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On the Run in Siberia

Rane Willerslev

Publication Year: 2012

If I had let myself be ruled by reason alone, I would surely be lying dead somewhere or another in the Siberian frost.

The Siberian taiga: a massive forest region of roughly 4.5 million square miles, stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Bering Sea, breathtakingly beautiful and the coldest inhabited region in the world. Winter temperatures plummet to a bitter 97 degrees below zero, and beneath the permafrost lie the fossilized remains of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and other ice age giants. For the Yukaghir, an indigenous people of the taiga, hunting sable is both an economic necessity and a spiritual experience—where trusting dreams and omens is as necessary as following animal tracks. Since the fall of Communism, a corrupt regional corporation has monopolized the fur trade, forcing the Yukaghir hunters into impoverished servitude.

Enter Rane Willerslev, a young Danish anthropologist who ventures into this frozen land on an idealistic mission to organize a fair-trade fur cooperative with the hunters. From the outset, things go terribly wrong. The regional fur company, with ties to corrupt public officials, proves it will stop at nothing to maintain its monopoly: one of Willerslev’s Yukaghir business partners is arrested on spurious charges of poaching and illegal trading; another drowns mysteriously. When police are sent to arrest him, Willerslev fears for his life, and he and a local hunter flee to a remote hunting lodge even deeper in the icy wilderness. Their situation turns even more desperate right away: they manage to kill a moose but lose the meat to predators and begin to starve, frostbitten and isolated in the frozen taiga.

Thus begins Willerslev’s extraordinary, chilling tale of one year living in exile among Yukaghir hunters in the stark Siberian taiga region. At turns shocking and quietly moving, On the Run in Siberia is a pulse-pounding tale of idealism, political corruption, starvation, and survival (with a timely assist from Vladimir Putin) as well as a striking portrait of the Yukaghirs’ shamanistic tradition and their threatened way of life, a drama unfolding daily in one of the world’s coldest, most enthralling landscapes.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xiii

The story you are about to read had its beginnings in 1993, when my identical twin brother, Eske, and I went on an expedition to northeastern Siberia with a small group of researchers and a film crew to study the Yukaghirs, an indigenous group of hunters who live in the...


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pp. xv-xvi

Gallery of Characters

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pp. xvii-xix

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One Last, Feeble Attempt

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pp. 1-3

I run my fingers down over my face. My cheeks are hollow, and my eyes feel as if they are sinking into my head. After a week without any food at all, I no longer feel the hunger gnawing at my stomach. But my physical strength has been used up long ago. My arms, my chest,...


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pp. 5-27

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1. Shalugin, Leader of the Yukaghirs

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pp. 7-17

Kolya shalugin wears an old navy suit with broad, dark stripes. The material is smooth and shiny and has a metallic glint in the midday sun when he steps out of the transit area in Kastrup airport in Denmark to meet Uffe and me. As he...

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2. A Post-Soviet Nightmare

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pp. 19-33

Uffe is one of those people whom I would without hesitation call a calm character. He always encounters problems of any kind with an almost stoical calm. Whether it is because he lived for decades in a remote cabin in the Swedish forest...

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3. Sable Furs for Sale

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pp. 35-56

One day in july 1999, I am tramping down the dry, dusty dirt road that serves as the main street of Nelemnoye. Almost three years after Uffe’s last visit in 1996, I am back in the village. I was here for the first time during the film expedition in...


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pp. 59-81

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4. Out of Range

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pp. 61-71

I caress helene with my gaze, her fine, pale face, plump red lips, and jet-black hair that falls in wisps around her ears. Quite slowly and tenderly, I lay my arm around her throat. With my other hand, I open a button on her shirt and glimpse her white,...

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5. Soft Gold

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pp. 73-84

Only a day after our arrival at the hunting cabin in the mountains near the source of the Omulevka River, Yura and Sinitskiy head back to Nelemnoye. Our parting is brief and unsentimental. Everyone knows that Ivan and I will now have to look after ourselves in the taiga and that...

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6. Starvation and Desperation

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pp. 87-101

A month and a half has passed since we arrived at the hunting cabin. The sack of sable furs is bulging, but the chunk of meat has long since been eaten. Several times, we have gone to get meat from the moose Yura shot, but without building an actual rack for the meat. We decide to make...

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7. In the Yukaghirs’ Camp

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pp. 103-121

I fling my backpack off the snowmobile and step into Spiridon’s log cabin. It is very similar to the one Ivan and I were living in but is much more spacious and better equipped. And it is situated in the middle of the Omulevka Delta, with a large open...

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8. A Long-Awaited Friend

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pp. 123-137

The end of april brings about some striking events. First, the long-awaited spring arrives. The young bright light grows and becomes warmer and more powerful day by day. In the course of just a week, the temperature rises from minus 22 to 50 degrees. There is certainly...


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pp. 139-161

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9. The Curse

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pp. 141-153

The danger of desperately clinging to one single goal is the disappointment felt once it is achieved. This is how it is with our return to Nelemnoye. For far too long, I have been completely consumed by the desire to escape from the wilderness and get back to the village, back to people...

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10. Land of Shadows

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pp. 155-166

Being with the old Yukaghir couple instills a warmth in my heart that I have been missing for too long. I can feel how their affectionate care dispels all my gloomy thoughts. Akulina is constantly laying tidbits on the table in front of me: boiled moose muzzle, raw kidney, and marrow...

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11. Screwed

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pp. 169-177

I am sitting in Zyryanka’s small airport, waiting for the propeller airplane to Yakutsk. A whole year has passed since I returned to Siberia to carry out my field study of the Yukaghirs and revive the fur project. The trip is over; I have finally decided to go home to Denmark. I am neither happy nor sad...

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12. The Way Back

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pp. 179-186

It is a cliché to claim that the return home is much harder than the departure. But it is true. I had hoped to slide gently back into my life at home, but instead I experience a crisis that I find much more difficult to recover from than the cold, the hunger, and the privation in the Siberian wilderness. During...

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A Leap in Time

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pp. 187-189

Early in the morning I am woken by a peculiar dream. I see myself lying on a reindeer skin, dreaming that I am lying on a reindeer skin, dreaming that I am lying on a reindeer skin, dreaming. I sit up in my sleeping bag and know right away that I am still not awake. Then I jump from one dreamed reality to the...


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pp. 191-200


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pp. 201-207

E-ISBN-13: 9780816681471
E-ISBN-10: 0816681473
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816676279

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2012