Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies in Rovaniemi

Several of our group members in the anthropology research team have a strong background in Russian Northern Studies. Here we provide a short overview of what we did in the last couple of years in this field.

The Russian North covers half of the circumpolar Arctic Area, hosts more than 50% of the Arctic human population and immense reserves of natural resources. Anthropology as dealing with human cultures and livelihoods, and particular the processes of rapid social change in the Russian  North, is important for the Arctic Centre with it’s circumpolar and interdisciplinary research mandate. Many of the anthropology research team's members have decade-long fieldwork experience in the Russian North, in most regions from the Kola area neighbouring Finnish Lapland to Kamtchatka in the Russian Far East. The field sites in Russia that we know best are Murmansk region, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Khanty-Mansiiskii Autonomous Okrug, and Sakha/Yakutia. Our team has studied in all those regions the diversity of reindeer herding livelihoods, nomadism, oral history, indigenous knowledge, arctic economy, resource extraction, industrial migration, sense of place, the philosophy of the North, and centre-periphery relations. 

We invite you to explore these topics in the publications of our team

Social Anthropology is the study of humans with shared practices, values, worldviews, institutions and economic forms that lead to identification of people with groups. Therefore most anthropological works contribute to understanding how societies are culturally similar or diverse. Anthropologists share a commitment to long-term fieldwork with participant observation generating in depth qualitative research data. Scholars usually specialize on a) theoretical topics and b) particular regions. They explore what results from research in a particular region can tell us for our general understanding of the topic in question.

Reindeer pastoralism is the dominant way of live of indigenous people in the north from Norway to the Bering Strait. Its comparative study, particularly in relation to cultural change and continuity in post-Soviet Siberia, can contribute a lot to our understanding of theories of pastoralism, human-animal-environment relations, subsistence and commoditization processes. In this respect research on the Arctic North can become relevant far beyond the borders of this geographic region.

The same is true for the topic of social impact assessment of industry on human communities. With different colleagues we have been doing comparative anthropological research on the relations between reindeer herders and industrial companies and their workers for the last 8 years, currently in two northern Russian regions, the Nenets and Yamal Nenets Okrug. Part of this work is funded by a project of the Academy of Finland, ENSINOR. We also explored the topic of impact mitigation and relation between stakeholders active in and affected by industrialisation jointly with colleagues at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) of the University of Cambridge. In a seminar series “Transsectoral Partnerships” funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council of the UK, we facilitated dialogue, exchange of ideas and sustainable development in the Russian oil and gas sector.

While the Arctic has experienced considerable new institution building in the last decades, our understanding of these processes in remote regions of the Russian North is still minor to what we know from Fennoscandia or North America. Therefore, anthropology at the AC focuses on dynamics and senses of collectivity among inhabitants of the tundra and remote villages and on the ways these senses become translated into institutions (Stammler 2005b). Jointly with colleagues from SPRI we are currently studying the implications of institutional transformation for land use practices in the Arctic tundra. This research was partially funded by the BALANCE EU project (2003-2005). In that framework we also studied the perception of and possible responses to climate change among Russian reindeer herders.

Climate change and industry may substantially influence – if not threaten – the viability or existence of indigenous and non-indigenous communities in the Arctic. An international research project that provided in depth analyses of the factors that positively or negatively influence the viability of northern communities was set up. In the framework of the BOREAS-MOVE-INNOCOM project in the framework of an ESF Eurocores programme (2006-2010), the focus was on how industrial communities in the North cope with economic restructuring, industrial contraction, and population loss. Comparing cases in the Murmansk and Tyumen’ oblasts, we contributed to answer the main research question of ‘what are the conditions that make industrial communities last in the north?’ and how does that contribute to a general theory of ‘social fabric’ of northern communities? Our studies in the Russian North importantly contribute to this topic that substantially influences demography and settlement structures of the world’s northern areas.

More general questions of the understanding of the North as space are closely connected to this topic. Anna Stammler-Gossmann has extensively worked on the history, the current dynamics and the practical implications of changing positions of the North for Russia as a nation, as a country, and as a multinational society. The demographic consequences of Soviet industrialization have thoroughly reversed the understanding of the North in Russia, and this is increasingly reflected in academic debates and philosophical tractates about the North by Russian intellectuals. Among the popular keywords are nowadays “northern civilization”, “circumpolar civlisation”, and the “innovative north”, where Russia aims to be a world leader.