Nenets Autonomous Okrug

The Nenets Autonomous Okrug, officially part of Arkhangellsk Oblast, is the nort-easternmost corner of mainland Europe and should not be confused with the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug which is the north-westernmost part of mainland Asia and contains the Yamal Peninsula. Both regions are, however, home to the indigenous Nenets people whose language is unrelated to Russian, religion is animistic and traditional occupation is nomadic reindeer herding.

Nenets nomads moving camp by reindeer sledge in the tundra north of Nelmin Nos, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Arctic Russia

Nenets of the former Kolkhoz Vyucheyskovo moving camp in the tundra north of Nelmin Nos

Whereas on the Yamal half the population live sedentary lives in villages while the other half live year-round nomadic existences in chums (conical reindeer hide tents), the situation in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug is more complicated. I will here go over the various different reindeer-herding setups that exist in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, starting with most traditional and ending with least.

1) There is a group on the Yugorskiy Peninsula that completely managed to avoid contact with the government during ths Soviet Union, which even the Yamal Nenets were subjected to.

2) There are other groups who live year-round nomadic existences but who were in the collective farm system during the Soviet Union and whose children go to boarding school. An example would be the majority of Nenets who live on the Yugorskiy Peninsula, or on the Kanin Peninsula (accessible by all-terrain vehicle from the village of Mezen which in turn is accessible by bus from the town of Arkhangelsk, a 24-hour train ride north of Moscow). Mezen and the Kanin Peninsula require special permits.

3) There are groups whose reindeer are owned by the government, whose children go to school and who take it in turns to work three-month shifts wandering the tundra with their reindeer then spend three months doing nothing (or usually drinking) in a village. An example would be the former Kolkhoz Vyucheyskovo in the village of Nelmin Nos.

4) There are other villages accessible by road from Naryan-Mar where reinder breeding has become sedentary and the animals live on a farm in the village.

All of the above-mentioned places can also be accessed by expensive and extremely irregular helicopter flights from Naryan-Mar. If in a hurry you could charter your own helicopter for many thousands of dollars.

Possibly the most interesting place in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug is Vaygach Island. It is often referred to as “the Nenets Mecca” and “the Easter Island of the Arctic” because is covered in 200 idols and sacrificial sites to the Nenets gods and every Nenets was expected to make a pilgrimage there once in their life.

Whereas the whole of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug requires a permit, here in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug a permit is only required for islands and areas within 20km of the coast. Therefor Naryan-Mar and Nelmin Nos do not require permits but Vaygach Island, Karatayka, Amderma and the Kanin Peninsula do. Vorkuta, being in the Komi Republic, does not require a permit.

Applications for permits can be made in Naryan-Mar or Arkhangelsk (+78182686170). Unlike permits for the Yamal, permits here take only 30 days to process. They require a copy of your passport, visa and immigration card to Russia, plus a letter in Russian explaining every detail of your trip including names of settlements and regions to be visited, where you will be staying, contact phone numbers, purpose of trip, etc. The more information you give, the better. The biggest problem here is that, unlike Yamal, the Border Divisions here refuse to send out permits to you. You must collect them in person or have someone in Arkhangelsk or Naryan-Mar collect them for you. This is obviously fine if you plan to travel somewhere easily accessible from those towns such as the Kanin Peninsula from Arkhangelsk or Nelmin Nos from Naryan-Mar but it is a real pain if you plan to go to Vaygach, located at the far eastern end of the okrug and much more easily accessible (by land) from Vorkuta.

Check out Yamal Peninsula Travel for information on trips with me as interpreter to visit Nenets reindeer-herding nomads, as well as some information on Nenets culture and spirituality.

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