I am learning all sorts of tips on how to survive on the taiga from Rane Willerslev’s On the Run in Siberia. How to lay traps. How to fish frozen rivers. How to persuade the spirits to work in my favor. And yet I feel safe and secure in the knowledge that there is a 99.8 percent chance I will never have to use this information.
Read the last Bookslut on Alix Shulman's 'Ménage.'
On the Run is not simply a book of survival, even if it is the sexier part of the book. Willerslev came to Siberia to help the native tribes set up direct trade for sable fur with his native Denmark. Previously, their only option was to sell their furs to the Russian government, who was ripping them off and leaving them destitute. The author was also there to study their language and folklore, but it was the meddling in their economy that had him wanted by the police and living, barely, in a drafty cabin in a Siberian winter.
It’s a story of government corruption and living by your wits, but also a story of a man who found himself drawn in by the mysteries of the land and realizing that there are forces at work in our world that do not follow logical thought and rationality. I spoke with Willerslev about life in the harder parts of Russia and the difficulty of returning home.
There have been these books lately that are very nostalgic about the hunter/gatherer life, and romanticize the notion of "what's yours is mine" as a harmonious arrangement. You encountered that notion with the Yukaghir, and there was a clash as a result. What's your take on it? Is one way of living better than the other, or is it just different?
It is difficult to compare our ways of living with those of hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Yukaghir. Also they face moral and other problems, which above all have to do with them living in a small society where everybody knows everybody else. This can be quite stressful if, let us say, you have an affair with your neighbor’s wife, which does in fact happen, or when your son kills your neighbor’s son or vice versa.
At times, it does feel extremely claustrophobic living within such as small community. Still, I was—just like many other students of hunter-gatherers—highly impressed by the peoples’ ethos of sharing, because it is a distribution of resources that emphasizes the well-being of the collective over individual gain, something that has largely been lost during years of neo-liberal politics in Europe and the U.S.
Having said this, personal greed does exist among the Yukaghirs. Thus, people quickly learn to hide their possessions so as to avoid others from making claim on them. Greed exists everywhere; the question is whether a society encourages it and makes it the driving force of its development or if it discourages it as something destructive and unethical. I belong to those who put more faith in the latter model than the former.
You talk at one point about acclimating to life on the taiga and finding the notion of returning to the city repulsive. Once you returned, what was the process of getting back to normal life like? Were you homesick for the taiga?
The return is the most difficult part of a journey. For me it was hell. I had lost what I loved, and I had nothing to put in its stead that would give me guidance in my life as a so-called modern Westerner. After all, the felt power of the spirits is limited in urban Europe.
However, I have turned the shamanic way of thinking into my own take on thinking theory, when I write anthropology, make exhibitions and even when I run my museum. I still go hunting in Norway where I live, but I get exhausted just by the thought of returning to the Siberian Taiga as a full-time hunter. This was a dream of youth, not of a man who has turned 40.
Part of your acclimating to the taiga was this shift in your spiritual beliefs. You were cursed at one point, but at other points you credited these unseen forces in Siberia, the spirits that the inhabitants believe in, for your survival. Are these feelings something that has stuck with you?
Yes, in two ways. When I go hunting I still carry out the offerings and other spiritual stuff that I learned in Siberia. But more importantly, I use what can broadly be denoted shamanism as a way of thinking about anthropology, which implies taking an essentially subversive, ironic and at times rather mad stance towards classical problems, such as animism, human-animal relations, the senses, etc.
You mention Ian Stevenson, a researcher at the University of Virginia who has been studying what others refer to the "paranormal," the idea of reincarnation, precognition, that sort of thing. And as a scientist, there is a lot of skepticism—if you even try to work in this area, you're denounced as a quack. Stevenson has had a lot of criticism thrown at him. Has there been any push back about including your own changing spiritual beliefs in the book, particularly in a time when atheism is so very much in vogue?
I noticed that an atheist society in Denmark called me “crazy” on their website, but otherwise people—also within the scientific community—have been very open-minded. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I belong to the so-called “soft” sciences, unlike Stevenson, who places himself within the “hard” branch.
When Putin takes over Russia, there's a moment in the book where there's almost optimism that things for the Yukaghir will improve, because Putin is claiming to be dedicated to weeding out corruption. But we all know how that story ends, with unlawful arrests and massive protests in the streets, and irregular voting patterns in his re-election. Did anything really change for the minority tribes under Putin? Or has the corruption and the deception continued?
It is important to realize that Putin brought a lot of hope to Russia, especially to Siberian peoples who suffered the most during the turbulent years of Yeltsin. Around the year 2000, no food, no money and no health care where part of the daily life in Siberia. If you killed something, you would eat; if not, you would starve. This was the hard fact of life.
Putin did in fact change this dreadful situation to the better for many Russians, also in Siberia. The terrible price that Russia paid as we all know was the lack of political freedom, the angle of fear that I talk about in the book.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.