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Lifestyle in Siberia and the Russian North

Joachim Otto Habeck


On Research Design and Methods

Joachim Otto Habeck et Jaroslava Panáková

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1Anthropology of Siberia has a long and venerable history. Regional studies and ethnographies have made many compelling contributions in several fields of general anthropology, yet there are also neglected topics and blind spots. In the light of the revival (vozrozhdenie) of ethnic identity and indigenous culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Russian and western anthropologists alike were first and foremost interested in studying ethnicity (and the different ways in which ethnic identity is expressed and negotiated through traditional forms of land use, religion, language, and political representation). In the last two decades, anthropological debates around Siberia have been moving beyond the concepts of ethnicity and identity, placing them into wider debates of social practice and societal change. This also implied a modified understanding of the research “object”, which was no longer limited to indigenous groups alone, but gradually came to include research among other ethnic groups living in Siberia, in urban settings, non-traditional spheres of production (e.g. extractive industries), and leisure-oriented and also occasionally virtual social networks (for an overview of the field, see Vitebsky & Alekseyev 2015).

2The Siberian Studies Centre (2003–2014) of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology hosted several groups of researchers during its existence, and the authors of this volume were all affiliated with the Siberian Studies Centre from 2008 onwards. Supporting and promoting the shifts in the research agenda of anthropology of Siberia, we sought to go beyond an exclusive focus on ethnic identity and traditional forms of land use. Hence our decision to take a closer look at how the inhabitants of Siberian cities and villages see themselves, seek to “realise” themselves, and define what is most dear and important to them. In other words: what are the activities and identities that people choose, and try to master?

3A concept that has the potential to facilitate such research is lifestyle, because it connects habitualisation with self-reflexivity, norms and values with embodied practice, ambitions with resources, and identity with display (see Chapter 1 for a theoretical grounding of the concept). At the Siberian Studies Centre, we employed this concept as the theoretical core of a research project. “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia” was chosen as the title for this study, which commenced in 2008 (cf. Habeck 2008) and officially ended in 2013.

4The team met on a regular basis and also conducted workshops in Halle and elsewhere in September 2008, May 2010, October 2010, February 2011, November 2011, May 2012, and November 2012. The composition of the team changed to some extent: apart from those who conducted field research (see Table 12.1), additional members of the team were Kirill Istomin, Stephan Dudeck, Elena Liarskaya, and Vladislava Vladimirova. They too provided substantial input, e.g. in the first phase of the programme, when a preliminary definition of lifestyle was formulated: Lifestyle is what one does in order to be what one thinks one should be. This early definition aimed to combine practice, intentionality, a certain degree of reflection, behaviour influenced by social norms, and aspirations to reach a certain idea without necessarily reaching it. Lifestyle, in other words, is a combined expression of what one should be, wants to be, and can afford (or manage) to be. We soon came to realise that this definition of ours had some resemblance to that provided by David Chaney (1996: 37), as discussed in Chapter 1: “Lifestyles are reflexive projects: we (and relevant others) can see (however dimly) who we want to be seen to be through how we use the resources of who we are”.

5Discussions at this early stage of the programme centred around the conceptual separation of choice (usually considered to have less-lasting consequences) versus decision (with long-term consequences likely to ensue). Further, we debated if lifestyle should include the element of intentionality, if and how our interlocutors’ ex-post-facto rationalisation of their previous actions should be taken in account, and whether or not to use lifestyle as an emic concept. There was unanimous agreement that the team should use lifestyle as an etic concept, and as explanandum rather than explanans; in other words, the aim was not to use the concept as a category by which to explain differences within society at large, but rather as a concept that itself needs to be explored. We agreed later that the term should be investigated particularly in connection to changes in technology (telecommunication and transportation).

6By early 2010, the team had decided to approach the study of lifestyle from two different vantage points, or focus themes: first, the changing habits of travel; and second, visual forms of self-presentation. While these two focus themes make the study of lifestyle and technological change more concrete, they are nonetheless broad enough to cover a vast range of interviewees’ biographical experiences; they also allow individual researchers to adapt the research questions to the particular economic and infrastructural conditions in their respective field sites.

7Our two focus themes could be framed by the questions: (a) What is the mutual relation between changing technology and infrastructure on the one hand, and lifestyles, on the other, as exposed by habits of travelling?; and (b) What is the mutual relation between changing technology and infrastructure on the one hand, and lifestyles, on the other, as exposed by changing visual forms of self-presentation?

8An examination of these two questions then requires the study of a set of more basic questions:

  • How have technology and infrastructure (in the region) changed over time?

  • How have habits of travel changed over time?

  • How have visual forms of self-presentation changed over time?

  • How are these changes related to each other?

9Our first focus theme, devoted to investigating changing habits of travelling over the last forty years, was triggered by several important developments in our area of study. First, as a result of the collapse of aviation in the 1990s, many inhabitants of rural Siberia found themselves “trapped”, so to speak, because, quite suddenly, they could not travel at all. Second, we were interested in the gradual “revival” of aviation in several, but not all, areas. Third, many but (again) not all parts of Siberia gradually became more accessible for overland transportation, and generally in Russia the number of cars per capita has been growing over the last three decades (Chapter 2 provides details).

10Finally, we wanted to look into changing practices of holiday-making, to be studied through our interlocutors’ holiday biographies. In Soviet times, tourism was officially organised in groups. Individual tourism was considered as “wild” tourism (dikii turizm, see Chapters 4 and 5). Thirty years later, there is a wider range of destinations, events, and activities. Already in the 1990s and 2000s, Russia saw a pronounced upsurge of tourism — of holiday travels to and within Siberia, but also from Siberia to China and the Mediterranean Sea. Simultaneously, there are new forms of inequality and stratification. Who can afford to travel where, if at all? What makes people decide to go to a certain destination? Tourism and holiday-making have come to constitute a major field of social distinction.

11However, our research was not restricted to tourism alone. We were also concerned with traders, long-distance commuters, settler populations and their links to the so-called mainland, and individuals who combine life in the tundra or forest with life in the village or city. Changing habits of travelling point to changing degrees and meanings of mobility for the individual. Therefore, we planned to examine what significance these journeys or spaces have in our respondents’ lives, how they interpret them, and to what extent they interpret them as elements in coherent stories of themselves. There are many reasons for occasional travelling, for example visits to relatives, participation in festivals, contests, role-playing games, tournaments, concerts, etc. Participation in such activities or events can provide a key to studying lifestyles in practice. Usually, people are eager to document their presence at such sites and occasions.

12Our second focus theme — visual forms of self-presentation — started from the question of how individuals and collectives stylise and document their presence at major events and destinations. Individuals highlight particular aspects of their activities and social networks, and often they do so through visual means. They keep record of memorable events by taking photographs for their album, or for sharing online. Groups — whether united by ethnicity, work, or other attributes — express a corporate identity through the display of key symbols, using old and new media technologies. The internet, in particular, offers a large virtual space for people with limited physical spaces for such representation. We intended to relate the ways that people “want to be seen” to the predilections and conventions that their lifestyles manifest. As part of this theme, we explore the concept of “self” as expressed by visual means, through photo elicitation interviews (see Chapter 6).

13In spring 2010, we had agreed on a collection of eleven texts (Bourdieu 1993, 2000; Chaney 1996; Giddens 1991; Goffman 1990; Harper 2002; Löfgren 1999; Omel’chenko 2003; Urry 2002; Weber 1946) as key readings in English and Russian, enabling a shared understanding of key concepts. Further, we designed the following guidelines for semi-structured interviews for the exploration of both focus themes (see the guidelines for interviews at​20.500.12434/​5fbdd7ae).

1. With regard to the first theme — travel biographies — the interview guideline started with questions about “home”, the semantic difference between poezdka and puteshestvie (both Russian words can be translated as “travel”) and the request to recall a very memorable journey. Next, the focus was set on different decades, starting from the ten years before the time of the interview (the 2000s), then moving to the distant past (for most interviewees, the 1970s) and then the decades in between. For each decade, researchers asked about holiday trips, business trips, visits to relatives, and cases of relocation. Interviewees were then encouraged to recall one particular journey for each decade, expanding on its purpose and destination, remarkable moments, the preparation of the journey, and its organisational and financial aspects. The journey was then to be discussed in the more general context of conditions and limitations of personal mobility in the respective decade. Finally, the interviewee was asked about plans for future travels and a final, particularly curious episode.
2. With regard to the second theme — visual forms of self-presentation — each researcher was to conduct photo elicitation interviews, asking informants to select six photographs that would best describe them “as a person” (kak lichnost’) usually several days before the actual photo elicitation interview. Of importance were the interviewee’s comments as to the circumstances of selecting photographs and his or her way of arranging the photographs during the interview itself (as described in Chapter 6). Beside the photo elicitation interviews and the collections of the photos that the informants selected in the elicitation process, researchers also a) gathered other home photographs, photo albums, and digital photo collections; b) documented the social life of home photographs, i.e. the ways in which photographs are treated, archived, and/or displayed at home or circulated among people; c) occasionally made their own photo documentation of events or situations where visual forms of self-presentation come to the fore, such as celebrations of the Day of the Fisherman, the Day of the Reindeer Herder, Yhyakh and other indigenous peoples’ festivities, local festivals, sport events, etc.). This part of the research was done in each region; its range and depth depended on the field site, the individual researcher’s capacities, and local informants’ exposure to home photography.
3. Researchers compiled short CVs for each interviewee, capturing their place of residence in different years or decades, their education and professional biography, marital status and family members, ownership of individual means of transport, and language skills (Russian, English, native language, etc.). Data on interview settings and situations (place, duration, possible disturbances, etc.) were also compiled.
4. In addition to jointly working out the interview guidelines and the instructions of photo elicitation, we also agreed to collect basic information on transportation, telecommunication, and the technical basis of (home) photography in the communities under study. Compiling such information for the late 1980s, late 1990s, and 2011–2012 (partially also for pre-1980 years) in a simple way from published sources, online reports, interviewees’ memories, and our own knowledge, we sought to obtain an overview of technological innovation and change, which in turn was in line with the research questions.

14For the project, we conducted fieldwork in ten different locations across Siberia and the Far North of Russia. Research team members went to field sites where they had already worked in earlier years. Among these ten field sites are six big cities with several hundred thousand inhabitants — Novosibirsk, Krasnoiarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Vladivostok, and Yakutsk; the seventh site is Chemal, a village in the Altai Republic, with c. 4,000 residents and a significant influx of tourists during the summer months. The other three locations are remote villages across the Far North of the country: Novoe Chaplino at the coastline of Chukotka; Saranpaul’ near the eastern foothills of the Ural Mountains; and Chavan’ga, located in the European part of northern Russia. Brief portraits of the field sites are given in Chapter 2 of this book.

15Researchers used snowball sampling and occasionally convenience sampling for identifying interviewees. Snowball sampling commenced from the contacts that the researcher had established during previous stays at their field site, gradually reaching out to these interviewees’ acquaintances, neighbours, etc. Convenience sampling also included cases of individuals (chance acquaintances in the local grocery store, for example) who were spontaneously ready for an interview. In small communities, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between a proper snowball sample and a convenience sample, because neighbours know each other well; and this in connection with social expectations and obligations may lead to a situation where a researcher is expected to visit or not to visit certain households. A particular case was that of Joachim Otto Habeck’s interviews with students at the College of Cultural Work in Novosibirsk. It was at the discretion of the head teacher to choose students for photo elicitation and travel biography interviews.

  • 1 “Indigenous peoples” here does not exclusively mean “numerically small indigenous peoples”. The lat (...)

16Generally, in the larger settlements, researchers decided to get in contact with members of a group with a certain commonality (not necessarily a common lifestyle, but at least some shared sensibilities as defined by Chaney 1996: 8–10). The notion of a shared lifestyle is quite clearly applicable to some of these groups, as in the case of Tatiana Barchunova’s and Natalia Beletskaia’s interviewees, many of whom showed a strong commitment to live-action role-playing. Eleanor Peers, Luděk Brož, and Joseph Long conducted interviews mainly (but not exclusively) with individuals who identify with one of the Siberian indigenous peoples,1 i.e. Sakha, Altaian, and Buriat respectively. Artem Rabogoshvili focused his research on representatives of diverse ethnic minorities in urban settings. Masha Shaw (née Maria Nakhshina) and Jaroslava Panáková worked in very small communities, where several weeks of fieldwork bring forth a large range of acquaintances. Ina Schröder conducted fieldwork in a similar setting, yet she directed particular attention to pedagogues and students (participants in youth camps). Dennis Zuev’s range of interlocutors was defined by communication via the website CouchSurfing — an open-ended community which, we argue, carries clear signs of lifestyle commonality in view of shared practices, tastes, and patterns of communication. Habeck worked with two groups: (female) students at the College of Cultural Work in Novosibirsk and (male) residents of a relatively small, reputedly “working-class” neighbourhood within the same city.

17Consequently, our overall sample is neither uniform nor coherent. The regional disparities, diverse access to the community under study, and the large scope of the field sites result in uneven distribution. Overall, however, the bias involves two features only: the sex and age of the informants. Of the 110 interviewees, the percentage of women is above sixty (altogether, we conducted interviews with 68 female and 42 male individuals). As to age cohorts, there is a strong bias towards people in their twenties (46 per cent aged between 21 and 30). Having said that, what comes to the fore is a large range of “cases” as regards place of residence (from highly urban to pronouncedly rural and/or remote); and level of formal education, profession, and employment status.

18The structured approach of applying the same guidelines and procedures across different settings and field sites make individual interviews comparable and capture important moments in our interlocutors’ biographies. In combination with historical analysis and ethnographically grounded research, this also allows for a deeper understanding of the social (educational, professional, and leisure-related) institutions that have shaped collective experiences and sensibilities in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Simultaneously, they provide the ground for discussing the strong regional disparities that characterise different parts of Siberia and the Far North, notably when it comes to individual patterns of mobility (cf. Bolotova, Karaseva & Vasilyeva 2017).

Table 12.1. Field sites of researchers and periods of fieldwork carried out under the programme “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia”. Sorted by location of field site (generally but not strictly from north to south). Note: data on population are based on the All-Russian Census of October 2010; the data serve to indicate the type of settlement (from small rural settlement to large city and through to metropole). (Table 2.1 in Chapter 2 provides data on population for 1 October 2010 and 1 January 2018).

Table 12.1. Field sites of researchers and periods of fieldwork carried out under the programme “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia”. Sorted by location of field site (generally but not strictly from north to south). Note: data on population are based on the All-Russian Census of October 2010; the data serve to indicate the type of settlement (from small rural settlement to large city and through to metropole). (Table 2.1 in Chapter 2 provides data on population for 1 October 2010 and 1 January 2018).

Table 12.2. Numbers of interviews conducted during fieldwork by members of the research programme “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia”. Note: interviews varied in length between fifteen minutes and 120 minutes.

Table 12.2. Numbers of interviews conducted during fieldwork by members of the research programme “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia”. Note: interviews varied in length between fifteen minutes and 120 minutes.

19As can be seen from this table, research team members utilised the two focus-theme approaches to varying extent, yet all of them conducted both types of interviews. In sum, 79 photo elicitation interviews and 82 travel biography interviews were conducted with a total number of 110 individuals. The number of photo elicitation interviews analysed by Panáková in Chapter 6 is seventy. The difference is due to the fact that nine photo elicitation interviews were transcribed and shared with delay, so that they could not be included in Panáková’s analysis.

20Of key importance for the research project was a workshop in February 2011 in Berdsk near Novosibirsk, where researchers had the opportunity to present the project to colleagues at Novosibirsk State University and receive their feedback. The venue was chosen in view of several team members’ ongoing fieldwork in different parts of Siberia. The workshop also had the purpose of discussing interim reports from all field sites. The conclusion of field research was marked by a further workshop in autumn 2011. By May 2012, we were developing our first ideas for structuring the publication, and in November 2012 the first drafts of chapters for this volume were discussed in the framework of an internal review process.

21Data analysis has been a lengthy and uneven process. Of the different categories of data, the photographs collected through the photo elicitation interviews have been closely analysed by Panáková. In Chapter 6, she portrays in detail the method of the photo elicitation interviews, the procedure, and the overall corpus of photographs that the research team collected. Having analysed the set of 484 photographs, Panáková draws a synthesis in terms of content (i.e. message and arrangement) as well as material (technical) properties of the photographs, aiming to explain how technological change in tandem with changing social conventions have modified the range of “legitimate” forms and motifs of depiction and self-presentation.

22With regard to travel biographies, Long analysed interviews conducted by himself and other research team members (Chapter 5) and establishes the concept of spatial imaginaries (i.e. collectively shared ideas about destinations, expectations, modes, and purposes of travel) and personal topographies (i.e. individual profiles of physical and also virtual mobility). As a next step, the latter might be combined with a quantitative analysis of interviewees’ range of mobility and frequency of travel, in accordance with space-time path diagrams (Kwan 2000, Shoval et al. 2015; Vrotsou, Ellegård & Cooper 2007) and other methods developed in the domain of “time geography”. Without any doubt, mobility patterns, reasons of travel, and collective and individual modes of travel have changed significantly, owing not only to changes in transport and infrastructure but also to personal predilections and socially constituted ideas about holiday-making and tourism.

23Of the 79 plus 82 interviews conducted for this project, more than ninety per cent were audio recorded and the majority of these transcribed. All field research data have been systematised. Field research data, pertinent metadata, the fieldwork “toolkit” with interview guidelines and other instruments, the minutes of the workshops, a range of relevant theoretical and regional literature, and the presentations that team members held at different occasions are all stored in a way that permits an easy overview. In addition to individual team members, the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology has received a documented copy of the data set for the sole purpose of long-term data securement. Having said that, despite the exercise in spring and autumn 2011 of working out a common strategy for coding (along with the preparation of transcripts for qualitative data analysis) the actual step of coding could not be achieved in the remaining time of the programme’s duration. What has not been done, therefore, is collective qualitative data analysis by means of pertinent software.

24Habeck as coordinator of the project has drawn conclusions on the main research questions as formulated above, also with a view to summarising the findings on the project’s secondary key concepts (modernity, mobility, photography, aesthetics, display of ethnic belonging, play, creativity, and self). These insights are given in Chapter 11. Moreover, each researcher has carefully gone through the data she or he collected, and identified commonalities and differences in the biographies and plans of their interviewees. Several of the chapters of this volume build upon this mode of analysis, closely and carefully portraying specific sites of shared practice and shared ambitions (Chapters 3, 7, 8, and 9). Three chapters were co-authored: Zuev and Habeck portray changes in transport and telecommunication from the late 1980s to the present, offering a point of departure for examination of how technological innovation and changes in lifestyles are interrelated (Chapter 2). Brož and Habeck use their field research observations to discuss changing habits of travelling for leisure and to approach the ubiquitous situation of encounter between tourist and local cultural entrepreneurs (Chapter 4). Barchunova and Habeck look into the internal logics of live-action role play and discuss how players draw or dismiss the boundary between play and “real life” (Chapter 10).

25To conclude with some general remarks about the research process, comparative endeavours of ethnographic fieldwork are not without challenges, even if research instruments (guidelines, forms for metadata, etc.) are prepared before field research. Over several decades, there has been a general tendency in social and cultural anthropology to conduct ethnographic research on an individual basis and then try to conduct comparison ex post facto. This project was conceptualised with the intention to prepare a comparative basis before the actual start of ethnographic fieldwork. It should be admitted that this was a time-consuming process, and it is fair to list the shortcomings of this project: firstly, the study is influenced by the selection of informants in favour of women and people in their twenties. Secondly, data analysis has been done individually (not collectively), partially after the end of the granted project.

26Nonetheless, the chapters of this volume present numerous topical and intriguing insights gained during fieldwork, reflecting many hours of intensive discussion on methodology and theory resulting in a common understanding of the key concepts. Moreover, the comparison of travel biography data in Chapter 5 and of photo elicitation data in Chapter 6 illustrates that comparative analysis of data can be achieved in qualitative and quantitative ways. There has been some delay in the preparation of the collected volume, for reasons partly beyond the control of the editor and other team members. Notwithstanding, the research project “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality” offers more than just a snapshot of social and cultural dynamics in Siberia and the Russian North around the year 2011. As contributors to the volume, we hope that our findings make it easier for outsiders to embrace and appreciate livelihoods and life projects in smaller and larger places in Russia, by means of both ethnographic detail and a synthesis of historic shifts from the 1980s to the 2010s.

27In addition, we hope to have shown how the concept of lifestyle has been helpful in the examination of modernity, mobility, photography, aesthetics, displays of ethnicity, play, creativity, and self as promising topics in future anthropological research on Siberia, and potentially beyond.



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1 “Indigenous peoples” here does not exclusively mean “numerically small indigenous peoples”. The latter term stands for ethnic groups with less than 50,000 members. Altaians, Buriat, Sakha, and some other groups are numerically larger. The background and consequences of the differentiation between “numerically small” and other ethnic groups is discussed in Donahoe et al. (2008).

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 12.1. Field sites of researchers and periods of fieldwork carried out under the programme “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia”. Sorted by location of field site (generally but not strictly from north to south). Note: data on population are based on the All-Russian Census of October 2010; the data serve to indicate the type of settlement (from small rural settlement to large city and through to metropole). (Table 2.1 in Chapter 2 provides data on population for 1 October 2010 and 1 January 2018).
Fichier image/jpeg, 70k
Titre Table 12.2. Numbers of interviews conducted during fieldwork by members of the research programme “Conditions and Limitations of Lifestyle Plurality in Siberia”. Note: interviews varied in length between fifteen minutes and 120 minutes.
Fichier image/jpeg, 41k


teaches Anthropology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. From 2003 to 2013 he was Coordinator of the Siberian Studies Centre of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. He received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2004. He is author of What It Means to Be a Herdsman: the practice and image of reindeer husbandry among the Komi of Northern Russia (2005) and Das Kulturhaus in Russland (2014). With Brian Donahoe, he co-edited Reconstructing the House of Culture (2011). His sphere of interest comprises popular culture, practices of distinction, and the concept of lifestyle in postsocialist countries.

A research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology and Social Anthropology, Slovak Academy of Sciences; and teacher at the Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. She received her doctorate from the Saint Petersburg State University and was Research Associate at the Siberian Studies Centre of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology from 2008 to 2011. Jaroslava has conducted her field research on northern peoples in Saint Petersburg and in Chukotka, looking comparatively at mobility, identity, and visual representations. Since her research stay at the CNRS in Paris from 2014 to 2015, she has attempted to link the themes of death and visuality of commemoration.


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