English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 3, 2000

Will Eskimos live in Chukotka in the third millenium?

Lyudmila Bogoslovskaya, Dr. Sc. (Biology)
Centre for Traditional Subsistence Studies, Russian Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage

I have been working in Chukotka for many years, investigating the wildlife and the ancient hunting traditions of indigenous peoples. In the 1970s I happened to participate in an expedition to Chukotka, and the unique nature and the admirable people of that region have since become part of my life. Unfortunately, beginning in the 1990s I have witnessed some tragic new developments in Chukotka – devastation, starvation and disease ravaging the villages, the suffering of the people, both indigenous and newcomers.

Each time I call Chukotka to find out how the hunters helping us to monitor whales, walruses and seals are doing, I am afraid to hear in reply “he is gone”, “he fell asleep” (the Eskimos and Chukchi avoid saying “he died”). But I hear those bitter words with increasing frequency. The death of hunters from accidents, cancer, tuberculosis, alcohol poisoning and suicide has become apallingly common.

Eskimos are the smallest indigenous minority of Russia, numbering only 1719 people according to the census of 1989. They have already lost a considerable number of hunters older than 45 years of age. The same applies to the Chukchi, marine hunters and reindeer herders, but the population of this people being 15 thousand, their death rate is not yet that dramatic. Over the last six years, out of the 14 hunters with whom I closely cooperated, five died of cancer, two persons were drowned (the total number of victims in that accident was ten), and one died in the tundra. I am looking at the expedition pictures with a bitter feeling – we Muscovites are alive and the majority of our indigenous companions, most of whom are younger than ourselves, are gone forever. The lifespan of indigenous people in Chukotka is very short – only a few men reach the pension age of 55.

The reaction of federal, regional and municipal authorities to the high mortality among indigenous people, even as massive a case as that of September 7, when ten Eskimos were drowned, is the same – complete indifference and cynical (sponsored) coverage by the regional newspaper. No official condolences are offered, no lump-sum allowance to the families that lost their breadwinners. True enough, every accident was attended to by a commission from Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, who would invariably conclude that the indigenous people died through their own negligence.

That was what happened last summer. The Eskimos of the Novoe Chaplino village were returning from the American Saint Lawrence Island. Under the long-term storm and mist conditions, the hunters should not have put out, but they had been visiting with their relatives too long, and decided to chance it. The storm overturned the boat, and two hunters died, while three boats were lost in the sea due to the mist. The families and friends of the lost people spent several days on the shore under stormy wind and heavy rain, expecting a miracle. All that happened near the offices of municipal authorities, who did not condescend to come out and speak with the people to console them. The Alaskan Eskimos kept calling the village of Provideniya, and they summoned a USA Life-Saving Service aircraft. After a long search in the mist, the aircraft found one boat, reported the coordinates, and a Russian vessel picked up the hunters. The two other boats were found by the Eskimos of the Sireniki village. Late at night, the saved hunters, their faces cankered with sea water, with heavy leg edema, arrived in Provideniya on a British yacht, which was specially sent for them. On the shore they were met by a police detail, who tore them away from their families to take them to the district department of the interior for interrogation rather than to hospital.

Subsequently, a commission flew in from Anadyr, as is usually done, to make its predetermined conclusions. One of the members of the commission was a conceited sports official who reprimanded the Eskimos gently for neglecting their traditional sports.

During the time when in the Provideniya district hunters were dying, the governor organised a sea festival in the neighboring Chukotskiy district.

The newcomers are also having a tough time. All those having a toehold in the mainland, if only a small one, have left long ago. The people who stay are those who have nowhere to go, those who still are looking forward to receiving the “northern” pension or who are still to receive their wages owed to them for several years running (those who leave get nothing), and well-off members of the administration and people close to the administration. Everybody wants to leave. There are several containers waiting near every house, but one has to wait for years until those containers can be sent to the mainland. The sea route that was busy some time ago is currently deserted, and the price of transporting a container is too high for people who are not paid their wages for months.

Some time ago, the indigenous leaders were very much concerned with the detachment of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug from the Magadan Oblast. They naively believed that as soon as Chukotka became independent, their compatriots would be thriving. Alas, those hopes never came true. Actually, the eight years of the existence of Chukotka as a subject of the Russian Federation have had a most detrimental impact on its life. This region of the Arctic enters the third millenium as a completely ruined territory.

The Okrug’s population is less than half of that at the end of the Soviet period: 75 thousand people compared to its former population of 157 thousand. Over 20 large villages, numerous terminals and seasonal camps have been closed down. The transport systems have been destroyed, the material basis of the mining industry depleted, and the production of gold and rare metals sharply reduced. Not long ago, the Chukotka domestic reindeer population was one of the world’s largest; during recent years it has declined to a quarter of its former size, so that today the words “reindeer herder” and “unemployed” have become synonymous.

The people’s health is in a disastrous condition. Cancer, tuberculosis, scorbutus, scabies, hives, pediculosis and colds, which result in bronchites, pleuritis, pneumonia, have become common. Mortality from disease has soared among the indigenous people, and the number of suicides has also increased sharply. The entire Chukotka is drowned in vodka, whose standards and marketing are not controlled.

Crisis situations associated with fuel supply have become fairly regular. The Eskimos say that they receive heat “in a patch pattern”. In 1998 multi-storey buildings, the kindergarten, and the school in Ureliki were frozen. In Provideniya 6 five-storey buildings and in Yanrykynnot, the entire central heating were frozen (the newspaper Kraynyy Sever [Extreme North] of June 4, 1999, the article “Who Is Behind the Outrage”). Currently, the worn-out generator of the electric power plant is under repair in Provideniya, and experts are fixing the old machines so that dwellings should be provided with light and heat at least in late winter.

Last year no state-provided supply programme operated in Eastern Chukotka. A spokesman for the Far Eastern Steamship Company reported on October 2, 1999, in the broadcast “Federation”, that not a single application for any cargo deliveries had been sent in.

Multi-month wage arrears, failure to pay welfare since 1997, and the starvation in frozen villages have made the cup run over. In the summer of 1999, the federal authorities were sent piles of letters. They were sent care of people leaving Chukotka, via America – the majority of people know from their bitter experience that a complaint from Chukotka would not reach Moscow. Many people are afraid of losing their jobs if it becomes known that they are the authors of such letters.

It can be seen from the letters that the residents of Chukotka are offended not only by the man-made poverty and cold, but also by the cynical attitude of the authorities, the governor calling the tune. Let me quote from a collective letter by Provideniya residents (Office of President, Russian Federation for Citizens’ Letters, № 26-02-1000039 of August 17, 1999):

How can a pensioner survive here on 700-800 rubles? The subsistence level per person is 2437 rubles 65 kopecks, an official figure, which is obviously underestimated... The difference in salaries is huge – 20-30 times and more [the difference between the salaries of bosses and wages of common workers is what’s referred to here – L.B.].

Why does the governor of Chukotka purchase real estate in Saint Petersburg – premises for the pension fund – while pensioners in Chukotka starve and have no heat? Why is huge money spent on trips to the SAR to study gold mining, and the results are nil? Why is the soccer team “Spartak – Chukotka” kept in Moscow, while children are starving?

How can a person in authority like the governor Nazarov really care for the residents of Chukotka? The person who failed to find a common language with the miners of the Beringskiy village said at a meeting with Provideniya residents: “Let them hang themselves with their children!”…A sleek, conceited man who arrives in Anadyr for festivals and major functions, how can he understand the starving people of the region?

In order to conceal from strangers the crime being committed in Chukotka, a system of isolation of the Okrug from the rest of the country has been developed. All the mass media are in the hands of the governor, who descends to speak in person against his opponents over the radio and TV. Nazarov and his associates will put the blame at the door of the federal administration, accusing the “Centre” and “Moscow” of footdragging.

The major cause of the Chukotka tragedy was recognised by Yu. A. Yeregin, who wrote to the RF Government: “The Okrug administration lack systemic solutions to the management problems, in particular, a concept of the Russian state, and the understanding of Chukotka as an integral part of the Federation economy...”.

Strenuous supporters of the Chukotka sovereignty, the Okrug administration, only cared for a shortcut to the federal feed-trough. Whereas in 1991, the federal contribution to the Okrug budget accounted for 20.4%, in the first quarter of 1992 it soared to 58%.

There is a lot to say about the region’s plight, but the most expressive seems to be an account by the doctor G. Velichko about the Chukchi village Yanrykynnot, an image of the entire modern Chukotka. “Every morning as I left my home I saw the following picture: crowds of villagers were walking down the dirty muddy road towards the sea for fishing, which was the only source of food. The procession was reminiscent of the one for water to the Neva river during the World War II Leningrad blockade – shabbily dressed people were dragging themselves along, followed by a string of children. The kids were walking in the hope that adults would drink tea and eat and the children would have something to eat, too. It is hard to see that sight. I am sick at heart for those people. How can one help them?”

Presumably, today it would be reasonable to hand over the administration of the “banana republics”, like the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and others that live on federal subsidies, directly to the RF government. Accordingly, the top administrators should be nominated to those subjects of the Federation by the President of Russia. And, after the December election campaign, and particularly the “triumphant” re-election of the Primorie governor, comment is needless – the governors of faraway provinces elect themselves.

It is exactly direct election that offers the governors a unique opportunity to reign until they die, without accounting to anyone.

The democratic procedure of election in non-democratic regions makes it possible to press the voters and to rig the election. It also safely protects the governor from the dissatisfaction of the electorate (you elected me yourselves!) and from the the federal administration (I can’t be touched – I’ve been elected by the people!).

But the real fate of such regions depends on the people themselves. People should give up believing promises and learn to make authorities of any level answerable for their deeds. However, the impoverished and disintegrated population of present-day Chukotka is hardly in a position to initiate any drastic change. It is now a matter of federal administration. And the situation should be changed very quickly – Chukotka is becoming increasingly involved in the economic and geopolitical interests of other states, primarily the United States and Japan.