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