Russia's Arctic People at Risk

FOR Yuri Veingo, a reindeer herder near here, the struggle to survive the Russian Arctic's bitter, dark winter has been reduced to a 26-mile commute.

The 26-year-old Mr. Veingo spends most of his time tending his herd in the tundra, living in a chum - a tepee-like structure with a wooden frame covered by reindeer skin.

Although the chum is similar to the dwellings of his ancestors, life in the tundra for Mr. Veingo isn't the constant battle against the elements that it was for his forebears.

Every few days he is able to obtain provisions relatively easily, hopping on his Russian-built snowmobile for the roughly 13-mile ride to Gornoknyazevsk, an isolated settlement comprising a few wooden shacks that Veingo can nonetheless describe as "civilization."

Dressed in a traditional costume of reindeer skins, he says life is getting progressively easier.

"We just got a Japanese generator for our chum, so we now have electricity. We've also got a radio," said Veingo, an ethnic Khanty, one of several indigenous groups in the region, known as the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area.

While Veingo doesn't seem to mind the intrusions of technology into his traditional lifestyle, there are some who say the modern conveniences are harbingers of changes that could wipe out the indigenous people of the Arctic area.

"Many small nations of Russia are on the verge of biological extinction," Yevdokia Gayer, deputy chairwoman of the Russian State Committee for the Social and Economic Development of the North, told the Tass news agency.

In all, there are more than 60 small ethnic minorities in Russia totaling about 450,000 people, according to Ms. Gayer. In connection with 1993 having been declared the International Year of Indigenous People by the United Nations, Gayer's committee is paying particular attention to the protection of the cultures of Russia's indigenous people.

But achieving a harmonious balance between the hunter-gatherer traditions of the local inhabitants and economic development has become increasingly difficult, Gayer and others say. The problem in the Yamal-Nenets region is especially acute because of the presence of oil and gas reserves on land historically used by the Nenets, Khanty, and Mansi tribes as fishing grounds or as grazing land for reindeer.

The oil and gas deposits, discovered about 30 years ago, have been largely undeveloped to date. But with the collapse of the centralized communist economic system, and the subsequent drop in support from Moscow, the pressure on local officials to tap into the reserves is growing. The revenue derived from oil and gas could go a long way toward financing regional economic development.

Even though there has not been widescale development of regional natural resources, significant environmental damage has been done over the past few decades, says Alexander Vladykin, vice mayor of Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal-Nenets area.

"Over the last 15 to 20 years the ecology of the region has grown much worse. The number of fish being caught is shrinking," Mr. Vladykin said. "With the coming of civilization, the life of these people has deteriorated."

Despite the environmental hazards, local traditional lifestyles perhaps have been most affected by alcohol, local officials say. Many residents of Gornoknyazevsk, as well as towns all across the Arctic, are battling alcohol-related problems.

"The people are drinking a lot, and as a result they're losing their culture," said Lesya Grishenko, the settlement's medic.

An intensive policy of Russification, introduced during the Stalin years, also has contributed to the loss of a sense of cultural identity among the indigenous people. Many of them now can speak only Russian and have little knowledge of ethnic folklore and customs.

Using the freedom that followed the breakup of the totalitarian system in Russia, some local specialists are trying to revive, or at least preserve, the indigenous people's folklore, language, and customs.

Yelena Sosoi, an ethnic Nenets scholar living in Salekhard, is devoting most of her time these days to the cultural revival of the 30,000-strong Nenets ethnic minority. Customs that were suppressed during the Soviet era - including shamanism and the pagan ritual slaughter of reindeer - are once again being practiced in the open, said Ms. Sosoi.

"It was all forbidden," she said of the Nenets traditions. "People had to operate in secret. Now we can chant shaman songs in the open."

The efforts to revive the local cultures could be dealt a serious blow, however, if plans move forward to develop the oil and gas fields. By the turn of the century, the environmental situation could grow much worse, according to research data published in the weekly Moscow News.

For example, grazing lands could be reduced by more than 50 percent due to the exploitation of natural resources, the newspaper said.

Local government officials say they want to find ways to prevent modernization from becoming a destructive force in the Russian north.

But little can be achieved toward this end without help from the central government, says Gayer, the state committee on minorities official.

The government has pledged to implement measures to help the indigenous people, but so far few actions have been taken, Gayer added.

Furthermore, legislation on the development of northern areas has become stalled in the Russian parliament, according to Tass.

In spite of the difficulties, Sosoi is among those who are sure the indigenous cultures will survive.

"It all could have disappeared 75 years ago, but it didn't," she said, referring to the communist takeover in 1917. "The traditions are strong and they will continue to be strong among our children."

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