Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia by Piers Vitebsky - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

Tracks in the Snow

Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

By

HarperCollins 464pp £20 order from our bookshop
 

Siberia is the great white blankness in the Russian imagination, a place of emptiness and darkness, associated with disappearance and abandonment. In his seminal account of his northern travels, In Siberia (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1999), Colin Thubron describes it as a place where humans and animals are dwarfed by the vastness of the ice-fields, rendered little more than smudges on the snow; a land, he adds, of ‘bleak beauty, and an indelible fear … the ultimate, unearthly Abroad. A place from which you will not return.’ It is a blankness into which millions of Russians disappeared during the last century, left to decline, lost in the snows. For Dostoevsky Siberia was a ‘House of the Dead’, its whiteness like suspense, a gruesome holding place for prisoners; a land where people cast away their identities, trading their names and fates with other prisoners, a sense of self increasingly meaningless against the vastness.

The Eveny nomads of Siberia exist at the opposite end of the symbolic spectrum from the ice-bound prisoners: they are endlessly peripatetic, ranging over the snows. The Eveny are a reindeer-herding people, one among around thirty indigenous minority peoples officially recognised in the Russian north. A recent census placed their

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