In the lead-up to The Moscow Times’ 25th anniversary, we’ll be republishing an article from our extensive archive every week, selected by current or former staff.

This article was first published on Apr. 11, 2008, and has not been redacted in any way.

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When an airplane carrying LUKoil workers crashed in the far north of this Arctic region three years ago, killing 29 of 52 people on board, many blamed the weather.

When, one year later, in March 2006, a helicopter carrying victims’ relatives to a commemoration ceremony at the crash site also fell, killing another person, the indigenous people thought something else was at play. The land, they said, was cursed.

One of Russia’s newest oil-producing regions, the Nenets autonomous district is home to lucrative projects for LUKoil and Rosneft. It is also home to a population of 7,000 indigenous Nenets, whose livelihood and seminomadic way of life is being increasingly threatened by the region’s growing oil industry.

“They defied the energy of the land,” said Kolya, a Nenets shaman who, at 39, looks at least 20 years older, speaking of the crashes. Squatting in his tent (called a choom) 5 kilometers from Naryan-Mar in the snow-covered tundra one recent evening, he spoke slowly, slurring his words through wide gaps of missing teeth after one beer too many.

“The earth started to sink and all the souls started to rise,” he said.

NaryanMarNeftegaz, a 50-50 joint venture between LUKoil and ConocoPhillips, built an oil platform in the northern port of Varandei on the site of a native cemetery, local Nenets say.

As oil production spreads to the country’s farthest corners, local people and activists are warning that the country risks not only ecological catastrophe but also a serious threat to the native cultures that have inhabited these Arctic regions for centuries.

“There is so much work going on — roads, pipelines — and several oil companies working at once. It disrupts the path of the reindeer herders, and that’s quite painful,” said Nikolai Latyshev, a vice president at Yasavei, a local organization fighting for indigenous rights. “There’s enough land and reindeer for now, but what if that changes?”

Most Nenets who live here devote themselves to traditional occupations, like reindeer herding and fishing, existing barely at subsistence levels, as the district’s economy booms on the back of sky-high oil prices.