With its wide splayed feet, thick fur and wet nose digging under the snow for winter grass the reindeer is central to life for Russia’s northern tribes. It is their food, their transport and their business. In return the herders protect their animals from predators, help them give birth and try to stop them dying from wounds or illness. Groups of Nenets and other northern tribes will follow reindeer herds all their life, packing up their ‘chum’ tents and moving on with the grazers.
In fact such is the Nenets’ dedication to the reindeer, they rarely see much of each other. A family or small group of people with two or three tents and accompanying sledges seems to be the standard unit that trails along after the herds through the ten month winter and short summer. However, around March each year the Nenets allow themselves a break from their harsh and lonely lifestyle. At festivals all across the Russian far north Nenets and other herders gather. The theme of the festivals could probably be little else, the reindeer.
Skills honed in the months on the tundra are cause for lively competition. In one contest entrants try to throw a lasso over an upright pole. In another two competitors sit opposite each other with feet pressed against a wooden board. They then try to pull a stick from each other, usually with the other contender being pulled on top of their opponent.
|Two competitors wrestle over a stick in front of an audience of their contemporaries.|
To demonstrate, strength, endurance and balance others hurdle metal rails continuously back and forth until they fall.
|Jumping the hurdles. This man managed to keep going until about two thirds of the way back before falling.|
But the main even of the Nenets’ celebrations is reindeer racing. Five animals pulling a driver on a sledge hurtle out for hundreds of metres on a frozen lake or other flat surface. Then they come thundering back again, driver whooping and screaming to drive them on. Well at least that’s how it’s supposed to go. It seems the main challenge with reindeer is keeping them running in a straight line. Time after time drivers failed in the first ten metres, their reindeer charging round in uncontrollable circles. With two or more teams competing in some races in can become really quite hectic, with reindeer almost plunging into the crowd at some points.
|The tricky test of the reindeer race. This driver wasn't quite quick enough for his deer and fell off the back of the sledge, much to the amusement of the crowd, and him.|
|The most difficult period of the race seemed to be the start. These reindeer have spun in a circle and are now charging straight for the crowd.|
|At last, a straight run. This reindeer team is about to cross the finish line having managed to keep going straight.|
After a day of herder hi-jinks I was ready for the long road back. But on the way we were stopped in our rough snow tracks. There around us was the real thing, a herd of thousands of reindeer grazing in the wild. Of course they most likely had owners. But we could see their tents nowhere. They might even have been at the festival. Some nervous animals moved away from us but other, more curious specimens trotted up to us, sniffing and eating from my hand. What a sight, to see an icon of the wild north grazing under a setting polar sun.
The Nenets' main source of income is selling reindeer meat. It goes far abroad and fetches a handsome price. In fact it’s rumoured that 2000 reindeer are ‘equivalent’ in value to a flat in Moscow. But the Nenets don’t kill the reindeer themselves. The animal is, understandably, sacred to them. Instead, when the time comes they give the bloody task to hired teams, usually from other ethnic groups in the far north. Such is the proximity that herders have to their reindeer, it’s not unreasonable to see them as something more than just herders and herds. They don’t just travel with each other, they rely on each other.