Russia's Nomadic Reindeer Herders Face The Future

Long before Santa first hitched Rudolph to his sleigh, reindeer served a much less whimsical role: dinner. Siberia’s native herders have worked tirelessly to keep alive their centuries-old tradition of reindeer husbandry. But don’t ask them how long it will last.

Reindeer look almost darling. They’re short — the tops of their heads don’t come up past five feet — and they’re as nervous as rabbits. Both male and female reindeer have antlers; if you approach them from a distance, you might think they would hold their ground. Getting closer, though, you find a frightened, tender animal, which backs away from you and toward the rest of its herd.

They first flew into American popular culture in 1822, when poet Clement Clarke Moore published “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem describes “eight tiny rein-deer” hitched to a miniature sleigh, whose white-bearded driver whistles and calls:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!”

Kiryak Adukanov has 2,000 reindeer. He whistles to them, too. That’s where the similarity ends.

Kiryak is one of the most experienced reindeer herders on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a region in the Russian Far East renowned for its wild natural beauty. It’s July, and we are sitting in alpine tundra, high and flat land that’s dark with moss and berries. In winter, it turns to crystal dunes of snow. Santa hardly visits this part of the world — Russians customarily exchange gifts around a tree on New Year’s Day, while only a religious minority observes Christmas in Orthodox churches in January.

We sit quietly while the reindeer nibble on wet grass and look at us from the white edges of their glossy black eyes. Leaning against a mound of dirt, Kiryak waits for them to settle. He’s wearing wading boots and a paisley-printed scarf around his head. A walking stick is propped up next to him. A rifle is across his lap. Kiryak’s reindeer aren’t examples of the fictional subspecies named R.t. saintnicolas magicalus by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, nor will they ever appear for families to watch on ReindeerCam. Instead, they are semi-domesticated creatures tended for slaughter. They have sweet, skittish temperaments and, eventually, savory meat. Any magic around them is commonplace: the gorgeousness of their grazing grounds, their deep history, and the way they make their keepers wonder about what is coming next.

Native herders slaughter up to 120,000 animals each year to satisfy luxury tastes across nine nations. 

Kiryak, his wife, Lyuba, and their two sons grew up in a long tradition of reindeer husbandry established by their people, the Evens, a 20,000-strong indigenous group in Siberia. The Evens are one of the smallest of 20 indigenous communities — including Scandinavia’s Sami and Canada’s Inuit — that base their economies on reindeer. Native herders across nine nations slaughter up to 120,000 animals each year to satisfy luxury tastes. Evens’ reindeer meat goes to connoisseurs in western Russia; the venison, harvested from animals that graze across Kamchatka’s pristine earth, sells for nearly $10 a pound. Deer antlers go to China, where they’re sliced or powdered for medicinal purposes.

Herding is not just a job to the Adukanov family. It’s a way of life. Just as Kiryak was taught to herd by his parents, he plans to pass his skills to his sons. It’s an extraordinary inheritance — but one that Kiryak’s 9-year-old grandson, Chegga, and 6-year-old granddaughter, Nadia, may eventually choose not to claim. Yegor, one of Kiryak and Lyuba’s children, works in the herd for now but has trouble picturing that continuing. “There’s no reason anymore for young people to do this job,” Yegor said. “They can make more money more easily somewhere else.”

It’s exhausting work, after all. Everyone here, whether Even or Slavic, reindeer herder or outside observer, agrees on that. No weekends or holidays. Wages, paid by a private herding company, have shrunk since the Soviet era. And while previous generations of native Siberians were isolated by geography from news of the rest of the world, today’s use cell phones and computers to leap out of the tundra in an instant. When you can google pages of job listings, better pay, and bigger cities, it’s not hard to imagine leaving Kamchatka for something different. The peninsula’s overall population has been shrinking for two decades.

Kiryak will keep going as long as he can, but at 62 years old, he’s nearing the life expectancy for a Russian man. Many of today’s Even herders are in their fifties. If they don’t pass their knowledge on to a new generation, their practice could die along with them. Indigenous herders around the world have faced the same disruptions as the Adukanovs: encroaching private interests, an aging population, and financial incentives for young people to leave. For many native groups, ending their involvement in this industry means parting with a foundation of their culture.

Against the flow of Evens outward, a project spearheaded by Aiva Lāce, a 27-year-old Latvian art restorer turned researcher, attempts to preserve tradition with technology. Lāce moved to Kamchatka in 2013 hoping to experience a new approach to preserving a culture’s physical artifacts. Then she learned about the herders’ trails. Because Even herders are nomadic, their lives leave few material traces. Their architecture is impermanent, their written tradition relatively new (today’s Even alphabet was introduced by the Soviet government in 1937). But their trails through the tundra are obvious records in their annals. To Lāce, these paths are works of art. For the past year, she’s been tracking Evens’ reindeer in order to transform knowledge of the area that was traditionally passed down orally into data points that can be saved and shared.

Lāce, who has spent five weeks with Kiryak’s herd, has a long list of motivations for her project. “The short version,” she said, “is because it’s very interesting.”

The Kamchatka peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean. It’s walled off from the rest of Russia by mountains, which rise into some of the most active volcanic belts on the planet. Though it’s roughly the size of California, Kamchatka has just about 320,000 residents; that’s like leaving the state with only the population of Riverside, then pouring in some lava for good measure.

Over 4,000 miles from Moscow, Kamchatka has long been home to indigenous groups. Its forbidding terrain likely kept it from being colonized by Westerners until the 1700s. Once the Russian government started encouraging settlers, however, the region’s cultural makeup radically shifted. Now nearly 4 out of every 5 inhabitants are ethnically Russian, while native northern people — Evens as well as Koryaks, Chukchi, Itelmens, and Aleuts — make up only 4 of every 100. With families spread out across Siberia, Evens themselves made up a slim 0.58% of Kamchatka’s population in the 2010 census.

Most of the region’s residents, especially its Slavic ones, still live in the coastal capital city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where Russia’s colonial ships first arrived. That urban density leaves central Kamchatka open. This is where the herders range.

Under the Soviet Union, Russian reindeer herders were employees of a regional sovkhoz, a state farm, where the government owned their animals and paid out regulated wages. These days, a private company has replaced the sovkhoz model on Kamchatka. That organization pays Kiryak’s salary, delivers supplies by helicopter, and sells the slaughtered animals at the end of the year. The company didn’t respond to interview requests for this article, but Lāce and her supervisor said that the 50 herders in its employ earn about $300 per month, less the cost of groceries, medicine, and any deer lost along their way.

While the Adukanovs keep a house in the 1,900-person town of Esso, Kiryak devotes almost all of his time to tending his herd across the enormous protected territory of Bystrinsky Nature Park. Part of the “Volcanoes of Kamchatka” UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park was founded in 1995 with the stipulation that herders should be able to continue grazing reindeer over the same ground their great-grandparents did. Over the park's 5,000 square miles, some of the only signs of humans are the herders’ trails: brown lines of earth stamped flat by generations of Even feet to form a giant, unchanging loop.

In the heart of Kamchatka’s ferocious landscape, these trails outline Kiryak’s daily routine. He pairs up with another man on a 12-hour shift with the animals, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The reindeer graze until they’ve eaten their fill, lie down for an hour and a half, then stand to eat again. Once the herd picks one bit of tundra clean, Kiryak and his partner hike with it along the trails to the next fresh patch of earth.

While the reindeer move across Bystrinsky meal by meal, the other members of the herding camp pack their things onto horses and ride five or so miles to the next destination. The group always has a couple other men who are off shift, and Lyuba when her health permits. It also comprises up to a dozen assorted relatives, including children during holidays from school in Esso. This summer, Chegga and Nadia helped out. They were both so small that they had to be tied onto their horses’ saddles with wool scarves.

The Evens’ trails are crucial for taking them the safest way to their necessities: a fast-moving stream for fetching water, a clump of brush for tying animals, a cluster of whittled tent poles for erecting the yurt where they cook their food. Knowing these resources are near allows a group to travel light as it moves camp each day. Horse blankets double as people’s sleeping mats. One tent serves four herders, since they sleep in shifts. Three canvas walls and three plastic tarps are all that’s needed to cover the yurt and waterproof it. Supplies are pared down to the essentials: a knife, a cutting board, a couple teakettles, flour, sugar, salt.

At each new campsite, Lyuba hurries to get water boiling while the men tie up the horses. She has short hair, full cheeks, and a permanent curve in her back from a life bent over a hearth. All her dishes revolve around reindeer meat: reindeer in rice for breakfast, in noodles for lunch, in broth for dinner, and dried in strips for snacking throughout the day. When, after a week or two, the meat runs out, Kiryak kills one of their animals and Lyuba butchers it.

These deaths are a necessity. As they are fattening the reindeer for a year-end slaughter outside Esso and the company-managed sale that follows, the herders themselves have to eat. The killing is done by knife or gun. Kiryak and the other men then strip the deer carcass, peeling the skin off its torso like an unzipped vest. Once the furs soften, a herder can sleep on the body pelt and use the flattened face as a seat. The leg skins — warm, flexible — are the most valuable; they’ll be saved for the herding company to offer to fur traders. Chegga doesn’t have a knife of his own yet, so he holds the deer in place while his grandfather cuts. They break the carcass down in pieces — head, legs, ribs — and carry those back to camp.

"We’ll work in the reindeer herd as long as we live."

Then Lyuba’s bloody work begins. She prepares the separate cuts of meat, sets some to boil, and wraps the rest in plastic sacks to keep bugs off. Lyuba’s practiced at it, but dissecting a 300-pound animal without waste still takes long hours. She spends this time talking to herself. In her sixties, she’s going deaf, and she now speaks quietly and constantly with the expectation that no one else can hear. While other camp members came to her kitchen area for a bit of liver or a cup of tea one day during my two-week visit, she leaned over the fresh meat. “Oh, my back. What am I going to do? The pain.” She turned a leg bone over and cracked her blade down. “This knife is too dull. It’s not usable. It’s too difficult.” Gripping the bone, she split it in half to expose the marrow. She handed it to Chegga, her little herder. Once he took the treat, she tucked her chin and got back to her work. Inside the yurt smelled like iron, wet cloth, and burnt fur.

It wasn’t what she’d intended for herself. Though she grew up in a tiny herding community in northern Kamchatka, she moved to the Esso area as a young woman to teach kindergarten. In the early 1980s, she met Kiryak. He used to walk miles just to visit her. That changed her plans.

After decades, the constant upheaval of herding life is exhausting. Camp members sleep on mats and furs on the ground. Some of the land they stay on is high enough to have continuous permafrost. Despite the fire in the center of the yurt, nights are cold. Lyuba’s sick. Her bones hurt. She wears a back brace and has to keep one swollen foot elevated all the time. When the winter comes and the herders stay up to two months at each place, Lyuba goes back to their house in Esso. She doesn’t expect Kiryak will ever leave this labor. “We’ll work in the reindeer herd as long as we live,” she said.

Over the meat, she raised her voice for Chegga. “Are you going to be a herder like your grandfather?” she asked. He was ignoring her to play a game with his sister. “You will,” she told him anyway. “And fix your sick grandmother. Go to university and become a doctor, too.”

To adapt to changing technology, the Evens have long been revising their routines. Valentin Solodikov, a semiretired herder who worked in the tundra for 25 years, remembers 50 or so years ago when his relatives rode reindeer to move camp. Santa’s preferred mode of transport wasn’t so efficient — herders now ride horses, which can carry bigger loads for greater distances. In the 1980s, Solodikov and his co-workers started using snowmobiles instead of skis for winter travel. Not so long ago, the reindeer-herding company installed a radio transceiver in its office. Herding camp members now carry a field radio and antenna in their packs, so they can transmit status updates to the office twice a day.

Herding on the peninsula has continued to adjust this way, incrementally, for convenience’s sake. Lāce’s project marks a more radical shift. Lāce’s first visit to the herd “activated a magnet” in her, she told me this fall. When her first volunteer year in Kamchatka ended in 2013, she applied to a German environmental foundation for funding to stay on. In 2014, Lāce started bringing paper maps to Kiryak’s camp and asking him to pinpoint their paths. But the established maps, which reduced the park territory to miniature scale, didn’t correspond to what Lāce and the herders saw on the ground. So in April 2015, after getting more money from the foundation and support from Kamchatka’s Association of Specially Protected Nature Territories, she bought three-ounce GPS trackers for five of the six Even herding teams working in the park. Solodikov helped her distribute the trackers to the teams. On trips between Esso and the park territory, he brings along fresh batteries to keep the devices on.

From the park office in Esso, Lāce monitors the herders’ movements as they switch camps. She can pull them up on her computer screen at the park deputy director’s request — here’s herd two, here’s herd six. A string of points shows where they’ve traveled over the past months. Her high forehead, long jaw, and pale skin give her the solemn look of a girl in an antique photograph. Here’s herd four, she says. Kiryak’s.

Lāce is no longer a Bystrinsky volunteer, but she’s not quite an employee either; she comes into the park office each day, works on a park computer, and responds to the park deputy director as though he’s her boss, but receives no salary. Still, she finds her project too compelling to stop. According to Lāce, there are so many reasons to map the herders’ trails that it’s surprising no one’s done it before. First, it records indigenous knowledge of the territory. It’s also important for herders’ safety, so if there’s an accident, their parent company can send a helicopter to retrieve them. It’s necessary for the park to maintain its protected status by showing that reindeer grazing grounds are indeed safe on its territory. And it makes it easier for scientists and tourists to follow established routes on their trips.

One practical benefit to the precision of the GPS tracking has already shown itself. Lāce sends her information to the herding company, which is then able to save resources dropping off supplies. Helicopter pilots no longer need to waste time searching for herds over the territory. A recent flight to distribute regional election ballots to the herding teams used less fuel than ever before, savings that could pass from the company’s accounts into herders’ pockets.

The long-term impact of Lāce’s maps, however, is less than straightforward. Kamchatka’s government is planning a new road that cuts through the park to streamline passage to the north. Officials requested Lāce’s coordinates. Although Lāce worries this road will give open access to the territory to poachers, who in other regions have undercut native herders by killing and selling their deer, she’s not in a position to defy local government. She lives in Russia on a visa. She gave the data, and fears the outcome. “What will it affect?” she said. “What is it for? What will it cost?”

Lāce's project is intended to preserve Evens’ way of life, but it also makes it easier for outsiders to disrupt it. 

Her project is intended to preserve the Evens’ way of life, but it also makes it easier for outsiders to disrupt it. A week into my time with the herders, a tour agency’s helicopter arced through the sky above us and then landed next to the yurt. Twenty foreign tourists poured out. Though most of Kamchatka’s visitors are from mainland Russia, these had come from Turkey to see the peninsula. They hadn’t had to guess our location; thanks to the herding company, which connects herders’ daily radio updates to Lāce’s targeted campsites, they’d known our coordinates before they ever took off.

They took pictures of the resting men, gave candy to Nadia, and ate boiled ribs out of Lyuba’s cooking pot. After the helicopter took off again, I asked Yegor if the visitors bothered him. He spoke quietly, like his mother. “It’s fine,” he said. “They pay the reindeer-herding company to come. That means we get paid too.” When the herders earn so little for their base salary, it’s silly to turn down a potential bonus. Yet the camp members looked uneasy around the tourists, groups of whom arrive on guided excursions through the summer: Yegor walked away from the campsite when he first heard the engine in the air, Chegga disappeared to visit the horses, Nadia stood stiff as strangers kissed her cheeks.

Bystrinsky's deputy director, Igor Kokorin, said that he has a good relationship with people who visit the herds. One of the park’s goals is building tourism. “I appreciate their interest in my homeland,” he said. “On the other hand, sometimes visitors to the herds, both foreigners and Russians, behave like they’re at a zoo, observing exotic attractions in cages.”

“What’s your relationship like with visitors?” Lāce recently asked Solodikov over tea in Esso. He was freshly back in town after days gone at work.

“Normal,” he said. “Like my relationship with anyone else.” Lāce refilled their mugs with hot water. They were recording their conversation for me, and the sound of the kettle was loud over their voices. What about unpleasant people, she asked, or the ones that only fly in for 15 minutes? The ones that don’t speak Russian? Solodikov said he doesn’t really care. He moonlights in the herds these days, and through that part-time work and his other job training dog sled teams, he’s spent so much time with curious foreigners by now that he can pretty much speak their languages anyway.

Besides, herding life is monotonous. The shifts, the meals, the packing of bags. Moving camp, setting up the yurt. The endless earthen circle. Any visitor there is eager to communicate, he said, and it’s always a pleasure when a guest arrives who wants to talk.

Lāce started a sentence, then trailed off. She is both foreign and not — Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. Ethnic Russians still make up a quarter of its population. She grew up speaking Solodikov’s language, but not knowing his world. She’s another link in a long chain of temporary visitors; she knows it; she hates it. This fall, she got in an argument with the head of the herding company over insufficient supplies, when one team ended up pulling the batteries from its tracker to use in a flashlight. “Please don’t take the batteries out,” she pleaded. But in that moment, the herders needed lights more.

The trails project doesn’t bring them flashlight batteries. It doesn’t raise their base wages or deliver higher-quality supplies. “It’ll simply be information that wasn’t there before,” Lāce later said. “And for a person working in the field every day, that doesn’t mean anything and won’t change anything.”

She asked Solodikov what he thought of the GPS project. He leaned toward the tape recorder to answer: “Aiva is a good worker.” They both laughed at the awkwardness of this.

“But seriously,” he said. “It’s all clear and understandable now which herd is standing here. In general, that’s fantastic.” She laughed again, this time with relief.

“What do you think of Aiva’s project?” I asked Kiryak one day this summer.

“What do you think of the American ambassador to Russia?” he asked back. He looked out at his herd with evaluating eyes. Though his family was happy enough to talk about him, he hardly talked about himself.

“Kiryak’s a great man,” said Yegor. He has his mother’s voice and would like to have his father’s determination. “He’s a man of a different era. These days, there are no more like him.”

Though it’s been more than 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, people across Kamchatka still reminisce about Soviet times. The peninsula’s strategic location for escalating Cold War tensions made it a natural funnel for state funds; the USSR paid for everything from bunkers to apartment buildings. Meat was an especially precious commodity as food shortages spread across the country, so Kamchatka’s herders were heavily subsidized. They bred tens of thousands of animals. The Soviet Union produced 25,000 tons of reindeer meat in its final year. Andrei Adukanov, who isn’t related to Kiryak but also grew up in a herding family, called that time “a golden age.”

Memories of it are golden too. The old archetype that Kiryak embodies is a fondly recalled one: stoic, tireless, well-educated, austere. That Soviet steadfastness is what Yegor saw as missing from today’s men, and that Soviet-era support, explained Solodikov, is what’s missing from herding.

“Fifty years ago there were more herders, although life was hard,” said Kiryak. Those who took on the work could trust in long state-sponsored vacations, airplane ticket vouchers, free houses in town for their families. When years of labor took their toll, Soviet herders could take time off to recuperate physically without having to worry about their next paychecks. These days don’t offer that freedom, as Lyuba knows.

Losing state support was and remains an enormous blow. “The 1990s brought on a very difficult, probably the most difficult, time for reindeer herding,” said Andrei, who now lives full-time in Esso. “After the government collapsed, we were thrown at the mercy of fate for our survival.” Power outages and food shortages rolled across the peninsula, and many, like Solodikov, left full-time work in the herds.

Bit by bit, however, the industry started to come back. “We held on,” Andrei said, “then recovered, then were revitalized.” At this year’s mass slaughter in November, the herders killed 500 reindeer. While that amount of meat doesn’t reach Soviet heights, it’s enough to keep the company — and the herders on its payroll — alive.

The revitalization process Andrei spoke of has faced new challenges. An older generation of Evens died during Kamchatka’s hardest years, and some knowledge did die with them. Those who remembered the trails from before the post-Soviet crisis — Kiryak, for example — could lead their teams back into the life they’d known. But there were some who never knew, or had forgotten. In the Bystrinsky office, Kokorin estimated that the territory is now supporting less than a quarter of the reindeer it could, with numbers declining. Climate change will reduce the chances of reindeer populations’ recovery.

The Adukanovs hope for a return to the prosperity of the Soviet era. Lāce doesn’t want the 1990s to happen over again. Those outlooks inform their approaches to their partnership: Lyuba and Kiryak are trying to teach their children the same lessons they themselves learned in youth, while Lāce is dedicating her days to storing data in a way she hopes will be read in an emergency.

"Young people don’t want to work and take care of animals." 

Each dream has its drawbacks. The Adukanovs are hardworking role models, but they wonder who will follow their paths. “Young people don’t want to work and take care of animals,” said Kiryak. Even today’s most diligent young people would question why they should enter the field for $300 a month when they’d earn an average of three times more in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Evens growing up in towns like Esso browse the internet, watch blockbusters, play video games. They enter university and serve in the Russian army. They see a world of options around them and see little reason to embrace the limits at home.

Lāce’s maps offer a different option: a way for Evens to recover their grandparents’ knowledge without training today in the field. If herding demands too much of the next generation, it could still be a viable career for the one that follows. At the same time, the maps pave a road for government officials, researchers, journalists, poachers, and tourists to take straight to the herders’ camps. The trackers will have to operate for 12 months — until April 2016 — before they finish mapping the trail network, but even now they pinpoint Evens’ resources, the best lands and streams and paths on Kamchatka, with astounding accuracy. They offer connection, but also intrusion — long-term promise along with large-scale threat.

“We’ll live a little longer and see what happens next,” Solodikov said.

Chegga was still too young this summer to spend full 12-hour shifts with his grandfather. Instead, he stayed in camp, where he practiced his lassoing by trying to snare the pompoms on his little sister’s hat and found bear pawprints in the mud. “This is the age,” Yegor said, “when he’ll learn to love herding or he won’t.”

Between eating and resting, therefore, the men took special care to teach him. The herders took him on little errands — tying up their horses, for example. Chegga looped one knot around a bush with ease and moved on to the next animal, but this horse’s rope was caught around its leg. “Leg,” Chegga said, and tugged at the line, but the horse didn’t respond to his slight weight. “Leg,” he said again. The horse lifted a different hoof. The rope, and Chegga, stayed stuck.

Ilya, Chegga’s father, shouted at him to fix it. Born with a heart defect too serious to allow him to spend much time out in the field, Ilya was in camp for a few brief weeks. “Don’t be afraid,” he called, but Chegga was afraid. For one moment, the boy was paralyzed. His face was twisted with the obligation to see it through and the desire to run away. Finally, his uncle came over to show him what to do. Kneeling in front of the horse, the man passed the rope from one hand to the other to free it, and gave it back to Chegga, who was visibly, hotly ashamed.

“Will Chegga grow up to herd?” said Yegor. “I don’t know. If he spent more time here, maybe, yes, but kids are different these days.” Though he’s 20 years older than his nephew, he feels that same tug to flee. Over the summer, he made tentative plans with his cousin to move to St. Petersburg, try out construction work, meet some women.

Back at the yurt, Lyuba wouldn’t guess what the future of herding holds. “Maybe we won’t be here, nothing will be here,” she said. When Chegga came near, she reminded him, loudly and often, that he should become a herder as good as the old man.

“Will you be a herder?” I asked Chegga. We were standing at the edge of the circle of his grandfather’s reindeer. They looked unpredictable, half wild, very different from the delicate creatures prancing through holiday verse. A family and a culture sat heavy on their shoulders. Chegga had built a smoky fire to keep the animals huddled close. He instructed me on every type of green branch to put into the flames, but he didn’t say anything to this question. I asked again, pestering him. “Chegga, what will you be when you grow up? Will you be a herder?” But he didn’t respond.

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