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Feature Story December 11, 2002
Not Dead Yet
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 6 of 7
His first move was to shut the profit-making fox farm, which he felt was too much of an administrative headache. Thinking like a textbook asset stripper, he figured it would be easier to recycle the roof boards from the farm when building government subsidized houses for Yevenks and pocket the savings than run a productive business. Now Mongolian horses are the only ones to use the territory of the farm.

The federal government pays 350,000 rubles per house, although in the village I heard estimates that the construction only costs 150,000, thanks to the cheap labor, free roof boards, wood and other stripped materials.

Slava helped build houses one summer, but the pay was so awful he realized it was cheaper to live in the taiga.

"We did the math and it was clear they were cheating us," he told me. "But when we showed them our numbers, they just answered with their own fake ones."

Stealing from the government is one thing, but even more nefarious is how Krapevin runs the company store. Kolkhoz workers don't get paid in cash, but in coupons that can only be exchanged at the overpriced company store owned by Krapevin. Worse still, he likes to sell stuff (like vodka) on credit, managing to keep all his employees in constant debt.

He has plenty of other tricks as well. For example, he trades furs for surplus army goods, which he then sells to Yevenks at inflated prices. At the camp I stayed at, everyone dressed in such clothing; there were even two WW2 vintage coats. And, of course, he lowballs the Yevenks on the furs, paying out a maximum of 1000 rubles for fur that will fetch well more than twice that in the auction house in St. Petersburg.

Russian attitudes towards Yevenks are split roughly into two camps. A lot of Russians see them as a quaint people that, regardless of their flaws, need to be protected from themselves and shouldn't be held wholly responsible for their actions. One example of this is that the parents who let their baby die this year weren't punished at all. Rather, the doctors who had released the baby to their care were chastised.

The other group, which unfortunately consists of most younger Russians, think of the Yevenks as a dull, backwards people that live in filth. Stas said that most Russians his age didn't want anything to do with him or, if they did, it was only to try to rip him off.

There is also a small number of Russians who absolutely adore the Yevenks as honest, straightforward and incapable of hypocrisy. Those Russians are willing to forgive Yevenks for their violence and binges. I have to agree with the last opinion. In all my experiences with the Yevenks in Ust Nukzhe and the taiga, they struck me as probably the coolest culture I've ever seen.

It may be rash to draw too many conclusions about Yevenks from my time with the Abramovs -- I imagine that I was sent to a fairly respectable camp intentionally -- but I will anyways.

I can't remember the last time I saw such a lack of pretenses. Slava laughed off the possibility of a God with the simple logic that if Muslims think Christians are going to hell and Christians think the Muslims are, then it's too big of a risk to believe. Stas said he found action movies dull because he knows how to shoot a gun, and therefore he knows how ridiculous the gun fights are.

They are unbelievably generous, but not in that ostentatious way that Russians sometimes affect. They just share whatever they have. For several weeks before I arrived, a bomzh was living with Anatoly in his tiny hut.

When hunting with Anatoly, he brought me to a site where a dead moose had lost a fight, cut off its antlers and gave them to me. At the camp, they all completely sincerely invited me to stay on till New Year's to get a better understanding of how they lived and, in particular, their territorial conflicts with Russian hunters, who often claim that Yevenks don't have the right to hunt on their parcels.

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