In the winter of 1919, the settlement of Anadyr, just below the Arctic circle, was a cluster of cabins: storehouses of fox, bear, and wolverine pelts; the offices of a few fur companies; and the imperial Russian administrator’s post. Anadyr was built on extracting animals from Chukotka, the peninsula that nearly touches North America at the Bering Strait. The wealth that resulted from those animals often did not go, as maps would indicate, to the Russian Empire; four thousand miles from Moscow, practical jurisdiction of Chukotka was elusive. Much of the profit derived from fox pelts and walrus went to traders from Alaska, just a few hundred miles east. This made Anadyr a village built by a “capitalist system,” Mikhail Mandrikov, a young Bolshevik from central Russia, argued, which would “never free workers from capitalist slavery.” Anadyr’s workers were mostly indigenous to Chukotka’s tundra and rocky coastline. For almost a century, they had sold pelts and tusks to Americans. Mandrikov and his colleague Avgust Berzin had come north to preach liberation, to impart a vision for a world where “every person . . . has an equal share of all the value in the world created by work.”
The Bolshevik Revolution was two years old when Mandrikov and Berzin took control of the regional administration, seized fur storehouses, and proclaimed the establishment of the first Soviet revolutionary committee, or Revkom, in Chukotka. Six weeks later, most members of the Revkom were dead, executed by merchants with little sympathy for revolution. It was 1923 before the Red Army declared Chukotka liberated from “White [Army] bandits and foreign predators and plundering armies,” and part “of a new world, a new life of fraternity, equality, and freedom.” It was the beginning of a grand experiment in the Arctic, as the Soviet Union brought its theories of collective production, Party participation, and Marxist social transformation to Chukotka. Walruses and reindeer, and the indigenous societies that made a living from their flesh, were about to join the workers’ revolution.
For the Bolsheviks, Chukotka was a particular challenge. Its people—nomadic Chukchi reindeer herders, on the tundra, and Yupik walrus hunters, on the coast—were all potential Soviets. But in Marxist terms they lived on the first rung of history’s ladder, before the rise of agriculture and industry, let alone socialism. In 1924, a group of Bolshevik faithful—many of them ethnographers experienced with “backward peoples”—formed the Committee of the North. From Murmansk to Chukotka, the committee sent “missionaries of the new culture and the new Soviet state,” as one member put it, “ready to take to the North the burning fire of their enthusiasm born of the Revolution.”
Tikhon Semushkin, a teacher from southeast of Moscow, was so moved by descriptions of Soviet work in the Arctic that he took a train east and a sea voyage north from Vladivostok. Arriving in the Bering Strait, Semushkin found himself looking at the past across the International Date Line. Chukotka, he wrote, was the meeting place of “two days—New and Old—and two worlds, new and old, socialist and capitalist.”
In winter, the only way to get around was by dog team or reindeer sleigh; in the summer, the land was swampy. Insects were a torment. Food was often fermented walrus or boiled reindeer. Yupik and Chukchi people practiced shamanism, and lived in a time that human history was supposed to have surpassed, without literacy, temperance, science, or gender equality. There was no proper bread or clothing—and no soap.
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The Chukchi were not interested in Semushkin’s description of how “all our people were making a new life, just as Lenin said.” In his memoirs, written some years after arriving in Chukotka, Semushkin describes trying to persuade a Chukchi elder named Tnayrgyn to send nomadic children to boarding school at the cultbaza, or culture base, in the Soviet settlement of Lavrentiya. Pointing to a portrait of Lenin, Semushkin explained “how he that we see hanging on the wall taught that all peoples will live well only when they themselves make their own lives,” by learning to read. Tnayrgyn responded, “What you say is nonsense. Doesn’t he know we make our own lives for ourselves?”
Tnayrgyn’s was a common sentiment among the Chukchi. In 1927, the secretary of the reëstablished Chukotka Revkom tried to organize elected leaders among the Chukchi, but he was told that they had no “chiefs” and were “all equal,” at least over time. And no one wanted to discuss reindeer. The Chukchi, who had begun domesticating reindeer hundreds of years before the Soviets arrived, knew that the animals helped increase the native human population and boosted political power, allowing individuals to amass wealth in herds of thousands. “The Chukchi received me warmly and willingly talked about general, abstract themes and topics that did not directly concern their livestock,” a Revkom committee member reported. “But when issues began to touch on the deer and reindeer herding, the Chukchi became wary and stopped talking.”
An expert from the committee wrote that the only way to “fully increase the productivity of the indigenous economy” was “collectivization in the north.” Productivity would ease poverty, collectives would provide meaningful work, and both would enable conscious action. But collectivization had to “start with the simplest forms—associations for common use of land, artels (workshops) for the communal manufacturing of products—and ascend gradually to higher forms of socialist production.” Each artel would become a kolkhoz, or collective farm, where workers owned their means of production, and eventually a sovkhoz, the state farm, with centralized ownership and quotas. As collectivization advanced, production would expand. In Chukotka, this meant producing more reindeer meat and walrus blubber, creating a future in which “the fat of sea animals flows in a fast, broad wave into the tanks” of hunting artels, one marine specialist wrote. The way to make more walruses and reindeer was to collectivize their herding and killing.
Some Yupik embraced the Bolsheviks’ vision. As a child, Mallu, a young man from the village of Ungaziq, had learned how to hunt walruses on the sea ice. He also learned Russian from the Chukchi coast’s lone Orthodox missionary. When the Bolsheviks came, Mallu’s understanding of their plans was not limited by their terrible Yupik. What he heard was an escape from winters “when we had hunger, because the sea animals did not come,” leaving “children without fathers.” So, he wrote later, “I decided to organize a kolkhoz” named Toward the New Life. By 1928, Mallu and half a dozen other young Yupik men were elected as members of the local Soviet administration. The Bolsheviks had converts.
Inland, however, among the tundra’s reindeer herders, the Bolsheviks preached liberation to people who did not see themselves as oppressed. The Chukchi had been determining their lives for centuries, and their reindeer helped them do so. Semushkin told Chukchi parents that school was a useful and moral place; but all the Chukchi saw was foreigners drinking, arguing, and cheating, along with an outbreak of influenza that killed children. Semushkin himself was rumored to have spread gonorrhea. The Soviets promised to lift Chukchi from timeless stasis into conscious, historical action, not seeing in Chukchi histories of war and domestication a people who already understood the future as theirs to shape. Where Mallu saw opportunity in Soviet ideas, Tnayrgyn saw ignorance and threat from foreigners who “do not understand our way of life” and “cannot live on the tundra.”
Some Chukchi visited the cultbaza for the novelty of the tea, radio, and films that were offered there, but their participation in workers’ committees was low. Even lower was the number of herders interested in joining an artel or a kolkhoz. Conditions for reindeer were good in the nineteen-twenties, swelling the herds to half a million domestic animals. At the end of the decade, less than one per cent of Chukotka’s herds were in collectives. Where herders were convinced to merge their reindeer, kolkhoz herds were so small and supplies so short that the collectives never got off the ground. As one organizer wrote, “We bought reindeer. We ate them all. . . . So in reality there are no reindeer collectives.”
The first Five Year Plan, which began in 1928, demanded that the U.S.S.R. run in half a decade “the course of development that took Western Europe fifty to a hundred years,” Anatolii Skachko, a member of the Committee of the North, wrote. For the Chukchi, the speed required was even faster: a millennium in a decade, as “even one thousand years ago the cultural level [of Russians] was higher.” People were either behind—backward—or actively transforming themselves. That transformation combined material progress and personal salvation; socialism was to be a Kingdom of Heaven made by enlightened souls on Earth.
Mallu spent the nineteen-thirties trying to speed up history by exiling the unenlightened from positions of power. He led a campaign against a woman who foretold the end of Communism, and against a Chukchi shaman named Ekker, on Arakamchechen Island. Ekker had taken over a walrus beach, scaring away other hunters with his ability, as local elders said, to “kill by casting a spell.” In place of Ekker’s spells, the Soviets had their own rites: those of the plan. In the plan—a five-year plan, subdivided into a series of annual plans, broken into monthly plans—the state set production quotas for each factory and farm. Each year, the quotas increased, making speeding through history a material, sensory fact.
The drive for speed had no patience for people like Tnayrgyn, who, in the Soviet view, chose to live in the past. There could be no future until shamans and kulaks, with their un-collectivized reindeer, were liquidated and their souls transformed.
Ivan Druri arrived from Murmansk in 1929, charged with organizing Chukotka’s first sovkhoz at Snezhnoe, a settlement a hundred miles northwest of Anadyr. The Chukchi, he found, “treated our activities with distrust and suspicion. They understood that we wanted to be chauchu—that is, the owners of herds—and feared us as future competitors. The poorer shepherds were still under their total influence.” Druri started his collective with a few recruits and reindeer he bought from wealthy Chukchi for nine rubles per doe and twelve per bull. He never paid. Farther north, along the Chaun and Omvaam Rivers, veterinarians and zoologists surveyed what collectivized tundra could be expected to produce. Travelling “red tents” followed nomads across the tundra. In them, Bolsheviks showed films, intoning explanations over the flickering projection: this is comrade Lenin, now dead; this is comrade Stalin; Stalin wants new men and women, and for everyone to “raise their cultural-political level.”
What the Chukchi saw in the red tents was foreigners prodding people, giving out pills and powders, cheating on reindeer payments, demanding that youth speak before elders and women before men, peering at the vegetation, and waving their hands over reindeer herds while muttering numbers. They looked as if they cursed everything they touched. Whole nomadic clans shifted their pastures deeper into the tundra, keeping their herds distant from any sign of the state. One Soviet official complained that kulaks and shamans “drove out the teachers like wolves from the herd.” Chukchi parents explained to Bolsheviks that “children need to learn to look after reindeer” and “protect the herds—therefore they cannot attend school.”
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Kolkhoz managers, secret police, and personnel in Chukotka’s stores started transforming indigenous communities by force, in what a local Party leader called the “resolute struggle against the vestiges of the tribal system,” which included confiscating reindeer and arresting dissenters. Treating “kulaks and shamans with kindness, will make them spawn like flies,” the Anadyr Party leader concluded. “We must seize all of them so they will not be hostile to our work.”
For the Chukchi, the Five Year Plans turned the Soviets from people to be avoided or visited at will into something dangerous. Simply wearing an amulet now made a person a shaman—and shamans were arrested. Owners of large herds discovered that, unless they handed over their reindeer, they became enemies of the state. Many families retreated to the wide, clear rivers and the green hills of the interior. Others attacked local activists and Party members. Herders killed their stock rather than give it to the state. In 1932, at the Second Congress of Soviets for the Anadyr District, a Chukchi delegate, chosen for his lack of reindeer—and thus, theoretically, his Soviet sympathies—“stabbed himself without a cry through the heart with a Chukchi knife” and died on the spot. “No one expected such a trick,” the Party’s official meeting minutes noted, and explained the suicide as the “provocation of kulaks and shamans.”
The violence did not go unnoticed in Moscow. In 1934, Stalin ordered that cadres overcome the “estrangement and isolation” of northern peoples. New rules let kolkhoz members own up to six hundred reindeer, rather than demanding all animals become collective property. There were other new incentives for joining a kolkhoz: its store often provided the only source for tea, sugar, and tobacco in the area. By the end of 1934, an estimated third of Chukotka’s population had become collectivized in one way or another.
Iatgyrgin was sixteen years old in 1940, when his family entered the Polar Star kolkhoz, in Beryozovo. It was a small village, with a school and eventually many tents along the Onemen River, whose banks were red with fireweed. It was close to good pasture and warm enough to grow trees. Iatgyrgin’s family did not come willingly. In his telling, Soviet forces arrived at his camp one night to arrest an elder named Gemav’e. In the confusion, perhaps ten people were killed, including the old man’s three sons. The police burned the tents and “took absolutely everything,” Iatgyrgin remembered. “The sleds, even rope and burlap—they took every bundle.” Without sleighs and draft reindeer, there was no way to move the herd to new pastures; families had to join the collective farms. “From the start, we were crushed by the force of the authorities,” he recalled, decades later. “Many died, because we could not live with the life that was imposed on us.” The tundra the Soviets offered was full of hope—but it was their idea of hope. Iatgyrgin’s family would have to give up their reindeer, along with their whole world. Eagles would no longer have their own country, mice were not people with underground houses ready to shape-shift into human hunters, and a curl of ermine hair couldn’t transform into a live ermine and then a bear. The Soviets burned Gemav’e’s amulets.
According to the Party’s official account, Gemav’e had refused to pay taxes on his herd, making him a kulak. Worse, he organized the killing of the local kolkhoz commissioners in retaliation for their requisition of more reindeer. He chose “the path of physical extermination of Soviets, party workers, activist collective farmers,” a Soviet historian wrote. Gemav’e was arrested and died in jail in Anadyr. His reindeer went to the kolkhoz.
The events at Beryozovo were part of a long series of accusations, arrests, torture, and imprisonment that began in Moscow and arrived, years later, in Chukotka. In 1935, a panic over disbelievers and dissension provoked arrests and executions of Communist Party élite. By 1937, the purges had spread to every level of Soviet society. In Chukotka, they made collectivization into an enforceable ideological test. Those who failed it went on trial for “wrecking the work” of the travelling culture bases, after the Chukchi refused to join. Others were charged with debauchery, excessive drinking, “failing to do battle against the kulaks,” or any other act that could prevent the creation of a kolkhoz. Every person had to answer the question “What have you done in the tundra?” If the answer was not enough, the punishment might be imprisonment or death.
New laws required Chukchi outside collectives to give the state seventy per cent of their herds. After 1938, school truancy became illegal, making ninety per cent of nomadic children suddenly delinquent. It was logic that could turn any Chukchi adult into a terse line in an N.K.V.D. arrest record. A lone hunter named Karauv’e was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1936 for practicing shamanism and barring his children from joining the Komsomol, the communist youth organization. A herder named Vapyska, a short man scarred from smallpox who had twenty-two reindeer living on the plain of the Chaun River, was jailed in May, 1940, as a saboteur. When officials came to his tent to arrest him, Vapyska proclaimed, “I do not recognize Soviet power. I alone am the master on the tundra. In my camp, I will not allow the organization of a school. . . . Many people are sick because the Russians travel here. Soon there will be a time when many people perish.”
The simultaneous experience of collectivization and purges increased the number of reindeer collective farms in the Anadyr region to twenty-one by 1940. Some of them even functioned. But the Chukotkan herds had lost more than a hundred thousand animals since the start of collectivization in the nineteen-twenties. The cause was in part the revolutionary climate and in part the atmospheric one. These were warm years on the tundra.
In 1941, after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the need for large herds became more urgent. In Chukotka, Soviet bureaucrats, secret police, engineers, geologists, teachers, doctors, and veterinarians—foreigners were now a quarter of the peninsula’s population—could not expect shipments of beef, pork, and sausage to continue. All protein was for the front. So it was reindeer meat that fed Lend-Lease pilots flying to Alaska, construction workers, officials overseeing the tin-mining camps. Thousands of walrus were killed to serve a country with an “insufficient supply of fat.” Communal farms demanded every reindeer not yet collectivized. “The kolkhoz Forward, ” one comrade noted, “counted 355 reindeer on January 1, 1941, and by January 1, 1945, it had 9,216 head of socialized reindeer,” showing how “every year the kolkhoz overfills the plan for the development of the reindeer industry.” Through donations of reindeer, walrus blubber, and rubles, collective farms sponsored tank convoys. Thousands of deer carcasses and pounds of leather were sent to the front.
In Chukotka, the Second World War was also a civil war. Requisitioning and taxes on livestock provoked revolt across the tundra. When Vapyska, the man arrested as a saboteur, escaped prison, he persuaded other families to flee Soviet wartime demands. They were not alone. “Poor people live on the farm, where the government collects all the profit,” a man named Lyatylkot told the N.K.V.D. in 1944. “But I am master of myself. Under the reign of the Chukchi, life is better.” He refused to hand over his reindeer. During a procurement drive for the Red Army, a herder named Trunko “categorically refused to help our country,” one officer reported, by organizing a raid to steal the collective’s animals. The officer recommended using an airplane to “seize Trunko’s counterrevolutionary terrorist group” and “liquidate it” from the tundra.
Five years later, Iatgyrgin returned from spring pasture to his kolkhoz, Polar Star, to find that families were starving. The director had requisitioned all of their meat and fish. Iatgyrgin and others beat the director and elected a new leader. The Markovo Red Army detachment sent soldiers to arrest the “agitators.” In the thick birches along the river, a gun battle broke out. Several elders killed themselves. Fifty people died, and Iatgyrgin was taken into custody. He ended up imprisoned in Novosibirsk, three thousand miles away from home.
When Iatgyrgin was released, in 1955, open violence between the Soviets and the Chukchi was over. The last visibly practicing shamans were in N.K.V.D. custody. But many families carried on their rituals in private, teaching their children at least some of the meaning behind amulets and prayers before a helicopter came, each September 1st, to take them to a residential school. When they came home, parents complained that they knew nothing about reindeer or how to speak with their parents fluently after nine months conversing only in Russian.
But other Chukchi, like the generation of Yupik inspired by Mallu, were Party members, taking up the new rituals of plans and socialist celebrations. A Chukchi man named Otke represented Chukotka as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. The Russian teacher Semushkin, on a return to Chukotka in 1951, said that the “swift changes are the characteristic feature of our socialist construction,” leading to “revolutionary transformations” including roads, hospitals, and a sense of purpose. “The Soviets have awakened the Chukchi people to cultural and political life,” he wrote, and “regenerated life on the cold land.” One young herder told Semushkin that “a great layer of snow and ice had lain on our past life. And then Comrade Stalin helped us to break that cold layer and climb out into the sunshine. . . . We are living an entirely new, interesting and intelligent life.”
Perhaps the most likely way of living, by the nineteen-fifties, was to adapt old values to new ones. On the Omvaam River, a Chukchi man named Tymnenentyn was one of the first to join the Amgeuma kolkhoz. He had three wives and enough reindeer to be a person of influence. In 1951, old and ill, he requested to be ritually murdered by his brother, an act of sacrifice that, with the right prayers, would bring wealth to his people. Tymnenentyn’s brother was reluctant, arguing that “we live in a new time . . . and our previous laws and practices established by our ancestors are obsolete.” A Soviet ethnographer intervened, horrified, explaining that “all of us, Russians as well as you, the Chukchi, live in a new time . . . where the sick are being healed and not suffocated.” Tymnenentyn consented to treatment rather than death: a different kind of a sacrifice for a different kind of collective.