Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues15.1Extractive Frontiers: Narratives ...Anti-extractive Rumouring in the ...

Extractive Frontiers: Narratives and Discourses

Anti-extractive Rumouring in the Russian North-East

Rumeur anti-extractive dans le nord-est de la Russie
Rumor antiextractivo en el noreste de Rusia
Sardana Nikolaeva


This chapter discusses the potentiality of alternative Indigenous politicised discourses, arguing that diverse public narratives can reveal more subtle, yet still effective forms of agency, and, most importantly, highlight the plurality of Indigenous anti-extractive discourses. Building on ethnographic materials, I address the neglected subject of rumours that can open a specific productive space for alternative forms of evidence to understand, write, and most importantly, experience resistance. I demonstrate how localised rumours can mirror uneven power relations between local community, extractive company, and the state. Through the production and reproduction of certain rumouring narratives, the community expresses its fears and anxieties over changing environmental conditions (especially water pollution and radiation), concerns over health, and its members’ precarious and marginalised position within the extensive discourses on economic development, extractive profits and government interventions. Under these conditions of marginality, the community members resist with the only resource they have—rumours—reacting to and, sometimes, subverting their precarious positions.

Top of page

Full text

1. Introduction

1It was a cold November day in Djelinde. Diana and I were having a casual conversation and discussing the village news while waiting for Diana’s friend, who had agreed to be interviewed for this research. We were sitting on the old couch in Diana’s office in the local cultural centre. Suddenly, Diana asked me: ‘Do you know if there are bison in Canada?’ I confirmed that there were indeed bison in Canada though I had never seen them myself. Diana then excitedly shared: ‘We saw a bison here last summer. One of the old hunters shot it; he thought it was a bear but when he got closer and couldn’t recognise the animal, he brought it to the village; and because we were having problems with the Anabar-Diamonds company at the time, I told others not to consume it because it might have been poisoned’. The statement was baffling; I observed closely Diana’s face, trying to figure out if she was joking, then cautiously asked if she really thought that the company would poison the meat of the bison. Unfazed, she exclaimed: ‘Of course, I do! There were so many things happening at that time in the village, you know; there were also a lot of rumours about the company workers causing harm and intimidating our own people with weapons on our territory! That’s why I believed that the company had poisoned that bison and dropped it off for us to find and eat it’. This was a bizarre and hard-to-believe story that came up several times during my visit to Djelinde. In fact, there were similar fantastical rumours told and actively circulated by the villagers, the rumours that I listened to, empathised with, and even sometimes shared myself. This ubiquity of rumours (and of rumouring) within the public sphere intrigued me, and, considering the specific context of the community’s ongoing conflict with the extractive company, made me realise the complex, contradictory nature of these rumours, as well as their political potentiality.

2 The extractive company Anabar-Diamonds specialises in exploration, mining, and the manufacturing of diamonds and rare metals; since 2014, the company had been planning to expand its activities on the river Malaya Kuonamka, which served as the primary fresh water source for the villagers (Figure 1 and 3). The Tomtor massif, a rare metals deposit site in the Olenyek district, licensed by the extractive company Vostok-Engineering, has recently become a focus of heated debates in the central Sakha Republic and locally because of speculation that the rare metals extractive activities projected for 2025 are to be particularly environmentally destructive and radioactively pollutive. Evidently Djelinde residents found themselves in a precarious situation that engendered highly contextualised rumours.

Figure 1 Billboard with the names of the companies operating in the Olenyek District

Figure 1 Billboard with the names of the companies operating in the Olenyek District

Source: Author, 2017.

3In the following discussion, I will illustrate that these local rumours are not mere fantasies of the marginalised and powerless community. Rather, they represent the complexity of events I have witnessed during my fieldwork. Moreover, the rumours embodied everyday experiences of members the local community, revealing their concerns about local social and political events, and are used as covert tactics to manoeuvre within the ambiguous contexts between alterity and opposition outside of government and corporate discourses. In addition, I theorise rumouring as an unorthodox strategy utilised mostly by the Djelinde residents to enforce themselves into the local political and public sphere by creating specific emotional and powerful narratives, hence legitimising their anti-extractivist position. Specifically, the activists in Djelinde strategically used their verbal skills to shape public opinion and alter local discourses through intimate and private channels of communication that are only accessible in informal settings. More precisely, in the context of Djelinde the rumours became weaponised as a politicised tool for opening up a public sphere to make sense of, and privately (and publicly) discuss, the local ambiguous circumstances in relation to impending mining projects, as well as to confront and resist corporate power. It is, however, also important to note that the same very rumours came to provide an insidious way of exercising governmental power since their ultimate effect was the creation of a misinformed, frightened and intimidated community. Thus, it is this conjecture created by rumours and rumouring that I want to explore in this chapter, by analysing the complex web of rumours and other stories (poisoned meat, ‘fixed’ radiation meter, forced relocations, and such) that permeated the day-to-day experiences and interactions of Djelinde community members, illuminating historically constructed structures and techniques of power, and how—sometimes—it is possible to subvert them.

2. Situating the Research: Location and Methodologies

4Sakha Republic, the far north-eastern region of the Russian Federation, presents an excellent geographical site for exploring conditions and mechanisms through which Indigenous peoples become involved in local (and global) politicised struggles and mobilisations. The Republic, perpetually exploited for its abundance of natural resources, was developed as a colony by the Soviet state; the region also came to be seen as an important object of a larger policy to ‘master’ the North and its resources wealth (Hicks, 2011; Tichotsky, 2000). This rhetoric of exploitation and dependence was preserved after the collapse of the Soviet Union; the resource extraction industry was kept under the new Russian state’s control, excluding the local Indigenous and non-Indigenous population from the large-scale extractivist profits, causing political and economic anxiety within the region. Additionally, the extractive activities, along with a disregard for land rights, further politically and economically disadvantaged the region’s most vulnerable communities, particularly rural Indigenous groups (Hicks, 2011; Maj, 2012). According to Susan Hicks (2011, 88), Russia maintains that it supports Indigenous rights in theory; however, it also characterizes the issues of land and natural resources as ‘a problem of compensation and redress’, promoting the rhetoric of cultural rights but overall rejecting the idea that cultural rights might imply political and economic rights. Therefore, an inquiry into the state and corporate politics targeting Indigenous communities and Indigenous politics in Sakha Republic generally and in the Olenyek district specifically has the potential to provide fertile ground for an analysis of the complex discourses of Indigenous political, as well as for reconsidering simplified and essentialised notions of Indigeneity, Indigenous experience, and how local articulations of Indigeneity interact with global power structures and practices.

5 This project was an ethnographic inquiry built on participant observation, a combination of oral histories and semi-structured interviews, and field notes collected in 2017 in the Olenyek district of Sakha Republic. The Olenyek Evenki National district is the north-west territory of Sakha; the district was established in 1934 by the new Soviet government. The population of the Olenyek district are predominantly the Indigenous Evenki; the Evenki or Evenks are one of five regionally and federally recognised Indigenous groups. The total Olenyek population is 4,127 with the Indigenous Evenki’s population totalling 3,117 (the 2010 Russian Census). In the Olenyek district, I split my fieldwork between three villages. In this chapter, I rely on materials from my fieldwork encounters in Djelinde (Figure 2), a rural village with a population of around 664. The village residents practice a mixed economy, mostly being employed in wage labour but also practicing traditional modes of subsistence of hunting, fishing and gathering, with a few involved in reindeer herding. The participant observation data were supplemented by 32 interviews with local government officials, Indigenous activists, and other community members.

6 Considering the main focus on the issues surrounding extractive activities, confidentiality and anonymity were enforced and maintained throughout the project duration. In this chapter, I use pseudonyms for individual Indigenous people (unless they are public figures and do not object to their names appearing in the research documents); this is not necessarily for fear that the individuals will face any danger or risks (individual, professional, financial or otherwise) should their identities be exposed, but to protect their privacy.

Figure 2 My host, her friend, and I taking a stroll around the village of Djelinde

Figure 2 My host, her friend, and I taking a stroll around the village of Djelinde

Source: Author, 2017.

3. Theoretical Considerations: An Act of Rumouring

7There is a large body of anthropological and sociological literature that addresses the subject of rumours as orally transmitted information, produced and reproduced at specific times with specific reasons (DiFonzo and Bordia, 2007; Rosnow, 1988), representing unofficial historical narratives of political abuse (Bolten, 2014; Kirsch, 2002; Masquelier, 2000; Perice, 1997; White, 1997; 2000), historically shaped imaginations of powerlessness, and economic exploitation (Taussig, 1980), but most importantly, as a discursive field that could ‘control some people, terrorize others, damning and enabling, shoring and subverting power at the same time’ (Stoler, 1992, 75).

8One of the earlier scholars of rumour, Ralph Rosnow (1988, 12), defines rumours as ‘public communications that reflect private hypotheses about how the world works. Embellished by allegations or attributions based on circumstantial evidence, they are attempts to make sense of uncertain situations’. Since rumours are based on unconfirmed information and represent attempts at sense-making of uncertain and ambiguous situations and positions, they necessarily occupy particularly thin line between imagination and reality. In his work, Rosnow (1988, 14) underscores that the important factor in rumour is the context in which it occurs, arguing that the nature of rumour is contextual, which requires a more situated interrogation of ‘who was saying what to whom’. Further, Rosnow (1988, 16) builds on Tamotsu Shibutani’s (1966) influential work on rumours, which viewed rumour construction as a communication process through which individuals seek for other perspectives concerning what is happening—repeating, and circulating rumours to initiate and perpetuate a problem-solving process. This emphasises the ideas of uncertainty and anxiety as implicit in rumour construction and circulation, arguing that the repetition of rumours allows for the communal imagination of their conceptual framework and ‘new ways of coping with perceived threats to the existing order’ (Rosnow, 1988, 16). Therefore, when people pass on fantastical, hard-to-believe rumours, they mediate their anxieties and uncertainties in order to dissipate their discomfort.

9Similarly, Glen Perice (1997, 1) argues that, in violent and dangerous situations, specific rumours are constantly repeated ‘to calcify them into accepted representations of social reality and political life’. In his study, Perice (1997, 4) focuses on the rumours circulated during Francois Duvalier’s political reign in Haiti, including ‘gruesome tales of the severed head packed on ice, the heart taken from the dead man, the children stolen from their families’. He argues that these are not only scary, blood-chilling, fantastical stories but imaginations of those who suffer within the authoritarian state—the terror and power of terror are spread and mediated by this specific discursive practice. Rumours, then, ‘are not a collection of unverified reports and fantasies of the marginalized and powerless, but a speech form used by speakers to maneuver into spaces of alterity and opposition’ (Perice, 1997, 9). This two-sidedness of rumours suggests the intimate relation of rumour to authority, creating circumstances where rumours can be strategically instrumentalised by the government to strengthen its power and inflict political violence on its own citizens. In his research on the intersection between the state’s political violence and rumours in West Papua, Stuart Kirsch (2002) confirms that rumours and other ‘fictionalized’ narratives could enable and reproduce oppressive regimes. Examining how rumours can contribute to the experiences and expressions of state-sponsored terror, Kirsch (2002, 70) states that rumours can provide important historical readings of state power and its abuses, and the reproduction of inequality and exploitation, ‘promot[ing] acts of violence’, through constructions of cultural and gendered difference. He argues that rumours reflect and reproduce political violence, specifically determining the margins of the Indonesian state as well as constructing ‘the Other’ with hegemonic governmental discourses. Drawing on his fieldwork with political refugees from West Papua, Kirsch (2002, 61) focuses on the political properties of rumours and argues that rumours of epidemic diseases (particularly those about the prostitutes infected with HIV/AIDS) represent not only the ‘penetration of political violence into the most private and intimate areas of life’ but also the vulnerability of West Papuans before the Indonesian state terror. As Kirsch (2002, 63) puts it, ‘[t]error moves silently beneath the skin, embodying the violence of the state’. Kirsch further describes how remote areas, predominantly inhabited by ‘the lost tribes’, become specifically designated for developmental projects, and rumours are used as rationale for taking over the land and reifying the state’ power. Most importantly, Kirsch points out that even though rumours continually transform as they circulate, because of their collective, organic, and subjective nature, they can also be easily appropriated and manipulated by the state, eventually intensifying, and reproducing political violence and state terror rather than critiquing and potentially subverting existing unequal power relations.

10In another analytical take on rumours, James Scott (1990, xiii) suggests that rumours, gossip, folktales, songs and jokes of the powerless represent an anonymous critique of power, which he calls the ‘infrapolitics of the powerless’ or ‘hidden transcripts’. This sort of politics occurs in the space between overt collective defiance and complete hegemonic compliance, concealing the identity of the powerless, largely because of the potential absence of state retaliation (Scott, 1990, 138). In this sense, rumours, as well as other forms of oral traditions, provide ‘seclusion, control, and even anonymity’ (Scott, 1990, 160), which makes them easily transmittable, and therefore ideal for grassroots resistance. Here, anonymity of rumouring is of particular interest, because as Scott (1990) argues the unstable and changeable forms of rumours (and of other oral culture) represent them as a collective production without specific origins with multiple authors, which provides an opportunity to constantly transform them. Precisely because of this anonymous nature of folk culture (including rumours), Scott (1990, 200) notes that this form of oral communication can be understood as an elementary mode of political practice that exists within ‘the realm of informal leadership and nonelites, of conversation and oral discourse, and of surreptitious resistance’. However, Scott (1990, 201) also points out that ‘infrapolitics’ are indeed real politics and that they are ‘always pressing, testing, probing the boundaries of the permissable’, threatening at any moment to turn into strikes, overt resistances, and even revolutions. Similarly, David Samper (2002, 2)—noting that the previous scholarly work on rumours, gossip and contemporary legends neglects the theme of resistance and social movements—argues that ‘[r]umors [...] affect the solidarity of a group, creating a public that can then participate in collective action. As counter-hegemonic discourse, rumors may lead to resistance’. Samper echoes Scott’s analysis of practices of hidden resistance, disguised ‘ideological insubordination’ to the hegemonic ideology, which reveals a false compliance. As such, rumours and similar covert discursive practices may become ‘tactics’ with the potential of transforming into more overt politicised strategies, or as Samper (2002, 20) puts it, ‘rumors do not begin from a posture of resistance, but rather describe the moment when hegemony is first understood as a cultural construct. [...] rumors may mark the shift to community resistance, may signal the moment that hegemonic ideology is questioned’.

11Therefore, since rumours are often collectively generated, reimagined, and circulated primarily by those deemed powerless, it may be useful to suggest that rumours are a special form of politicised narratives that presuppose political action, precisely because they facilitate vocalisation of local concerns and anxieties and express the potentiality of action. In this sense, rumours present ‘a first step in challenging, and possibly rejecting, hegemonic ideologies as alternative discourses to officialdom. [...] rumors are covert tactics that facilitate overt strategies’ (Samper, 2002, 25).

4. Rumours in Action

12Liya was from an extended reindeer-herding family; she spent her childhood between the village (attending a boarding school during autumns, winters and early springs) and the tundra (herding reindeer with her parents and siblings during the summer months). Liya was referred to me as a potential interviewee by multiple people because her family was one of the most highly respected in the village, and she had first-hand knowledge of issues faced by the local reindeer herders, hunters, and fishers. Liya was also one of the most active members of the community, organising and participating in local social and cultural events, as well as political meetings as an elected representative of her administrative division (the village was divided into several administrative clusters; the residents of each of these clusters elect their own representative at the local administrative centre). One afternoon, she agreed to meet with me at the local school. The school was located in the central street, and was hard to miss as it was in the largest building in the village. I arrived 30 minutes before the agreed time with the intention of looking around the school without disturbing any ongoing classes. Liya showed up a little later and invited me to one of the classrooms so we could converse uninterrupted. The reason for me seeking an interview with Liya was her participation, with other ten residents, in a trip to extractive sites, organised by Anabar-Diamonds in September of 2016. The summer of the same year was a critical period for the village; the local administrative centre had just reached an agreement with the company after two unsuccessful legal proceedings at the Republic Court, in 2015 and 2016. I asked Liya to elaborate on her impressions from the trip, and she recounted:

There were ten of us, all village residents, you remember Margarita, she was there as a community elder, Ivan [a local paramedic], Taras [a veteran hunter], Mikhail [the village leader], and several others. The company used its own helicopter for this trip, and we managed to visit three sites of their past and current operations: Talakhtaakh was an important site, however they showed it only from the air, from the helicopter; Mayat was another location but with fully completed extraction activities; they showed us the patches of land where they had recultivated, but also from afar. We wanted to see it close up, but the representative assured us it was not possible. I wish I could visit that place now and see how nature is recovering... Finally, the helicopter brought us to ‘Pentagon’, a newly built company workers’ settlement: several buildings make up a pentagon shape and that is why everyone calls it Pentagon. It was nice, it looked like the company workers were provided all necessities, most of the workers were fly-in fly-out nuuchcha migrants, there were also Sakha boys, and we saw several young men from our village. At the end of the trip, the company’s representative made us all sign several documents with statements that we had indeed visited all the sites and were satisfied with their environmental conditions. We had to sign a bunch of other documents back at the administrative centre. It was bizarre to me, and I did not like that when we came back to the village and told others that we [had] had to sign some documents; some people started spreading rumours that we had actually sold ourselves and everyone else in the village to the company. You see, the company was really smart [in] taking us there, but you know they did not show us the sites that we actually wanted to see. No surprise that people here share information that sounds more like rumours rather than proper news (Conversation with Liya, a Djelinde resident).

13Liya and her story about this trip, so historically important to the village, and about after-trip rumours about her and other community activists ‘selling out’ echo the arguments made by numerous scholars of rumour, that the power of rumouring and rumour-mongering is not in delivering information but in exchanging it, simultaneously criticising and debating issues and concerns. In this sense, troubling elements of the trip organised by the company’s management, and the fact that the invited residents were not permitted to see the sites in as much detail as they would have wanted, generated more anxiety, and strengthened the residents’ mistrust of the company. The rumours about the trip spread almost immediately. Liya was clearly upset about the villagers spreading rumours about her involvement in the trip, but those rumours so perfectly embodied the concerns of the people, revealing a dire lack of appropriate information (about the company’s true intentions, extracting sites, their environmental conditions, etc.), that even she rationalised the existence of those rumours. Liya and many others in the village accepted the rumours because these rumours’ historical and temporal context ‘made sense’ precisely because of their current situation.

14Interestingly enough, some village residents confided in me their proactive stance within this complex situation, proposing a potentially actionable plan; yet these proposals were also based on specific rumours. Aida was an employee of the local cultural centre; in addition to her busy work schedule, she was a known cultural activist in the village. The following excerpt is from my interview with her, recorded during one of my last days in Djelinde. Aida and I met at her workplace, and I requested she share her thoughts on the public meetings organised by the administrative centre and the extractive company many of which Aida attended, as well as on the infamous trip to the extraction sites—a direct outcome of one of those public meetings. Aida detailed some aspects of the plan she proposed to her fellow activists right after the trip:

You know, I wanted to ask some of our boys who work for the company to take pictures of the sites to see what they are actually extracting there and, most importantly, how they do that. We were taken to those extracting sites, but were not permitted to visit the most important locations and observe extracting and other processing activities; we were simply told that everything was fine and [that] there was nothing to worry about. But someone posted some comments and pictures on WhatsApp that it was all lies and in fact everything looks damaged and dead there. I have myself heard a rumour that if a reindeer wanders on[to] that extraction site, it drops dead just like that right there. Conversation with Aida, a Djelinde resident.

15Having recognized an importance of concrete evidence rather than relying on numerous rumours about the extractive site, Aida and several other villagers suggested taking advantage of the access to the sites of interest granted to several village youths employed by the company. However, they also frequently added that it would not be particularly fair to these youths since their employment status was highly precarious and unemployment was one of the major issues in the village. In this instance however, rumours and rumouring provided a specific public space where illegitimate discourses and actions of contestation (otherwise radically circumscribed) became potential. Aida’s plan of action was envisioned after the dissemination of rumours of dangerous and harmful environmental conditions on the extractive sites of unreliable information having been provided by the company representatives to the community Having considered the plan as risky, primarily to the youths in question, Aida and the other activists never attempted to implement it. Evidently, rumours did not necessarily provide resolution to many of the problems or the deeply precarious situation of the Djelinde residents; yet their constant circulation provided an opportunity to re-explore and renegotiate communal fears and anxieties, as well as to challenge official discourses.

5. Contaminating Rumours

16One of the important analytical tools to think about and think with while attempting to understand the state, the nation, and power imbalances within particular social systems is an intense focus on ‘small places’ and ‘small things’. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1988) suggests that seemingly marginal and unimportant people and small communities with less visible manifestations of inequality might tell us more about power and engender a different perspective on understanding the local and the global. Building on Trouillot’s discussion, Vanessa Agard-Jones (2013, 188) turns to the body and its parts as the objects of analysis, exploring ‘how people understand the small—even microscopic—objects that are ingested into and that meld with their bodies’, and looking in particular at ‘the circulation of a hormone-altering pesticide called chlordecone’ in rural Martinique. According to Agard-Jones (2013, 190), Martinique is known to be the country most contaminated by chlordecone, a recognised carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor linked to male infertility and prostate cancer. These particular effects of chlordecone generated local discussions of emergent gender and sexual politics on the island as a response to rumours of ‘genocide by sterilization’ and high rates of ‘intersex births’. Here, Agard-Jones (2013, 192) argues that the rumours of local environmental contamination came to be seen as the issues of gender, sexual, and reproductive politics, ultimately insisting that taking a molecule of chlordecone as a unit of analysis encouraged the action of ‘scaling outward to the world, but in doing so […] also enabled our efforts to scale inward, recognizing the multiple levels at which our material entanglements – be they cellular, chemical or commercial – might be connected to global politics’.

Figure 3 A view of the river Malaya Kuonamka

Figure 3 A view of the river Malaya Kuonamka

Source: Author, 2017.

17Similar to those affected by chlordecone in Martinique, Djelinde’s residents were deeply concerned about the radioactive threat of the Tomtor deposit and its damaging contaminating effects on the environment as well as their health. These concerns were reflected in several pervasive rumours. In fact, the planned extractive activities in the Tomtor massif were the dominant topic of most of my conversations with Djelinde residents during my fieldwork in 2017; it seemed that the conflict with Anabar-Diamonds had exhausted itself and community leaders had already started negotiations about the

18company’s financial contributions to the district budgetary fund. During my conversation with Liya, I asked her if she was concerned about the Tomtor as the company Vostok-Engineering was projected to start extraction in near future. Liya became very agitated:

Apparently, there was such a crazy auction process for the Tomtor massif because it is a federal development project, but, here, we heard nothing about that. We were getting all the updates and news from the outside people or through rumours. You know, my family used to herd in [the] Tomtor area when I was a child; but one cannot go there these days because some of our herders started losing [their] hair and their health worsened. That’s why we do not believe when the company experts say that everything is fine, and [that] we will not be impacted by extractions. How come will we not be impacted?! People say that that area is all dug up through and through. But our biggest concern is water, our river seems to be so polluted now. There used to be so many fish, we used to fish by buckets but now if you catch a few, you feel lucky. And you know yourself how we survive here, we depend on fish since we have not had wild reindeer game crossing our territory for almost a decade. Who would bring fish to us if we cannot fish ourselves? A lot of unemployed people and families with many children in the village depend on fish as their primary food source. What will happen with our river when they start with the Tomtor extraction? I cannot even imagine what will happen (Conversation with Liya, a Djelinde resident).

19Radiation, a constant concern for Djelinde’s residents, is a highly ambiguous phenomenon to detect (it is invisible and odourless) and evaluate (its effects on health are undisputed, but studying it can be complicated if the necessary data—including type of exposure, level of exposure, temporality of exposure, specific circumstances, and so forth, preferably collected through longitudinal studies—are missing. In his research on uranium mining in Meghalaya, India, with a predominantly Indigenous population, Bengt Karlsson (2009, 44) argues that despite most countries having their own regulations regarding permissible doses or levels of radioactive exposure, ‘all types of environmental or health regulations are settled politically, reflecting a compromise or balance between safety concerns and the economic and other interests involved in pursuing the activity in question’. In this sense, if extraction projects with potential radioactive contamination risks are tied to the military and/or are highly profitable, both the industry concerned and the government are responsible for making decisions as to how safety standards are set and enforced. Mineral mining and the nuclear industry appear, therefore, to be the most contentious areas, often resulting in public distrust and opposition. In such cases, Karlsson (2009, 46) notes that the primary strategy of industry becomes ‘to convince people of the benefits of nuclear-driven development’. A similar strategy of ‘benefits’ persuasion was employed by Vostok-Engineering, the company responsible for the Tomtor massif extraction project. The village residents were, however, not convinced. In addition to rumours about radioactive pollution, some activists told me stories about cases of worsening health in the local population, including more cases of various types of cancer (particularly among young women), the sudden deaths of otherwise healthy people, unexpected heart attacks among both elders and youths, and so on. During my conversation with four kindergarten employees, the women shared the following:

People say that the Tomtor extraction site is very radioactive. We had several people die suddenly after visiting that place, and some of the herders had strange sores on their skin, and some of them lost all of their hair. There was one hunter, Danilov, he visited the site in the 90s and opened the covered-up pit in the Tomtor, he got sick and died soon after! (Conversation with four kindergarten employees, Djelinde).

20This and similar stories about herders’ and hunters’ experiences with radiation in Tomtor were repeated by the local maternity nurse, Khristina. Khristina arrived in Djelinde as a young professional in the 1960s from another district. Having lived in Djelinde most of her life, she had come to see herself as a local, and had become a passionate and vocal advocate for local cultural and environmental rights. Khristina’s opinion of the rumours about radiation and its effects was of particular interest to me because she was a medical professional, and I wondered if those stories about the people affected could be medically (and scientifically) verified. Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2000, pp. 203–204) points out that studying rumours, especially in medical field, requires practical and material explanations, because ‘[e]ven the most preposterous of the organ-stealing rumors [...] finds some basis in lawsuits and criminal proceedings, some still unresolved or pending’. Therefore, upon learning about potential radiation and health issues, I sought interviews with local medical professionals, who would be aware of both the rumours and the specific contexts that engendered them. I met with Khristina at the local hospital; she was eager to talk to me, and when I asked her about radiation and herders’ health problems, she emphatically ranted:

I think that they [the Vostok-Engineering company] are lying to us; they say that it does not have any radiation, but it is a lie—Tomtor is very radioactive. Why then [do] the workers take off and disinfect their clothes after being there, huh?! They make our own village people work there because it is already polluted. People say some herders lost their hair, and they were camping close to Tomtor; nowadays no one dares to go to that area. And if anyone asks any questions, they twist your words and state the opposite. Last year, they sent some doctors here, but they were all sell-outs (prodazhnie); after examining several community members, they announced that everyone was healthy here. It is ridiculous! How come people would be healthy here? Half of the population have problems with joints, some are not even able to walk, everyone’s blood pressure is abnormally high, there are lot of people with heart defects… We did have cancer patients before but nowadays we have more of them and with ‘unusual’ and ‘atypical’ cancer types, especially among younger women (Conversation with Khristina, a Djelinde resident and local maternity nurse).

21According to Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1996, 7), actual events, and the rumours based on them, reflect ‘poor people’s perceptions, grounded in a social and in a biomedical reality’; in her research, the residents of shanty towns easily believed rumours and bizarre stories about organ theft because they are ‘fundamentally, existentially true’ (Scheper-Hughes, 1996, 9). Likewise, Liya, Khristina, and the kindergarten employees’ fears over radiation exposure and the deteriorating health of the village’s residents should be perceived as fundamentally true and as evidence of local complex experiences of conflict, injustice, and violent social reality. Moreover, intense and widely practiced rumouring revealed the deep concerns of Djelinde residents with regard to contamination that they were potentially being exposed to and its harmful toxic effects.

22Furthermore, the power of rumours seemingly coincided with the insidious power of the government, which was paradoxically expressed through a lack of governmental intervention and an absence of official clarifications and explanations regarding local communal concerns about the projected extractive activities of Vostok-Engineering. This governmental invisibility in Djelinde invigorated more intense and frantic rumouring. Yet it must also be noted that several community activists managed to vocalise their grievances and fears with regard to radiation during a handful of public hearings with the environmental researchers hired by the Vostok-Engineering. Katya, an elderly local activist, attended those meetings and recounted to me afterwards:

I was at the hearings with Vostok-Engineering; they talked a lot about nanotechnology, niobium, other rare metals, [the] periodic table, ore, and so much more. Apparently, they have been working there for a long time, but they still claim that there is no radiation. I do not believe that; if there are so many metals there, it is bound to have some radiation (Conversation with Katya, a Djelinde resident).

23Fabiana Li (2015, 186) argues that the strategic language of science and expertise frequently implemented by extractivist corporations in their dealings with affected communities ‘prioritize[s] mining interests and enable[s] corporations to define the standards of performance that governments will use to establish compliance’, disadvantaging activists and NGOs since they rarely have the resources necessary to produce ‘accurate and scientific’ counterarguments (Li, 2015, 207). Considering Katya’s description of the public hearings and of the company representatives’ deliberate deployment of overtly scientific language (nanotechnology, niobium, rare metals, the periodic table, ore, etc.), it must, as well, be argued that this corporate strategy not only managed to limit the informed participation of Djelinde’s residents in critical discussions about their futures and the future of their environment, it also further rendered them as ‘ignorant’, ‘irrational’, ‘misinformed’ and ‘biased’, making them appear deficient and in need of external ‘developmental’ interventions.

24To alleviate public mistrust and fears of possible radioactive contamination, the company installed a radiation meter on the main administrative building; the villagers, however, immediately circulated another rumour, alleging that the meter was actually ‘set up’ to only show the numbers 8 and, occasionally, 9—supposedly the acceptable radiation emission range and believed to be harmless for humans. During one of our many conversations in the library, I specifically mentioned the radiation meter to my friend Aida, and asked her what she thought of it; Aida replied:

I attended the recent meeting with the company representatives; the local people were very concerned about radiation, but the company people assured us there was nothing to worry about and they put that radiation meter on the administrative building. But you know what people say? They say it is fixed (zafiksirovan) on number 8 on purpose; it does not go over 8 at all, that’s why people say that the company is lying to us, but what can we do? (Conversation with Aida, a Djelinde resident).

25Tatiana, Aida’s friend, who happened to be with us in the library, also shared her opinion:

I firmly believe that the radiation meter is rigged; it is like a conspiracy against us. We are ‘guinea pigs’ here; even the doctors and scientists are visiting our village every two–three years to monitor us and examine how radiation is impacting our health. I was in Yakutsk (the capital city of Sakha) this summer, and many people were asking me if our village was planned to be relocated. There were so many rumours about relocations! When I talked to my friends here after, they said if the government and the company decide to relocate us, what can we do? We will simply move away (Conversation with Tatiana, a Djelinde resident).

26These statements confirm once again that rumours arise from within specific precarious contexts. However, these particular rumours about radioactivity and a ‘rigged’ radiation meter emphasise not only abstract uncertainty but also a physically threatening or potentially threatening situation, in which people feel a psychological need for a sense of security and safety. This threat of contamination seems to be quite tangible considering the above-mentioned details of the highly contentious extractive project in the Tomtor massif. Thus, rumours function not only to make sense of potential threats but also to psychologically manage them. The rumours about the Djelinde residents being used as ‘guinea pigs’ and the ‘rigged’ radiation meter were shared by residents many times, sometimes with a pinch of humour, but more often in serious and frustrated tones. I myself, baffled and intrigued by rumours about the meter, made a point of checking it every day throughout my stay in Djelinde. The number never dropped below or got above 8. I cannot say that this exercise reduced my own anxiety over radiation rumours, but I indeed grew more suspicious of both the meter and of the company’s assurances regarding the lack of a contamination threat.

27Interestingly, rumours of radiation engendered other relevant rumours, and many villagers shared rumours about potential forced relocations. The topic of forced relocations is not unfamiliar for Djelinde residents. I interviewed several elderly individuals in the village, who vividly remembered the 1950s forced relocations from the village of Sukhaany. These were part of the Soviet-era governmental project for agricultural and residential integration and centralisation (ukrupnenie). The majority of the Sukhaany population were relocated to the village of Khariyalaakh, but some were moved to Djelinde. The residual memories of those who had experienced ukrupnenie reinvigorated old fears and concerns among both the older community members and the youth of the village. Kirill was a local youth and a passionate cultural activist. When I asked him what he thought about the extractive plans and potential relocations. Kirill provided an overtly politicised answer:

Those companies are literally squashing us; if they continue with their extractive activities, we will have nothing left, no fish, no nature, nothing. The companies have a lot of money and, if they work here, they ought to help the local community; we are Indigenous people and we have rights. However, if the Tomtor extractions start in 2025, I believe they will demand people […] leave the territory, and I do not even think the local people would want to stay here either because health is the most important thing. And the issue of extraction or non-extraction has been already decided by Moscow. Moscow is devouring everything (Conversation with Kirill, a Djelinde resident).

28Here, Kirill’s statement exposes the murkiness of rumour margins, their discursive space that allows the coexistence of the spoken and the unspoken and the overt and the covert, and the creation of specific openings where local political and economic issues can be addressed. Undoubtedly, rumours about radioactive extraction sites and relocations do not provide resolution to local problems, concerns, and ambiguous situations; yet I argue that they represent dynamic responses to the social and political milieus within which they are collectively produced and reproduced as discursive constructions. Moreover, their retelling provided an opportunity to renegotiate communal fears and anxieties, as well as to challenge and reject hegemonic ideologies and practices. While sharing rumours with me, Djelinde’s residents clearly understood that rumouring is not necessarily productive; Aida once explained to me, ‘You hear the stories about some people getting skin sores and seeing a dead elk in the Tomtor site, but everything that people talk about seem[s] to be made-up stories and rumours; there is no one who could verify these stories’.

29Yet this particular ambiguity of rumour origins and its elusive nature can have unintended consequences, such as creating discursive spaces for those rumoring to address socially and politically important, yet dangerous, issues. Moreover, re-encountering rumours was important, since anxieties over scheduled extractions and the potential industrial disturbance that would be caused by some sites on local territory was exacerbated by local knowledge of historical events that had taken place decades ago. Albina, a veterinarian with almost 30 years of professional experience, grew up herding with her parents; she often travelled in a professional capacity between the village and different herding locations. One day, Albina invited me for lunch; after, we got to talking about extractive activities, and she contended:

They are planning to start extractions on the upper side of the river; during the Soviet time, we had an anthrax scare in that area. I was the only veterinarian at that time, and some herders told me that they saw multiple dead reindeer there. I went to check, and when I realised what it was, I ordered the herders to immediately relocate to a different, far away site. I called the administrative centre about the situation. The very next day we had a doctor arrive with the necessary shots for the herders and the rest of reindeer. If they get to that site and start extracting, I do not even know what can happen (Conversation with Albina, a Djelinde resident and veterinarian).

30Later, exploring the local newspaper archives, I did confirm that there was indeed such an incident in the history of the Olenyek district. Djelinde’s residents (especially the older and more experienced herders and hunters) were acutely aware of the burial grounds of contaminated animal remains and abandoned herders’ camps, which might still contain anthrax spores. Most of them had already shifted their herding routes, moving away from these dangerous sites. But recent extraction activities in proximity to both the herding sites and the potentially dangerously contaminated sites seemed to be re-producing anxieties and fears among the villagers.

6. Conclusion

31Rumours and the narratives based on them can attest to different ways of knowing and different kinds of knowledge, shaping people’s fears and their responses to those fears, representing the medium ‘through which the unspeakable was spoken’ (Stoler, 1992, 179). The ‘spoken unspeakable’ in the case of Djelinde mirrored community anxieties over projected extractive activities, which resulted in rumours about these activities’ environmental impact and the transformation of local subsistence practices. Additionally, the potentiality of a radioactive threat from the Tomtor deposit site and the potentially damaging effects of such contamination on the environment engendered pervasive rumours about worsening health in the local population, and other factors over which community members had no control. The older community members, who had experienced forced relocations during the Soviet-era ukrupnenie programmes in the 1950s, also actively circulated rumours about government plans for new forced relocations should the extractive company decide to expand their activities closer to the village, or should there be a serious radiation threat or even a radioactive disaster in the area. Through this analysis of rumours in Djelinde, I contend that they opened up a specific productive space for alternative forms of communal expressions of anti-extractivism, and provided evidence based on which residents could understand and, most importantly, narrate history at a precarious and ambiguous time.

Top of page


Agard-Jones, V. (2013) ‘Bodies in the System’, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 17(42), pp. 182–192, DOI:10.1215/07990537-2378991

Bolten, C. (2014) ‘Sobel Rumors and Tribal Truths: Narrative and Politics in Sierra Leone, 1994’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 56(1), pp. 187–214, DOI: 10.1017/S0010417513000662

DiFonzo, N, and P. Bordia (2007) ‘Rumor, Gossip, and Urban Legends’, Diogenes, 54(1), pp. 19–35, DOI:10.1177/0392192107073433

Hicks, S. M. (2011) Between Indigeneity and Nationality: The Politics of Culture and Nature in Russia’s Diamond Province, unpublished PhD Dissertation (Vancouver: University of British Columbia), (accessed on 25 December 2020).

Karlsson, B. (2009) ‘Nuclear Lives: Uranium Mining, Indigenous Peoples, and Development in India’, Economic & Political Weekly, 44(34), pp. 43–49, DOI:10.2307/25663470

Kirsch, S. (2002) ‘Rumour and Other Narratives of Political Violence in West Papua’, Critique of Anthropology, 22(1), pp. 53–79, DOI:10.1177/0308275X020220010301

Li, F. (2015) Unearthing Conflict: Corporate Mining, Activism, and Expertise in Peru (Durham and London: Duke University Press).

Maj, E. (2012) ‘Internationalisation with the Use of Arctic Indigeneity: The Case of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Russia’, Polar Record, 48(246), pp. 210–214, DOI:10.1017/S003224741100060X

Masquelier, A. (2000) ‘Of Headhunters and Cannibals: Migrancy, Labor, and Consumption in the Mawri Imagination’, Cultural Anthropology, 15(1), pp. 84–126, DOI:10.1525/can.2000.15.1.84

Perice, G. (1997) ‘Rumors and Politics in Haiti’, Anthropological Quarterly, 70(1), pp. 1–10, DOI: 10.2307/3317797

Rosnow, R. L. (1988) ‘Rumor as Communication: A Contextualist Approach’, Journal of Communication, 38(1), pp. 12–28, DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1988.tb02033.x

Samper, D. (2002) ‘Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America’, Journal of Folklore Research, 39(1), pp. 1–32.

Scott, J. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2000) ‘The Global Traffic in Human Organs’, Current Anthropology, 41(2), pp. 191–224, DOI: 10.1086/300123

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1996) ‘Theft of Life: The Globalization of Organ Stealing Rumours’, Anthropology Today, 12(3), pp. 3–11, DOI: 10.2307/2783143

Shibutani, T. (1966) Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company).

Stoler, A. L. (1992) ‘“In Cold Blood”: Hierarchies of Credibility and the Politics of Colonial Narratives’, Representations, 37(Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories), pp. 151–189, DOI: 10.2307/2928658

Taussig, M. (1980) The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press).

Tichotsky, J. (2000) Russia's Diamond Colony: The Republic of Sakha (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic).

Trouillet, M.-R. (1988) Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press).

White, L. (2000) Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press).

White, L. (1997) ‘The Traffic in Heads: Bodies, Borders and the Articulation of Regional Histories’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 23(2), pp. 325–338, DOI: 10.1080/03057079708708540

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 Billboard with the names of the companies operating in the Olenyek District
Credits Source: Author, 2017.
File image/jpeg, 460k
Title Figure 2 My host, her friend, and I taking a stroll around the village of Djelinde
Credits Source: Author, 2017.
File image/jpeg, 447k
Title Figure 3 A view of the river Malaya Kuonamka
Credits Source: Author, 2017.
File image/jpeg, 355k
Top of page

Cite this article

Electronic reference

Sardana Nikolaeva, Anti-extractive Rumouring in the Russian North-EastInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 15.1 | 2023, Online since 02 May 2023, connection on 06 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Sardana Nikolaeva

Sardana Nikolaeva is a postdoctoral fellow with the Indigenous Politics Collaboratory of the University of Toronto (Canada). She received her BA in Linguistics from the Sakha State University (Sakha Republic, Russian Federation), an MA in Africana Studies from the SUNY at Albany (USA), a PhD in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education from the University of Pittsburgh (USA), and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Manitoba (Canada). Her research interests include Indigenous activisms, Indigenous feminisms, extractivism, and the post/Soviet Indigenous Arctic.

Top of page



Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

Top of page
  • Logo ERIH PLUS | NSD
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search