No share of the oil wealth

The island of Kolguyev has a primarily Nenets population.

KOLGUYEV: Russia has produced oil for hundreds of millions on this island in the Barents Sea, but the local Nenets people have not seen much of the income. Today, they were visited by the Nansen Memorial Expedition.


During the night “Professor Molchanov” made her way from the shores of the Kanin Peninsula towards the island of Kolguyev in the eastern Barents Sea. We approached quite slowly. This is really shallow waters and when it was less than four meter depth, the captain decided to lower the anchor. From our position there was still four kilometers to go before coming onshore.

Four kilometers in a zodiac with wind and waves makes you wet. For me, very wet; I volunteered to sit in front to balance the weight better. I could also tell you about the sandbanks so near the surface that our zodiac touched the bottom several times. After a 45 minutes “ride” we come to shore near the only village on the island; Bugrino.

We are met by two officials; one policeman and another working with border zone control. Both are checking out passport thoroughly before cross-checking on the list. I have been to Russia enough times not to ask, but still have to reflect over the stupidity of having a border zone regime on an isolated Arctic island when the arriving visitors already have passed immigration control upon arrival to the Federation. 

There are two settlements on Kolguyev. Here in Bugrino live mainly Nenets people that for ages have had their reindeers on the island. The other settlement is the barracks with fly-in, fly-out oil workers on the other side of the 3,500 square kilometer big island. 

For one or another reason; the name Kolguyev comes from the Finnish word “Kolmen” that means three, describing the triangle-formed shape of the island. 

The oilfield was developed from 1983, with production from 1985. Since then, the Arcticneft company has produced 1,8 million tons of oil from the field. That is a considerable amount of oil. 

Now, the resources in the wells are soon coming to an end and oil production on Kolguyev will stop.

I couldn’t see any of that income in the Bugrino village where the around 300 Nenets people on the island are living. In fact, the village reminded me too much of my trips to Siberia in 1990 and 1991 when the villages of indigenous people of the north where highly depressing due to overflow of vodka. At the local store in Bugrino they told that there is a ban on alcohol sale today, an ban that obviously doesn’t hinder alcohol from setting its footprint on the society. 

But, don’t misunderstand, this Nenets settlement also has its shining corners and first of all the friendly people. Nearly every house has a “banja” – Russian for sauna. The wooden fired saunas are placed a few meters from the main buildings like in most countryside villages throughout Russia. 

Tatiana Michailnova Romanenko is head of the local reindeer herders association. I visited her office together with Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. Tatiana sees a bright future for the reindeer business on Kolguyev. After years with nearly no funding from the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, the village have now received 41 million rubles to build a new slaughterhouse. The plan is to sell reindeer hides to China. Globalization has also reached the Nenets village of Bugrino.

There are 6,000 reindeers on Kolguyev.

Tatiana herself has stayed four years on Kolguyev and will soon move back to Naryan-Mar where she works for the regional research institute.  

August is the season for cloudberry. And never in my life have I seen more cloudberries, they surround the entire village and likely most of the tundra vegetation on the island. From my shoes to the horizon; all covered with this highly tasty orange-colored berry, by many named the “gold of the Barents Region.”

It will be wrong of me to elaborate any further about life on the island. Who am I, and how can a one-day visit to a totally (for me) strange tundra culture teach me anything?  Let me just repeat the words of an old Nenets babushka that came down to the shore before we placed our Zodiac on the water again: “I am just here to watch you.” 

Fridtjof Nansen was also fascinated by the life and culture of the indigenous people of Russia’s north. In his book “Through Siberia” published in 1914, Nansen writes: 

“The European civilization cannot give them much of value. On the other hand, it gives them new habits and needs that it is difficult to satisfy in their way of life. Therefore, many of them that are much in contact with the Russians, run into greater and greater poverty.”

Nansen’s way of describing the indigenous people in Siberia reads rather racist-like seen with our eyes a hundred years later in history. This is what he wrote after some Nenets people were invited on board: 

“….came pattering up the gangway, really not unlike monkeys. They moved carefully around, gazing at all the strange things they saw in the impressing ship…”   

The above mentioned quotes were presented to us in a lecture by Øyvind Ravna, a law professor with the University of Tromsø, one of the co-organizers of the Nansen Memorial Expedition. Øyvind Ranva has travelled throughout the Russian tundra and written several books about the indigenous peoples in this part of the Arctic.

By evening “Professor Molchanov” set sail straight north towards the island of Vaygach and the Kara Sea, the waters where Fridtjof Nansen met huge amounts of pack-ice when he sailed here with the cargo-vessel “Correct” one hundred years ago.