A snowy plain beneath glorious blue skies. The Khibiny Mountains rise on the fringes of a natural bowl around a frozen Arctic lake. A distant snowy cloud gets closer, homing in from about a kilometre away. On approach, a team of reindeer emerge from the spray, galloping hard to the finish line. The crowd stirs, roaring encouragement. Over the line, a flag drops and after a short pause, the PA announces the time. Spectators mutter among themselves, assessing that rider’s hopes of success. Welcome to Lovozero, during the annual Arctic Olympics.
The Arctic Olympics never quite caught on in the way it deserved to. An annual contest of sports traditional to Russia’s northern regions, it was a Soviet innovation intended to showcase the skills of the rural proletariat. Inaugurated way back in 1934 and based in Murmansk Region, north of the Arctic Circle, it centred on cross-country skiing and featured in socialist-realist art projects highlighting the physical prowess of the new model Soviet citizen. But what makes it unique, then and now, is the reindeer racing contest. The rules are simple enough. Each reindeer herder hitches his team to a sledge and, using a long pole to chivvy them into action, navigates an out-and-back course about 2.5km long. The fastest time wins. The details have scarcely changed since the 1930s, and the event probably dates back much further.
A month after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Lovozero celebrated the 80th anniversary of its games. As always, reindeer take pride of place. The population of 2,800 treats the reindeer as a badge of identity. It prances from the sign on the main road, it stands proud on the village crest. Business cards introduce an ‘Olenovod’ – a reindeer herder. Fashions include jackets and boots with reindeer motifs, reindeer skins are used for both clothing and to insulate homes, while antlers serve as decoration, coat hangers, or are carved into jewellery and ornaments. A stall selling reindeer meat – as prime cuts, sausage, or tinned, stewed ‘tushyonka’ – does a lively trade. Local people might prefer to zip around on snowmobiles these days, and indeed the top prize for the supreme reindeer racing champion was a state-of-the-art model that gleamed next to a stage where performers sounded more Russian than Saami, but the word on the streets remains ‘olen’, reindeer.
The festival’s superficial roots lie in Soviet dreams of uniting the ethnic diversity of their vast nation, but the historic tap is far deeper. Timed to fall close to the vernal equinox, this northern rite of spring is shared among the Saami, the Komi and the Nentsy, nomadic peoples of the north for whom the coming of spring finally heralded the end of a long, cold and dark polar winter. Like Maslenitsa in Slavic Russia, or Novruz in the Turkic republics of Central Asia, it’s a time of year steeped in mystery.
Today’s version cuts away much of the old ritual. The shaman’s tent – reindeer hide, naturally – is a sideshow. Lovozero’s museum of Saami life is crowded for the day but elsewhere the evidence suggests that the old language and culture is struggling to survive in modern Russia. One of the drivers dons traditional Saami clothes and speaks proudly of his ethnicity, but still has the typically Slavic name Semyon. Nothing daunted, he is an enthusiastic advocate for the event, tirelessly showing tourists around the ‘paddock’ where reindeer rest before and after the race.
“This festival supports our national way of life,” he said. “We’ve always done this and it’s a really important event for us.”
It’s particularly important to secure the future of Saami culture, Semyon believes. “Right now, it’s hard for us,” he admitted. “More and more young people want to move to the cities, away from this land. It’s not easy to keep our traditions going.”
The Russian language remains an issue here. Semyon lamented the lack of interest or opportunity for youngsters to learn Saami, a language closely related to Finnish. Its sounds feature more often on maps than on people’s lips. It echoes faintly through place-names – Lovozero is also known as ‘Lujavr’, with ‘javr’ being a Finno-ugric counterpart for the Russian ‘ozero’, or ‘lake’. ‘Tirvas’, a Saami greeting, is a popular name for hotels and guest-houses, ski complexes adopt Finnish names, tortuously rendered into baffling blocks of Cyrillic text – Kukisvumchorr, a couple of hours drive to the south and close to the airport at Apatity, is perhaps the region’s biggest – but those Saami slopes are reached by turning left at the end of Prospekt Lenina in the stolidly Soviet town of Kirovsk, named after a noted Bolshevik revolutionary.
Once a year, at least, things are festive. The Arctic Olympics attracts visitors from across the Kola Peninsula and beyond – a ski team from Norway, which has a border just a few kilometres from Murmansk, joined the cross-country race. There were visitors from other Russian regions as well – Olga Klimova and her family came from Bryansk, close to the Ukrainian border, for her first visit to the north. “We’ve really enjoyed ourselves … but we were a bit nervous the first time we saw the reindeer! We didn’t want to get too close,” she said. “But we enjoyed the folk singers and it was good to get out in the sunshine to see the festival and celebrate life.”
Some of this material was taken from a feature that first appeared online at Russia! magazine.