Why do some races of people seem to have an advantage over others? Why are some countries rich and others poor? Why are some people haves and others have-nots? For argument’s sake let’s say that having (education, health, work) is the ostensible goal of human society on earth and not-having (basic somatic needs insecure) is the place from which we came. Why are the majority of the haves people of Eurasian origin while the have-nots are the Native Peoples of the world? What’s the deal?

Luck mostly. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, W. W. Norton) geographer Jared Diamond writes that as hunter-gatherers transformed to agricultural societies it was the nutrient-rich plants of Eurasia (barley, wheat) as well as the successful domestication of docile animals (cow, horse, sheep, goats) that allowed surpluses to be stored, and specialized societies to develop. The rest of the world initially had only one domesticatable animal (Llamas) and produced mainly low-nutrient maize and potatoes and have failed to figure out a way to lengthen the short shelf life of bananas. From the stores came surpluses, specialization, population growth, class hierarchy, bureaucracy, nations, and empires.

The bureaucracy par excellence had to have been the post-WWII Union of Socialist Republics under Stalin. Be it the 17th, 19th or 21st century, Russia has never been without political controversy, never without misunderstanding, never without raw beauty. She is so big that she always surprises and is always surprising, at least in part, because she is so big. And full of the unknown and the overlooked. Look at a map of Russia, pan to the extreme northeast of Asia to the edge of what was the landbridge humans crossed into the western hemisphere some 16,000 years ago and you will see the snub nose of the Chukchi Peninsula, facing off across from Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.

Bering Strait Map

Bering Strait Map

The tail ends of two vast landmasses, which once connected the world as Beringia, exist today in the form of the people, the dialects and traditions of Northwest Alaska and the Russian Far East. This is the ancestral home of the Chukchi, Evens, Koryaks, and Eskimos, the native peoples who have inhabited this land for millennia. As Latvian photographer Andrey Shapran said when he visited Mechigmensky Bay of Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, “Walruses, whales and other sea mammals are daily food for this people, and sea hunting is their daily life.”

Imagine that. No 9-5 at the office or school for the kids. No television or commercials. No Christmas shopping or summer vacations. No politics or perestroika, red scare or cold war. The only cold they know is waking up and hunting for food in the long Arctic winter. Brr. Most might choose bureaucracy over fending for oneself at open sea.

The small coastal town of Akani has long been a settlement of sea huntsmen where for centuries they have chased walruses and whales through the chilly Arctic waters on their annual migration. Yet during the Stalin’s reign the local people were relocated 30 kilometers to the south in Lorino, off the migratory path of their atavistic foodsource. Despite the infamy of Soviet bureaucratic prevailing wisdom, migratory patterns of walruses and whales remained stubborn, continually making their annual visit off the coast of Akani, where the local huntsmen come to try their luck, before cutting inside the Alaskan Peninsula and heading down the coast of North America to breed. Shapran points out, “The most lucky is who come out of the sea first.”

But what do we mean as Russian? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people. Click To Tweet

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

A Chukchi hunter takes aim at a Grey Whale with his spear - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

I ask him about the ongoing photographic series Lands at the Edge of the World chronicling the native people inhabiting the north-east of Russia, the South Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and Chukotka peninsulas, “Do these indigenous reindeer herdsmen, fishermen and sea mammal hunters practice traditional survival techniques the same way as their ancestors? How is it different or similar?”

“Yes, the ways are similar. But speeds have changed—huntsmen on the Chukotka peninsula today use modern high speed engines for their boats, herdsmen in the tundra often ride powerful off-road vehicles. Although generally the situation remains the same—the immense northern areas define the rhythm of life for these people.” Andrey continues, “A harvested whale on land is as amazing a sight as a live whale at the open water. No one animal looks the same as others. The ancient tradition of sharing the kill between all local people according to their needs perseveres and all are welcome to cut off his part of the common catch. It is the only way to survive in the extreme conditions of the north.”

Talking to the hunters, Shapran has heard tales of how it has become harder to hunt whales. To ease their toils (the I.W.C. annually allots them 140 Grey Whales), humanitarians have donated American-made dart guns, which the locals save for hunting the big Baleen whales that pass through their waters in late autumn, also using a kind of hand-made metal charge for Gray whales, but whale harvesting with such weapons is complicated, because only a precise hit guarantees success. The Stone Age arrows, spears and harpoons continue to dominate their modern hunts. Shapran adds, “They say even American-made firearm cannot compete with this ancient weapon.”

Hunting and butchering are such integral skills that are done almost as automatically as walking and eating. Several hours after the hunt and not a trace of the bloody carcasses remains on the shore. Here in the far north, life and… Click To Tweet

I ask the obvious question, “Is this lifestyle sustainable in 2011 and further into the future?”

“Certainly this lifestyle is rational here, but only small part of local population lives in a such way. Settlements and towns with heated houses, TV, shops which are full of food from our civilized world, all these things deprive people the opportunity to develop those qualities that are necessary in the tough conditions of the Far North. The percentage of people who live in the traditional way is very low, the young generation do not move on to the tundra or to hunt in the sea, because living, or even survival conditions there are absolutely diverse.”

As Shapran recounts a story from one of the whalers, saying, “…The whales attacked their boat twice—first time a wounded whale dove down under them and struck the boat bottom with his head…” he gestures like the old Chukchi hunter throwing up his hands, showing how hunters flew from the boat. “The next time, he did not fall out from the boat—it did not turn over. ‘Now,’ the hunter added, ‘I am fearful to go out to sea.’ But he has to hunt. He needs to feed his family.”

He continues, “The hunters venture out to sea at dawn, eating only once before coming back home, and often not returning until after sunset. Their meal consists of a piece of cold boiled meat, bread and tea from vacuum flask. Hunting always takes a lot of energy. A way back with a killed whale is always a difficult trial. The longer hunting continues, the longer coming home is. And they never go hunting alone. The sea, they believe, for sure takes a single man away.”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

The carcass of a Grey whale on the shores of Akani - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

HM: “The World Wildlife Fund reports that in addition to some of the underdeveloped areas of the Chukchi peninsula being in danger of exploitation of natural resource deposits, such as oil, natural gas, and gold, ‘nuclear waste pollution from the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and spreading tundra fires are threatening the Chukotka’s ecosystem,'” I ask Shapran, “Are the indigenous peoples in any danger from outside economic interests disrupting their lives or their food supply? Do they benefit at all?”

AS: “The danger certainly is high. In the past the state interfered with the traditional northern peoples way of living trying to impose on them the ‘civilized’ lifestyle, but now it invades the living space of indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, looking back in history we can see the negative impact only after many decades or even several generations. So, may be it is too early to talk about benefits or harms, but obviously any so-called development must not be done thoughtlessly.”

HM: “Are these Northern people, the Chukchi, Evens, and Eskimos considered Russian?”

AS: “But what do we mean as ‘Russian’? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people.”

HM: “The idea of nationality is a very peculiar issue in regards to the fact that so many nations were under the umbrella of the USSR, including the Baltic countries, eastern Europe, nations in and around the Black Sea, even Mongolia and the provinces of the far east, such as you have photographed. Is there an extended brotherhood of Russia that exists to this day? You are from Latvia, but are you included in the Russian family? What is the situation with all of these recent independent states in relation to modern day Russia?”

AS: “This is a very complicated question and it is impossible to answer it in one sentence. Every former Soviet Republic has its own point of view on this issue. To speak about that confidently you must visit these now independent countries and converse with local natives and Russian people, but I have not had such experiences. It happened, for last several years I have worked only in Kyrgyzstan, in its northern part, where not so many Russians remain and only native people older than thirty more or less can speak Russian. The older generation of Kyrgyz people still respects Russia and the Russians. Despite twenty years since the fall of the USSR they still call Russia ‘older brother.’ In Latvia, where I am from, lots of Russians live nowadays, but the nationalist attitude is quite highly represented and at the same time the situation in the Baltic region is quiet.”

HM: “Your photographic work with Great Patriotic War (World War II) veterans presents an alternative point of view for western audiences of living veterans of the war. Is there a big difference in experience when talking to veterans from Tobolsk as opposed to Riga?”

AS: “No, I did not feel any difference in this work. Lots of veterans who live now in Latvia were born in Siberia and relocated to Latvia right after the Great Patriotic War. And in spite of long years away from their motherland, as well as Siberians they speak Russian. But in Riga the nationwide Victory Day on May the 9th is celebrated quite differently than in Russia. This day is a day of unity for the entire Russian-speaking population of Latvia and the most important participants of it are old people in their Soviet military uniforms. In Siberia such celebrations are more formal and not so sincere.”

HM: “Can you tell us about what you are working on in the future?”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

Whale bones on the shore of the Chukchi peninsula - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

AS: “My current projects are the continuation of the themes which were begun several years ago. The project “Land at the edge of the world” is not limited in time and geography. The work demonstrates the need for more careful research of subjects, of indigenous peoples traditions and their lifestyles. The “Far East” project about the South Kuril islands also requires special two-three-month trip to complete.”

HM: “The South Kuril Islands are part of Russia, but Japan claims a right to some of them. Have you talked to locals about this? How do most Russians feel about this issue?”

AS: “Mostly Russians are for retaining the South Kuril islands within the Russian Federation. On the Islands there is a quite large migration flow, people often go there in search of well-paid work. Usually they are seasonal workers whose families live on the mainland. They are barely interested in political and social issues around this area.”

It’s the haves who start most arguments about politics. The have-nots are just trying to put dinner on the table.