Russia’s Reindeer Herders Go Global

This article is part of a series on Russian interests in the Arctic. Russia’s Arctic policies and postures are often misunderstood, overblown, or underrated because they take place in a complex regional context and result from complex internal politics. Every second month, Morgane Fert-Malka contributes with an analysis, interview, or book review shedding light on this central Arctic player.

By Morgane Fert-Malka

My photographer and I walk out of the village to the slaughterhouse as a shy daylight rises on the polar sky. Only our footsteps on the track, dogs barking in the distance, and the sound of our own breathing break the silence. It is not too cold at 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The air is crisp and clear. It smells of emptiness.

The slaughterhouse is more than a mile away from the village of Lovozero, the reindeer-herding capital of the Kola Peninsula in the Russian Arctic. Reindeer herding is the soul of this region. For thousands of years the reindeer have inhabited the tundra and the humans have herded the reindeer.

Reindeer herding used to be a strictly nomadic craft: Groups of up to five families would follow the movements of the herd across the peninsula, with all of their possessions tied to a reindeer-drawn sleigh, staying for short periods of time in elaborate tents (chum) made of reindeer skins. But through the decades of Soviet-era collectivization, the transition to a market economy and integration with global supply chains, these practices evolved into a hybrid industry and a society incorporating elements of both tradition and modernity. As the world faces limited resources and fragile ecosystems, Lovozero offers an example of a community striving to develop a globalized and sustainable industry and embrace a holistic lifestyle at the heart of the tundra.

A Changing Community

People here breed, ride, and care for the reindeer. The animal is at the heart of indigenous groups’ mythologies, and locals still mention with pride the critical role that reindeer-mounted brigades played in warding off the Nazi invasion during World War II.

Every year from spring to fall, men herd the deer across hundred of miles, to the shores of the Barents Sea and back inland. Those who do not herd take on supporting functions, counting, sorting, selling, vaccinating, mating, castrating, and slaughtering reindeer when they return to the village for the winter.

Reindeer herding is a sustainable craft; the production side has very low environmental impact and consumption involves little to no waste. The deer graze in the tundra, where they contribute to the equilibrium of the ecosystem. Deer meat, skins, antlers, bones, blood, organs, and marrow can all be used to feed humans and animals, make cloth and furniture, and develop pharmaceutical products. Drawing on the resources of the tundra—the reindeer, fish, berries, and mushrooms—provides all the essentials for life.

However, since industrialization and consumer goods first arrived in the community, disrupting subsistence practices, a greater portion of reindeer material is going to waste. Women in the tundra used to play a critical role producing goods from antlers, skin, and bones, but those goods are being replaced by manufactured alternatives. The women now work overwhelmingly in the service sector—particularly the health care, child care, retail industries—in the region’s urban settlements.

In the paddock, reindeer are guided through a maze and selected for slaughtering.

Even as mechanization and economic transition change the processes of reindeer herding, and the volume of production rises and falls, the yearly cycle remains the same, dictated by the tundra. The life of a reindeer herder is physically, psychologically, and intellectually demanding. Herders must know the anatomy and biology of the reindeer, understand meteorological phenomena, master extreme survival skills, and be able to spend weeks—sometimes months—in solitude. Today, many herders are highly educated; they speak foreign languages and are well versed in global politics. Using satellite technology, they are no longer passive subjects of the regional and global political processes that affect the future of their community. They are connected with reindeer herders in other parts of the Arctic and actively participate in working groups of the United Nations, the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and other international initiatives.

A Struggling Industry 

When we arrive at the slaughtering site, we see a convulsing reindeer (already brain-dead) hanging by its back leg on a hook. In about three seconds, the hook lifts the animal at a surprising speed and shoots it into a revolving door, where it disappears inside a processing truck.

The workers have been at it since 8 a.m. and they will continue past midnight. “This truck is supposed to operate down to minus 25 degrees,” or -13 degrees Fahrenheit, the senior supervisor Mikhail tells me with a smile, “but even when it’s minus 42 [-43 F], we keep working. Russian-style.” Today 364 reindeer will be slaughtered, drained, skinned, emptied, inspected, and sent to the meat-processing site. Most of this is done manually, with little mechanical assistance. The slaughtering season on the Kola Peninsula usually lasts from December to February. The schedule is intense, and nobody gets much sleep until the job is done. People adapt to the requirements of the industry’s seasonal cycle—not the other way around.

At the slaughterhouse, a worker rests between two shifts.

The community has endured much hardship since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1991, state support dried out and reindeer herding fell prey to the wild capitalization that continued through the 1990s. The community resisted oligarchs’ attempts to buy up their resources and production structures, but corruption and criminality weighed heavily on the region. The disruption caused by economic, political, and societal crisis led to a tenfold decrease in the deer count. Scandinavian capital and technology penetrated the business in the 2000s, and production picked up again. But since the early 2010s the Russian economic crisis has made it difficult to acquire indispensable foreign equipment and sell reindeer products to domestic markets, leading to a decline in revenue.

The aging workforce presents an even greater challenge. Mikhail, the senior supervisor of the slaughtering site, talks about his workers with enormous respect. “They are made of iron,” he says, “and utterly trustworthy.” But work conditions are poor and career prospects are often less promising than in other sectors. Mikhail is tired. He wants to retire, but without him the production line would fall apart. He is hoping for a young generation of managers to take over soon, to modernize the local industry and expand producers’ access to global markets..

As in other remote Northern communities, the youth tend to leave. Young people move to big cities—Murmansk, Saint Petersburg, Moscow—to pursue dreams of a more glamorous future. Many come back, disappointed, but find it difficult to adopt the demanding lifestyle of reindeer herding. Considering the physical and mental requirements, salaries for most workers in the industry are unattractive. Among young herders, only those who inherit cattle can expect a dynamic and profitable career.

A Craft With a Future

Andrey, 30, is one such young herder. He is also a manager with a vision. When he isn’t in the tundra with the reindeer, he oversees administrative and production processes in Lovozero and works to expand the reindeer herders’ reach into the realm of sustainable tourism. He also travels abroad to meet members of other reindeer herding communities and potential buyers, establish partnerships with companies down the production line or across sectors, and participate in international conferences as an indigenous representative.

Petr and Tatyana, two retired Sami herders, are among the few people alive on the Kola Peninsula who remember nomadic life in the tundra before sedentarization. All but one of their children and grandchildren left the reindeer-herding life.

Andrey knows there are markets in Europe, East Asia, and North America for high-quality reindeer products. In Europe, reindeer tongue, heart, and liver can be marketed as both fair-trade and luxury goods, and blood can be sold for up to $475 a gallon to the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. and China. Andrey is trying to obtain exporting licenses and integrate the local industry into global supply chains in a way that will benefit the community. His attitude is positive: If production quantities rise and processes are refined to the point where reindeer herding becomes more lucrative, then young people will flow to the tundra to work in the industry. Reindeer herding would become the locomotive of a thriving community that lives in harmony with nature and remains connected with the rest of the world.

Many people in Lovozero share Andrey’s belief that the local community can better integrate global processes and markets, and innovative projects are popping up every month in the village. Mikhail’s wife, Svetlana, runs a farm that also serves as both a high-end tourist resort and a free educational facility for local children. Other women have started to sell traditional reindeer skin bags, fur boots, and antler jewelry in Russia and Scandinavia, and there are plans to establish common production and distribution facilities. Exporting authentic handicrafts on a larger scale is not only a commercial venture, but also a way to express the community’s pride in its indigenous heritage and enhance its visibility on the global political stage. Most striking is the widespread sentiment that Lovozero has much to offer the world, if only the world would take a look.

There are certainly remnants of an old guard, raised during the Soviet Union, who believe conservatism is the best way to preserve the community from exogenous change, but they are losing ground. As I walk back through the dark and snowy streets of Lovozero in the bitter cold, Andrey’s dream does not seem out of reach. He and his allies will have many obstacles, both practical and ideological, to overcome. But if they hold fast to their mission, there is no reason why modernized reindeer herding should not sustain the community into the future, and become a model for others to follow.

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Morgane Fert-Malka is a French freelance political analyst based in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Copenhagen. She focuses on Russia’s Arctic policies and on international relations in the Arctic. In addition to her doctoral research on Russian decision-making processes in the Arctic, she is committed to deciphering the complex and fascinating issues of international Arctic governance for the broadest possible audience. Twitter: @CuriousArctic.

Pavel Poboruev is a Russian photographer. Samples of his work are available on his website

[All photos by Pavel Poboruev]

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