Juri Vella is a western Siberian indigenous poet who belongs to the tiny group of the Forest Nenets (circa 2000 people). But he is much more than only a poet, and probably poetry in his life occupies a minor amount of his time. Most of it goes to just living and surviving. Shortly before the end of the Soviet era in Russia, Juri decided to quit his job as hunter in a state farm and move with his family to the forest to be a reindeer herder and lead the traditional way of life of his people. Villages in western Siberia are purely a product of Soviet rule: nomads and semi-nomads were sedentarised between 1930 and 1950, and compelled to work for collective farms. Juri felt the call of the forest and the reindeer. Today, he lives mainly in camps he has built himself, in the company of his wife, sometimes one grandchild or another, and more than a hundred reindeer. He is the head of a huge family, four daughters, their husbands and their children, fed primarily by Juri. Work in the village, after 1991, is scarce and precarious. In the forest, he is sure to have meat and fish, to have his material needs covered and, morally, to work for his well-being and that of his family.
However, this does not come without permanent struggle: the territory he lives in is part of a huge oil basin that gives 80% of Russian oil. Oil companies are everywhere since the 1970s and they have no time for native populations or the natural environment. The oil drillers’ mentality is to submit nature to their will. The indigenous peoples living in the forest – Khanty and Forest Nenets – are inconvenient because their mere presence interferes with the free exploitation of natural resources. Just living is thus an everyday fight for the survival of animals, people and nature, not only for today, but also for the next generations. When Juri finds free time, he writes poetry: his everyday life is what inspires him.
Eva Toulouze, Tartu, Estonia, August 2011