As I was recently framing a print of this picture from one of my favorite assignments, I started thinking about whether it could ever be taken again. Like so many of places and cultures I have been fortunate to document, the spirit of this scene may have finally evaporated into the modern world.
When writer Gretel Ehrlich and I visited far northern Russia on an assignment for National Geographic Adventure Magazine just five years ago, we chanced upon this last nomadic group of Komi reindeer herders. While these Caucasian people are not the only culture still chasing these antlered creatures across various tundra plains in northern Europe and Asia, they have a far different heritage, lifestyle, language and culture from either the Sami (Lapp) people to the west or the more Mongolian Nenet and Tuvans to the east.
Out of uncounted Komi who once eked out a living in the tens of thousands of surrounding square miles, only this one small group continued to live on the land. When we visited the sole thing that held them together was a bond between three elderly women and the tundra they loved. Each was as tough as most people half their age and had convinced various offspring to assist with them with the sometimes brutally hard work of arctic survival. Otherwise there were no married couples or children – all of whom now pursued a more modern life in scattered villages.
“Maybe if we had TV they would have stayed,” one of the sons wryly cracked.
As I pondered the question about recreating this scene, I realize that the three old women may now have passed away, taking with them a simpler way of life that many will miss in the future. I would love to know, but but probably never will. To answer the question I would both have to mount another very expensive expedition and once again get permission from the KGB. Someday, someone else will have to figure it out.
Also in thinking about this, I realize that I have to be careful about taking sides concerning modernization, no matter where people live. Sure, if someone knew nothing about an outside world – which is now virtually impossible – they might remain happy living just as they always have. But once tempted by cell phones, television, heated houses and running water, who wouldn’t want them?
For more information and pictures of the Komi click here to visit an illustrated interview I did for Adventure, another entity that has sadly disappeared in the wake of changing times.