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SPRI Review 2000: SPRI Review 2000

SPRI Review 2000

Social Sciences and Russian Studies Group

Dr Piers Vitebsky
Seona Anderson, Tatiana Argounova, Mary Core, Otto Habeck, Agnieszka Halemba,
Indra Nobl-Overland, Elena Rockhill, Steven Sawhill, Ben Seligman,
Sam Van Vactor, Rane Willerslev, Emma Wilson,
Keith Hill, Larry Rockhill, Dr John Tichotsky
Jane Brooks, Marion Curran

The group consisted of several sub-groups working on the following topics: transport, migration, and survival; environment and local action; reindeer herding; energy economics; identity and nationalism; memory, trauma, and family development; and shamanism, symbolism, and comparative religion.

The sub-group on 'Transport, migration, and survival' organised a three-month research expedition, led by Dr Piers Vitebsky and funded by the Gilchrist Educational Trust and the Royal Geographical Society, to the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) on 'Rethinking distance: centre and regions in the Sakha Republic today.' The team, consisting of Dr Vitebsky, Keith Hill, Sally Wolfe, Seona Anderson (Research Student), Vasily Pavlov, Nikolay Karpov (Sakha Academy of Sciences), and Anatoly Alekseyev (Yakutsk State University), studied how the disappearance of transport is turning the immense spaces of the Russian north from a resource into a liability. Topics covered included rural-urban migration among young people, nomadism, pasture and environmental change; and problems of aviation, telecommunications, and water transport. Team members worked in Nyeryungri and Tiksi, as well as in Amga and Kobyay Districts.

Hill worked with several ministries of the Sakha government to develop models for the provision of telecommunications and aviation to outlying settlements and to study their potential for regional economic development. He visited the port of Tiksi to study the delivery system of supplies along the Northern Sea Route from the local perspective of the receiving communities. He participated in the conference on aviation services in remote areas organised in Nairn, Scotland, by the Cranfield University College of Aviation, as well as the RACGAT 99 conference in Yakutsk on air traffic control and the liberalisation of international trans-polar civil aviation corridors over the Russian far north.

In the sub-group on 'Environment and local action,' Emma Wilson (Research Student) built on several years of earlier work and completed a further nine months' fieldwork on Sakhalin Island and the Kamchatka Peninsula studying local participation in decision-making about natural resources, especially concerning the development of oil and gas. In association with the World Conservation Union, she helped to initiate a project to develop small business in non-timber forest products, funded by the Canadian development agency CIDA. She continued to collaborate with the Kamchatka Institute of Natural Resource Management; with Friends of the Earth-Japan, for whom she edited two chapters of their updated volume 'biodiversity hotspots' in the Russian Far East; and with Sakhalin Environment Watch, the NGO that she helped to establish in 1996. She attended the international symposium on 'Russian regions: economic growth and environment' at Hokkaido University, Japan, where she gave a paper on the impact of oil development on indigenous peoples in Sakhalin.

Otto Habeck (Research Student) completed 12 months' fieldwork in Naryan-Mar, Usinsk, and Syktyvkar in northwestern Russia on environmental perceptions among both Russian and native populations, in particular concerning the relations between fishing, reindeer husbandry, and oil production. He accompanied Komi and Nenets reindeer herders on their spring migration to study the effects of climate change on their patterns of pasture use. He participated in the Tenth Arctic Ungulate Conference in Tromsø, Norway, and participated in the network's travel course through Finland, Norway, and Russia, on 'Reindeer as a keystone species in the North.' In addition, he worked with the Department of Sociology, Aberdeen, on the EU-funded TUNDRA project on the degradation of the tundra environment in the northwest Russian Arctic. He presented a paper on this to the 6th ICCEES World Congress in Tampere, Finland, and organised the first of a series of stakeholder meetings for the EU-funded SPICE project on sustainable development in the Pechora region. He joined the Circumpolar PhD Network in Arctic Environmental Sciences. He also continued his research on the biography of the anthropologist Ethel John Lindgren.

Mary Core (Research Student) continued her comparative study of forms of knowledge about the bowhead whale among indigenous Inupiat and white scientists in Barrow, Alaska. She also interviewed both whalers and biologists about their perceptions of the processes that led to the formation of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Seona Anderson completed 12 months' ethno-botanical fieldwork in Vladivostok and villages of the Amur region, studying memory and the role of literacy in the use of plants among different ethnic groups. She also made a shorter study of the use of medicinal plants in several locations in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia).

Steven Sawhill (Research Student) continued his studies of Norwegian-Russian environmental politics in the Barents region, based at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute and funded by the American-Scandinavian Foundation. He presented a paper on international co-operation to clean up defence-related nuclear waste on Poluostrov Kol'skiy at a conference held by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Apatity, northwest Russia.

In the 'Reindeer herding' sub-group, Dr Vitebsky compared the social and economic structures of a two communities in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), one having a total reindeer economy and one in which reindeer herding is marginal. He linked both of these various cultural processes, but also to fluctuations in the availability of transport and in the demand for meat in neighbouring non-native mining settlements. With Sally Wolfe he studied changing gender relations between reindeer herders and their wives; with Seona Anderson and Anatoly Alekseyev he walked across a section of the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia to study reindeer ecology and the indigenous use of plants. He also continued his joint work with Dr Gareth Rees of the Institute, Dr Anatoly Alekseyev and Dr Nikolay Karpov on the EU-funded BASIS project on indigenous knowledge and environmental change among reindeer herders around Naryan-Mar in the Nenets Autonomous District. They compared data from satellite images with herders' perceptions of long-term vegetation change.

Vera Skvirskaya (Research Student) began 12 months' fieldwork among Nenets reindeer herders on Poluostrov Yamal, examining kinship and economic structures in order to explain the steep increase in herd numbers here at a time when they are decreasing in many other areas. She also accompanied Dr Vitebsky and Dr Rees on their fieldwork in Naryan-Mar.

The sub-group on 'Energy economics' continued to work on the management of natural resources and revenue, especially concerning oil and gas. Dr John Tichotsky conducted research on Alaskan and northeast Asian oil and gas development and continued to develop a programme for energy managers from Russia and East Asia on distance delivery education with SPRI and the Judge Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge. He completed an assignment as economic growth adviser to the government of Mongolia, where he managed projects in the economic restructuring of the power and banking sectors. He made rating and marketing visits to Odessa (Ukraine), Chisnau (Moldova), Szczecin (Poland), St Petersburg (Russia), and Beijing and Tianjing (China) and took up a post as assistant professor of economics and international trade at Alaska Pacific University.

Sam Van Vactor (Research Student) conducted research in China and Japan on the development of northeast Asia oil and gas resources. In Beijing he gathered data at China National Petroleum Corporation. He spoke at a conference in Sapporo concerning the plans to develop a natural gas pipeline to Sapporo from Sakhalin Island, in the Russian far east. He also attended a conference of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and co-chaired a segment of the conference.

Ben Seligman (Research Student) carried out further fieldwork in the Yamburg gas field in northwest Siberia. After successfully completing his PhD thesis on 'Key factors influencing the reliability of trunk gas pipelines in the west Siberian north,' he co-authored a report on oil and gas pipeline systems in the Baltic Region and northern China for the Canadian company AGRA Earth & Environmental Ltd. He also provided information to Petroleum Economist Ltd for a new edition of their map of 'Gas in the CIS and Europe.'

Dr Vitebsky, Hill, and Arlon Tussing attended the Fifth Northeast Asian Natural Gas Pipeline conference held in Yakutsk, and Hill, Tatiana Argounova (Research Student), and Dr Tichotsky lectured on the business and social environment of eastern Siberia at a training course in London for executives of British Petroleum.

In the 'Identity and nationalism' sub-group, Argounouva continued her work on ethnic identity in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). She studied the ways in which local cultural leaders were scapegoated in the Soviet period as 'nationalists' and how the accusation of nationalism has been transformed into one of separatism in the post-perestroika period. She also established the way in which the dialect and cultural style of one rural district have become co-opted into a generic Sakha cultural identity for presentation to the outside world. She gave a paper on her findings at the Sixth ICCEES World Congress in Tampere, Finland, and co-authored a paper on the politics of memory in museums in remote areas.

Indra Nobl-Overland (Research Student) completed 12 months' fieldwork on indigenous elites among the Russian Sami on Poluostrov Kol'skiy. The work included making a comparison between Sami reindeer-herding camps with local towns. He also participated in a Sami conference in Murmansk and began a project on non-military forms of preventive diplomacy in the former Soviet Union with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He completed and submitted his thesis, entitled 'Politics and culture among the Russian Sami: leadership, representation and legitimacy.'

In the sub-group on 'Memory, trauma, and family development,' Dr Vitebsky continued his study of changing family structures in the Sakha republic (Yakutia). He focused on the trans-generational impact of boarding schools and family separation in the Soviet period and beyond. In May he delivered the Marett Memorial Lecture for 2000 in the University of Oxford on 'Forgetting the ancestors: living without the dead.' He received funding for three years from the Sutasoma Trust for a project on psychotherapy in post-shamanic societies. As part of this project he collaborated with Sally Wolfe to run a two-week workshop on intercultural therapy with a small group of practising psychotherapists in Yakutsk. The workshop focused on issues of supervision, assessment, and referral, and explored key issues of change in the traditional family and relations between the city and the rural hinterland. They gave a press conference, held talks with the Republic's Minister of Youth Affairs, and began preparation of a handbook in Russian for local professional use.

Elena Rockhill (Research Student) studied the institutionalisation of children in Magadan, in the far northeast of Russia, and in particular the role of the orphanage is contributing to social breakdown, rather than alleviating it, through the trans-generational perpetuation of dysfunctional family relations. Using participant observation and long interview methods, she studied orphanages in relation to their catchment populations, the increasing breakup of the family, the progress of a child through stages of institutionalisation once they enter the system, and changes in the underlying concepts of childhood and of the 'rights' of children and parents.

In the sub-group on 'Shamanism, symbolism, and comparative religion,' Dr Vitebsky continued his work on forms of shamanic consciousness, concentrating on transformations in post-shamanic societies of shamanic inheritance into other urban vocations such as doctor or musician. He also worked on the psycho-biography of the children of shamans through the period of persecution and beyond. He gave a course of lectures on 'Religion and anthropology' at the Department of Social Anthropology. His book The Shaman has now appeared in 12 languages and has become a standard textbook.

Agnieszka Halemba (Research Student) completed 12 months' fieldwork studying contemporary spiritual revival and national identity among people of the Altai Republic. She served as project co-Ordinator for the Institute's contribution to the EU-funded project, initiated by the Stefansson Arctic Institute, Iceland, on 'Human dimensions of Arctic environments: a web-based information project,' for which Dr Vitebsky wrote the introductory text on 'Cultural diversity in the Arctic.' Rane Willerslev (Research Student) completed 12 months' fieldwork among Yukaghir hunters on the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia. He studied human-animal relations and showed how the kind of personhood attributed to animals differs from human personhood is degree rather than in kind. He also worked with local co-operatives to improve local benefits from the marketing of furs to the regional capital and beyond to the fur auctions in Copenhagen.

Other activities of the group included attendance by Skvirskaya, Hill, and Nobl-Overland at the Circumpolar Universities Association Forum at Aberdeen University, where they gave papers. Hill represented the Institute at a meeting at the Frankesche Stiftung in Halle, Germany, for the publishing of the works of Messerschmidt and Steller in Russian, German, and English.

Dr Vitebsky acted as external supervisor for three PhD students at Yakusk State University and gave several outside lectures, including for a Master's course in interdiciplinary design for the built environment at the Department of Architecture. He completed his three-year term as secretary of the International Advisory Board for the Department of Ethnology of the European University of St Petersburg and continued to serve as UK representative of the Association of Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka. He served for a third year as external examiner for the MA in social anthropology and the MA in medical anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

The group organised a visit to Britain for the President of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), accompanied by the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and the President's Financial Advisor. The delegation focused on UK facilities for distance learning, business and administration studies, and aviation in remote areas. Dr Vitebsky and Hill escorted them to the Open University, Cranfield University, and the Royal Geographical Society.