The comment on the situation of the Nenets population below refers the correspondence published in Mir Korennykh Narodov – Arktika Zhivaya No. 3, 2000: "The drama of the Vorkuta Nenets". The English translation of this article can be found at

-- The Editor.

A comment on the situation of the Nenets in Vorkuta

February 2001
Ivar Bjørklund, Tromsø Museum, University of Tromsø

The ”Drama of the Vorkuta Nenets” which is revealed in the following correspondence, is not only a drama, but also a deep tragedy. It is first and foremost a tragedy for the Nenets involved, but also a tragedy for the Russian authorities responsible for the situation. And worse – what is happening to the Nenets reindeer herders in Vorkuta is a condensed version of the plight and suffering taking place today among many of the indigenous people of the Russian North.

The area of Vorkuta has a rather bleak reputation in Russian history. This is where Stalin established the main part of the GULAG-system in the 1930’s. With the loss of thousands of lives, prisoners built a railway from the south to the tundra north of the Ural Mountains. At the end of the railway they built prison camps on top of the huge coal fields – the main reason for them being sent there. Coal was the gold of the north and fuelled Stalin’s industrialisation campaigns. After the war vast numbers – probably hundreds of thousands – of German prisoners of war toiled the barren grounds and built the city of Vorkuta.

These camps – and the city which followed – also has a place in the Nenets memory. They brought havoc to the daily life of the nomadic reindeer herders. Escaping prisoners and military patrols were ever-present threats. Stories are told of how prisoners on the run would slaughter all people in a tent to get hold of food and shelter. Or how the miltary would arrest or kill Nenets as reprisals for helping escaped prisoners. All the time they were running the risk of losing reindeer to the soldiers who always were looking for meat.

The GULAG-system around Vorkuta was the home of up to a hundred thousand people; quite a few were, of course, guards and their families. When the camps were abolished in the 1960’s, quite a few of the prisoners settled down in the city together with a growing numbers of miners recruited from the south. Thus the city grew and became in many ways a showcase for industrial growth and ”Russian civilization” in the north. It was an affluent society; the workers were well paid and vacations were spent at resorts by the Black Sea. The citizens had access to all the services of the Soviet State: subsidised shops, theaters and orchestras. And a year of working in the north counted as two in the south. Thus most people became pensioners before the age of fifty, and consequently moved south again to the apartments they received as part of the deal of going north.

Then came ”the ages of misery”, as most Russian call it today. The dismantling of the Soviet State, the economic disasters and the loss of jobs and social security. The inhabitants of Vorkuta were hit twice as hard; the market for coal was diminishing at the same time. Regular wages became a thing of the past and all savings were nullified through a gallopping inflation. To be a pensioner meant starvation and there was no housing avilable in the south anyway. Airfare skyrocketed together with the cost of living and all this prohibited any dreams of leaving Vorkuta. Thus the city in a way has been turned into a prison camp again, but this time for its own inhabitants.

Such is the social and economic context in which the plight of the Nenets in the area has to be understood. Vorkuta has become the metaphor of Russia - a sinking ship and a miserable one as such. From the Nenets point of view, Vorkuta has been an important source of income. Since all the Nenets in that area are involved in reindeer herding, the selling of reindeer meat to the Russian inhabitants was a secure way of getting money. The nomadic families would regularily visit the suburbs and the mines with their caravans loaded with meat and buy necessities like flour, tea, sugar, bread etc. The closure of many mines and a lack of income among most people, meant that fewer and fewer were able to buy meat.

The closing of the mining town of Khalmer-Yu, which is mentioned in the following correspondence, is a striking example. The mines were not regarded as ”profitable” - a completely alien argument for any Russian - and thus closed down in 1994. Consequently all miners and their families had to leave and the whole infrastructure of the town was abandoned. The Nenets reindeer herders who used to visit the town, suddenly found themselves without any outlet for their meat. They were also deprived of all access to medical care and all civil services they were entitled to as Russian citizens. To complicate the matter further, these people had never been given any kind of education by the Russian authorities and were thus illiterate.

Their efforts to adapt to the changing circumstances when Khalmer-Yu closed were not succesful. Some of them started to visit the town of Sovetskaya in order to sell meat, but that meant longer distances and complicated travels. As the reports below reveal, some had lost all their reindeer and tried to find permanent housing in Sovetskaya. But being illiterate and not even in possession of the numerous papers which fuels Russian bureaucracy, they were doomed to loose. The strong ethnocentric sentiments of the Russian ethos came into free play as bureaucrats and politicians turned their back to the suffering Nenets. ”We have enough of our own problems without being bothered with those drunken herders”, was a common statement from Russians in representative positions.

Deprived of dignity, reindeer and dwelling, many became victims to alcohol and crime. It is a fair statement to say that so far the local authorities have done nothing to help these Nenets out of their dire straits. On the contrary, as seen in the reported case of the kindergarten, many of their actions have actually worsened the situation. It is therefore of the utmost importance that both international and national pressure is placed upon the authorities of the Vorkuta region. As it is today, the prisoners of the GULAG’s were better off than the indigenous inhabitants of the very same area.