CHOKURDAKH, RUSSIA — CHOKURDAKH, Russia - A moment after Vladimir Sleptsov cuts the roar of his snowmobile engine, the Siberian wind nearly erases his tracks.
On the treeless, white tundra above the Arctic Circle, the whistle of the wind, the howl of wolves and the whisper of the spirits sound to Sleptsov just as they did to his Siberian ancestors.
Two bumpy hours from the village of Chokurdakh, Sleptsov has stopped - fur boots squeaking in the snowpack - to point out a brownish stain on the all-white horizon.
"Alen," he grunts from deep inside his hooded fur and chamois overcoat. Reindeer - 1,500 of them. The heart and soul of his
people's nomadic herding, hunting and fishing culture.
It's a simple existence. But the fall of communism in 1991 swept in like a violent gust of Siberian wind, and uncertainty still swirls in its wake.
Sleptsov is a legend. He was the region's champion fisherman in 1983. In 1959, at the age of 14, the Soviet government named him the best reindeer herder in all of Yakutia, a Siberian republic, now called Sakha, that is more than four times the size of Texas.
Now he is struggling to lead his people into a world of free markets, efficiency and profit. But they aren't prepared, the respected elder says of his Even people.
"Will we be like the mammoth?" he wonders, noting that the bones of the extinct species that once thrived here are found frequently in the permafrost, covered and uncovered by the same shifting winds that instantaneously erase Sleptsov's tracks.
Sleptsov's Even people total only about 9,000 throughout Siberia. They are one of 29 native peoples - barely a quarter-million in all - who inhabit the vast tract of northern Siberia and Arctic Russia, a region that reaches across 11 time zones from the Pacific to Scandinavia.
More than 12,000 indigenous people call themselves reindeer herders, working for private or state-run herding cooperatives, wandering vast designated territories of empty tundra up to 900 miles long by 90 miles wide.
Those herders and many others, like Sleptsov, also work their own private plots, fishing and hunting for mink.
Their way of life has survived the brutalities of Czarist Russia and Soviet collectivization. But much like the Native American experience, indigenous culture here has been much diluted.
Vladimir Sleptsov's very name is a purely Russian label for a purely un-Russian man whose first languages are Even and Yakutsk, the Turkic language of the region's majority Yakuti population. The nomadic men travel alone, their families staying behind in far-flung villages of a couple of thousand people, such as Chokurdakh, where Sleptsov's large family lives in a two-bedroom apartment.
The isolation of Chokurdakh is difficult to conceive. Here, locals call the rest of Russia "the continent," the nearest major town, Yakutsk, is 900 miles away, and there is no road or river access for nine frozen months of the year.
They lived before in the tight social and economic control of communism. Massive reindeer herds, 20,000 strong, were state owned, and herders handed over their meat, hides and antlers to the collective. Decisions about their lives and their economy were made far from the tundra.
But now the big state subsidies are gone. Herders, who still get a small monthly social security check from the Russian government, must take what price they can get for their meat. They have to pay high air transit fees to get their reindeer carcasses to larger markets farther south. They must find ways to market their meat more broadly now that the state is no longer their only customer.
Sleptsov is trying, with all that his fourth-grade education and forward-thinking leadership will allow, to guide his people to a style of life that he has always dreamed of but only recently learned to call "capitalism."
At 51, he is a large, quiet man who composes songs about the tundra and the babies whose fat cheeks he can't resist kissing. Though almost 10 years beyond the average life expectancy of his people - who die early of everything from alcoholism to frostbite - he is still unanimously considered the best hunter, fisherman and herder for hundreds of miles.
They say that he can chip a fishing hole in 3-foot-deep river ice in 15 minutes, that he has shot 60 geese in a single day and that his talent for fishing is "God-given." He can sweep his net through the water several times in 20 minutes and catch 50 fish, the same number it takes an average man an hour and a half to catch.
Sleptsov seems most at home talking as he lounges on the soft blankets inside the clan's yurt, the tent in which the herders live while tending their grazing reindeer. The thin hide separates the sauna-like heat inside from the wintry 20 degrees below zero outside. Nearby, the reindeer paw the snowpack to rubble as they dig for lichen to graze on.
Herders from his clan - who call themselves the Ayutong Community for business purposes - sit drinking tea in the dusky interior of the yurt.
Over seven decades, communism altered an ancient lifestyle, only remnants of which are left to be salvaged. These herders are among the surviving remnants.
"Sovietization" was a contradictory policy that brought needed education and economic support to ethnic minorities while at the same time promoting Russian language and values as dominant.
Among the larger, more powerful ethnic groups such as the Caucasians and Central Asians, it sowed radical defiance. For the smaller numbers of northern groups - their children sent off to boarding school, their strongest tribal elders imprisoned and their nomadic subsistence curtailed - it bred a state-dependent people who slowly lost their traditions.
Communism severed the Evens' cultural link to the past so sharply that today perhaps only 42 percent of them know the Even language, says Anatoli Alexeyev, a scholar of the native Siberian people.
Dancing on the tundra
Sleptsov talks about his exotic and spiritual, but hardly romantic, life, most of which happened against the backdrop of communism.
He says the spirit of the tundra gripped him when he quit the
fourth grade to become a herder.
Although he was accomplished in Even dance and song - which look and sound Native American - he was too shy as a teen-ager to ask girls to dance. He secretly practiced rock 'n' roll dancing on the tundra at night. But for a hernia operation in a Yakutsk hospital at age 19, he might still be single. But that event brought into his life a nurse named Albina, now his ebullient, talkative wife.
He lives with the common terror of getting lost for days in $H snowstorms. "I dance, run and sweat, and then sleep. And then do it all over again," he says of how to avoid freezing to death in the long whiteouts.
What Sleptsov couldn't take during the time of communism was the deliberate failure of the system to compensate individual accomplishment.
"When I would get three sledloads of fish and another guy would get only one, we'd get the same amount of money," Sleptsov says. "I felt wrong in my soul."
Sleptsov joined the Communist Party in 1973, thinking it was the only way he could change things after Soviet authorities liquidated his clan's tiny village of Ayutong, 15 miles from Chokurdakh, and dispersed his Even neighbors to the far corners of Yakutia.
"But the party would pick a person to dance the dance they wanted; they didn't like people to tell the truth, and I would say right away that our life was not good," Sleptsov says.
He says the hero who saved the day for him and his people was Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who started the liberalization of communism that led to today's democracy. It was under Gorbachev's perestroika that the so-called "small peoples of the north" - the 29 native Siberian peoples - were granted special status similar to the U.S. reservation system.
Also, in the economic liberalizations under Gorbachev, Sleptsov became one of the first in Russia to form a private collective - the Ayutong Community, in which all members have shares in the herd and pool their profits from fishing and hunting.
Sleptsov and his people handled their herding, fishing and hunting their own way on land the government gave them. While the state still bought most of their produce and subsidized the high costs of transport, they managed their own budget for the first time.
"We worked on the same collective principles, but with freedom in mind and to make workers feel like owners," Sleptsov explains.
"We no longer walked to work," he says. "Every family got two Burrans [snowmobiles]. We don't paddle [boats] because we have engines, and we got Gold Star televisions."
Time to save himself
The Ayutong Community's main goal has been to rebuild the liquidated village. From Ayutong Community profits, basic infrastructure has been built 20 miles from Chokurdakh, and some houses are expected to be completed this summer.
Even though the regional government of the diamond-rich Sakha republic continues to subsidize some of its work and transport, the community's profitability suffers because not everyone does his share.
"I tried to convince everyone that the herders and fishermen will sell their produce on their own and get their own money for it," Sleptsov says. "They were afraid that a few alone would get rich. They still think like Communists, who believe everyone should get an equal amount."
It wasn't until 1993 - in a business-exchange program to Anchorage with the Sakha-American Business Education Center, a University of Alaska affiliate in Yakutsk - that Sleptsov realized that his feelings were "capitalistic," he says.
With the help of management textbooks and the education center's program, he has tried numerous ways to help build the Ayutong Community's productivity and marketing.
For example, he wants to purchase a rudimentary meat-processing plant through the business center that would allow the community to send its reindeer meat to market in small frozen packages - cheaper and more appealing than airlifting the whole frozen carcass in a burlap bag.
He let two of the best fishermen keep all their profits last autumn as an incentive for others: It amounted to $8,000 over three months - many times the average annual wage in this country.
He let the community set its own salaries by majority vote.
He has traveled all over Russia, bringing back deals for tea or snowmobiles in exchange for Chokurdakh fish.
He has spent thousands of dollars on healers and shamans to cure his people of alcoholism - with few successes. (His parents' drunken binges were so painful he swore he would never drink alcohol.)
And he is desperately trying to increase the declining birth rate of his people by advertising for women willing to live the hard tundra life. There are now 9,000 Evens in all of Siberia - down from 12,000 six years ago.
In Chokurdakh, Sleptsov's apartment is the gathering place for dozens of relatives - children, grandchildren, cousins - who come and go, eating, gossiping and watching the American soap opera "Santa Barbara" together every night.
This is the close-knit circle that he hopes to break away from to make a private company, apart from the collective.
Sleptsov's ideological adversary in the clan is his brother-in-law Yegor Borisov, a Yoda-like character who misses communism.
Borisov points out that Sleptsov is exceptional, a leader who, unlike the rest of the clan, does not need the special protections LTC of a collective existence but who should be expected to help support his lessers.
But Sleptsov is still nagged by the notion of someone else getting as much as he himself makes, but for less work. After five years of trying to save the community, he's now trying to save himself.
He wants to take his 50-kilometer swath of land from the community and fish for a living. He thinks he can profit in this with his sons if he doesn't have to split his earnings with less productive members of his clan.
As his fellow herders set off this year on their nomadic summer trek to the Arctic Sea with the community's 3,000 reindeer, Sleptsov was not among them.
He's netting fish this summer faster than any of his fellow Evens, and he'll keep the money he makes.
About this series
In the five years since the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian people at the heart of the lost empire have tasted democracy and economic freedom. Some have flourished. Some yearn for the old security. All are changed.
This series of seven articles explores the Russian experience through the eyes of a diverse and far-flung group: a Bolshoi ballerina, a Siberian reindeer herder, a new breed of capitalist, a farmer, a pensioner, a former dissident and a newsman in Vladivostok.
* Tomorrow: A new capitalist