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Life on the Chukchi Sea coast A film shot in Chukotka offers a glimpse of one of Russia’s Arctic Indigenous cultures
In the summer of 2020, a Russian film crew went to Russia’s autonomous Chukotka region, the north-easternmost part of the Russian Federation, to film the daily lives of the region’s inhabitants. Most of the resulting short film was shot in the villages of Inchoun and Uelen, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, where the majority of inhabitants are indigenous Chukchi, and nearly everyone lives on the spoils of subsistence marine hunting. The film’s title, Piblokto, refers to a culture-specific condition — sometimes called Arctic hysteria — which may occur in societies in the Far North. Those afflicted are said to perform dangerous, cruel, or apparently senseless acts. To outside observers, the behavior may resemble that of a shaman during a ritual trance. The term Piblokto does not exist in the Chukchi language, and it appears to have been invented by researchers. Indigenous people do not consider the condition a disease. Here, Meduza shares some clips and stills from Piblokto.
Warning: This article contains graphic images of animal remains that could upset some viewers.
The coast of Chukotka is very isolated. To get there from other parts of Russia requires a long flight to Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, then a shorter flight to the village of Lavrenty, and finally a helicopter ride to Inchoun or Uelen. Inclement weather often prevents flights from taking off — sometimes the wait for a break in the weather is weeks long.
Uelen is the easternmost settlement in Russia and, in fact, in all of Asia. It’s not far from the Bering Strait, which separates Russian from Alaska.
There are almost no roads in Chukotka, so people get to neighboring settlements by boat, or by quadracycle over the shore. In winter, they can use snowmobiles, but in summer the tundra is too swampy to travel overland. Dogsledding is the traditional mode of transport. Most families have one or two sleds, and they require a lot of time and energy — the dogs need to be cared for, fed, and trained.
The few groceries that are for sale in stores arrive once a year by ship, usually in August. By spring, they have usually been bought up entirely. The harsh weather and long winters make growing produce or raising cattle impossible. Marine hunts supply locals with most of the food they consume — whales, walruses, and seals. Hunting marine animals has been residents’ traditional way of life for many hundreds of years.
Meat acquired by hunting is shared freely, and every successful hunt is a celebration for the whole village. Every person takes part in butchering a whale. Within a few hours, nothing is left but the whale’s skeleton.
Several hundred people live in the area, so hunters have to go out every few days, a problem when the weather is bad. If the surf is too high, their boats can’t leave the shore.
Marine hunting is difficult and dangerous. Ocean weather is changeable, and storms can brew in minutes. Whales are capable of capsizing boats, and locals usually can’t swim. Hunters risk losing fingers or even a hand if they get tangled in the ropes while harpooning a whale.
Hunting grey whales is banned in Russia, but there’s an exception for indigenous peoples for whom hunting whales is a traditional practice. All of Chukotka’s indigenous peoples are allowed to kill around 140 whales total per year. One village usually takes around 12 whales in a year.
People in Inchoun and Uelen work as hunters, and in housing services, schools, and medical centers. But many live on unemployment benefits and the meat that hunters bring in.
All of the region’s coastal villages used to support fox fur farms, but most of them have closed in recent years. Now, there is only one fur farm, which operates in the village of Lorino, but its owners find it increasingly difficult to maintain.
The foxes are bred in cages built on tall stilts, to protect them from bears and deep winter snow. They’re part of the local food chain, eating offal from whales and walruses killed by hunters.
Bears are a threat to the region’s human inhabitants, as well. They have little fear of people and travel freely through the villages. They frequently dig up graves to eat human remains.
Bears who raid cemeteries are considered a threat — they may start to view living people, too, as food. Residents try to shoot them. They believe that scattering the bear’s remains will soothe its spirit.
Shamanistic practices are an important part of life in Chukotka. Shamans perform rituals for the first spring hunt, and cleanse walrus breeding grounds, so that the walruses return the next year.
Chukotka’s relationship to the outside world is complex. On one hand, government subsidies arguably improve life in the region. The government provides hunters with boats, fuel, and equipment, and pays their salaries, so that they can provide their villages with free food. In the villages, you can find relatively new homes, cell signals, slow but functional Internet connections, and televisions.
On the other hand, locals treat other parts of Russia as a parallel world. They call the rest of Russia the “mainland,” and view it as a place with its own lifestyle and rules, whose people don’t know that they have any connection to Chukotka. Life here is about survival. Hunting, which locals depend on to eat, is dangerous. So is the weather — during storms, waves roll through entire villages, and winter snows reach the second story of homes.
The crew who shot the film over 6 weeks, during the summer of 2020, says life on the Chukotka coast is physically taxing. Even at the warmest time of year, July and August, the temperature was rarely above 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). Strong winds are constant, though their direction isn’t. Fresh water arrives in the villages in rusty old barrels, giving it a cloudy appearance and a strong taste.
Every few years, someone crosses the Bering Strait and lands illegally in the U.S. Anyone who does this gets a lot of attention.
Life and death are tightly intertwined on the Chukotka coast. Killing whales, walruses, and bears is commonplace. There are no toys for sale, so children play with dead birds. But here, the view of death is informed by myths, and shamanism, and rituals connect the world of the living to the spirit world.
The filmmakers say they saw the film as a chance to experience the “otherness” of the culture of Chukotka without “imposing [their own] thought patterns.” They tried to explain as little as possible, and to allow the rhythm and atmosphere of the film emerge from their subjects’ internal lives and cultural practices.
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