For the dissertation field research I carried out to earn my PhD in anthropology, I spent 14 months in Russia, most of it in the far northeast region of Chukotka. I was focusing on the indigenous population there, many of whom earn their livelihood by engaging in reindeer herding. It’s traditional, and yet it’s not either: the reindeer farms are mainly owned by the local administrations, and the reindeer herders are paid employees.
I made several trips back to this region during the late 1990s and up to 2001. These were tough times due to the rather botched attempt to privatize the Russian economy, and residents of this remote tundra village were increasingly reliant on local food sources that they could either forage or grow. Growing crops in an arctic climate is a challenge, to say the least.
One family had audatiously added food-raising structures all around their existing home, using plastic sheeting stretched over a wooden structure to keep out cold and bring in sunlight. Their dedicated greenhouse – seen at the far left in the photo below – hijacked electricity from passing power lines. The waist-high raised beds inside were burgeoning with nutritious herbs and vegetables.
I encountered another family in another part of Chukotka, in the tiny village called Kaiettyn, who were raising cabbages both in a small greenhouse of similar design as well as in an attached cold frame.
By this time I had become fascinated with these innovative and undaunted efforts to grow food in the face of conditions that were not only environmentally harsh, but economically hostile. I set out to study this comparatively, carrying out additional fieldwork in a completely different region at the western end of Russia: the village of Paigusovo in the Republic of Mari-El.
I stayed with a family of smallholder farmers, who tended a dazzling array of fruits, vegetables, herbs and hops around their home, and also raised crops of potatoes, cabbages, and hay. They did this on top of holding full-time salaried jobs.
This was Russia’s potato-growing heartland, and I arrived just in time to participate in the potato harvest. Yes, I did more than just take pictures, but my real labor contribution was negligible – not for lack of energy, but for lack of technical knowledge. The potatoes were collected according to size and quality (for market; for home use; for seed), and while family members knew instinctively how to select for each class, I repeatedly made errors even when I was convinced I had selected correctly.
My main contribution came in bravely climbing to the highest branches of a wild apple tree and tossing down the fruit, which we enjoyed later during a break from the harvest.
My latest encounter with Russian independent food production came in an entirely unplanned way. I was carrying out research on another topic altogether – Christian missionary activity – in the far eastern Russian city of Magadan. I happened to befriend Galya, who happened to mention that she tended a potato patch on the city’s outskirts – and that she hated it with a passion. When I told her that I would give anything to dig my hands into the soil, since my fieldwork that summer had disrupted my gardening season, and that I would be happy to help her tend it, she told me point blank that I must be crazy. But we had a great time in her field.
In the past, this vast tract of land would have been chock-a-block with vegetable patches; but with the changes in Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, thousands of Magadan residents had emigrated, leaving most of the fields abandoned. Galya toughed it out – cheerfully, despite her honest expression of dislike for what she saw as garden drudgery. She had an ingenious method for watering in the absence of a garden hose or running water, and the tall grass at one end of her patch served as an effective wind break – both for the young potato plants, and for the open campfire over which we grilled sausages for lunch.