VDNH-9: Infrastructure, Migration and Mobility in the North: Das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein?

Department of Anthropology

On November 14th, as part of the VDNH-9 conference, the “Arctic Social Sciences” and “Migration Studies” research groups held a session titled “Infrastructure, Migration and Mobility in the North: Das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein?” The session was devoted to the issues of mutual influence and adaptation of infrastructures and societies of different levels. The central discussion question was the following: how are infrastructures used and modified in accordance with the needs and interests of northern communities? This issue was examined in terms of migration and mobility in the North.

It’s known that the North and the Arctic are generally associated with inaccessibility and a lack of infrastructure. Every northerner is constantly faced with a variety of matters related to these questions: how to get to the mainland? Where to buy mutton, uncommon in the tundra? How to send money to children and students? What are the advantages of the Internet connection in a village? How to get to a doctor who is many miles away? Where to spend the holidays? Where to send children to study? Where to live in retirement? What to do when a borehole is closed, or when a new cultural center opens? How to live in two worlds? How to build a house while being three thousand kilometers away? Where to live in winter, and where in summer? How to organize life in the North? The reports by session participants were dedicated to describing how inhabitants of the contemporary Russian Arctic find answers to these questions.

The meeting was opened by Professor Nikolai Vakhtin (EUSP), who expressed his gratitude to the audience for participating in the conference. Professor Vakhtin also noted the importance of the fact that for the second year the session had been organized by two EUSP research groups — Arctic Social Sciences and Migration Studies — and expressed hope that points of convergence found last year between the two groups would be adequately covered this year. He also observed that participants readily responded to the invitation to highlight issues of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in their reports, since such material is widely represented in their own projects and merits interdisciplinary research.

The first part of the session was primarily dedicated to issues of mobility and displacement in the North and Siberia. Vladimir Davydov (Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, St. Petersburg) presented a report titled “The Temporality of Displacement in the North: Hunters, Herders, Fishermen, and Industrial Development Projects.” Using the examples of the Evenki and Dolgan people, he examined the mobility patterns of hunters, herders and fishermen and the changes they face in light of industrial development projects. He analyzed temporal aspects of mobility as well as the role of heavily used sites in the navigation structure of northerners.

Eva Toulouze (Paris/Tartu) and Liivo Niglas’ (Tartu) report “On the Road with Yuri Vella: The Economic, Social and Political Aspects of the Use of Cars by Indigenous People in Western Siberia” showed how modern technology can be used for sustainable development by indigenous people trying to preserve their traditional way of life. Yuri Vella (1948-2013) applied modern technology in resisting pressure placed by corporations on the traditional way of life in the forests of the Nenets people. Toulouze showed that the automobile was one of the most important technologies that Vella relied upon in his struggle for economic, cultural and political survival.

Valerya Vasilyeva (EUSP), in her report “‘Snowmobile Revolution’ in the Russian Arctic: Technological Changes and Mobility Tactics on the Eastern Taymyr,” spoke about the concept of the “Snowmobile revolution,” which was introduced by Pertti Pelto in his 1973 book about technological changes in the everyday life of Sami reindeer herders in Fennoscandia. According to Vasilyeva, it’s interesting to look at the technological changes in the context of residents’ inter-village mobility—that is, to consider moving by snowmobile as part of the regional transport infrastructure. The report focused on the ways in which the possibility of vehicle ownership—resulting in people being able to independently regulate their own movement—has changed the region’s transportation infrastructure.

The last report of the first part of the conference, “The Disappearing State and Administrative Failures in the Russian Far East,” was presented by Aimar Ventsel (University of Tartu, Department of Ethnology). In his address, Ventsel focused on failures of governance in the Russian Far East. He hypothesized that we can judge the degree of government absence by the sophistication of the informal economy. Aimar analyzed the strategies used by people living in remote villages to maintain order and predictability in their lives. At the end of his report he touched on the reasons why the government has little interest in maintaining full control, and pointed out several causes and the rhetoric of these processes.

The second quarter of the session was mainly devoted to the issue of migration in Siberia and the Arctic. Nadezhda Zamyatina (MSU, Moscow) presented her report “Stable Migratory Relationships of Arctic and Non-Arctic Russian Cities and the Formation of ‘Large Regions.’” In her opinion, the isolation of Arctic cities in Russia has specific compensation mechanisms based on different forms of “proximity”. Many types of proximity are formed on the basis of personal connections and are manifested through the study of specific biographies, personal data and interviews. Using concrete examples, she showed how cities in the Russian North are linked to the “far regions” with partner cities situated in the south. She showed how temporal proximity, which is made possible by legislatively allotted privileges for northerners regarding leave, plays a large role in this, and how complex systems of proximity—where primary kinship and social ties “become” organizational and institutional is forming in general.

Igor Bobrov (Tyumen) addressed the issue of Azerbaijanis living in Tyumen oblast in his report “The Infrastructure of an Immigrant Community: Tyumen Azerbaijanis.” The majority of these people live in the regional center—the city of Tyumen, which provides a variety of employment opportunities. According to Bobrov, neighborhoods were formed in the city where Azerbaijanis prefer to settle, along with various infrastructures—including religious—that belong to the Azerbaijanis and are intended for them. Azerbaijani political organizations are also interconnected and act as mutual-aid centers, and Azerbaijani political representatives as major regional actors have a noticeable impact on the region’s other national-cultural organizations.

Denis Sokolov (RANEPA, Moscow) presented his report “Dagestan in the North: Collective Reputation vs. Bureaucratic Practices” in which he examined changes within the economic model and the political elite on the “land” as a reason for the exodus to the “north,” as exemplified by the Nogai and Kumyk auls in Dagestan. He described collective reputation, public opinion and bureaucratic practices as instruments of forming and formatting migrant groups of Nogai and Kumyk peoples in the north of Western Siberia.

Ekaterina Kapustina (EUSP) concluded the session with her report “Between the ‘North’ and the ‘Land’: Commercial and Passenger Inter-Regional Ties in the Context of Dagestani Migration to Western Siberia.” She examined the inter-relational practices between migrants from the Republic of Dagestan who come to cities in Western Siberia, either seasonally or for longer periods, and their families, relatives and fellow villagers who have remained in the republic. In particular, she focused on the path between the two regions, ways of moving migrants and family members and the organization of freight traffic and petty trade primarily through examining the functioning of social networks.

The second half of the session, which primarily focused on infrastructure and technology in the Arctic and Siberia, began with a report by Elena Liarskaya (EUSP) titled “And Where Do You Get Fish?...Purchasing Logistics and Social Strata in the Yamal Peninsula (based on material from the 2014-2015 expedition to YaNAO).” According to Liarskaya, insufficient means of communication, the complexity of shipping and high prices in stores brings to life quite complex and often unexpected supply schemes for food and essential goods in both small villages of the Yamal and the capital district of Salekhard, and gives rise to a variety of practices. Liarskaya showed that by asking people simple questions such as where they get meat or where they buy grains (or children’s clothing, etc.) we can clarify many nuances of the social structure and see the existing social strata in these settlements. In this way we can understand the extent to which a particular person is included in various social networks, and visualize the links of Yamal inhabitants both within the region and with the rest of the country.

Anastasia Karaseva (EUSP), in her report “Gendered Aspects of Stories About the ‘Un-Freezing’ in the Yagodnoye Settlement (Magadan oblast),” spoke about the town of Yagodnoye in Magadan oblast, where an accident at the central boiler occurred in the winter of 1993-1994. As a result residents were left for several months without central heat and water, which radically changed their way of life. For residents, these were decisive events that divided life into “before” and “after”. Karaseva’s report was devoted to the different ways that men and women talk today about the “un-freezing.”

Andrian Vlakhov’s (EUSP) report “‘In the 21st Century, We Live Without Internet’: New Technologies Under Conditions of Undeveloped Infrastructure on Svalbard” was dedicated to the functioning of new technologies in Russian settlements on Svalbard. These are often called the “reserve of the seventies”: production, infrastructure and social life here have preserved many features inherent to past decades. One such feature is the significant communications isolation faced by inhabitants of Svalbard and Pyramiden. In his report Vlakhov traced how the community tries to fill the gaps in the technology needs they’re accustomed to on the “mainland,” and how it invents surrogate technologies and builds internal communications in this regard.

Ksenia Gawrilova concluded the session with her report “Long-Term (Short-Term) Residence Prospects As A Factor in Assessing A Village’s Infrastructure Capacity (the case of the Koryak Autonomous District).” According to Gawrilova, in assessing the reasons for the depopulation of the Arctic there are a number of preconditions that determine both mass conceptions about the region as well as the discursive background at which scholarly hypotheses are directed. Through the example of a remote settlement in Kamchatka oblast, Ksenia showed the points at which the discourse common to the region about “youth flight” diverges from the observed strategies of young families. She also demonstrated how factors such as the inaccessibility of transportation and the absence of certain infrastructural conditions can be evaluated as either a situation to be surmounted, a cause for departure, a means to recover benefits, or an empty niche for economic activity.

The final part of the session meeting began with a report by Alla Bolotova (EUSP) titled “Strategies for Coping with the ‘Optimization’ of Health Care in Murmansk Oblast: Operations in Israel, IVs in St. Petersburg and Childbirth on the Road,” in which she discussed various strategies for coping with changes in the provision of medical services. During the era of post-Soviet modernization businesses adapted to the conditions of a market economy and there were fundamental changes to the social structure of northern cities. Residents, accustomed to the paternalistic system, had to adapt to changes as well—particularly in the area of medical services. Alla showed that Murmansk’s residents are characterized by high mobility, which became a resource for solving problems having to do with medicine in the region.

Stephan Dudeck (EUSP) presented a report titled “‘Working for the Enemy’: Oil Workers from Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Northern Communities,” in which he examined the experience of Khanty and Nenets communities of hunters, fishermen and herders living in the immediate vicinity of oil fields in Western Siberia and the Russian North. Professor Dudeck showed how young men and women, working on a rotational basis, form a link between places in the forest or tundra and the barracks on neighboring oil fields, which are partly responsible for the destruction of fishing and hunting grounds and reindeer pastures. Strangely enough, “indigenous” oilfield workers don’t express concerns about the internal conflict laid out in these two types of relationship to nature. Social ties between workers and the legacy of Soviet multiculturalism give rise to new forms of social capital and patron-client relations between local residents and oil companies. To explain the ambivalent integration of the local population into the industry developing on their land, Dudeck used the idea of “indigenous perspectivism” (Viveiros de Castro) in conjunction with Bourdieu’s concept of “social capital.”

To conclude the session, two guests presented a University of Vienna research project focused on the study of infrastructure and technology on Siberian railways. Peter Schweitzer (University of Vienna, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology / Austrian Polar Research Institute) presented his report titled “Remoteness, Infrastructure and Mobility: The Social Life of a Railway in Eastern Siberia,” in which he described the general framework of the project. The project is dedicated to one of the regions of Eastern Siberia delineated by two railroad mainlines: the Baikal-Amur and Amur-Yakutsk. The project’s primary research question is how changes in remote transportation systems affect the social life of people and their mobility. The starting assumption is that changes in transport systems “under northern conditions”—that is, in conditions of physical remoteness, a harsh climate, low population density and few roads—has a huge impact on people’s lives. Schweitzer’s report focused on two dimensions of interaction between people and infrastructure: the social and spatial. The research team plans to describe the life of the Baikal-Amur and Amur-Yakutsk mainlines in the past, present and future.

In conclusion, Olga Povoroznyuk (Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow/ Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna) described in her report “Life ‘on the BAM’: Migrations and Techno-Social Networks of Cities and Settlements in the North” the history of the construction and the contemporary modernization of the Baikal-Amur mainline (BAM) as a project of technological (infrastructural) and social engineering in the north of Eastern Siberia and the Far East. Based on material from field research in Zabaykalsky Krai and the Amur Oblast, she analyzed the impact of simultaneous processes of industrialization, labor migration and urbanization on the social dynamics of local communities on the BAM. She showed how the construction of a mainline and the development of the mining industry led to the formation of a multicultural environment, the interweaving of technological and social networks and the intensification of the struggle for resources between major population groups. At the same time she illustrated the process of integrating BAM infrastructure into the local cultural landscape through the example of changing perceptions about the role of the railway and practices of its use prevalent among the aboriginal and “visitor” populations.

Andrian Vlakhov