Perestroika and the Siberian Tiger—Sometimes You Just Have No Choice
By Jenny Jia ’23
“People don’t live in Sobolonye—they survive.”
Life in the Primorsky Krai of Siberia was not always difficult, though; the Amur tiger once coexisted with the Udeghe, Nanai, and Orochi peoples in the abundance of forest, protected under Soviet law since 1947. However, as the late USSR began to prioritize economic expansion over environmental conservation, the tiger was no longer viewed as a creature worth defending, but rather, a commodity worth an eye-catching price.
The Russians did not poach without a purpose, though. They had no choice. And, as alluded by John Vaillant in The Tiger, A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, it was not their choice to make. It was not their choice to allow Gorbachev to decentralize the economy, encouraging state-supported enterprises in the bowels of Siberia to suddenly become self-sufficient. It was not their choice to watch Perestroika deplete the natural resources of a once-bountiful valley in the name of capital investment. It was not their choice. So before we condemn hunters for targeting the endangered felines of the Far East, before we point fingers at Markov because he “had it coming”, we must understand the circumstance: the people were so incredibly impoverished from national reform that tiger poaching was a matter of life or death. Only after taking this into consideration can we even begin to empathize with the post-Soviets making a life out of nothing, anguishing as victims of their government’s negligence for civilian wellbeing.
Perestroika made the government fixated on economics over ethics. Poaching over preservation. And, in the case of the townsfolk, survival through Siberian tiger. If it weren’t for the Soviet Union’s attempt at bolstering their economy through mass privatization just to have something to boast about to the West, the villagers would not need to leave Sobolonye to find a better life. Huntress Baba Liuda put it best:
“We came in 1979, everything was new and beautiful […] Life was good to us. Then, perestroika came and everything was ‘reorganized.’ Who needs Sobolonye now? Nobody does.”
Nobody needed Sobolonye because Sobolonye had nothing to offer. Those who chose to stay, like Markov, relied on what was left of the Bikin area after heavy industrialization:
“Industry here is of the crudest kind […] complicated by poor wages, corrupt officials, thriving black markets—and some of the world’s [most valuable] cats.”
The disintegration of the economy that came with Perestroika drained all sources of land, labour and income. The only thing left was the Amur tiger. Hunting them was a last resort. As the Soviet Union dissolved, smuggling a tiger to the newly-opened Chinese market was a ticket to a better life. A Russian gang had offered “ fifty thousand American dollars for the whole tiger […] [The hunter] let that number sink in.”
I ask you to do the same. Fifty thousand. Enough to feed Sobolonye for years. Enough to soften the blow of discontinued government subsidization. Enough to diminish the daily anxieties of what tomorrow will be like. But even then, they would still be surviving, not living.