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Reindeer herders battle alcohol on Russia's edge

* Russia’s natives driven to drink by “perestroika”

A woman walks with a Yaranga, the chukchis' traditonal hide tent in the background, near the village of Kanchalan in Chukotka, Juky 20, 2009. REUTERS/Robin Paxton

* Sale of liquor banned at night

* Government steps in to help reindeer herders

ANADYR, Russia (Reuters) - Vladislav Rintytegin is an alcoholic, but he hasn’t had a drink in three years.

He is leaving on a one-month voyage around Chukotka to help people like him. In Russia’s extreme northeast, no village has escaped the scourge of alcohol abuse, he says.

“We held an art competition for children. Do you know what they painted?,” the 47-year-old Red Cross volunteer asks.

“Broken glass, blood, cemeteries. It’s all thanks to vodka.”

Seventy years of Soviet rule failed to subdue Russia’s most isolated natives, but “perestroika” proved to be devastating. In the ensuing lawlessness, poachers decimated reindeer herds and unemployment was rife.

Suddenly starved of Moscow’s subsidies, the indigenous peoples of the far northeast -- the Chukchi, Eskimos and Evens -- were powerless to stop the collapse of their traditional ways of life. Hunger, poverty and alcoholism, took hold.

“People talk now about ‘the crisis’. We’ve been living in a crisis since the 1990s,” said Alexandra Khalkachan, 56, a teacher of the Even language in the city of Magadan.

Billionaire Roman Abramovich’s seven-year tenure as governor of Chukotka has restored some hope for this region, where day dawns nine hours ahead of Moscow. Before stepping down last year, the owner of English soccer club Chelsea spent $2.5 billion in the region.

Reindeer herding is making a comeback and incomes in Chukotka have risen fivefold since the end of the 1990s.

But alcoholism still affects 1,700 people, or 3.5 percent of the population, says Roman Kopin, the 35-year-old governor who replaced Abramovich. Half of the afflicted are indigenous people, whose biological tolerance for alcohol is lower.

Indigenous groups make up 30 percent of the population in Chukotka, a land the size of France and Iceland combined, where reindeer outnumber people four to one. Chukchi, with a 23 percent share of the region’s 50,000 population, are the biggest group after Russians, who account for half.

Annual per capita alcohol consumption in Chukotka is 26 liters, versus 18 liters in the whole of Russia. The problem is so serious that the sale of hard liquor is banned throughout Chukotka from between 8 o’clock in the evening until noon the next day.

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Ida Ruchina, head of the Red Cross in Chukotka, says the problem stems from the shock of the post-Soviet period.

“They were cut off from the mainland and thought, perhaps, that nobody needed them any more,” she says in her office in the regional capital, Anadyr, where she has lived for 10 years. “Many tried to hide their problems. Alcohol became a way of life.”

The Red Cross program uses both medical and psychological methods. Rintytegin runs an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Anadyr that draws seven or eight people a time, always different faces.

“We don’t have a 100 percent success rate. It’s maybe 10, 15, 20 percent,” he says. “But if we weren’t having any results, we would have stopped a long time ago.”

High rates of unemployment among the indigenous people are a root cause of the problem, says Ruchina. Her organization brings young people from outlying villages to learn the basics of running a small business, making crafts for visitors.

“The important thing is to find their place in the system. The wages might be small, but it gives people the belief that they can go on to earn more,” she says.


Winters in Chukotka mean endless nights and temperatures below minus 50 degrees Celsius. For the Chukchi who live on the tundra, reindeer have always been their lifeline.

Reindeer numbers plunged in the decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, but the problem was caught just in time. A six-year moratorium on commercial reindeer hunting ended in 2007, having restored numbers to 200,000 from only 90,000.

Herders have started once again to receive a wage from the government. The amount depends on time spent with the herd and the number of reindeers that make it to market.

It allows Marina Rultina, 25, to stay on the tundra. She treats reindeer skins in her yaranga, a traditional Chukchi tent, while her male relatives guide reindeer to new pastures.

Supplies -- sacks of sugar, tea, sausage -- arrive by helicopter from the nearest village, Kanchalan.

“I wouldn’t want to live in the village,” Rultina says, nudging twigs to fire the flames beneath her kettle. “I’m there for three days and I want to go home. Life is too fast and I soon get fed up.”

Reindeer has replaced imported beef and pork to the extent that more than 25 percent of meat consumed in Chukotka is produced locally. The Kupol gold mine, which employs 1,400 people and is Chukotka’s biggest tax payer, buys eight tonnes of reindeer meat a year.

“Practically everything had been lost. Now, we have the optimal number of reindeer to allow the region to supply its own products,” Kopin, the governor, says. “This gives indigenous people the opportunity to enter the economic sphere.”


In Magadan region, many of the indigenous people have lost touch with their heritage. Khalkachan, the teacher, estimates only 30 percent of the Evens living in the region can still speak their original tongue.

They gather every July on a beach washed by the Sea of Okhotsk to celebrate Bakyldydyak, a festival celebrating the fish catch of the season. Singers and dancers perform on stage in traditional fur-lined costumes. Russians in bikinis and Speedos ask them to pose for photographs.

They smoke fish over open fires, but say access to local stocks has been limited by quotas. There’s a 1,000 ruble fine for every illegal fish in their nets.

Aksinya Trifonova, 76, used to herd reindeer. She now lives in a nine-storey apartment block in the nearby inland village of Gladya, her old way of life just a memory. Like many, she blames the “perestroika” period for eroding traditional customs.

“Poachers killed all the reindeer,” she says. Her voice quivers and she switches into her native Even.

Mikhail Yashchenko, the local representative of the upper house of parliament’s committee for Arctic minorities, says the indigenous people have grown dependent on state support.

“I can say we’ve got problems, but I’m powerless to resolve them,” Yashchenko, a former champion wrestler, says.

The Kremlin is beginning, however, to show more interest in their plight. Russia’s upper house of parliament voted in 2004 to scrap elections for regional governors in favor of having the president nominate candidates. With the president to answer to, local government has become more efficient, Yashchenko says.

“In the state, we have once more seen signs of hope.” (Editing by Megan Goldin)