A Village in the Forest

Old Udegeh manOld man with skiOld lady siting downLubasha and Shura Sulingiza in Krasy Yar, Russia, circa 1992


57403-HRSL-Untitled 5-016-1595-Edit-Edit


Portraits of some of the residents of Krasny Yar, an Udege village in the Russian Far East.


KRASNY YAR — Amidst the rolling foothills of the Sikhote-Alin Mountains live the Udege people, indigenous Asians who hunt in the one of the most unusual forests in the world — an old-growth taiga that is home for both bears and tigers. Only about 1,500 Udege exist in the world. The largest group lives in Krasny Yar, a village on the Bikin River.

Last week, two American television journalists and I rode ride south from Khabarovsk for six hours on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then rattled up a mountain road in a small bus for four hours. The dirt road came to an end at a swift-moving, ice-clogged river, which we crossed in a narrow wooden boat. On the other side was a village of about 700 people. There aren’t any cars or all-terrain vehicles in Krasny Yar. Except for the distant rumble of the wood-fired boiler at the village school and the voices of children playing in the streets, the village is as serene as the forest that surrounds it.

We went to Krasny Yar to film a short documentary about the dispute between the Udege people and the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, which wants to log the Udege’s traditional hunting grounds. Environmentalists say logging the area would destroy the habitat of the endangered Ussuri tiger. The Udege say it would destroy their livelihood and culture. Last August, when the villagers heard that logging was about to begin, six Udege hunters took their rifles and flew there by helicopter to guard the trees. Twelve Cossacks from Vladivostok joined forces with the Udege to “defend the border.” Hyundai withdrew the loggers, but the dispute has yet to be settled.

After one night in Krasny Yar, the American journalists and their translator flew by helicopter to Korean logging camps on the other side of the mountain range. There wasn’t any room in the helicopter for me, so they left me behind with the task of guarding the luggage. I was glad to be abandoned. I had grown wearing of the Americans, who bickered constantly. Also, it provided me the chance to learn more about this mountain village.

Although the Udege are an Asian people of the Tungus-Manchurian group, they wear Russian clothes and celebrate Russian holidays. Elders still speak the Udege language, but younger people only speak Russian. Krasny Yar for the most part seems like a typical Russian village. Cows and dogs roam the streets; people busy themselves with rural chores such as chopping wood and fetching water from stone wells.

What makes Krasny Yar unique is its location. No where else in the world is there such a blend of northern and southern plants and animals. Walk in these woods and you might find a spruce entwined by a grape vine, or a Manchurian nut-tree and a Korean pine growing side-by-side with maples and oaks. Northern animals like deer, elk, sable and bear travel the same terrain as wild boars and tigers. This rich diversity can be explained by the climate. Severe, Alaska-style winters are succeeded by summers as luxuriant as in India. The climate here is monsoon, meaning that the prevailing wind changes direction according to the season. In winter, when the wind flows off the frozen steppes of Siberia, temperatures routinely drop to 20 degrees below. In summer, it reverses direction and travels here from the Pacific, bringing with it sub-tropical humidity and heavy rains.

During my stay, I mostly saw just women and children in the village. With the exception of the mayor, some teachers and a few elders, all the men here work in the forest. At the end of October, they travel by boat up the Bikin River to their hunting grounds. They carry slow-moving Russian-made snowmobiles in the boats, and at the end of February, the ride the machines back to the village. Those who have cabins close to the village come back for the New Year’s holiday. They use the snowmobiles only for long-distance travel. When the hunt, they use six-foot-long, seven-inch-wide wooden skis that for traction are covered with deer skin. The men hunt and trap fur-bearing animals, such as sable, fox and mink. For food, they hunt deer and wild boar.

There’s another predator in this forest —  the Ussuri tiger, known by Westerners as the Siberian tiger. Typically weighing from 400 to 650 pounds and measuring 9 to 12 feet from head to tail, this tiger is the biggest cat in the world. Its yellowish winter top coat lacks the red stripe of tigers from warmer climates,and its underside, from its face to the back legs and tail, is white. To withstand temperatures that drop as low as 50 degrees below zero, it grows a longer and thicker coat and develops a layer of fat along its flanks and belly. During winter, it must eat over 20 pounds of meat a day to sustain itself.

For centuries, the Udege have worshiped the tiger as a god. To appease it, they place tobacco leaves on its trail. As one Udege man told me, “the tiger and the Udege people are the same.” Unfortunately, in China and Korea, the tigers’ skins, bones and genitals are valued for their medicinal value. Pulverized and used in “tiger wine,” the bones bring about a hundred dollars a pound. It’s against Russian law to kill a tiger, but with the end of the Cold War, Russia’s borders with China and Korea are now open, and poachers have easy access to markets there. After decades of steady growth, the tiger population is now shrinking. Today, there are  fewer than 400 tigers, almost all of them living in the narrow stretch of mountains along the Pacific called Sikhote-Alin Range. This same area includes the Udege hunting grounds.

Krasny Yar’s school has a one-room museum containing artifacts of Udege culture: wooden idols, a bow and arrow, a model of a dug-out canoe, a deerskin hat with a feather plume. A painting of a tiger hangs on the wall.

The museum’s caretaker, a reserved man in his 60s, carefully recounted the history of the Udege people. Seven hundred years ago, he told me, the Udege were citizens of the Jurchen Empire, which included parts of present-day China, Mongolia and Russia. The Jurchens had their own written language and agriculture. Archaeologists working in the southern part of Primorski Krai recently unearthed an ancient Jurchen megapolis which included the remains of administrative buildings, fortifications, metal works, moats, towers, a central gateway. The Jurchens had their own written language and a highly-developed system of agriculture. In the 13th century, nomads from the Mongol steppes used scorch earth tactics to destroy the city and crush the empire, The Mongols set fire to the crops and slaughtered the Jurchen people by the thousands. The survivors scattered over the Far East and formed into several small tribes. The people who fled to the Sikhote-Alin mountains eventually became the Udege people. In their isolation, the Udege had developed their own language and customs. To survive, however, they took a step backwards in social evolution and become semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in clans along rivers and built squared huts roofed with birch bark and mounted on tripods. They hunted game with spears and bows and arrows and later with rifles.

They lived much like this until the 1930s, when an outside power again forced change upon them. Collectivization was imposed throughout the USSR, and the traditional occupations of native people were organized into producers’ cooperatives. The Communists broke up the Udege clans, gathered everyone into Russian-style villages and set up a hunter/gatherer cooperative. The Udege gave their furs, ginseng, ferns and berries to the government and in return received state wages. While their hunting and gathering tradition survived, most of their other traditions perished. The Soviets prohibited them from speaking their language and worshiping their gods. Shamanism was subjected to mockery by young natives recruited into the Young Communist League. Some shamans fled into the forests and were never seen again. Today, only the elders can speak the Udege language; the middle aged and younger people only remember a few words, such as bugdify, the Udege word for “hello.”

Still, the Udege seemed to have had an easier time adjusting to the modern world than American natives. Communism — an ideology centered on the idea that resources should be shared equally — is closer to the values of Udege culture than capitalism, which prizes competition and individualism. Plus the sheer inefficiency of the communist system has forced the Udege to maintain their barter economy and their reliance on their forest, rivers and gardens for much of their food. Fortunately, the communists had also struck a deal with village leaders to preserve their forest, an area covering 10,000 square miles, or about of the size of New Hampshire. The effect is that the Udege seem to have more self-pride and live more self-sufficiently than most American natives. In oil-rich Alaska, the Eskimos have nicer public buildings, faster snowmobiles, more food in the stores and better medical care than the Udege. Some Alaska natives make more cash in a single day than Udege hunters can earn in a year. But there’s a terrible problem of suicide Alaska, especially among young native men who feel hopelessly displaced in modern America. While Krasny Yar is far poorer, there’s still a role for young, strong men who want to work in the wilderness as their fathers did. I asked several people here if their teenagers ever kill themselves, and everyone had the same reply — never.

With the end of communism, though, some of the same forces that have affected the lives of native Americans have begun to show their influence here. The presence of the mass media is growing stronger. The village practically shuts down when the Western soup operas such as “Santa Barbara” appear on their snowy television screens. At the Friday-night dance at the school, teenagers imitate the rock stars they see on MTV, shown on television every evening for an hour. I’ve noticed that the youngest children, who know almost nothing of the Udege history or language, have managed to memorize the commercials for products like Snickers and Uncle Ben’s ketchup.

If there’s any part of the Udege culture that has survived, it’s the connection with the forest. Now that land in Russia is becoming privatized, who will own the forest? Foreign companies like Hyundai. Russian logging companies? Or the Udege? To be truthful, the Ussuri tiger stands a better chance of being saved from extinction. There are simply too few of Udege and too many Russians. Intermarriage with the Russians and other tribes, a taboo some 50 years ago, has become common place. I was invited to the school one day to watch 12 children dressed in colorful silk ceremonial costumes perform Udege dances. Eleven of the children had round Russian eyes. Only one girl with a beautiful, chubby Asian face seemed fully Udege. I brought her outside for some photographs. She was cold, so I only snapped a couple of pictures. For the whole day after that, all I could think about was that girl. I kept worrying that perhaps I had worked too quickly and had set the wrong exposure on my camera. I wanted to preserve forever the image of the Udege girl standing in the snow.

I waited for four days for the helicopter with the Americans to return, but they never came back. A snow storm had forced them on a detour to Vladivostok. So on the morning of the fifth day, I gathered the luggage and put it on a sled. Andre, the policeman for the region, pulled the sled across the river (it had frozen over during my stay) and loaded the luggage into his truck. Then we began the long drive back to Khabarovsk. After about 20 minutes, Andre stopped the truck and pointed out the window towards the side of the road. He shouted something. I didn’t understand him. I stepped out of the car and walked to where he was pointing. There were tiger prints — two sets — belonging to a mother and her cub. I pressed my palm in the snow and stretched out my fingers. The mother’s print was almost as big as my hand.

The New Year in Krasny Yar

house in Krasny Yar smallTwo girls at door3.Boy on skis horizontal 2_edited-3Boy on skis large_edited-8Krasny Yar CopUdege man in costometwo girls on streetboy with hatboy on streetgirl at doorwayold man at doorwaytwo girlsaccordion4 girlsNinaJanuary, 1993

Scenes from the village of Krasny Yar


For most of the winter, the men of Krasny Yar live in hunting cabins scattered along the Bikin River. They return to the village only once — at the end of December — to celebrate the New Year.

I also celebrated the New Year in Krasny Yar. I came here to meet the hunters and escape life in a big Russian city. Compared to the stinking apartment buildings of Khabarovsk, Krasny Yar is paradise. The water is pure, the snow deep and soft. The food — made with wild meat and garden vegetables— tastes wonderful.

New Year’s Day is Russia’s biggest holiday. After the Soviets took power and discouraged the celebration of Christmas, many of the symbols of Christmas‚ such as Grandfather Frost and the decorated tree, were moved to New Year’s. Indeed, the whole spirit of the holiday has been successfully transplanted. New Years in Russia is a time for families to be reunited. Father Frost, Dyehd Moroz, is like our Santa Claus, except less robust and more elderly (he represents the old year, after all). To deliver presents to children, he needs the help of his granddaughter, Snigoorochka, the Snow Maiden.  Snigoorochka has blonde hair and a long blue and white coat. While Santa Claus sneaks into children’s homes late at night, Dyehd Maroz and Snigoorochka, are highly visible spirits. Portrayed usually by friends of the family, they arrive at children’s homes at a respectable hour and hand out presents to each child. The children in return are expected to give a little performance of holiday poems and songs.

Until early in this century, before Russian culture had crept into their remote valley in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, the Udegeh had never celebrated the New Year. So all of their New Year traditions are Russian. Still, in Krasny Yar, it’s somehow easier to believe in Father Frost. Parents here tell their children that the old man lives in the forest nearby.

A few days ago, while skiing in the woods on the outskirts of the village, I noticed that the foot path looked odd — like someone had scraped it with a rake. Then I saw why — two boys had been dragging a yolka, an evergreen tree, from the forest where it had been cut. The village Soviet of People’s Deputies (town hall) also had a yolka. The kindergarten children held a party there. Dressed like deer, princesses and gypsies, they held hands and circled around the yolka. They sang:

In the forest a little fir-tree was born,

In the forest it grew up,

In the winter and in the summer it was

slender and green.

A snowstorm sang it a lullaby:

“Sleep, little fir-tree, bye-bye.”

The frost wrapped it with snow:

“Take care, do not get cold.”

Today, it’s so beautifully decorated,

It has visited us for the holiday,

And so much happiness

It has brought to little children.

At the New Year’s party in the school gym, Father Frost was played by my friend Radion, a skinny 26-year-old English teacher. His Snow Maiden was Svetlana, the school’s 36-year-old, part-time recreation director. Her front teeth are made of gold. Her hands are callused from chopping wood. She lives in an abandoned dress shop with her two daughters. A year ago, she divorced her husband a year ago because he drank too much.

I visited that little house several times this week. I should’ve been interviewing the hunters, but I enjoyed the company of Svetlana and her girls, especially her 7-year-old daughter Nina, whom I nicknamed Yabloko, which means apple. Like her mother, she has a beautiful, round Asian face.

I imagine this will come as a surprise to the reader. It was to me. By the end of the week, Svetlana said she wanted to be my wife.

“But where would we live?” I asked, taking her proposal with humor, but somehow not quite ready to dismiss it entirely.

“Krasny Yar,” she said.

On New Year’s Eve, the hunters and their families gathered in their homes and ate the biggest meal of the year. Several had invited me for dinner. In my effort not to offend them, I had promised to visit each family for a toast. I was supposed to be at Radion’s father’s house for midnight. When the grand moment arrived, however, I missed it. I was caught between houses, walking down the street with the Snow Maiden, learning the Russian words for the moon and stars.

The Udeghe and the Tiger are Allies

 For two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Udeghe tribe has struggled to protect the Bikin River basin from intruders. Through a 49-year-lease with the federal government that was signed in 2009, the tribe now controls 1.1 million acres, the heart of the largest tract of virgin temperate forest in the northern hemisphere.

  The basin plays a critical role in the survival of the endangered Amur tiger, known to Westerners as the Siberian tiger. They are the world’s largest cats, with the average male adult weighing nearly 400 pounds. 

 About 400 tigers live in Russian Far East, and the Bikin River basin is home to 50 of them.. Tigers rarely atack people.\\In 1997, an injurted tiger attacked and ate two Russians in Bikin River basin. The tiger was killed.. One of the Russians was a poacher.

 The Udeghe are among the eight indigenous tribes in the Russian Far East. Udeghe means, “forest people” in the Udeghe language.

 There are 2 million ethnic Russians in the region. There are only 1,700 Udeghe, and Krasny Yar, the largest of the four Udeghe settlements, is their capital.

 The Udeghe as a culture may face greater obstacles for survival than the tiger.

 The Soviets banished or killed the shamans when they finally gained control of the mountainous area in the 1930s. They also discouraged native people from speaking their own language and taught them Russian school.

 Today, only elders can still speak the Udeghe language fluently. Children only know certain words and phrases, such as “bugdifi,” the Udeghe word for “hello, and “loosa,” which means “Russians.”

 The Udeghe are now trying to save their language. Ihila’s friend, Maria Kunchuga, 17, this fall will study the Udeghelanguage at a university in St. Petersburg and then return to the village to work as an Udeghe teacher in the school.

 At the Udeghe festival, she recited a poem in the Udeghe language. Although few people understood her, the symbolism of the moment was not lost on the crowd: a young person was speaking Udeghe

  When I asked why she want to study Udeghe, she replied in Russian,  “It’s important to me. It’s my culture.”

  Udeghe men hunt and trap for a living, as they have done for many centuries, a cultural heritage that sustains them and has allowed them to remain in this mountain valley as cohesive group.

  The Udeghe and the Amur tiger share this forest. Both the tiger and the tribe face the threat of extinction but for now each is holding its own.

  In their struggle to survive, their interests are protected by the existence of the other. In a sense they are allies.

  “As long as there are Udeghe here, they won’t cut the forest,” says Evgeny Smernov, a forest ranger with the provincial agency, the Institute of Geography, based in Vladivostok. “The Udeghe won’t allow it. There would be a war.”

  In the ancient pagan beliefs of the Udeghe, the tiger held the status of gods. Just to see one was considered a sign that one has done something wrong and would require a prayer for forgiveness.

  Today, while modern Udeghe hunters may not all see tigers as gods, they still view them with both fear and respect.

  Russian and Chinese poachers are hunting the tigers —often with the use of a live dog as bait. During our visit, police arrested a Russian man in another town after finding in his home the skins of three tiger cubs and four grown tigers.

  Pound for pound, the tiger is the most valuable animal in the taiga. Its various parts are sought by the Chinese for use as medicine and for its supposed powers as aphrodisiac. A tiger corpse can fetch as much as $20,000 on the black market.

 An Udeghe hunter during the four-month trapping season can earn about just 45,00 rubles, or about $1,500, before expenses.

  For the Udeghe, killing a tiger remains taboo, a violation of a deep cultural value.

 “The tigers keep the forest healthy,” says Yuri Sun, 51, an Udeghe hunter who keeps 150 traps in an area 15 kilometers upriver from Krasny Yar.

  “It’s good that the territory has tigers. They bring balance to the forest,” he says. “If there were no tigers, there would be wolves, and they would kill everything.”

  Sun is among the 47 professional  hunters/trappers in the village.  Each is allotted a territory in which they trap fur-bearing animals, such as mink and sable.

 Sun traps from November through February, when animals have their heavy fur coats and before they produce off spring. While Sun just works during the four-month trapping season, other hunters also work year round. Both in the outside the trapping season, they hunt deer, elk and wild boar. They and also fish in the Bikin River, pursuing a trout-like fish called Shuka. 

 “The hunters are fiercely protective of their territories, and Russian law is lenient in situations when a hunter shoots an intruder,” Smernov says.

   Smernov, who is married to an Udeghe woman and lives in Krasny Yar, says hunters are protecting their livelihoods, not the tiger. But their vigilance has had the effect of keeping poachers from intruding into the basin.

 The Udeghe are also politically active in fighting back attempts by logging companies to harvest the forest. Just last year, nearly the entire village traveled to Luchegorsk, the nearest significant town, and a four or five-hour drive on dirt roads to demonstrate against a proposal by a logging company to log part of the Bikin Basin.

 The demonstration, along with 25,000 signatures gathered by the World Wildlife Fund, convinced the authorities in Moscow to kill the plan, says Yuri Darman, director of the Amur branch of WWF Russia.

 In 1992, the chaotic year that followed the collapsed of the Soviet Union, a South Korean logging company tried to move into the basin to log it and was met by armed Udeghe hunters. The South Koreans turned back.   

They have since then successfully fought off several proposed logging operations that followed.

 “If there were no Udeghe people in Krasny Yar, all this country would be logged out,” Darman says.

  The tiger population in the basin is stable, says Smernov, whose job includes keeping a census of the tiger population in the basin. Tigers need large territories to sustain themselves, and there is no room left in the basin to support more of them.

  Logging operations in the Khor River basin have driven tigers there into the Bikin River basin, putting pressure on the existing tiger population in the basin.

He says the tiger population in the basin has reached its maximum for the amount available food. An individual tiger needs a territory of about 20 hectors, an area of 20 kilometers by 10 kilometers.

  The territory of an individual tiger  — or a single male tiger at its harem of females — is similar in size to the territories of individual Uedgeh hunters.

  Efforts to save the Amur tiger from extinction in recent years have brought world attention to the Bikin basin. German and American environmental organizations have given grants to Community Tiger, the local group that controls the timber rights and hunting activities, to build an Udeghe museum and new housing for teachers and help with annual rent payments to the provincial government.

 Some of the money has been used to buy a billboard hung on the outside of the school, showing a photo of a tiger and the words, “We save the tiger together!” and a similar poster in the interior of the school, about the rarely seen Amur leopard.

 During the Udeghe festival this summer, a group of children repeated the slogan at the conclusion of their skit about a poacher killing a tiger and leaving its cubs motherless. My 16-year-old daughter, Ihila, played the poacher.

 Vladimir Putin, who wants to be known as the “tiger president,” has made saving the tiger a priority. Putin’s interest in the tiger may help the Udeghe efforts to win federal protection for the Bikin River basin.

  Krasny Yar’s population has declined about 20 percent over the past two decades. There are fewer children and families here. Many young adults, particularly women who go off to college, have moved to cities for more opportunities.

 Still, in the economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the village is healthier than most villages in rural Russia, some of which has have simply lost so many people they are become ghost towns.

 The money from abroad has helped sustain the village, says Daria Zhuralova, 23, who grew up in the village and now works as an English interpreter in Vladivostok. In addition, the attention has helped efforts to preserve the Bikin Basin, which has won preliminary approval to be named a World Heritage site.

  Zhuralova, who uses her English skills to arrange ecological tours of the region for Japanese groups, is hopeful that both the tiger and the Udeghe have a future.

 “Now the population of the world is concerned about the protection of nature, and now they see that the way the Udeghe have lived is the right way, not the way of civilization,” she says. “Now they are trying to do everything they can to save it.”