This article proposes an alternative perspective on the debate on “native families,” and marriage strategies and choices, among rural Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula in Arctic Siberia.1 It departs from the common narrative put forward by both representatives of the native intelligentsia and ethnographers, who have dealt with the collapse of “traditional” family structures and negative changes in gender relations among indigenous minorities in the Far North of Russia.2 In a nutshell, their point is that many native women, preferring modernity or the lifestyle of villages and towns, no longer wish to live in the chum (a tent constructed with reindeer hides in winter and reindeer skins or tarpaulins in summer). According to this view, the respective spaces of the village and the tundra are marked by the presence of two complementary social categories—single male herders and hunters in the tundra and taiga, and single mothers in the village. The tundra or forest is, for instance, reported to be unattractive to women, who perceive it as an impoverished and moving domestic space devoid of sociality with other women (Anderson 2000: 38; see also the overview in Povoroznyuk et al. ). This discourse on the erosion of traditional family values is not limited to northern indigenous minorities; since the early 1990s, it has become integral to the pan-Russian ideology of neotraditionalism and the pronatalist agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church and the state: the whole of Russia has experienced a demographic crisis that has necessitates some top-down interventions aimed at safeguarding the family and encouraging higher birth rates, including financial stimuli (see, e.g., Rivkin-Fish 2010). The argument advanced here is not simply that the situation in rural Nenets communities on Yamal—including both mobile tundra reindeer herders and villagers in more sedentary occupations, such as teachers, farm and kindergarten workers, nurses, and so on—is unique or different from other Russian regions and indigenous communities (see, e.g., Liarskaya 2010) but that an alternative analytical vocabulary and focus would allow us better to understand ethnographic realities on the ground.
This alternative perspective engages with rural Nenets women’s own perspectives on marriage and their marriage options and choices in more nuanced ways. It embeds people’s attitudes in the Soviet history of gender, sexuality, and marriage, as well as the Soviet state’s practices vis-à-vis its northern indigenous subjects (e.g., collectivization of labor, forced resettlement from the forest and tundra to villages, ban on marriage payments, and so on; Slezkine 1994; Ssorin-Chaikov 2003). Theoretically, it draws inspiration from the anthropology of “decision making” (e.g., Boholm et al. 2013) that highlights the ways in which making decisions connects individual sentiments and desires to structures of social ordering and different sources of authority. Decisions are the results of personality, past experiences, imaginations, expectations, and emotions that cannot be seen in “isolation” (Boholm et al. 2013: 100). In line with this approach, research on international matchmaking in Russia demonstrates, for instance, that to explain the matrimonial decisions of Russian women marrying foreigners with reference to economic considerations and global asymmetries alone is a gross simplification: economic issues do not exist in a social and emotional vacuum, and the emotional experiences of real people have to be at the forefront of our analyses (Patico 2010). That is to say that the political economy of gender systems and people’s desire are recognized as central to marriage strategies.
When talking to my tundra hostesses—the wives and daughters of herders who accompanied their menfolk on year-long migration routes on Yamal—and to village-based interlocutors, trying to understand women’s spatial and residential preferences (tundra, village, or city), my interlocutors often responded by talking about their multifaceted relations with various kin, emotional well-being, and expectations of the future. When women were evaluating different spatial realms in the abstract—that is, not evoking their own life histories and trajectories—those in the tundra claimed that women in the village had a pleasanter and much easier life. Central heating, running water, and ready-made clothing in the village context replace the arduous female tasks of processing hides, providing household members with handmade garments, and keeping the chum warm and supplied with water. The rhythms of everyday tundra life, especially during the months of frequent migration, leave little time for leisure and entertainment. The combination of hard drudgery and a relative absence of leisure time, especially time reserved for oneself, in the tundra was emphasized by my tundra hostesses as evidence for women’s “easy life” in the village. Women villagers would, in turn, dismiss all such claims, pointing out that in the tundra, women did not really “work” but led a comfortable life as housewives and mothers: their “work” and “life” time was conflated; they were working with and for their families and followed only the rhythms of family life. This contrasting rhetoric, however, did not mean that my interlocutors were eager to swap places.
While the contrast between the tundra and the village as differently charged spaces of female hardship was prominent in public representations, women’s talk about marriage and their lives and aspirations highlighted not so much their preferences for village or tundra, as the different potentials of, and expectations from, so-called “old-fashioned” (po-starinke in Russian)—that is, arranged—marriage, here also described as “Soviet style,” on the one hand; and “Russian style” (kak russkie in Russian) or “ordinary,” “modern” marriage in which people marry partners of their own choice, on the other hand. The former is reserved for fellow Nenets, whereas the latter does not imply any formal restrictions and has been practiced both within indigenous communities and across various ethnic divides. During the last five decades or so, these marriages have coexisted in the locality, and more recently, they have not “marked” or differentiated successive generations, nor has it been uncommon for an individual, in the course of her life, to experience both types. It is these two Nenets marriage models, which I discuss below under the labels of Soviet (or traditional Nenets) and Russian matrimonial styles respectively, that underlie the political economy of desire and emotional dynamics of marriage on rural indigenous Yamal.
The Soviet Model(s) and Marriage Nenets Style
Traditional Nenets marriage as we know it from the works of Soviet ethnographers was arranged marriage between exogamous clans (e.g., Khomich 1966; Levin and Potapov 1964; Evladov 1992). When, in the late 1920s, Evladov agitated against bride-price payments and arranged marriages on Yamal, he noticed that his hosts sent young people away from the chum. Evladov’s question as to why young people were not allowed to select their own spouses was found laughable by both men and women. “Why should they be asked, they are young and do not know anything yet, what can they possibly say?” he was told (Evladov 1992: 36–40).
From the vantage point of many Slav migrants and other newcomers to Yamal, as well as the general dogmas of Soviet Marxism, the nomadic way of life and the gender relations that supported it were tokens of cultural backwardness. Yet the claim that Soviet public discourses on marriage support the indigenous Nenets template may appear counterintuitive only at first sight. For decades, Soviet ideological discourse on family and gender politics was neither stable nor consistent (Rivkin-Fish 2010; Lebina 2014), but after the initial and short-lived ideology of sexual liberation and experimentation (in the 1920s), Soviet marriage had unwittingly encompassed some key premises of Nenets marriage. While generations of researchers have justifiably focused on the paternalistic role of the Soviet state in framing modern socialist family ideals and gender equality, the ways in which the Soviet practices naturalized preexisting family forms and kinship ideals have often been overlooked.
Marriage payments, marriages arranged against the will of men and women, and polygamy were formally outlawed in the mid-1920s, and, as elsewhere in the USSR (cf., e.g., Humphrey  on Buriatiia), equal civil rights for men and women were introduced. The Soviet legal system had, however, less impact on local practices than did actual political economic arrangements, their ideological underpinnings, and the overall discursive field of gender relations. For instance, care for the elderly was seen as a responsibility of the family—sending one’s parents to an old people’s home was stigmatized in both popular and state discourses alike. Although patriarchal authority was formally undermined in matters like marriage, the emphasis on obligations within the familial domain accorded well with practices in indigenous communities.
The status of Soviet women and the sociopolitical value attributed to large families were more vivid examples of such accord.3 While the female domestic role was devalued by prioritizing employment and educational achievements as sources of social prestige, the state’s concern with declining birth rates, especially after World War II, also attached social status to women’s reproductive role as child bearers. In the 1970s and 1980s, one-child families were even deplored in the mass media as breeding grounds for egoistic individualism (Lapidus 1978: 265–302); childbearing and child-rearing were defined as “women’s mission.” This reproductive mission of women (and men) was a goal in its own right. As one US-based psychologist put it, Soviet ideology had essentially “liberated life and people from the erotic reals” (in Lebina 2014: 34), promoting principles of chastity that would not have been out of place in Victorian England (Lebina 2014: 34). Issues of family and marriage, rather than love, became prominent in the Soviet “visual canon” mediated by periodicals and cinema (Dashkova 2013) and made available in the most remote corners of the USSR, such as northern Yamal.4 In other words, native dwellers at the state’s periphery, not unlike their metropolitan counterparts, were subjected to a pronatalist discursive regime that saw a conjugal union as a “collective” of equal members in which both men and women were, first of all, workers and biological reproducers, rather than “lovers.” In the late Soviet period, official encouragements to have larger families were backed up by informal practical measures on Yamal: to keep the ethnic statistics high, local medics were instructed not to promote contraceptives, and they were not made available to native women (Skvirskaja 2006).
The media language of “dying out” and “degeneration” has traveled well into post-Soviet Russia and been used to describe Russia’s demographic situation more generally (Rivkin-Fish 2010). Yet if in urban Russia, the unified image of “worker and mother” might not fit some Russian cultural stereotypes of femininity, especially the post-Soviet sexualized images of women opposed to masculine, neoliberal “mastery of oneself” (see, e.g., Yurchak 2003), among the indigenous herders on Yamal, this idea(l) has been replicated in the gendered division of labor supported by employment structures within the (former, restructured) state farms. Former state farms’ herders and hunters could have their wives, mothers, and sisters join the production brigades as officially employed chum workers. To fit the official wage allocation per tundra brigade, herders’ wives or other female relatives have to share a fixed amount of wages between themselves, but they could also retain full pension rights and the status of (agricultural) workers.5
The repercussions of the Soviet patriarchal narrative of “the girl’s honor” (“maidenhood,” devich’ia chest’ in Russian) and puritanical stance on sex,6 as well as their conflation with traditional indigenous narratives (or rather narratives on indigenous practices and traditions), could still be heard in the tundra in the early 2000s. Many of my female interlocutors in the tundra told me that “love and looks do not matter for us and are not important for a good married life.” The desirable characteristics of an eligible spouse were that he or she be hardworking and have an agreeable character and agreeable kinsfolk. In casual conversations over tea in the chum, when their men were outdoors with the herds, some middle-aged women openly denied interest in sexual matters and in front of younger women claimed that after childbirth a woman should do a nibtrava (a purification rite with smoke in Nenets) and sleep again with her husband only when she was ready to have another child.
Of course, not all my female acquaintances shared this attitude toward sex. And on rural Yamal, just as on the Russian mainland, de facto sexual morality was not strict. Casual sex and short-term engagements were common. Many girls and young women, including schoolgirls, had premarital sexual relations, especially when they were residing in or visiting the village. The male partners in such liaisons could range from senior kinsmen (e.g., classificatory “uncles,” glossed as diadia in Russia, and these relations were often secretive) to Russian and Ukrainian newcomers and shift workers. The last were often the object of girls’ romantic passions and infatuation because of their perceived handsomeness (for instance, blue eyes) and/or “alien” charm. Nonetheless, the persistence of a discourse that played down the importance of sexual desire, visual attractiveness, and eroticism was not simply due to some moral standards inherited from the Soviet epoch. It also underscored that old-style, arranged Nenets marriage had not lost its appeal in the locality and had not failed to produce families that were a focus of enduring emotional bonds.
The Emotional Dynamics of Relatedness and Power Relations in Arranged Marriage
A specific emotional register of Soviet marriage Nenets style is related to its role in producing and maintaining emotional attachments and social networks that would hardly have been sustainable on their own. In the old-fashioned Nenets scenario, the potential partners are brought together by their parents. Often, but not always, it is the mother of the young man or a senior female relative from his household (e.g., the wife of the young man’s elder brother) who approaches the family of a potential bride to make inquiries about the girl’s availability. If the boy is considered undesirable as a spouse or the girl is not willing to marry, the girl’s mother may politely refuse a proposal, on the grounds that, for instance, “my daughter does not know how to sew yet.” The girl or her parents may, of course, change their minds at a later date. I was told that only the third successive rejection implied that the suitor had been refused by the girl’s family. Female relatives and mothers are actively involved as matchmakers, but male kinsmen are always consulted, and it is the men who conduct the formal negotiations to fix the amount of the dowry and the size and timing of the bride-price.
The social status of a household in terms of wealth and the educational and occupational achievements of its members play a significant role in choosing marriage partners. However, the main goal in a tundra marriage is to secure a hardworking spouse and to make a good match “of characters” that will render a marriage viable in the long run. The blame for failed arranged marriages falls largely on the matchmakers. A great deal of information about the “characters” (kharakter in Russian) and inclinations of the young people as well as information about their families is obtained from children who attend boarding schools. This information is used to mark out some families as undesirable potential “wife givers” or “wife takers” from early on. The ideal time for making a match is when a girl graduates or drops out of secondary school or college and a young man returns from military service. When young people are understood to have had (many) sexual experiences, and have known “love,” they may be considered unsuitable candidates for an arranged marriage, as I discuss in the next section.
The young people may already know each other from boarding school in the village, or they may be complete strangers. Once a marriage is agreed on by their families, the engagement period can last for up to several years, depending on various factors. A young woman might be needed in her natal household if there is a shortage of women, her siblings are still attending boarding school, or her elder brothers are unmarried. She might need some time to learn how to sew properly. If there is a death in the family of one of the future spouses, a marriage is further postponed for a year. During this engagement period, which often lasts for two to three years, the young people may or may not see one another, depending on the geographic proximity of their encampments and on whether they are willing to spend time together. In some (rare) cases, a girl may remain completely unaware of the identity of her future husband until the moment she moves away from her natal household.
The case of one happily married tundra woman, whom I call Nastia, is a good example of a blind arranged marriage and underlying attitudes. When I asked Nastia, a good-looking 20-year-old girl, about how she decided to have an entirely “blind marriage,” she laughed and told me that her husband, Nikolai, who was 10 years her senior, had asked her exactly the same question. She was engaged at the age of 17 and was introduced to Nikolai when he came to bring her to his encampment three years later. Prior to their marriage, he was shown her picture and observed her on several occasions when visiting her father’s chum, while she was unaware that he was her husband-to-be. For Nastia, it was important that her parents knew her husband’s kin well and that the wives of his brothers held their husbands in high esteem. She also knew Nikolai’s younger siblings personally, from her boarding school in the village, and they were nice people. All these “data” on Nikolai were important for Nastia in making her decision to marry a virtually unknown man who came, moreover, from a tundra household poor in reindeer. More importantly, however, was her “gut feeling”: somehow, she told me, the idea of Nikolai as her husband felt right. Nikolai, in turn, was obviously enchanted by his good-natured and pretty wife. When I met the couple at a later date during their visit to the village, he could hardly keep his hands off her growing stomach, demonstrating spousal affection and pride.
It is generally acknowledged that it is difficult and sometimes troublesome to ask for a bride and that it requires considerable effort and persistence on behalf of the boy’s parents/matchmakers. While the act of matchmaking is often itself an expression of emotional care for potential spouses, arranged marriage always implies that various relations are renewed and reaffirmed in the local post-Soviet political economy. One such relationship is ties of patronage and political power; the other is agnatic kinship; in both cases, material transfers are as important as the emotions they generate and sustain.
People of status and power—for instance, local-level officials—support their social standing by arranging and/or facilitating marriage for a wide circle of their kin and relations, thus cementing a loyal following. In the market-oriented economy, a loyal following has also become increasingly important in securing membership and labor in various new economic enterprises, such as indigenous “communes” (obshchina in Russian) and shareholding companies. Arranged marriages help establish a matchmaker as a patron in kinship and social-economic networks, creating or strengthening alliances between asymmetrically positioned individuals. The arranged marriage of one of my tundra hostesses, whom I call Tatiana, can serve as an example of the emotional links established by matchmaking.
From an early age, Tatiana had to master all basic women’s skills to help in the chum of her ill mother. After graduating from eighth grade at boarding school, she went back to the tundra for the summer, but when the school helicopter arrived in autumn to collect children for school, she was told to stay in the tundra by the local official who had with him a herder called Igor. Two years later she was brought to the chum of Igor as his wife. When I met Tatiana, she had 10 children with Igor and was content with her “fate” (sud’ba in Russian). Both Tatiana and Igor considered themselves closely related to the official’s family and used the story of their marriage to indicate that the official actively recognized this relatedness.7 Both spouses were not only proud of this connection but also actively encouraged their children to visit the official (a patron) and support different political and economic enterprises of his children.
My second example deals with the transfers of bride-price (ne mir in Nenets) that often accompany Nenets tundra marriage and are considered an important element in the formation of a marriage. As a normative practice, the bride-price is paid in reindeer and should be equivalent to the dowry. Negotiations are men’s business and constitute a question of men’s respectability. To my knowledge, neither bride-price nor dowry is now given in money. The word Nenets use for dowry (miadunsei in Nenets) is the same term that is used for a “gift” given to a guest (i.e., an “outgoing” gift). A good dowry may have significant economic value for a new family since it is composed of items such as chum covers, a female sledge (negan in Nenets), battens, poles, domestic utensils, hides, and hide clothes. It has been argued that, in this type of exchange of value, the bride-price is used toward covering the expenses of the dowry; that is, the bride-price effectively functions as an “indirect dowry” (Goody 1983: 240–242). This scholarly interpretation as well as local people’s own insistence on the economic equivalence between bride-price and dowry (the point about equivalence is also a political argument of sorts aimed at dismissing deeply rooted popular Soviet stereotypes of bride-price as an actual payment for a wife; e.g. Khariuchi 2001: 129), often disguised sentiments of the “wife-giving” family and the emotional attachments (re-)created by these material transfers. The mother, for instance, strives to provide for her daughter as richly as possible. Yet the new wife’s dowry should not make her too independent in the household of her in-laws. A new marriage is a joint endeavor of many people. My tundra hostesses mentioned that making their own chum together with their female in-laws was a way to “make good relationships.”
The bride-price is, in turn, a token of respect shown to the bride’s family. It is also seen as necessary to emotionally affirm and maintain the relationship between the new wife and a fraction of her agnates—the recipients of her bride-price—whom she leaves behind (e.g., brothers, uncles). Those agnates who volunteer to receive a share of the bride-price commit themselves to a lifelong obligation to provide the woman with gifts every time she comes to visit their chum,8 and they are the ones whom the woman should visit. That is to say, the probability that she would travel to visit her agnates is greater when they have formally “confirmed” their kinship and await her with gifts. Some of my interlocutors maintained that a married woman does not travel with the sole purpose of visiting her sisters’ chum in the tundra.
In the case of one tundra girl in her early twenties, whom I call Irina, who was engaged at the time we met, the men claiming a share of her bride-price included her two unmarried brothers, one elder married brother and his second son, and one of her father’s brothers. These men represented only a small fraction of all her brothers and paternal uncles. All her village-based agnates were excluded. “I would visit them anyway when I am going to the village,” Irina told me. One of the recipients was her favorite little brother; for another she worked as his chum worker for a couple of years. She was living in the chum of her elder married brother, and the father’s brother who was among the recipients hosted Irina for some years during the school holidays. These men represented those whom she favored most and to whom she felt most closely related. Irina did not fancy the idea of parting with her favorite brother upon marriage but was longing to get married and become a mother herself, and she was enthusiastic about the forthcoming visits and gifts: “First they marry you off, and then they load you with gifts.”
The emotional dimension of bride-price becomes particularly visible in cases in which it is not given or rejected. One woman in her late thirties, whom I call Lena, told me how upset she had been when her only brother in the tundra refused to accept a share of her bride-price. The reasons he gave her were, as she put it, “ideological”—he did not want to participate in a backward practice, but Lena suspected that this was a sign of disregard and absence of affection, that the brother did not want to host her in the future and commit his family to giving her gifts. From Lena’s point of view, by refusing to take part in her bride-price, her brother made a decision to effectively obliterate their relatedness.
It could well be that it is due to their emotional, rather than economic, significance, that marriage payments have persisted despite all the negative connotations of “illegality” and “backwardness” that were attributed to them in Soviet times. Today, even very poor tundra households can strive to offer a bride-price as a symbolic transfer of value, indicating that while the affective tie between husband and wife is not the rationale of an arranged marriage, it is a kind of marriage that helps to perpetuate relatedness within kinship networks despite spatial separation and geographic distance.
Russian-Style Marriage and Northern Wives
In the same pastoral households where some children are engaged to carefully chosen partners, others are left to find partners by their own means. As one mother told me, it was often pointless to look for a suitable match for a young man who has had many girlfriends. “Sergei knows womenfolk and he knows what he likes,” she told me about her eldest son, in his late twenties. “I shall only look for a girl for my Andrei. He just came back from the army and would like to have a wife.” While rural Nenets men rarely find spouses among Russians and other newcomers, women often form partnerships or marry nonindigenous men. On the one hand, alcoholism among male native villagers often conditions girls’ preferences for more alcohol-resistant and resourceful newcomers. On the other hand, some native women villagers, especially those at the bottom of the social ladder (e.g., unemployed single mothers from broken families), gain a reputation as “loose girls” (guliashchie in Russian) owing to excessive socializing and drinking with newcomers. Too much partying and too many sexual liaisons with “Russians” do not contribute to the portfolio of a “good” Nenets wife. Such girls are believed to be unable to work hard and to lack the necessary skills of a native woman, such as processing hides and sewing. Although premarital sex and single motherhood are not stigmatized, a reputation as a loose woman often leaves only precisely those options on the matrimonial market that these young women hope to avoid in the first place—marriage to a native villager with a bad reputation (from among the “alcoholics”) or single motherhood.
Modern intraethnic marriages and marriages with newcomers or Russians are often formed around the idea of romantic “love” and the mutual attraction of spouses. What I call Nenets marriage Russian style thus implies a marriage of one’s choice, as epitomized by modern Russian marriage (and not just marriage with a Russian). While this modern marriage predominates in the village and is practiced among Nenets and across various ethnic boundaries in the region, in what follows I look mainly at Nenets marriage with Russians. It is notable that there is a shortage of ethnographic studies of intimacy and romantic love among indigenous minorities in Russia (but see Rethmann 2000). This gap seems to reflect an old (or outdated) anthropological assumption that “love” and “romance” are a product of cultural refinement not commonly available to non-Westerners or non-Europeans (Jankowiak 1995).9 My focus on modern or love marriage with ethnic Russians here, rather than on Nenets love marriage, should not be mistaken for a continuation of this assumption. It is meant to highlight dynamics in the local political economy of desire that often provoke negative attitudes (see also Liarskaya 2010: 31–32), engender the stereotype of so-called Northern wives (severnye zheny in Russian) in the locality, and center around the nuclear family ideal.
The notion of Northern wives has had a long history. I do not have any reliable information on when this term was first coined, but its emergence can be linked to the large-scale industrial development in the Soviet North, which brought migrants and shift workers from all over the USSR to the most remote Siberian and Arctic regions. Male shift workers and, especially, geologists (geologi in Russian) have become protagonists in the vast corpus of Russian jokes (anekdoty) mocking Russian visitors’ sexual encounters with native women. On Yamal, some children born of Nenets women’s relationships with geologists were referred to, behind their back, as children of an expedition (ekspeditsiia in Russian). Although these children and their mothers have, to my knowledge, not been stigmatized in the tundra communities and multiethnic villages, Northern wives as a category clearly have negative (or somewhat derogatory) connotations for Russian newcomers and Nenets alike. It is, moreover, a category that feeds off the Russian myth that it was customary for Siberian natives to offer the sexual services of their wives and daughters to visiting outsiders.10 Hence, a Northern wife stands not so much for a wife or a civil partner “from the North” as for a “temporary wife,” a temporary partner or just a casual sexual partner.
The temporality of the Northern-wife status and the instability of partnerships with the newcomers (Povoroznyuk et al. 2010) are not simply a product of the short-term work contracts of shift workers. After many uninterrupted years spent on Yamal, most migrants (such as farmworkers, schoolteachers, medics, and so on) retire or find other employment on the mainland. Their lifelong savings are often invested in property located in the more southerly parts of Russia or the near abroad (blizhnee zarubezhie in Russian). Some native wives are not invited to come along to these new destinations, while others make a choice to remain in the native locality. What often came up in the narratives I recorded in the village by Nenets women who were either married to Russians or were divorced was that they did not unequivocally accept the role of abandoned women or temporary wives. Instead, many women stressed that despite having had good marriages and children together, it was their decision to split up with their Russian husbands and remain “at home” when the husbands moved back to the mainland. This narrative could be read as a strategy of self-empowerment: women challenged ideas of victimhood, emotional or sexual “exploitation,” or the absence of lasting emotional and economic commitments from their male partners.
Women’s stories about marriages with Russians and other outsiders also often seemed to serve a different purpose. For the older Nenets tundra women I talked to, those who were married off in a traditional manner at a tender age, relationships with Russians were not unlike the “alien romance” discussed by Tsing (1993) in her analysis of “out-of-the-way-places,” where images of distant lands and the challenges associated with different lifestyles had the flavor of exciting possibilities. Alien romance was a source of (often unrealized) desire that ran in tandem with perceptions of Russians’ promiscuity. “I do not know how we could have lived with our men if they were as loose as those Russians,” I heard from my older interlocutors. For the younger women of the last Soviet and the first post-Soviet generation who had the experience of studying in the regional capital of Salekhard or in other Siberian cities, romantic and sexual relations with Russians were, perhaps, less exotic, albeit still “enticing.”
In the perception of different cohorts of Nenets women, there were some major shortcomings with the nuclear family ideal represented by Russian-style marriage and attached to ethnic stereotypes of Russians. I was told numerous stories of spousal and filial neglect experienced by Northern wives—from their children being excluded from inheritance by their Russian fathers to the indifference of the kin of Russian husbands toward the well-being of their wives. One of my acquaintances, whom I call Natasha, a well-educated woman in her early thirties who followed her Russian husband all the way to Moscow, told me that when her husband was killed in a car accident, she and their son were rejected by her in-laws. The mother of the man asked her to vacate his Moscow apartment, indicating in no unclear terms that with the death of her son, their relationship and material support were over. Although Natasha had good relationships with her in-laws prior to her husband’s death, after the accident she became an outsider (chuzhaia in Russian) in no time. Natasha was an industrious and independent woman who lived far away from her natal household most of her life, but when the tragedy happened, it was her village- and tundra-based female kin who came all the way to Moscow to take care of her and her child. Her father and brothers sent her some polar fox pelts to sell.
This case exemplifies themes that came up repeatedly in people’s talk about intermarriages with Russians: the risks taken by a wife who migrates with her husband to his village or town, and the importance of sustaining relatedness and close links with one’s own people. Dependence on kin often remains invisible in everyday life, especially when both spouses have salaried employment or live at a distance from the wife’s kinship networks, only occasionally hosting her kin in the village and making irregular visits to her village and remote encampments of her relatives. But when the affective ties of the couple are compromised or broken, the importance of having kin around cannot be overestimated. When a Nenets woman marries a Russian newcomer, she does not marry into his family but establishes a dyadic relationship with a particular man (and among different ethnic groups of newcomers, Russians in particular are singled out as having “no kinship” outside nuclear family structures). This dyadic relationship does not entail that if something were to happen to the man, his wife would be able to rely on her affines, his kin, to fulfill their responsibilities toward her and her children. These socioeconomic considerations appeared to be especially relevant in the context of the market-driven economy on Yamal, where the welfare state had crumbled and the chances of making an independent living without good professional qualifications, skills, or connections were poor. Hence, some of my interlocutors among Nenets women villagers were less worried about divorce than about the prospect of losing immediate access to their kin networks in the locality.
Given these considerations, some women saw divorce or separation not as a problem posed by the return migration of their Russian spouses or partners but as the solution to a problem. At the end of the day, the political economy of desire in a love marriage, Russian style (with Russians) thus tends to undermine “the ideological enclosure of the centrality of stable or life-long marriage” to human life (Borneman 1996: 228–229) that is today postulated by the neotraditionalist agenda of the Russian state, the Orthodox Church, and “official” native cultural norms. As part of a matrix of power relations in the locality, marriage becomes subordinate to the affirmation of a “strong” subject-position by those Northern wives who are unwilling to compromise this position by moving away from “their people” and networks of relatedness.
In this article, I have discussed some widespread marriage options and attitudes among rural Nenets women and attempted to show that nowadays the folk dichotomy of arranged, traditional Nenets marriage and love or modern marriage should be understood in a context where women consider the decision to marry in either way as entirely their own. These decisions, in turn, exemplify different individual aspirations and emotional dispositions. Rather than choosing a particular spatial realm (tundra or village), women privilege particular economies of desire and relatedness. The anthropology of decision-making habitually foregrounds both the cultural and social nature of people’s choices and decisions (cf. Boholm et al. 2013: 98). And the ethnographic material at hand illustrates these two dynamics’ interplay: while people on the ground tend to gloss their marriage choices in cultural terms (e.g., by referring to native customs and traditions), the social nature or concerns of marriage decisions reign supreme. In arranged marriages, women often expect to establish emotional connections and intimacy with certain in-laws who become an effective and/or affective part of their families. Customary material transfers of bride-price and dowry are, moreover, instrumental in confirming affective ties with one’s kin, showing that, especially upon geographic separation, these relations cannot be taken for granted but have to be cultivated. In love marriages with Russians, women are well aware that their affection and desire are subject to the migration calendar of their spouses, and their expectations of the marriages’ durability are often circumscribed by their willingness to accept their partners as the only affective relation to rely on in faraway places.
When women opt for arranged marriages today, they do so because they believe this is where kinship obligations, gendered roles in a matrimonial partnership (some of which were endorsed by the Soviet state), and their concomitant emotional security are present. Today, arranged marriage appears to be only a reproduction of an old custom, or a filial duty, when it is rather an individual decision realized within the framework of new economic-political conditions that provide new reasons for making it. Those young Nenets women who marry in the tundra do not take this option because they are necessarily longing for a traditional nomadic life: rather, a small and continuously moving domestic space is found attractive and desirable because it is the space where nobody ever really moves away, and affective ties are always at hand.
The ethnographic fieldwork took place in the northern part of Yamal Peninsula in 2000–2001, nine months in total. Approximately four months were spent in the tundra in the encampments of mobile Nenets reindeer herders. The remaining fieldwork time was mainly spent in the adjacent multinational “native” villages, the largest of which had a population of approximately one thousand residents at the time of my research. The fieldwork was followed by communication via e-mail and telephone as well as by online ethnography.
For a detailed overview of scholarly literature dealing with these gendered dispositions and their various causes, see, e.g., Liarskaya (2010).
At the time of my fieldwork, young tundra families I talked to aimed to have no more than four children, even though they were in favor of larger families. My interlocutors recognized this number as being very low compared with the number of children that their parents had seen as appropriate. Post-Soviet economic hardships, shortages of pasture land, and the decline of state-sponsored infrastructure were cited as the main reasons for having small families.
Information on erotic aspects of love and matrimony was largely gained from non-Soviet art and fiction. Lebina (2014: 42), for instance, notes that for generations of Soviets, the popular French writer Guy de Maupassant was, among others, a source of sexual knowledge. Incidentally, one of my tundra hostesses in her early fifties showed me her husband’s collection of Maupassant’s books, from which she would occasionally read aloud in Nenets to entertain her male kin over bedtime tea.
For tundra families working outside the structures of former state and collective farms—i.e., for the households of private or independent herders (chastniki in Russian)—the situation regarding their “worker” status has been different and subject to ongoing negotiations with the local state (Skvirskaja 2006; Stammler 2005). This topic falls outside the scope of this article.
The phrase “There is no sex in the Soviet Union” was used by a Russian woman as late as 1986 on a television talk show. Ever since, it has been used as a reference to puritanical attitudes toward sex in official Soviet mass culture.
Here it is important to acknowledge the difference between kinship and the idea of relatedness (Carsten 2000). On Yamal, formal structures of classificatory kinship and clans are often used pragmatically, and therefore very selectively, to regulate social life and (mis)recognize actual kin (Skvirskaja 2012).
More recently, when the topic of love has been analyzed in various “non-Western” contexts, it has often been done in tandem with discussions of the global cultural flows that supposedly shape the landscape of love (Hirsch and Wardlow 2006). It is not my intention to diminish the role of these global flows in popularizing ideas of romantic love on rural Yamal (at the time of my fieldwork, Latin American soap operas were as popular in the most remote villages as they were in Moscow). Yet here I am also dealing with emotional dynamics, “matrimonial” stereotypes, and expectations that predate these global flows in the locality and, by being shared by different generations, demonstrate certain historical and cultural durability.
BoholmÅsaAnnette HenningAmanda Krzyworzeka. 2013. “Anthropology and decision making: An introduction”. Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 65: 97–113.
JankowiakWilliam. 1995. Introduction. Pp. 1–20 in Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? ed. William Jankowiak. New York: Colombia University Press.
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SkvirskajaVera. 2012. “Expressions and Experiences of Personhood: Spatiality and Objects in the Nenets Tundra Home.” Pp. 146–161 in Shamanism in Rainforest and Tundra: Personhood in the Shamanic Ecologies of Contemporary Amazonia and Siberia ed. Marc BrightmanVanessa E. Grotti and Olga Ulturgasheva. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
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