Reindeer herders in Soviet east cling to nomadic life

``You're lucky with the weather,'' said the reindeer herdsman, a member of the Chukchi ethnic minority. ``It's warm today.'' It was 22 degrees below zero. After several minutes my pen froze up, followed quickly by my tongue. As I switched to a pencil and tried to talk, I kept wishing the herdsman would button up his coat.

The winter base of the Seventh Brigade of the Omolon Reindeer Breeding Farm is literally miles from nowhere. The settlement of Omolon (population 1,670) is ``two days away by reindeer - or one, if you are in a hurry,'' said a Brigade veteran.

The reindeer stampeded when our helicopter landed, but soon were subdued again. They were, a Chukchi said, very stupid beasts, ``on the whole even more stupid than cows.'' Our hosts tried to organize reindeer races for the visiting journalists, but the animals' hearts did not seem to be in it.

The reindeer are raised for their meat and skins. Among the problems the herders face are wild reindeer, wolves (which prey on the animals), and flies. Wild reindeer sometimes incite domestic relatives to escape (a problem when they have 15 million acres in which to roam). Seven wolves were shot the week before we visited, bringing the total for the first three months of the year to 30. And during the brief summer, flies lay their eggs under a reindeer's skin, which is a serious irritation to affected animals.

Rock music blared out of a loudspeaker attached to one of the 10 or so huts that made up the base. The Chukchi, plus one Eskimo, brought here by her Chukchi husband after military service, were dressed in traditional clothes.

To a longtime inhabitant of Southeast Asia, these looked remarkably similar - in color, design, and intricate embroidery - to the clothes of some Southeast Asian hill tribes, especially the Hmong and Yao who live in parts of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The similarity brought to mind a Hmong New Year festival many years ago in Laos, when a Cambridge-educated tribal leader explained his theory that his people and the Eskimos shared similar origins. (Chukchi and Eskimos are culturally related). Another similarity between Hmong and Chukchi were the fancy sunglasses. One big difference was the amount of clothing they wore: Chukchi children were wrapped in so many layers that they swayed fom side to side like sumo wrestlers as they walked.

There are about 14,000 Chukchi in the whole of the Soviet far northeast. Many apparently still cling to their traditional semi-nomadic life style.

Like the ethnic Russians who work in the Far North, the Chukchi and other minorities in the region earn high salaries. The herdsmen of the Seventh Brigade say they make around 800 to 900 rubles ($1,250 to $1,400) a month. They spend it in Omolon, at a recently opened store that sells such prized items as Japanese tape decks. (One young man was asked what his ambition was. ``To buy a tape recorder,'' he replied.) They point out, however, that life is also very expensive: a thick winter coat costs a month's salary. Their traditional clothes cost a similar amount to make.

A senior Communist Party official in the modern and ethnically Russian town of Bilibino claims that relations between Russians and the minorities are excellent. But later I asked an official of the Bilibino nuclear power station if any ethnic minorities worked either inside the station or on the construction site where an extension to the station is being built.

``Of course not. They're not used to this kind of work. You have to teach them everything. This is serious, responsible work. You need a head for this sort of thing. And who would look after the reindeer?''

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