Ethnic minorities and warfare at the Arctic front 1939-1945

Waling T. Gorter-Gr0nvik, Mikhail N. Suprun, Archangelsk Pomor University, Archangel, Russia*

(*Thanks to Mr. Frans Weitenberg and
Mrs. Elisabeth Wall for the responsibility
they took in transferring the following text
in correct English)


More than one hundred different minorities of the USSR fought at the Soviet front during the Second World War. Members of the Arctic minorities, peoples of the Saami, Nenets and Komi, fought at the so-called Arctic front of the Kola Peninsula. In addition, there were Hanti, Mansi and Karelians at this Arctic front. All of these minorities were placed in the reindeer brigades and battalions of the 14th and the 19th Armies. By 1944 they were organised in the 13th special brigade. This brigade, in its turn, was included in the 12 light corps and in the 12 marine brigade that took part in the Petsamo-Kirke-nes operation in 1944.

Up till the end of 1939 the northern minorities were exempted from conscription into the Red Army. There were various reasons for this exemption, such as the lack of knowledge of the Russian language, and the special attention Soviet authorities gave the Arctic minorities during the initial period of the Soviet Union’s existence. The Constitution and some subsequent laws regulated this special and positive attitude. One of these laws exempted the northern minorities from the obligation of military service. The main reason given was to preserve their cultures and to support their existence.

During the Winter War of 1939-1940, the northern minorities were for the first time used as soldiers. The General Staff of the Red Army discovered that they were very useful in the Arctic terrain. More than one thousand Saami, Nenets, Komi and others were mobilised during this short war. Most of them were Saami from the Kola Peninsula. Their experience would turn out to be very important during the operations at the Arctic front during the whole Second World War. It had already been apparent during the Winter War that these Arctic minority soldiers dealt much better with the harsh environment. In this Winter War reindeers were used for the first time and they often turned out to be of much more help than tanks or horses.

Thus, it was not by accident that special orders were issued about the use of minorities and their reindeer when the war with Germany began and the first Winter of this war came closer.

On the 23rd of August 1941, the Karelian front was established. In November 1941, the Military Council of the 14 Army of the Karelian Front suggsted the formation of three army reindeer "transports" from Saami areas at the Kola Peninsula. Each of these was to include 1, 015 reindeer, 15 dogs, and more than 300 reindeer sledges. Each transport was to be staffed with 154 soldiers and officers, including 77 reindeer-men soldiers.

Some of these "transports" were recruited from Saami from the Lovozero and Saami districts of Murmansk County. Of these men, no fewer than three hundred were Saami who were mobilised for service in the Red Army during the first month of the war.

As a result of the request of the Military Council, on the 22nd of November 1941, Archangel Military District (Okrug) issued Order No. 18, About the mobilisation of reindeer-men soldiers and the sending of reindeer from the people's economy of Archangel County and the Komi Republic. In accordance with this order, 600 reindeer-men soldiers, 6, 000 reindeer, and 1, 200 reindeer sledges from Archangel County were taken to the front. Likewise 800 reindeer-men soldiers, 4, 000 reindeer and 800 reindeer sledges were sent to the front from the Komi Republic.4

After this, orders were extended to the reindeer men and reindeer of the Ya-mal-Nenets Autonomous Area in the neighbouring Tjumen County and to the Autonomous Area of the Hanti and Mansi. According to these orders, reindeer men, reindeer and sledges had to be assembled at Archangel before the first of January 1942. This, of course, was impossible, as most reindeer men and reindeer had to travel more than 2, 000 kilometres to get to Archangel.

Usually, reindeer travel an average of at most fifty kilometres a day. After four days they need a day's rest. The echelons from the Archangelskaya tundra (from as far as Naryan-Mar and far beyond) thus arrived at their first destination, the village of Rikasikha between Archangel and Molotovsk (Severodvinsk), at the end of January 1942. The echelons from the Komi tundra first arrived there the 8th of February, 1942.

The choice of Rikasikha as the place of destination was not accidental. It is situated on the left bank of the Dvina River, close to the railroad from Molotovsk and Archangel to the South. The railroad was the only means of transport for these echelons on their way to the front on the other side of the White Sea.5

Nearly 1,500 recmits, mostly Nenets and Komi from the Archangel and Komi tundras gathered about 10,000 reindeer near Rikasikha in February 1942—as a matter of fact, one unit came to Varzogory, close to Onega, and was taken by train from Maloshuika after a short period of training there. Initially, all of them were included in the 295 reserve detachment (polk)6 They received special training in Rikasikha in March 1942, and then they were sent to Murmansk, where they were converted into five special reindeer battalions of the 14th Army. Four of these battalions (nos. 6,7,8 and 10) formed the 2nd ski brigade. This brigade was sent to the 50-kilometre point of the road from Cape Mishukovo to Titovka. In September 1942 some other detachments were added to this brigade, and the brigade was renamed the 31s special ski brigade. One of the battalions (no. 3) was sent to the 19th Army at the Kandalaksha front, which was formed in March 1942. Later on, in the Winter of 1942-1943, four new reindeer transports were taken to the 14 Army in addition to the above-mentioned.

In this article, we discuss the interaction between the indigenous groups and the other soldiers in the Soviet army. It is based on existing military archive materials, a range of publications, and interviews with former Nenets and Komi reindeer-men soldiers, conducted in 1989 and in 1990.

The organisation of the ethnic minority participation at the Arctic front

Our informants remembered their military training in Rikasikha. This training lasted only a few weeks and was led by Russian officers, who, in an irritating manner, lacked understanding of the Nenets and Komi and bullied them. Hunters as they were, Nenets and Komi saw themselves as much better shooters than their instructors. Even after almost fifty years, the truth seems clear: these indigenous peoples, especially the Nenets, neither understood nor accepted the need to participate in a war at all. They did not have the slightest idea what a war in fact is, since their societies are very individualistic and do not know the concept of war at all. In addition, during the forced, unreasonably quick and tough mid-winter reindeer voyage, they could already see that this Soviet "invention" would finish off their best friend and associate in the Arctic: the reindeer, which the Russians called the "arctic tank". Indigenous reindeer men were very upset when they came to Rikasikha with thousands of reindeer, weak and sick because of a trip that they never would have attempted of their own accord. From the beginning there were conflicts. Right from the start the Russians had the idea that these people were only useful when they were split up in the smallest possible units, isolated from each other, and under constant Russian control. The Russians also threatened to shoot the reindeer men if they ran away or did not obey. Otherwise many of them surely would have escaped with their reindeer. The same went for the Saami. It is clear that many Russian officers did not develop a good attitude towards their indigenous troops, though exceptions are remembered as well, as appeared from our interviews. The few Russian officers who could make themselves understood in one of the indigenous languages, or who at least tried to learn some words from these languages, often developed very good relationships. The Nenets reindeer men, for example, called all Russian officers ‘colonel’. Most of these officers, however, were also called "fool" in the native language, which implied that the reindeer men abused those who commanded them, and laughed at them without them even knowing it. The fact was that most of these recruited reindeer men did not know the Russian language at all. Besides, they only spoke their own language amongst themselves. Consequently, the Russian officers were effectively kept outside the indigenous group. This produced continuous troubles, to the greatest pleasure of these indigenous peoples, who in any case were indispensable, as the Russian and other soldiers could not handle the reindeer. Some of the old soldiers interviewed remembered with joy that they managed to have contact with neighbouring groups in spite of the fact that this was forbidden.

It must also be mentioned that the indigenous peoples were very proud of themselves. They could hide better and often did not get shot, while the Russians were. On the other hand, they mostly operated at the front and behind the German lines, so that their losses were sometimes higher than those of the Russians were. The losses of the indigenous peoples in total, however, were at the same level as for those of the non-indigenous soldiers at the same fronts.

Another aspect which set them apart was their attitude towards sledges. They considered their sledges much better than the Finnish or German "washboards". They noticed that German and Finnish soldiers used reindeer sledges with wooden poles on each side of the sledge which were fastened to the draught reindeer, while the indigenous peoples only used ropes for the same purpose. They quickly saw that their reindeer were much better in warfare than horses and in many cases even better than armoured cars. Their tame reindeer did not, for example, get too frightened when shells exploded very close to them, and they could remain quite silent even when they were wounded. Reindeer are good swimmers, which was important for the 12 marine brigade, who let the reindeer swim from their crafts in the Barents Sea at Cape Pikshuyev on the Murman Coast during operations behind German lines under rough weather conditions. Being good hunters, the northerners usually saw snipers before others noticed them. The problem, however, was that every so often, the Russian officers in command would not even give them bullets to shoot with. These officers wanted to be on the safe side or, of course, ‘not betray their positions’, which had already been detected by the snipers anyway. The northerners considered the Russian officers to be fools when they forbade them to eat killed reindeer. In spite of this, they ate the heart of the reindeer by pulling it through the throat with a wire, so that this, in their opinion most tasty, delicacy ended up as their meal, without the Russian officers noticing anything at all.

On the other hand there were also troubles between the indigenous groups themselves, especially between the Saami and the others who called them "Lopari" (Lapps). This, according to our Nenets and Komi informants, irritated them highly and they asked to be called "Saami". The long-problematic relations between Saami and Komi and Nenets reindeer owners, who at the end of the nineteenth Century came to the Kola peninsula and largely drove off the small-scale Saami reindeer breeding there, probably contributed to this tension. The Russians, on the other hand, called the Nenets battalions "hoof-animal battalions" (parno-kopit-nije bataljoni), implying, of course, that, in fact, Nenets were reindeer too. Russian officers were seen as betrayers who sent Nenets, Saami, Komi and other ethnic group members to death.

So, during the offensive of April 1944, they sent a group of reindeer battalions to the flank of the German front lines. The firing points of the enemy could thus be revealed, without the indigenous peoples being told why they were being sent there. When the Germans noticed them they opened fire and in this way they showed their positions.

As a result, the Russians were able to open fire on the Germans. The Nenets battalions were very proud that there were not too many casualities, among the reindeer especially. The Nenets were convinced that the Russians did not dare to do this job themselves. Real trouble and disagreement between Nenets, Komi and the Russian military instructors and commanders had already begun during the training sessions at Rikasikha. Even after almost fifty years, Nenets reindeer-man veteran Nikolay I. Talev of Nelmin Nos in the Nenets Autonomous Area laughed for several minutes before he was able to tell us about these ridiculous Russian officers who did not understand that reindeer need some sleep, that a reindeer has to eat regularly and that a reindeer cannot stand on its feet in a train for three, four or even five days without food. He remembered with great pleasure and then irritation how many reindeer died in Murmansk when they arrived there by train (from Archangel). These reindeer escaped when they were unloaded from the train and ate fresh reindeer moss until they, so to speak, literally blew up.

Advantages and disadvantages of the participation of indigenous peoples at the Arctic front

Only the indigenous peoples could satisfactorily command and use reindeer and dogs. They were very good hunters and thus "excellent" snipers. No other soldiers in the army were able to use the "lasso"(arkan) as they did. This lasso proved to be most effective as a means to catch German soldiers alive during raids behind the German front. We know of at least one case where a Nenets used a lasso to catch a German pilot who was running away. The reindeer-man soldier Aleksandr Hatanseisky managed to catch this pilot with his lasso. Although the pilot had an automatic gun, Aleksandr Hatanseisky lay in wait for him until he passed by.

Reindeer men orientated better than other soldiers in the tundra did. Saami had the additional advantage of knowing the terrain from the days before the war. For this reason Saami in particular were used as guides by other Russian departments, who had to borrow them from their battalions.

It was noted that the indigenous peoples, and especially the Nenets, had a different attitude to death. As a consequence, they were not afraid to take risks. The officers noticed this and made good use of it. We have already given an example of this. We asked one of our informants what was the worst thing that happened during operations at or behind the German front. He answered bluntly and automatically, "The worst was, when our reindeer got shot. It was terrible. When German planes came, we hid and were not seen, but our reindeer kept standing and were bombed and shot".

Other sources confirm the results from our interviews. For example, when during the May offensive in 1942 the 9 ski battalion ran short of bullets, the Nenets and Komi of this battalion began to fight with stones and managed to halt the German attack. Our Nenets informant Alexei Ledkov was severely wounded by a mine and he proudly recalled that he did not bother about it, and his friends concluded that this proved that even a mine could not break the thick bone of a Nenets skull.

Among the disadvantages of the indigenous participation in the Arctic front were first and foremost the ethnic and social problems, of which ample examples have already been given. The language barrier increased the problems. Another disadvantage was bad discipline, or, let us say, extreme individualism. For example, when the 4 and 51 echelons came to Archangel, the reindeer men were drinking and sleeping. Because of this, many reindeer were lost. A last disadvantage became clear when the war operations came to an end. After their demobilisation most of the reindeer men simply disappeared. Not only did they often refuse the transport offered to them, but also they just left all the reindeer and equipment behind. Some of our informants still proudly recalled that they refused to take a boat to the Nenets Autonomous Area through the White Sea and the Barents Sea because they considered this to be too dangerous. Instead, after demobilisation, they used double and triple efforts to get around the White Sea and up through the whole Pechora Basin during the Winter of 1944-1945 and later. As a result they did not arrive home until the Autumn of 1945.

Many of the reindeer, notably those of the Nenets, Komi and other non-Saa-mi peoples, which had been taken in 1944 to the Pasvik river valley in southern Varanger, were left behind. The main reindeer units of the 12 marine brigade and the 126 corps, as well as the 31st special reindeer brigade had been used during operations in this Norwegian border commune. After this operation the war was over for them. They were demobilised on 29 October 1944. Chief reindeer herder Kalliainen of the Middle Pasvik Reindeer Association told us twenty-five years ago that he remembered very well how at least 1,200 reindeer were just left behind and later got mixed with the decimated local reindeer herds, which had been in the valley since before the war. The Russian forces, which stood in this commune for about a year before they finally got the order to give up the area, first herded and hunted these reindeer as a store of tasty food, but gave up this project the year after. They secured themselves with the help of some Nenets who voluntarily stayed a little bit longer. This was, according to chief herder Kalliainen and other reindeer holders in the Pasvik valley, the main reason why the reindeer there nowadays still weigh over 60 kg, almost twice as much as reindeer in Finnmark as a whole. Other reasons for this difference in weight are good lichen conditions and some Russian Saami reindeer in the border flocks that were there before the war.

Indigenous reindeer operations from the Russian side extended finally to the Pasvik valley, the Munk River and the Neiden river valley. Many informants from Neiden and other villages in Southern Varanger in Norway remember the high speed that the Nenets reindeer sledge with three reindeer developed during herding operations or other trips. These were proud people who took part in the liberation of Norwegian eastern Finnmark by the Red Army until the Tana river was taken by the end of October 1944 and the offensive was stopped at Rustefjelbma. They are remembered very well by the local population even today. As a result of this, Saami from this region came first when contact with Saami and Nenets in Russia was renewed after the Soviet Union was dissolved.

The special role of reindeer during operations at the Arctic front

Reindeer are very useful because one reindeer can pull up to 50 kg on a sledge behind it. During operations, reindeer, contrary to horses, did not need extra food. When reindeer were used for transports, they transported not only food and ammunition, they also carried urgent orders to officers and they carried mail, wounded soldiers and pilots from downed aircrafts back to their lines. The reindeer were even successfully used to pull downed aircrafts back to sites and units where they could be repaired. Most of the sledges the reindeer used were built at timber mills in Archangel.15 In the Summer, big sacks were used on the reindeer. Three or five freight sledges plus one light sledge (with four reindeer) were called a group or a "raida". In Winter one sledge could carry a load of nearly 300 kg. That means 150 grenades or 50 shells for a 45-mm gun. A raida with its load could cover up to 35 km per day. Every day the reindeer worked for nearly eight hours. After four days' work, they needed one day of rest. Where one battery of four 76-mm mountain guns with 560 shells had to be carried, one had to use 315 reindeer and nearly 110 sledges.

Reindeer were very useful for providing so-called reconnaissance posts ("VNOS") with weapons, ammunition and food. Such posts watched out for aircraft attacks. As a rule, each medical point was given one small reindeer unit. The smallest unit, called "otdelenije", consisted of 100-120 reindeer and ten to fifteen men. Such units could operate with a radius of action of up to ten kilometres. They were also used during landing operations of the Northern Fleet behind German lines. During one of these operations, carried out by the 12th marine brigade on the coast of the Motovski Bay, fifty reindeer sledges were used. Because of hard conditions, the ships could not come close to the shore. The participating indigenous reindeer men fastened the sledges to each other in a string, which they drew towards the shore with a rope. After this, all reindeer on board the two small fishing trawlers were thrown into the water. They swam to the shore. The marines, the reindeer men, the reindeer and their sledges arrived safely at the shore. In this kind of operation, men who belonged to northern minorities were responsible for the reindeer. The indigenous reindeer soldiers and their reindeer thus proved to be very useful during raids of partisans behind the German lines.

During the attack by the 12 marine brigade, 570 wounded marines were taken back to the ships with the help of reindeer and sledges. On their way back to the battlefield, the reindeer carried weapons, ammunition and food. All operations of ski detachments at the flanks of the front or in the German rear behind the front lasting more than two or three days were accompanied by a reindeer transport. For example, from 16 to 23 February 1944, the 31st brigade, which consisted for the most part of reindeer battalions, was kept behind the German front until they had completed operations over a length of 200 kilometres all in all. It was their task to attack German defence points by surprise. They returned without significant losses. During this raid they used 1,370 reindeer and more than 350 sledges, which carried four 76-mm mountain guns, twenty-six 82-mm mine throwers, nine machine guns, ammunition, food and a lot of other equipment. They only moved during the night and in several rows. In the daytime they tied the legs of the reindeer and hid the reindeer and themselves under white canvas, the reindeer even under the snow. As every sledge usually needed two persons, probably around 600 people were involved, most of them indigenous people. They fulfilled their task completely.20 During the whole period between 1942 and 1944, this brigade carried out 43 battle expeditions and nearly 100 operations in the German rear. During these operations nearly 4,000 enemy soldiers were killed while all together forty-seven enemy soldiers were taken prisoner so that they could be pressed for information. Military documentation showsthat this brigade travelled more than 16,000 kilometres in all.21

During summer operations, reindeer carried at least 35 kg in the sacks. Reindeer were used in this way during the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation. During this operation the reindeer were part of the 126’ light corps. During this operation, and before that, they were also used in the 12 marine brigade of command soldiers. During the first stage of the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation the 126th light corps went as far as 70 km behind the German front lines and blocked the road near Pillkuj-irvi close to Luostari airfield on the 10 of October 1944. Thanks to this blockade, they helped to make it possible for the main forces to occupy Luostari airfield in the Pechenga river valley in about two days. The airfield was finally taken on the 12th of October 1944.22 The artillery of this corps consisted of five batteries of 75-mm guns and three batteries of 107-mm mine throwers, mostly carried by reindeer. The capture of Luostari was the last act during the first part of the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation.

During the second and third parts of the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation, Eastern Finnmark was liberated. Again, the reindeer men were used to cross the tundra and block the retreat roads in the German rear. This in fact was also what they did in the operations towards Mun-kefiord and Neiden. They crossed straight over from the Salmi-jirvi lake at Nikkeli to the upper Neiden river crossing at Veines in order to cut off the German forces that were retreating from Kirkenes along the road towards Tana and Western Finnmark. During this operation on the 27th of October, the indigenous peoples' battalion failed to cross the Neiden river in time to block the only retreat road to the West. A German military force in Upper Neiden successfully blocked them from crossing with their reindeer over the river and cut off the road along the open moor of Ferdesmyra just on the other side of the river. We have already mentioned how the reindeer men did the best they could, and our Komi informant Nikolai Korolev told us how he got shot in the leg in the middle of the Neiden river at Veines and ended up as one of the wounded Soviet soldiers on the floor of the house that belonged to the Sivertsen family, close by on the eastern side of the river. Family members remembered this very well when we asked them, for the first time twenty-six years ago.

Many other reindeer men got killed. After Kirkenes had been taken on the 251 of October and Neiden on the 27 of October, this unit was, by an order of the 29 of October the same year, 1944, regrouped as a reserve of the army and dismissed, while the non-indigenous soldiers at this front were sent southwards to the other fronts.

For those soldiers who were not severely wounded, the war continued in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany and a lot of them would not survive. In order to complete the picture, we mention here that the 126th and 127 corps that carried out these operations not only had reindeer at their disposal, but also highly mobile horse mounted units. Even these days inhabitants of Southern Varanger in Norway remember these units, which they called "Cossacks", very well. Below, we give a statistical overview of how many different jobs reindeer battalions did for the 14 Army during the Winters of 1941-1944.26





Wounded soldiers




Men during military missions




Military loads (in tonnes)




Damaged aircraft




Ethnic uprising and the Nenets uprising of 1943

As we have seen above, the northern ethnic minorities showed their extreme individualism, courage and will to survive in the solitude and harsh conditions of the tundra during the war. Their social organisation, culture and way of living help to explain why and how they wanted to be left alone, without being disturbed or dictated to by outside forces. From time to time ethnic uprisings resulted from this attitude long before the twentieth century. The best known of these took place among the Nenets under the leadership ofPalamo Tanabin in 1730-1731. Another one took place, again in the Pustozersk region not far from today's Naryan Mar, in 1746-1749. In the 1840s there was a Nenets uprising too, in the area between the river Ob and the river Taza. The Nenets Vauly Piiettomin, with the nickname "Nenjaga", led this last uprising.

Ethnic uprisings also took place among other Arctic indigenous groups. A well-known example from the Saami area is the uprising among Saami in Kautokeino in the 1850s. Such uprisings often resulted in the death penalty for the leaders and imprisonment for many of the participants. In the case of the Nenets uprisings mentioned, many were shot and hundreds were imprisoned, often for the rest of their lives.27 In a similar .way, a Nenets uprising took place in June-December 1943 "under the leadership of Manalai" (as it is mentioned in documents. In Nenets language "mandalada"(or "manalai", "mand ala" as Russians called it) means "general meeting", "congress". Later on it was found that there were two centers of uprising: the first one among Kara Nenets in June-August with nearly 50 participants under the leadership of Sergey Nogo and Daniil Laptander. The second - took place at the Yamal peninsula just east of Archangel county in the region of Cape Charosovy which lasted till December 1943. Nealy 250 Nenets took part in it. Russian hydrograph Pljusnin was announced as a leader. Both uprisings (with no doubt connected with each other) - were the direct result of continued Russian demand for new Nenets and especially reindeer for the Arctic front at the Kola peninsula.

Heavy battles had resulted in the loss of more than 25% of the reindeer that were used at this front. Other reasons for great losses were illness and natural death.

Besides, many reindeer were eaten, as they constituted an emergency food resource for the forces at this front. These reindeer had to be replaced with new reindeer, which, as we saw, could not be supplied by the Kola peninsula. Some Nenets leaders, together with between 100 and 200 reindeer owners and herders in the Nenetsky Autonomous Area, refused in 1943 to follow the orders of the Russians and took their herds to the tundra. They armed themselves for resistance after having robbed the authorities' local command post. It was not very difficult for the Soviet forces to find them and their herds, as they mobilised all available forces, including aircraft, to do so. Most of them were soon found in the tundra. It was the time of Stalin, and of war. All Nenets who were taken were shot during the raid or taken prisoner and sent to labourcamps, while their ringleaders were given the death penalty under martial law after having been sentenced by a 'tribunal'. What actually seems to have happened is that the Nenets captured reindeer of the kolhos (at Rybkoop), took some hostages at the local office of the authorities and disappeared into the tundra with the reindeer, in the direction of Malyghin Strate. The NKVD was told to find these Nenets. This was done together with the Navy and Navy planes, who used parachutists lead by NKVD officials.29

We have noted already that many cultural and social factors resulted in severe communication problems between the defenders of the Soviet empire (mainly Russians, White Russians and Ukrainians) and the indigenous peoples who were obliged to participate in a war that they did not understand at all. Problems of understanding the scale of the war were reported by the Nenets in particular. The same thing was confirmed when we interviewed Saami, Nenets and Komi about this issue. In contrast to our Saami and Komi informants, however, Nenets reindeer-men veterans who participated in operations at the Arctic front in Norway still had the same conceptual problems they, most probably, had during the war operations fifty years earlier. They could, in fact, not answer questions about the impact of the war; national borders were still completely without meaning to them. They simply did not understand the concept. Besides, they hardly understood any Russian. We needed Nenets-Russian translators to understand them. But they could describe their operations in the field. These veterans described in detail the Salmjij-iryi lake and the Pas-vik valley and the area around it, even fifty years later. With a map we could follow their course, which was the same as the one that the 126th and 127th corps had taken during the war operations. From their descriptions it was clear that they also operated in Norway, but once more, the difference between Norway and the Soviet Union meant nothing to them.

The men we spoke with and heard about had not been in Kirkenes but were kept in the mountains and hills. For them the war had no relevance and the whole war experience seemed to them just a prolongation of all the troubles to which they were exposed by Russian traders and other Russians. Ethnic Russian veterans of the Nenets Autonomous Area did not have these problems when talking to us. And, generally, these veterans willingly talked about their experiences to the extent that they remembered them and were able to speak about them. When, for example, in 1990, we talked with the ethnic Russian Georgij Ivanovich Jastrebov in Naryan Mar he very accurately remembered that he came to Kirkenes on the 4th or 5th of November 1944. They were, as he told us, not the first to come there and the Germans had retreated already. He also remembered well the reindeer ski battalions and confirmed their important role in transport and partisan actions, often far behind the German lines. They could operate both in Summer and in Winter. His brother served in one of the battalions. He added that members of many different ethnic groups took part, but the Russians and Komi prevailed in Kirkenes. There were also Tsjetsjenians from the Caucasus, who, as our informant told us, were very cunning. When they were sent to do something, they did not understand, but when they were sent to dinner they always understood. In other words, the problems of discipline were certainly not limited to the ethnic groups from the North in the Red Army and the Northern Fleet. Georgij Jastrebov continued, "I like the Norwegian people. They showed solidarity and were hospitable. When they were preparing for this front, the political leaders warned us that Norway was an allied country and not against us, like Finland. We should not steal anything from the houses. We should behave like decent soldiers. The Norwegians did not even lock the shop doors when they had been liberated. They gave us cigarettes. And while we walked around we entered several houses and asked for drinking water. Some of them could talk Russian...".

We mentioned that the Nenets uprising of 1943 involved only about two hundred Nenets. Their leaders were killed and the other participants were imprisoned. Surely the only reason for the revolt was, as during tsarist times, that they wanted to be left in peace and did not want to be forced to pay increased taxes to sacrifice members of their families, reindeer and even their lives. Of course, the problems with the collectivisation and forced settlement of many groups of Nenets siidas (reindeer groups) in villages (Nelmin Nos, Krasnya, etc.) had, by the end of the 1930s aggravated the situation. Many Nenets still remember how they undermined collectivisation measures in the tundra during the early 1930s. They did not give as many reindeer of the reindeer kolhos as was demanded and when, for example, the reindeer of the kolhos were going to graze in certain fields, they sent their own reindeer there in order to eat the grass, herbs and lichen first, or at least saw to it that their ‘private’ herd destroyed such kolhos fields completely with their hoofs.30 The whole Stalinist project of forced sedentary settlement of Nenets in the tundra by collectivisation and the building of Nenets villages of wooden cottages (such as, for example, Nelmin Nos) was, at least initially, intensely disliked by most Nenets involved. And, as old veteran Nikolai Ta-lejev from Nelmin Nos solemnly declared to us on the 7th of January 1990, "only lazy people live in houses". The Russians were considered to have destroyed the Nenets youth by making them deliberately lazy when they forced them to live collectively in reindeer kolhos village units. This had to be revolted against when, in addition, both reindeer and youth were taken to the front and did not return, while previously unknown animals such as cows and sheep were introduced by Russian planners to the 'new' villages.

Real men live in tents. Our informant was proud to say that he although he lived in a room in the village in wintertime (for which he had a bad conscience), most of the year he lived in his Nenets tent, which he put up next to his house. Over eighty years old, he still went fishing with his dog team daily, weather permitting. Thus, seen from this perspective, it is no wonder at all that today we see a revival of the cultural and social spirit of the indigenous peoples of Russia. Indigenous peoples should be given opportunities to co-operate together and assist each other in the same way as they did successfully during the reindeer operations in the Second World War when, in spite of their differences, common interest united them. As we have seen in this essay, they were united to such an extent that they not only did decisively good work at the Arctic front, which proved of vital importance for the Soviet victory, but they also stuck together to such an extent that they in fact managed to defend their own interests quite well vis a vis their Russian commanders. This finally became so troublesome that, clearly with pleasure, the Red Army dismissed all of them to the reserve forces on the 29’ of October 1944, only two days after the war at the Arctic front was over—this in spite of the fact that the war went on at other fronts and most other soldiers were sent there.


1. The 14th Army defended the so-called Arctic Front to the west of Murmansk. On average this army consisted of three to five corps. Each corps consisted of two to three divisions, about 100,000-120,000 soldiers in total. In addition to this 14th Army, the Navy forces were active at this front. The marine commands, which were used on shore, consisted of two brigades, the 12th and the 63rd brigades, numbering about 15,000 marines, to which should be added ship crews and their services. Both brigades operated at the Norwegian side of the Varangerfjord.

Before the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation in 1944, the 14th Army consisted of five infantry corps with 96,800 soldiers. They were supported by seven artillery detachments (polk), and seventeen special groups of batteries (division), five tank detachments (polk), 29 engineer battalions, and two battalions of armoured amphibious. Navy forces supporting this offensive from Sredny peninsula consisted of 15,000 marines, not counting four artillery detachments and ship crews. During the Sredny operation the 14th Army was extra-filled with the units of fresh forces, including the 133th infantry corps (Tsen-tralniy Arhiv Ministerstva Oborony (TsAMO). Fond 363. Opis 6208. Delo 306. Listy 50-52.

Literature: 40 let narodmonu podvigu. Murmansk, 1985, p. 45; Ivanov, G.S., 1964. Pobeda v Zapoljarje. Morskoy sbomik, nr. 10, p. 17. Gebhardt, J.F., 1989, The Petsano-Kirkenes operation (October 7-October 30, 1944): A Soviet Joint and Combined Arms Operation in Arctic Terrain. The Journal of Soviet Military Studies, nr. 1, vol. 2.

2. A corps usually consisted of no fewer than two to three divisions. But sizes varied during the war. In the Petsamo-Kirkenes operation all together about 100,000 Soviet soldiers participated. A marine brigade at that time consisted of about 5,000-6,000 soldiers. A brigade consisted of two to three battalions.

3. Tsentralny Arhjv-Mimsterstva Oborony (TsAMO). Fond 36.Lopis 71177, delo 32, list 180.

4. Evsjugin, A.D. l979 Nentsy arkhangelskih tundr. Archangelsk p. 146.

5. The railroad bridge to Archangel only came after this war.

6. In total 9,383 men were recruited from the Nenets Autonomous Areaduring the Second World War. More than 3,000 of them did not return (Kniga Pamjaty RF. 1995. Arkhangelskaja oblast Tom.4, p. 300, Archangel). We estimate that no less than 50% of them were Nenets. As for Komi and Saami, we refer to the same source. We estimate that the total number of Komi recruits was 15,000. Of them, nearly 5,000 lost their lives. As for the Saami recruits, we estimate their total number to have been 5,000 of which 2,000 died during these war operations.

7. TsAMO, f. 363, opis 71177, delo 32, p. 180.

8. This was often confirmed by their commanders. So Cpt. S. Shestobitov, commander of the reindeer battalion related that "all of them were excellent riders and snipers" (Pravda Severa, 19-10-1974).

9. Iibid.

10. Our informants, e.g. an interview with N. Korolev (1922), conducted on 23-12-1989 in V. Keros. Also: Pravda Severa, 19-10-1974, and Tungusov A., 1996. Soldaty na olenjih nartha // Uroki Vtoroy Mirovoy I znachenije pobedy nad fashismom. Archangel, p. 37.

11. Sevemye prostory, 1985. Nr. 3, p. 30

12. Narayana Vinder, 20-02-1974.

13. Information from our own informants and the same information from other informants as published in the newspaper Narjana Vinder, 13-02-1974.

14. In Spring 1989 we took the first Saami representative to Naryan Mar and we organised the visit of a Saami delegation from Neiden in Norway to Naryan Mar in the NAO after first having arranged a visit of the Nenets representatives Angelina and Philipp Ardeev to them.

15. As late as 1972 we saw some of these sledges in Neiden in Norway. They were left there after the war and used behind draught reindeer of ethnic Finnish inhabitants there.

16. TSAMO, f. 363, op. 200846, d. 14, p. 4.

17. Pravda Severa, 19-10-1974. .

18. Pravda Severa, 3-03-1973; Podoplyokin, D.A., 1972. Boy vediot "Poljarnik".Archangelsk.

19. Voenno-istorichesky journal, 1972, nr. 11, p. 89.

20. TSAMO f. 363, op. 200846, d. 306, 1.63.

21. Tungusov, A., op. cit., p. 37.

22. TSAMO, f. 363, op. 6208, d. 306,1.63.

23. Their own informants at Neiden, our Komi and Nenets informants and TSAMO, f. 363, opis 6208, delo 282, 1.62 and Ot. TSVMA, f. Marit. Gen. Staff, d. 13163, 1.383.

24. In connection with the 50-Year Commemoration of this local battle, we stimulated the local organs to put up a commemorative stone here. When this effort failed to get the necessary support, the Sivertsen family took over the initiative and erected a stone. A Soviet border pole emblem was, with official Russian permission, fixed on this stone.

25. Local eyewitnesses told us that after 27 November 1944, some Soviet units followed German forces up to the West Bank of the lower Tana river at Rustefielbma. Soviet military documents confirm only that some reconnaissance detachments were in the Tana river area in January 1945, TSAMO f. 363, op. 6230, d. 41, 1.11.

26. Voenno-istorichevski journal, 1972, nr. 11, p. 90.

27. Evsjugin, A., op. cit., p. 11, 118; GAAD, f. 1, op. 1, d. 994, p. 41.

28. TsVMA, f. Gen. Navy Staff, delo 13155, p. 297, 300, 304. Pravda. March 26, 1990.

29. Op. cit., p. 319. It was no accident that barely two weeks later NKVD forces and the Navy carried out a special exercise close to Archangel with the aim of rehearsing defending this town from attacks from the seaside. There was obviously fear that German forces might capitalise on increasing dissent in the areas to the North and Northeast.

30. Our informants and Evsjugin, A., op. cit, p. 144.