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“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there.
By Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan
The Kola Peninsula, situated in the far northwest of Russia, lies almost completely inside the Arctic Circle. Valentina Sovkina is the chairperson of the Sami Parliament of the Kola Peninsula and director of Sami Radio in the Murmansk Oblast, Russia. She has previously worked at Tundra, the agricultural and reindeer husbandry cooperative that constitutes the main business in her home of Lovozero, a rural locality (selo) with a population of 2,871, according to the 2010 census, in the Murmansk Oblast.
Lovozero spans both banks of the Virma River and is located 102 miles southeast of the city of Murmansk, the most populous human settlement on the Kola Peninsula, with a population of over 300,000. Murmansk is by far the largest city north of the Arctic Circle and is a major port on the Arctic Ocean.
We spoke with Sovkina about life on the Kola Peninsula and the importance of safeguarding Sami language and traditions.
Kesserwan Arteau: Tell us about your North.
Valentina Sovkina: A lot of people call our territory Lapland, but for me it is still Sápmi, the land where my people, the Sami, live.
Although the Indigenous people of this land are the Sami, the Kola Peninsula is home to inhabitants of many nationalities: Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, the Finno-Ugric peoples. The peculiarity of our people is that we are transboundary, residing on the territories of four countries: Russia, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.
The Kola Peninsula can be described by its numerous reservoirs, lakes, rivers, rivulets, streams, and two seas (the Barents Sea in the north and the White Sea in the east and southeast). Even though our Khibiny Mountains aren’t very large, they are very impressive. There is the Lovozero tundra and our holy sites. The jewel of the Kola Peninsula is Seydyavvr, which means “holy lake” in the Sami language.
The most beautiful thing here is nature, especially the tundra. It might seem barren, with very little vegetation, but the tundra is gorgeous in all seasons. In the spring, life awakens and the reindeer calves appear. In summer, the sun never sets. The autumn is a riot of colors, and the northern berries bring us joy: cloudberry, blueberry, crowberry, lingonberry ... In winter, there are the northern lights. To use the words of the poet Yuri Kushak:
I knew that the North is above sea level.
I understood: the North—is on the heart’s level"
Valentina with the Sami flag at Kedkiavr Lake, at the deer trails of her ancestors.
KA: Tell us about yourself.
VS: Above all, I am Sami. I studied education and psychology. I graduated from a teachers’ college and then went to university in the city of Murmansk. I was fortunate to have wonderful teachers and to be successful in my profession. I worked in a kindergarten, and then at the school where I had studied for 11 years. I served as deputy director and then as director at a vocational college. My work has always been related to the Sami people.
Now, I am a public figure, being active in politics. I am the director of Kola Sami Radio and chairperson of the Kuellnegk nёark Sam Sobbar (Sami Parliament of the Kola Peninsula). It is important for me to safeguard our people so that the Sami language and traditions are not lost to future generations.
Valentina as a teacher with her very first class. Krasnoshchelye, 1984.
KA: How are you influenced by your heritage?
VS: I was born in the North. All my roots are here. Now, I live in the Lovozero selo, an ancestral Sami village. I was able to trace my family lineage up to the seventh generation. My ancestors are all Sami. They practiced reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, and gathering. Grandpa Egor (on my mother’s side) hunted bear. Once, while armed only with a knife, he came face to face with a bear. His skills and experience as a hunter came to his rescue.
I am very happy that I had the time to learn from my parents and grandparents, to hear their native tongue, to appreciate our traditional food, to acquire knowledge of nature and how to behave in it. They taught me to be observant and to comply with rituals that have been in my family. It gives me strength and faith. Thanks to my knowledge, I know how to act in different situations. Mastering Sami language makes it possible to communicate with our elders, so I can arrange meetings with them and leave a record of the bearers of our Sami language for our youth. My heritage helps me in life, and I am glad that I did not have to choose my nationality, to choose who I am. That can happen when there are representatives from different nationalities in the same family. A person will have to choose who they are: Russian-Komi, Sami-Ukrainian, Sami-Komi. In reality, it really depends on the family and whose traditions are transmitted.
Photo by Artem Taranenko, Facebook.
KA: What are some of the problems your region is facing?
VS: Our environment is very fragile and any interference or development has its risks. There should be comprehensive assessments. Should it be impossible to avoid any interference as a result of industrial development, construction, or exploration, careful consideration must be given to the environment and to Indigenous peoples living in a territory.
KA: What are some of the misconceptions about your region?
VS: People say the North is cold, with long polar nights, out of which people emerge weakened. They think that Indigenous peoples are backward, addicted to alcohol, and uncivilized. This is not true! The people who live in the North are very warm and helpful. Polar nights don’t drain your strength if you eat well and manage your energy throughout the day. This is something that can be learned from the Indigenous peoples. They know how to do it. Traditional food and lifestyle make it possible to properly manage your energy levels and vital resources. It is simply something that needs to be practiced and studied. Indigenous peoples are wise by nature.
The problem of alcoholism affects all nations of the world. However, the problem is more visible for visible minorities because people can distinguish them by their appearance. I know many people who live in their traditional environment and they have no time for alcohol or any other addictions. In the traditional lifestyle, a person stays busy! If a person is taken out of their customary lifestyle and given easy access to all the “pleasures” of life, it is predictable what can befall any human being.
KA: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
VS: I see myself living in the same place but still traveling extensively around the world. The goal I have set for myself for the next 10 years is to explore the Kola Peninsula, to visit the Solovetsky Islands, Lake Baikal, Kamchatka Peninsula, and many other areas inhabited by Northern Indigenous peoples in Russia. Even though we are all different, we share a lot of similarities pertaining to food, needlework, and a lifestyle that is close to nature. I want to find our commonalities.
Lovozero, as seen by Valentina.
KA: Where do you see your North in 10, 20, 50, and 100 years from now?
VS: It would be great if I was granted enough time to see it through all these years. The industry will leave, perhaps a lot of transformations will take place, but the Indigenous peoples will remain here. I am sure of that.
KA: What are your hopes and fears?
VS: My hope is that we will flourish. My biggest fear is the global assimilation of nations and cultures, in which the artifacts of the past would be rendered meaningless.
KA: What would you like the world to know?
VS: That Indigenous peoples cannot destroy nature; they are its keepers. It is a priori. What is happening to us is that we are part of a system including the government, companies, and society. Often, our peoples are faced with a choice: to protect themselves and their land, or agree to follow the rules of the powerful for self-preservation and survival. It is difficult to judge. There should be individual responsibility.
This interview has been translated from Russian.
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.
[Photos courtesy of Valentina Sovkina, unless indicated otherwise]