In the Barents region, Nenets live in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Komi Republic and Murmansk Oblast (majority of the Nenets live in Western Siberia). Overall, there are 41 000 in the Russian Federation. The Nenets are most numerous (41 000 according to census of 2002) indigenous people in Russian. In the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, as well in other regions, the Nenets form a minority (about 14-15 % in the Nenets Okrug).  Majority of the Nenets live in rural areas, and there are a few villages where they are in majority. The lost of language is one problem among the Nenets. According the census of 1989 only 44 % of the Nenets consider Nenets language to be their fist language.  However, the number of Nenets has been increasing slowly during this century.

Nenets language

The Nenets language has no official status in the Nenets Okrug, although in school there are language lessons until 4th grade, but Nenets language is seldom used at home. There is also a lack of education material and teachers. Locally, teachers of Nenets language are trained in the teachers’ college in Naryan Mar, but also in St. Petersburg and Salekhard. The problem is that many of the young Nenets students have to learn their own language first to be able to teach it. The curriculum in the schools is in Russian and there are only a few lessons about the history and culture of the Nenets people. Only the older generation use the Nenets language on a daily basis. The local radio has a weekly half-an-hour broadcast and the local newspaper one weekly page in Nenets language. There are a few Nenets writers, but they have difficulties to publish their work in Nenets: their works have been published in Russian. Revival of Nenets culture can be seen more in establishment of an ethno-cultural center in 1994 in Naryan Mar, which hosts a  Nenets amateur theatre. In rural villages singing and dancing groups have emerged.

Political organizations and socio-economic situation of the Nenets

There is a political organization, called Yasavey, which has an official status: it represents Nenets in local administration, and has a right to introduce bills. In local administration there is a Committee of Northern People and also a vice- governor for northern peoples’ The Committee organises different programs concerning Nenets financed by the local or Federal budget.

Yasavei and the Committee of Northern People are mostly concerned about the socio-economic situation of the Nenets. The situation of the Nenets is, in many ways, worse than that of other people living in the same area. The birth rate among Nenets has been higher, but so has the death rate. Infantile mortality is especially high among the Nenets. The health situation is also bad and, for example, the total mortality rate among Nenets from all diseases is 3.5 higher than among non-natives. It is noticeable, that there is a high level of mortality among working-age people caused by accidents, poisoning and injuries. Unemployment is higher among Nenets than other people, and it is especially high in rural communities. This is because most Nenets live in rural communities, where the economic situation is worse than in urban areas. Also the level of education is lower among Nenets than other people: in 1989, most Nenets had less than 8 years of schooling.

Reindeer herding and economics

The future of reindeer herding is one of the main concerns of the Nenets. Although only 14% of the Nenets work in reindeer herding, it is a symbolical core of Nenets culture and ethnic identity.  There are still nomadic families, who migrate and live mostly in the tundra, while in some communities only men migrate with the reindeer and their families stay in the villages. Collective herding in different forms of co-operations with collective ownership is the prevailing mode of herding even though there are private herders, who also have organized into cooperatives.  Reindeer herders have been integrated into modern society: their children go to boarding schools, and reindeer herders produce meat and antlers for the market. Low prices of reindeer products cause economic problems. There are also problems inherited from the Soviet period: the difficult living conditions in the tundra and the lack of young people’s interest in reindeer herding. Exploitation and exploration of oil and gas pose a big threat for the future of reindeer herding. Main reindeer herding areas in Scandinavia and the Russian North are shown here.

Reindeer herding is not the only livelihood of the Nenets. Majority of the Nenets live in rural communities alongside with Russians and Komi: they are engaged in agricultural sector, in education and health care. Unemployment in rural areas is a big problem. Private enterprises have also emerged in fishing, handicrafts, and most of all in reindeer herding. The rural population has to count on local renewable resources to meet their needs: they fish, hunt and gather berries for their own households or sell them in local markets.

The local economic situation has improved thanks to high revenues from oil and gas development, which has reflected in improvement of general well being. In state sector salaries have been paid in time, and, the okrug can invest in development of public sector.

Source: Tuula Tuisku, 4/2004. 

Read also:

  • Yasavey - Public Association of Nenets people in Nenets Autonomous Okrug
  • Naryan-Mar - official homepage, administration, projects, calls for tenders and investment plans. in Russian 
  • Photos in flickr
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