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Hooked on life on Lake Baikal
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Manchester Guardian Weekly,By Francois Bonnet

Lake Baikal, in Siberia, is the pride of the Russians and the Buryats, a people of Turco-Mongolian origin who have lived in the region since the 11th century. In Mongolian Baikal means "sea of riches". The lake is 630km long from north to south, and measures 80km across at its widest point. It is the world's deepest lake (1,620m), and the largest reservoir of fresh water.

For six months each winter Lake Baikal is covered with ice 1.5m thick. The temperature drops to -45C in January. In June and July it enjoys an almost Mediterranean climate, and in autumn it is swept by fearsome storms.

One of the lake's great resources is its fish, mostly omul (Coregonus autumnalis), a highly prized whitefish that is tastier than trout or pollan, its closest relations. It provides a living for all the villagers who live on the banks of the lake. Inya Nomkhayev, a slim 25-year-old woman, chain-smokes papirossi, cigarettes made of dark tobacco with a cardboard tube at one end. It is April, the period of the last big fishing campaigns before the ice breaks up. The temperature is -15C. Inya is wearing four woollen pullovers, coarse canvas trousers and boots packed with insulating material.

Her father-in-law, Nikolai, uses a pick to reopen the hole he has made in the ice and yanks the ropes from their icy grip. Steam rises from the water. Her cousin, Vladimir, the third member of the "brigade" -- as the teams of fishermen are called -- lays out crates on the snow-covered ice. The net is slowly pulled up, spilling out its treasure of 40cm-long silver omul, which freeze as soon as they are tossed into the crates.

Inya is fatalistic: "It's our life, and was our parents' life before us. It's a subject as vast as Lake Baikal, so we don't ask ourselves too many questions." Inya is a Buryat. "Our relationship with the Russians is all about peace, love and solidarity," she insists. "When the men get drunk, they do occasionally pick fights with each other, but there's no fundamental difference between them."

Every morning, before fishing, the brigade devotes a few minutes to the spirits of shamanism, the second most practised religion in the region after Buddhism. They offer up a few drops of vodka, a cigarette, a coin and a piece of ribbon, which they tie to a bush. "We have to give the gods something -- man is strong, but he's only a tiny part of nature," says Nikolai.

Inya and her family live on Olkhon, the largest and most beautiful of Lake Baikal's islands. With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies, Olkhon became so isolated that life there almost ground to a halt.

But its inhabitants decided to stay on, and were joined by new fishermen from elsewhere. "Omul fishing is our only source of income," Inya says. "But if you're prepared to work 12-14 hours a day, you can make quite a good living." Fishermen can earn up to $ 170 a month, which is much more than the salary of a worker, teacher or doctor in Russia.

At nightfall Inya and her brigade return to the Buryat village of Khalgai, which nestles against a forest of pine and larch, and their typically Siberian izba, or log cabin. A huge wood-burning stove made of bricks and stone separates a rudimentary kitchen from the house's single room. As in the rest of Olkhon, there is no outward sign of wealth.

"There's nothing here any more -- no school, no electricity for the past eight years, no gas," Inya says. "We have to get our water from the lake. We use jerry cans in summer and blocks of ice in winter. Bread isn't delivered any more, so we have to bake our own."

She has considered leaving Olkhon. "But our life is on Lake Baikal. I'm one of the few women who fishes. I've always done that, like our mothers and grandmothers during the war. It's a tough job, but it means I'll be able to send my five-year-old daughter to boarding school in Khouzir or Irkutsk."

Khouzir (population 1,200), the biggest village on Olkhon, slopes gently down to the lake from Cape Bourhan, a pink granite outcrop that is a holy place for shamanists. Its long rows of izbas are separated by dirt tracks. The village is still the centre of omul fishing, as it was during the Soviet period.

But now there is chaos from rules and regulations being flouted, the collapse of public services and an economy in ruins. Grigory Filipovich, who lives in a lop-sided izba, admits that he is mayor of Khouzir. "And so what? All I possess is a pen. I'm a lucid sort of fellow and I don't believe in fairy stories: in my opinion there are no prospects here. Everything has been destroyed, and finance no longer gets through."

The main topic of conversation in the village is electricity. The power supply was cut off in 1993 and has never been restored. The cable connecting Khouzir with Irkutsk was soon vandalised and sold to scrap metal dealers. Since then the village has had to make do with an old generator, which used to supply power to the fish factory's refrigerating units.

At nightfall the generator splutters into action and supplies two to three hours of power. "We only managed to get it going again six months ago, and even now it only runs on alternate days for each half of the village," says Filipovich. "Nothing works here -- there's no telephone, no power to speak of, no television, no fridges. It's back to nature. If it weren't for omul, we would all have starved to death ages ago, so what's the point of talking about illegal fishing or poaching?"

For some time now there has been a thriving black market alongside the official omul fishing industry. Wholesalers who control the omul market in neighbouring cities have made a lot of money by ignoring quotas, tax demands and official declarations.

"It's a game, and I love it -- the miracle of a good catch or a profitable sale," says Vladimir Chernikh, 44, who has been fishing omul for 25 years. His hands are cracked from the cold and his legs hurt, but he has no intention of packing it in yet.

"Under the Soviet regime, everyone got the same salary, whether they were loafers, drunks or good fishermen. Now I'm virtually independent, I choose the members of my brigade, my equipment, my hours and where I fish."

Like most of the 97 brigades registered in Olkhon, Chernikh has a contract with the fish factory. In return for a fishing licence he supplies one tonne of fish per month at a fixed price of 11 roubles (40 cents) per kilo. Anything above that he is allowed to sell to other takers for 15 roubles.

"January is the best month. You can catch four and sometimes five tonnes. That's quite a lot of money," he says, before breaking off to negotiate with the owner of the only private grocery in the village. They end up making a deal whereby Chernikh gets grocers in exchange for fish.

Omul are used as a bargaining chip everywhere. If you are caught by the police driving on the ice-covered lake after too much vodka, a few cases of fish will persuade them not to charge you.

Khouzir's fish factory is quietly crumbling. The lack of electricity prevents any omul being processed on the spot. In winter the fish are deep-frozen by the cold, but in summer they have to be taken away by lorries and boats. As there is not enough transport, the factory sells the rest to "private dealers".

Viktor Vensak has been running the factory since 1992. He describes himself as a "conservative-leaning pessimist". "Could you please tell me how I'm supposed to run a factory without either electricity or a phone, and with fishermen who freak out when they hear the word 'kolkhoz' [collective farm]?"

Vensak does not have the figures at his fingertips, but he thinks the factory might be "roughly breaking even". The cold rooms have been dismantled, and the equipment for drying and smoking fish no longer works. Boats sit rusting in the harbour.

Whether he is on the ice during the winter or in his little motorboat in summer, Chernikh occasionally takes time off from his nets to admire the beauty of Lake Baikal. Born in Khabarovsk, in the far east of Russia, he came to Irkutsk to do his military service.

"I went to see Olkhon and fell in love with Lake Baikal. I'm completely hooked -- all that water, its depth, all that fish." He likes to remember how he would take his motorcycle and sidecar out on to the ice at the beginning of May, when it was only 10cm thick, or how he once spent 24 hours adrift on a floating block of ice.

"My son's a student in Irkutsk, and my daughter is about to leave home too. I know they won't come back. It's only normal that one's children should have a better life, better than that of an ordinary fisherman."

One thing is certain: Chernikh himself has no intention of leaving Olkhon, his life in the open air, or the dirt track called Lenin Street that he walks down every morning to reach the lakeside.


Kivu Refugees


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