by horse!
For centuries, the Evenks, these eternal hermits and nomads, had spent lots of time around the fireplace, especially women. Observant by nature, they noticed that a standing piece of coal was a sign of a coming guest. What determines the connection between the future visitor and a piece of coal? In my personal belief, it is the Cosmos.

Text and photos Alexander Slugin,
Exclusively for 103rd Meridian East

 

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