From Materfamilias to Dinner-Lady: The Administrative Destruction of the Reindeer Herder’s Family Life

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Piers Vitebsky


The imposition of collectivization on reindeer herders industrialized their previous subsistence herding into a system of ranching, making the vast landscape into a giant open-air meat factory. Children removed to harsh and distant boarding schools now lack the skills or sensibilities to work with animals. The removal of women from the land and their placing into newly established villages forced them into quite separate orbits of work and movement from those of the male herders. As a result, the very existence of family life is now threatened by alienation, alcoholism and suicide. This article follows the different destinies of three herding families among a community of Even in the northern Sakha Republic (Yakutia), from the early days of perestroika into post-Soviet times. It reveals a spectrum of adaptation or resistance to the state farm, and focuses on diverse possibilities of fulfilment (or its absence) for their women as an older model of integrated family matriarch is replaced by that of a hired dinner-lady. It shows how people can become vulnerable in different ways because of small differences in their demographic and personal circumstances, but also suggests that significant improvements can be made by small adjustments to budgetary or schooling procedures.

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