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Lifestyle in Siberia and the Russian North

Joachim Otto Habeck


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1This book, a collection of essays written by ten anthropologists, is dedicated to our friends far and near. Far, inasmuch as the region portrayed here — Siberia and the Russian North — exerts its own specific challenges when it comes to spatial distance. But for us it is simultaneously close, for our ties with many of the individuals we introduce in this volume have been maintained over many years, and increasingly so via new means of telecommunication. The latter were not yet available in the years when each of us began to conduct ethnographic fieldwork, but we were more than willing to spend months or years in an unfamiliar setting away from home, and to explore ways of living that differed markedly from our own. Anthropology is based on a sustained sense of curiosity and surprise. We deem ourselves lucky to have taken curiosity as motivation for the research project that brought us together, and to have been granted help and open-mindedness by so many people all across the region.

2The initiative was first conceived at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. In the first place, I would like to thank Bettina Mann who, in a serendipitous moment in 2007, encouraged me to focus on the concept of lifestyle, to fathom the depth of the sociological debates around it, and to lay out a research design for a study of lifestyle in Siberia. Since then, she has contributed in manifold ways to the success of the project.

3Why lifestyle in Siberia? Because it embraces more than the conventional notions of “tradition” and “crisis”, often associated with this part of the world. Crisis cannot be wiped away: it is part of so many of the biographies of our interviewees; and yet crisis engenders a stronger awareness of one’s circumstances and sparks a desire for change. Lifestyle as a concept reaches out towards a deeper level of personal commitment, sense of life, hope, and belonging. Our acquaintances and friends in different parts of Siberia and the Russian North had the courage to talk about these aspects in a very candid manner.

4In this volume, we combine the idea of lifestyle — as an expressive, routinised and stylised mode of identification — with the changes that this part of the world has seen in terms of technology, telecommunication, visual self-presentation, connectedness, transport, and mobility. Intrinsically, the chapters of the book all engage with the Soviet and post-Soviet notion of modernity, which exerts a sublime and yet pervasive influence on how people in the region picture themselves and the society in which they live. The concept of lifestyle connects very strongly with debates on vernacular views and meanings of “being modern” — but then, Siberia and the Russian North have been widely neglected in that debate, notwithstanding far-reaching anthropological debates on socialism, post-socialism, and shifting dynamics of identification.

5We are grateful to Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, the two founding directors of the Max Planck Institute, for their continual and enthused support of the project, paired with constructive criticism. The project itself was a collaborative one, with research questions, methods, research instruments, and data analysis defined before the actual field research. I believe that this was one of the strongest aspects of the collective endeavour (the Appendix to this volume offers more details on research design and methodology). It all developed within the organisational framework of the Siberian Studies Centre, a research unit of the Max Planck Institute from 2002 to 2014. The predominant share of financial support for this project was granted by the Max Planck Society; and Kathrin Niehuus and her team always took good care of the project’s finances. The project took its intellectual roots from the scientific agenda that the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology has fervently and successfully pursued since its beginnings in 1999.

6This volume can also be read as one chapter in the history of the Siberian Studies Centre. Clearly, anthropological research on Siberia has moved from Halle to other academic centres, such as Aberdeen, Rovaniemi, and Vienna; and of course, it is being pursued in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Siberia itself. But so have we, the contributors to this volume: we have moved to other responsibilities and personal commitments. And so have the people that we talk about in this book: many of them have moved to other places, experiencing their own existence in different ways from those captured here. Still, we believe it is worthwhile rendering their takes and views as expressed in the time around 2010, and we are positive that this volume provides for a close reading of everyday life in Russia’s regions in the first decade of the new century. The last chapter of the volume sketches out the most important social trends that have occurred in Russia between 2010 and 2019, connecting them back to the topic of lifestyle.

7We had many an opportunity to discuss our thoughts with other colleagues at the Max Planck Institute, working in different regions across the world, and since their number is truly large, we cannot do justice by listing all of them. In the initial phase of the project, Stephan Dudeck, Kirill Istomin, Elena Liarskaya, and Vladislava Vladimirova took part in discussions on the concept of lifestyle in 2008. Subsequently, there were more meetings of this kind, for example the one in Novosibirsk and Berdsk in 2012, and we would like to express our sincere thanks to Yuliia Druzhinina, Irina Oktiabr’skaia, Yurii Popkov, Tamara Popkova, and Iraida Udalova, who all took a vivid interest in the project presentation and endorsed it, even if they disagreed with some of our ideas. Likewise, our thanks go to Igor’ Nabok, Nikolai Vakhtin, and their colleagues in St Petersburg for highly helpful consultation and support.

8We would like to express our sincere gratitude not only to those we lived and spoke with in the different communities across Russia that feature in this volume, but also to those who worked as research assistants, translators, and language instructors: Nikolai Aipin, Natal’ia Beletskaia, Anna Gossmann, Roza Khaltueva, Stepan Kolodeznikov, Liubov’ Kolodeznikova, Alexander Kymyechkin, Anna Larionova, Ariuna Matveeva, Dora Matveeva, Anna Ptitsyna, Anna Sysoeva, Fiodor Uiaganskii, Alexander Vamingu, and Rodion Vamingu. Anyone who has conducted ethnographic field research is aware of the difficulty of distinguishing between the roles of research assistant, informant/ interlocutor, and close acquaintance with whom interaction never really stops; in that sense, ethnographic fieldwork is never complete.

9Notwithstanding, each project of this kind also necessarily involves moments when the flow of life should be cast into some mould: notably when it comes to compiling data, writing reports, connecting the immediacy of the fieldwork experience with a wider array of ideas, notably those debated in social-scientific scholarship. We are indebted and highly grateful to those who accompanied and helped us on this way, notably the student assistants and interns at the Siberian Studies Centre: Georgi Dietzsch, Friedemann Ebelt, Katja Mahler, Nadia Manitz née Mukhina, Stella Penkova, Mariya Petrova, Ricarda Scheffer, Alexander Seidel, and Andreas Zimmermann. All of them invested considerable time and energy in transcribing audio files of interviews. Claudia Ulbrich took care of administrative issues, along with Viktoria Giehler-Zeng and Berit Eckert. As a student apprentice to the Siberian Studies Centre, Christian Buchner designed a common framework for data management that proved to be helpful throughout and beyond the project’s lifetime; he also assisted in transcribing interviews.

10Closer towards the completion of the manuscript of this volume, admittedly and for personal reasons with a delay of more than five years, new colleagues and friends have accompanied our work and ambitions to finish the project. The anonymous reviews of the draft manuscripts were extremely helpful; in extension, we should like to express our sincere thanks to Frances Pine and Peter Schweitzer for their comments and support. All contributors would like to express their gratitude to the team at Open Book Publishers, notably to Alessandra Tosi, Luca Baffa, Lucy Barnes, Anna Gatti, Laura Rodriguez, Molly Byrne, and Corin Throsby. Jens Bussewitz took a special effort in the graphic design of the book cover and other illustrations, and so did Luděk Brož, Jaroslava Panáková, Martina Tóthová, and Jonas Büchel. We are happy and grateful for the support in the quantitative analysis of data, conducted by Andrej Mentel.

11The Max Planck Institute has always been a personally and intellectually inspiring environment, as has the city of Halle. We would like to express our empathy and solidarity with our friends and colleagues in Halle after the recent anti-Semitic and xenophobic assault on the city. This atrocious attack reminds us of our aim as anthropologists: namely, to work towards a society that derives hope from diversity, that tries to understand human grief, and that attempts to create and maintain affective bonds between people across the globe. Hope is the theme that, after ten years of research and reflection, lies at the very core of the chapters presented in this book. We share this prospect with our friends far and near, whom we got to know at different moments and in different situations, from the inception to the completion of this research project.

12Joachim Otto Habeck, on behalf of all the members of the research team
October 2019

Map of the project’s field research sites. Compiled from OpenStreetMaps

Map of the project’s field research sites. Compiled from OpenStreetMaps

(​copyright/​en) by Jens Bussewitz, CC BY-SA

Table des illustrations

Titre Map of the project’s field research sites. Compiled from OpenStreetMaps
Crédits (​copyright/​en) by Jens Bussewitz, CC BY-SA
Fichier image/jpeg, 47k


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