A People Dwindling Under Centralized Rule
In their history and in their present predicament, the Evenk of Khanda have much in common with many dwindling enclaves of native peoples in Siberia. A tiny remnant of a group of one-time reindeer herders, the Khanda Evenk now live as professional fur and meat hunters in a village of some 30 log buildings and associated yurts covered with bark or tar-paper, isolated for much of the year by forest and nearly impassable bogs.
The reindeer herds long gone, this group of Evenk have lived for decades hunting and fishing under the domination of a regional management agency whose policies discourage them from continuing a relatively independent and still partly traditional life. Almost all 50 Evenk in Khanda have attended Soviet schools. They speak Russian at home, and many understand little or no Evenk. Yet they all think of themselves as Evenk, claim Evenk as their own language, and resist assimilation by Russians as well as by their Russianized Buryat neighbors.
FROM HERDERS TO HUNTERS
Although most of the reindeer-herding Evenk of Sibera have lived north of Lake Baikal, some intruded south-ward centuries ago, passing through the mixed taiga uplands west of the lake and between the Lena and Kirenga rivers. They moved as far south as the Tutura River, where their new adjoined that of cattle-raising Buryat of the drier southern steppes. The tongue of land the immigrants occupied is hospitable to both wild and domesticated reindeer, and some 1,500 Evenk lived there in the second half of the seventeenth century.
In that some century, Russian settlers began colonizing the valleys of the Lena River and the Kirenga so heavily that some recent researchers have concluded that the entire region was virtually pure Russian by 1800. However, census information from 1812 records that 418 non-Russian taxpayers - presumably largely reindeer-herding Evenk - were in the administrative region embracing the territory between the Kirenga and its tributary, the Khanda.
Later in the nineteenth century, Russian traders moved into the Khanda valley, seeking furs and fish. This tempted Evenk to settle close to the trading posts, while Russian settlement along the Lena and Kirenga increasingly restricted the large territory required for herding. By 1900, the Evenk in this region were essentially confined to the northern basin of the Khanda River, set apart from Evenk remaining farther south around Tutura and Chinanga.
In a 1897 census, the Khanda Evenk numbered 334, and they continued to decrease in the coming years. During World War I and the Soviet Revolution, smallpox made inroads, as did the global influenza pandemic in 1919. In the collectivization of the late 1920s, the Soviet government executed many important reindeer owners as undesirable kulaks (rural property holders). In addition, the concentration of remnant Evenk around settlements forced the remaining reindeer herds into inadequate tracts, and a series of diseases struck the crowded animals. The last herds at Khanda disappeared early in World War II when all able-bodied herdsmen were drafter into military rifle companies. Two-thirds of the Khanda draftees died in the fighting for Stalingrad.
Since then, local subsistence has been based entirely on hunting and fishing. In 1960, three settlements remained on the upper Khanda River: Khanda village itself, Divitkan, and Otdeleniya. Located within 100 kilometers of each other, their total population was only 120 to 130.
A further major turn for the worse came in 1963. Until that year, Evenk of the area had hunted with relative independence through the Red Hunter Cooperative, which was administered by the same regional political committee that supervised Evenk near the upper Kirenga River and at Tutura. In 1963, the provincial government disbanded the Red Hutner Cooperative and assigned most of its territories to the kazachinsk Animal Husbandry Cooperative. At the same time, the government closed the settlements of Divitkan and Otdeleniya to concentrate all Khanda Evenk in Khanda village, which it placed under the Kazachinsk-Lena regional political committee. This separated Khanda from Evenk in Chinanga and Tutura to the south, who were subject to the regional committee in Kachug.
In the late 1980s, when Oleg Bychkov first visited Khanda, only about 50 Evenk remained there and another dozen or so had emigrated to nearby towns where they worked in various capacities. Of the able-bodied adult males who were above age 17 in 1990, the cooperative recognized eight as hunters. It designated another one as a forest guard, on call seasonally to serve elsewhere as game warden. The remaining six young men who had completed secondary schooling were without jobs and had no apparent prospects of employment. Only three adult women were employed, one part-time as storekeeper, another as a teacher for the three first-grade children. The Evenk consider unemployment a serious problem and blame it for fostering serious alcoholism.
The regular fur-and meat-hunting camps are located along the river and lake system 30 to 80 kilometers from Khanda. In a four-month season beginning October 20, hunters mainly seek valuable sables, but the bulk of the catch consists of squirrels. Before the snow deepens, the Evenk, aided by trained dogs, hunt with small-bore rifles. By late November, snow hampers the dogs, and the hunters give up dogs and rifles for traps. From January to March, Evenk hunters, armed with shotguns loaded with slugs, also pursue wild reindeer.
At the same season, the women and those men not hunting gather to fish with nets below the ice of the lakes about eight kilometers from Khanda. Unlike the commercially valuable furs, which are surrendered to the cooperative, the Evenk consume most of the winter pike and whitefish. The exchange part of the catch for potatoes, flour, and dairy products when private traders reach Khanda by motor vehicle after the ground freezes. This has been the only trade carried on legitimately outside the cooperative.
In late July, moose hunting becomes legal, although recently no more than three or four have been taken each season. More important, as the spring freshet subsides, Evenk take grayling, whitefish, and trout in dipnet-like gillnets set into family-owned weirs on the river. They use longer gillnets to catch pike and white-fish in the lakes. Much of this catch is destined for the cooperative. In August, the Evenk pick blueberries and lowbush cranberries, primarily for subsistence although some have been disposed of through the cooperative since 1990.
The 1963 reorganization of local economy and government has had several major repercussions. For instance, patrilineal families - remnants of traditional clans - still govern Evenk marriages. The dominant or "host" family i Khanda, surnamed Zherandoev, once regularly exchanged women with Tutura and Chinanga. Now, the new administrative channels hinder communication between these recently separated villages.
With a composite population created by the reduction of several family-dominated villages to one, Khanda has become home to surnames other than Zherandoev. The Chertovskikh family is allied in important ways with the Zherandoev. The two families have intermarried heavily, preventing further intermarriage. Khanda also contains Chinagin and Dorofeev, formerly of Divitkan and offshoots of important families in Chinanga and Tutura. These are similarly allied with one another and closely intermarried. Indeed, all Evenk within the small community of Khanda can reckon some degree of relatedness, so that only rarely can they find spouses locally without violating the Orthodox Church strictures against cousin marriage, which they tend to obey. Thus, the loss of easy ties with the South has created a growing willingness to marry non-Evenk.
Family lines govern more than marriage. Hunting, berrying, and fishing take place within family territories. The combined Zherendoev-Chertovskikh group claims the upper lake and the left side of the river, while the Chinagin-Dorofeev exploit the right bank of the river and the lower lake. The families maintain these territories strictly, despite the tendency to share subsistence goods, particularly meat.
However, official moves have whittled away at the remaining subsistence territory, as Russians and other non-Evenk - including settlers along the new Baikal-Amur (BAM) railway - were given hunting concessions in regions traditionally claimed by people of Khanda. In one instance, the cooperative assigned a Russian hunter a camp site on the lower lake. Only when he proved unsuccessful did the cooperative transfer the concession to an able Zherandoev hunter. Although this returned control to the Evenk, it intruded a Zherandoev into Chinagin territory. His presence on the lower lake did not aid the relations of the family groups, whose contacts have acquired many formal and sometimes unfriendly aspects.
Other acts of the central government affected the resources available even more seriously. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the BAM railway was constructed around the north of Lake Baikal, it cut the migratory pathway of wild reindeer. About the same time, government geologists began explorations and extensive drilling of the western part of Khanda hunting territory. In the late 1980s, the government stepped up commercial logging throughout Siberia to spur economic development. As a result, logging clear-cuts and access roads spread rapidly around Khanda. With such disturbances, wildlife declined and hunting worsened. Aerial surveys of the territory indicate the 1989 moose population was down 80 percent from 1975; the wild reindeer population was down 90 percent.
Logging has also led to increasing erosion and a drop in lake and river level, reducing the fish catch. This is an even more serious problem than the growing shortage in wild meat, since the Khanda people depend on fish for more than half their food.
Beyond this, a prison camp was built in the eastern portion of the Khanda hunting territory in 1986. The felons are assigned to various tasks of hard labor, including promiscuous logging. Evenk also say that some prisoners hunt for the benefit of prison officials, freely roaming the area armed through the summer. The prisoners are blamed not only for burning cabins or yurts at some outlying Evenk camps but for several murders as well. This inhibited Evenk from using much of their remaining territory in summer, although they return to it in winter after the felons are back in prison.
Many other aspects of the Evenk interactions with the greater Soviet system through the Kazachinsk Co-operative apparently have been designed to discourage the continuation of Khanda as an independent Evenk village, and the village Evenk describe their condition as serfdom. The cooperative, which provides gasoline for Khanda's electrical plant and construction materials fro some buildings, assigns quotas of furs, fish, and berries to the village. In the fur season, the cooperative provides hunters with small-caliber rifles - in poor repair, say the Evenk - as well as a periodic allowance of woolen winter clothing, gasoline for outboard motors, and gillnets - too few of each, the hunters maintain. Moreover, the hunters have been required to deliver their catch above subsistence needs to the cooperative at prices the Evenk say have always been well below market rates.
To make matters worse, say the Evenk, the cooperative officials deliver the quotas and hunting permits after those that are given out to non-Evenk hunters. Evenk hunters get quotas for wild reindeer so late in the season that the animals have already migrated from the district. The following year, the cooperative may refuse reindeer permits to the Evenk, claiming that the hunters are unproductive.
All family heads have to pay annual taxes on buildings, machinery, boats, and cash income. Payments and charges are carried on account, with settlement made at year's end when a hunter's catch may be too small to liquidate the debt.
A less direct but yet more serious threat to the village is the education system. All the children beyond the first or second grade attend boarding school in Kazachinskoe. Helicopters take them there each fall, and they return to the village for only two short holidays before school ends in the spring. When most of the young people finish their compulsory secondary schooling, they find the village unfamiliar, and seek a livelihood elsewhere.
On one hand, these economic regulations and educational requirements have been no more stringent for the Khanda Evenk than for the mass of Soviet citizens. The policies have aimed simply to create a citizenry in the mold the government considered ideal, and attitude common in states that govern native peoples. On the other hand, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the policies of the Kazachinsk Cooperative and its leaders also have been specifically meant to weaken the Khanda community itself. They have made it uncomfortable and unprofitable for its people to maintain the limited social order they regard as their own, distinct from that of Soviet society.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
Amidst the recent profound modifications in the Soviet system, the Kazachinskoe district spawned a new government apparatus to operate independently of the hierarchy of traditional political committees dominated by the Communist Party. In 1990, the Khanda people petitioned this new administrative machinery for autonomy that would partly separate them from the Kazachinsk-Lena political committee. In early 1991 their petition was granted, and they began discussing possible choices for local officials. At about the same time, the widespread if halting moves toward privatization of lands in Siberia led one of the Chinagin families to seek and obtain title to a home site at their former village of Divitkan. This family and one other Khanda family announced their intention to resettle there within a year or so. As the end of the year approached, not only was Khanda threatened by fragmentation, but its people were still unable to agree on a president for their newly approved village government.
The right to local government did not free Khanda from its economic tie to the Kazachinsk Cooperative. Neither did the subsequent formal elimination of the Communist apparatus lead to the immediate abolition of the rural management organizations. Nevertheless, over the next few months efforts to free the economy an be expected to bring a relaxation of restrictions on trade outside the cooperative. Unfortunately, there is no immediately available alternative source for the gasoline, traps, rifles, and ammunition that the Khanda hunters need to pursue their livelihood. Continued association with the cooperative seems inevitable for the near future.
The ability of the politically and economically unpracticed Khanda Evenk to form either a viable local government or a healthy and independent local economy appears questionable. What is worse, given the decline in local wild meat and fish, a relatively weak international market for furs, and an overall rise in prices of goods with "internatioanlization" of the Russian economy, the ability of the Khanda Evenk to maintain their chosen way of life into the future appears uncertain indeed. In this regard, their predicament is that of a great many of the rural and dwindling native peoples of what such a short time ago was Soviet Siberia.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.