The current article deals with general
assertions about the natives of West-Siberia as bearers of their
world view conception in the Russian ethnographic literature of the
last century. The aim of the article is to explain the general or
background attitudes towards the Khanty and Nenets people in the 19th
century (as well as towards their world view) in ethnographic
literature during the period under discussion.
A certain attitude towards the natives
of the northern part of West-Siberia - the Khantys and the
Nenets - was established by the 19th century authors and, at a
certain level this attitude can be observed even in contemporary
ethnographic texts. Golovnev for example argues that for a long time
the principal researcher of the Samoyed people was Castrén,
the most important contributor to the study of Ob-Ugric people was
Munkácsi. Their renditions and assessments formed the basis of
comparison for all the future generations of scientists. This quality
to remaining a so-called «paragon of truth» was
determined by the methodological unprejudiced ideas in the first flux
The arguments of
the authors were mainly of personal kind. It is no coincidence that a
number of research papers were written in form of journals. None of
the authors had made an attempt to comprise culture as a whole, all
of them merely tried to observe and disclose as much of the matter as
possible. The scientific works of these years constitute the epoch of
discovery of the Samoyed-Ugric cultures or the interpretation of
these cultures into European languages (Golovnev 1995: 12).
It is not quite certain, however, how
this estimation applies to Castrén - he is rarely
mentioned directly. Still, upon the completion of this article the
study on this subject was in its initial stage and I can merely
present tentative hypotheses on the description of the Ob-Ugrians and
the Nenets in the ethnographic literature of the last century. The
lack of references to Castrén and Munkácsi is partly
caused by the fact that, at that post-Castrénian period, the
methodology of ethnography did not oblige the naming of all the
sources. At the same time it is more difficult for today's
researchers to determine all the possible connections.
The image of Khantys and Nenets in the
publications of the authors discussed below, is a certain outlook on
these cultures and on the 'character' of the bearers of these
cultures. The disposition has not taken place in a unique and decided
manner. Although Castrén seems to be the 'pathfinder' in many
ways, the general image of the Ob-Ugrians and the Nenets has formed
gradually by the accumulation of somewhat similar attitudes or
estimations passed on from author to author.
Also, we should not consider the
representation of the identity of the Ob-Ugrians and Samoyeds in the
19th century ethnology to be what Golovnev calls the original «first
flux». Castrén might be regarded as a role model or a
paragon by the later scientists, but in fact he functions as a digest
of the period of research previous to his time. The reason for this
is that Castrén elaborates several 18th century (and even
earlier) stereotypes of representing the Nordic people in perfection.
At the same time some of Castrén's innovations (which might
not be considered as totally original, though) are significant even
for the principles of studying the identity of the Nordic people.
We will not enter into the closer
analysis of Castrén's ideas here and instead focus on the
other authors as they appear in certain discussions, without giving
an overview of their theoretical background or specific role models.
Our aim here is to show that the authors of the 19th century, even
without Castrén make up quite a substantial tradition of
study. At least they do not appear to have suffered from a lack of
Ways of Describing the Basic Characteristics of Ob-Ugric and Nenets People
in the Works of 19th Century Russian Authors
Some of the presented descriptions of
the characteristic features of the natives of West-Siberia could be
According to Beliavski the Khantys have
been characterised in the following way:
They are modest,
laconic and composed. Being kind-hearted neighbours they are fond of
domestic life, they are honest, faithful and benevolent
(Beliavski 1833: 70).
Beliavski compares the Khantys and the
Nenets in the following way:
are even more kind-hearted than the Ostyaks,3
wise, smart, reliable and somewhat stubborn (Beliavski 1833:
One of the
features of the Samoyed people which is different from that of the
Ostyaks is that while not being vindictive they are short-tempered
without any serious consequences (ibid. : 160).
V. Islavin describes the general
situation of the Nenets people in the tundra of the Archangelsk
province before the Russian and Komi invasion in as follows:
the gloomy sky and dreary nature the Samoyed people wandered in the
tundra peacefully and free from cares (Islavin 1847: 11).
Islavin also calls these times as
«blessed» for the Nenets people (Islavin 1847: 96).
Islavin takes this conception of the
Nenets even further, regarding them as natural people, formed by the
surrounding landscape and climate:
/---/ A Samoyed
having grown up in a harsh climate has grown together with severe
cold and blizzards in a manner that he endures the severest frost
better than room temperature. It happened to me that sometimes
lodging in a cold cottage I couldn't be without a fur coat made of
reindeer skin. At the same time I could see how my Samoyed
pathfinders left the cottages one by one and stayed outside and spent
the night curled up on a sledge4
or just fallen in the snow (Islavin 1847: 28).
Here we can see a certain conformity
with the ideas of Rousseau (though based solely on personal
experience) an image of native people who live happily and
naturally before the interference of civilisation. So much the more
because after the contacts with the Russians and Izhma-Komis, Islavin
characterises the Nenets people as addicted to liquor, helpless and
incalculable, therefore - «eternally doomed»
(Islavin 1847: 21-22).
Similarly to some earlier and more
recent authors Islavin describes the Nenets as hopelessly unkempt and
dirty (Islavin 1847: 27, 29).
Islavin also presents a concept of the
Nenets which could be met also in some more recent treatments.
Namely, he describes the Nenets as people who are careless, living in
any given moment:
/---/ supply generally only little amounts of food. Many of them do
it because storing food causes difficulties in their nomadic life.
But mostly it is the result of their innate carelessness. A Samoyed
eats while he has something to eat and does not contemplate on
future. But if the period of starving sets in he sits by the fire and
drowsily spits into it, contemplating how to get out of trouble
(Islavin 1847: 36-37).
Islavin also argues that the Nenets are
a brave people since they do not assess their life, which offers
neither happiness nor sorrow (Islavin 1847: 66). Here, the treatment
of Islavin coincides again with the concept of some more recent
authors, as, according to Islavin the desperate life of the Nenets is
the result of their working as herdsmen in the reindeer herds of the
Russian and Izhma-Komis (Islavin 1847: 66). Therefore, Islavin says,
a Nenets posesses a certain proletarian mentality.
Describing the character of the Nenets,
Islavin makes a distinction between the Nenets of the Timan and Kanin
tundra and the Nenets of the Bolshezemelsky (or Big Land) tundra. The
latter differ from the Nenets of the Timan and Kanin tundra by their
closer association with the Russians which has made them more
socialising more with the Russians who are responsible for their
impoverishment the Nenets themselves have become so smart that they
often cheat even their masters, the Russians themselves (Islavin
N. Abramov who discovered the
manuscript The Short Characterisation of the Khanty People
compiled in 1715 by Novitski (Novitski 1973) has in his article on
the Christianization of the Khanty people employed the same
manuscript (which, in fact, had not been published by the time the
Abramov's article came out) and the 18th century History of
Siberia by Müller (Müller 1941). Although describing
the Christianization of the Khantys, Abramov uses, beside Müller's
History and Novitski's Characterisation, other archival
documents, so his treatment is far from identical with that of
Novitski's and Müller's, therefore it has to be treated
separately. Abramov focuses in his 1851 article mainly on desribing
the spread of Christianity, so his text does not include too many
original statements about the nature of the Khantys. Still, we should
mention the ones that could be found there.
Namely, Abramov calls the minds of the
Khantys «roughly materialistic» (Abramov 1851: 2). He
also refers to the Khantys as «a rough people», «rough
heathens» (Abramov 1851: 10, 11), «simple gentle natives»
(ibid. : 18). But as all these characteristic features are presented
in the context of Christianisation, such as - «arrogant
idolaters» (Abramov 1851: 13), it would be more sensible to
discuss the matter separately in the context of the connection
between the religion of the natives of West-Siberia and Christianity.
But as it would bring along a number of additional problems which
should be discussed as well, we will limit the introduction of
Abramov's treatment to a brief outline by I. S. Poliakov, on the
other hand, describes the general characteristics of the Khantys as
An Ostyak cannot
restrain himself from any passion, be it physical or ethical
(Poliakov 1877: 56).
O. Finsch and A. Brehm note the
following about the Khanty and Nenets people:
seem to be generally more lively and more agile than the Ostyaks.
Timidity, fear and bashfulness perceived at the first meeting will
disappear after a prolonged period of living together. These
qualities are not a sign of their cowardice (Finsch & Brehm
Different authors disagree in their
somewhat resolute decisions. Similarly to Finsch and Brehm Beliavski
attributes the Nenets a more agile and abrupt temper. Bartenev,
however, has a totally different opinion of the comparison between
the Nenets and Khanty people; his view will be discussed further
Finsch and Brehm describe the impact of
civilisation on the character of the people in the northern part of
West-Siberia in the following way:
persecution has changed the character of the natives instilling
reticence, thoughtfulness, languidness and insensibility /---/ on a
closer acquaintance with the natives you will notice that they are,
on the contrary, very cheerful (Finsch & Brehm 1882: 456).
According to A. Jacobi, professor of
the University of Kazan, the Khantys of Kazym are
/---/ honest in
their duties and following the ancient traditions expect such an
honesty from others - even from the Russian merchants whom they
trade with (Jacobi 1895: 10-11).
Jacobi discusses the general
characteristics of Nordic people as following:
A strong belief
in the insecure future is the best gift of the North, the actions and
thoughts of the local are based on it and it gives these people this
special noble tranquillity and a hint of carelessness which made the
former warship sailors so amiable. This shade of character can also
be observed by the free miners in the deep shafts of Saxony whose
traditional greeting is: «Glück auf!». Old,
grey-haired war veterans are the same. And the very same feature
could be found in the nature of the natives of Far-North. And the
closer to the north-pole, the clearer it is. To put it briefly -
everywhere where putting one's life at risk is a rule (Jacobi
As far as the formulation of
«poletarian existentialism» of the Arctic peoples is
concerned, Jacobi is «insuperable». Nevertheless several
other are able to draw such far-reaching comparisons. Castrén,
for example, compares the Khantys with Norwegian fishermen (Castrén
1860: 196). The first employer of such a method of comparison,
however, was the Dutch navigator van Linschoten who described the
Nenets people similarly to the Spanish and Dutch peasants in the 1594
and 1595 journals of his voyage to the Arctic (van Linschoten 1915).
One of the most intriguing studies
about the Khantys at the end of the last century was written by V.
You always feel
at home among these savages. The Ostyaks are a very kind and honest
people (Bartenev 1896: 75).
The Ostyaks, if
you associate with them personally, are very pleasant - they
leave the impression of a quiet, good-hearted and honest people
(Bartenev 1896: 99).
Bartenev describes the relationship
between the individual characteristics and the environment of the
Khantys and Nenets as following:
Due to the lack
of agricultural and manufacturing industry the natives of Obdorsk are
deprived of a secure basis for mental progress. Things are even worse
for the nomadic Samoyeds - the nomadic reindeer breeders may
live tens of thousands of years without any change.
As to the Ostyaks, their fishing is also unfavourable for
progressive advancement. So much the more because it takes place in
the harshest conditions /---/
But even if the Ostyaks could be freed from their load of debt and
share in the well-organised state program of the sale of primary
necessities (as in Greenland under Denmark), to civilise this people
would take a lot more. The Ostyaks, namely, share a trait
characteristic to all the savages - Spencer calls it
impulsiveness. An Ostyak lives in a certain moment of time and is not
in the least provident (Bartenev 1896: 80-81).
V. Bartenev also considers the
influence of civilisation as a significant factor in the development
of the psychological features of the natives of West-Siberia. At that
he regards the contacts with civilisation as destructive for the
It seems to me
that every savage nation whose growth is limited by climate is
irrevocably doomed after contact with civilisation (Bartenev
Bartenev's version of the differences
of the Khantys and the Nenets is also ingenious:
are different from the Ostyak-Finns6
in their personality: the Samoyeds are not as expansive or talkative,
they keep a mien of rough dignity. The Ostyaks, on the other hand are
an expansive, cheerful, loquacious and inconceivably witty people
(Bartenev 1896: 71).
At this point we should recall that
Beliavski, as well as Finsch and Brehm drew a comparison exactly
opposite to Bartenev's - that it were the Ostyaks who were calm
and peaceful and the Samoyeds who were aggressive.
According to Bartenev the natives of
the northern part of West-Siberia scarcely ever suffer from mental
Cases of mental
disturbances occur very seldom indeed. Similarly, the natives suffer
rarely from the omeriachenie [Arctic hysteria] - a
disease which occurs frequently among the Yakuts in East-Siberia.
Occasionally the Ostyaks suffer from hallucinations: they see devils.
A devil appears in a desolate place in a human shape, he is dressed
like a human but has red eyes. He appears very suddenly, bursts into
laughing and disappears (Bartenev 1896: 65).
A few pages down Bartenev adds:
Anyway, if a
Samoyed leads a secure life, i. e. owns enough reindeer and a decent
set of furs, he is always healthy as a horse and shows no signs of
degeneration or extinction (Bartenev 1896: 70).
S. Patkanov, without discussing the
nature of the Khantys and Mansis any further, points out that after
subjection to the Russian empire (obviously he means the 16th-17th
century) they were still «the children of nature»
(Patkanov 1898: 351).
In a description of his journey that
took place during 1856-57 (published only at the beginning of the
20th century), S. V. Maksimov writes the following about the European
Nenets (the description is presented as a conversation between
Maksimov and his Russian pathfinder):
They seem to be
a peaceful nation.
Peaceful, kind! /---/ peaceful, only if they tipple they become
impetuous, accosting people, looking for trouble. And if you shout or
show your fist at them they don't even flinch and accost you even
more. But when sober they are peaceful as reindeer (Maksimov
Maksimov describes further the
relationship of the Nenets and drinking:
/---/ they are
natural born tipplers. At their community even the small children
drink vodka instead of milk, the women drink, everybody drinks /---/
(Maksimov 1909b: 379).
One of the interlocutors told Maksimov
the following about the drinking habits of the Nenets:
You can drink as
much vodka with a Samoyed as you like, but you have to hurry and get
drunk faster and leave the yurt, otherwise a drunken Samoyed might
pick a fight with you (Maksimov 1909c: 109).
Maksimov also writes:
The Samoyeds as
every other backward people are merely prisoners of ancient times
(Maksimov 1909c: 104).
Maksimov claims (although again via his
interlocutor) that the Nenets are «a totally ignorant people»,
basing his argument on the fact that the Nenets are not aware of
their age and do not live in houses like Russians do (Maksimov 1909b:
382). He also calls them naïve (Maksimov 1909c: 117). He
characterises a Nenets shaman with epithets like «half-savage»,
«halfway religious maniac» and «half-impostor»
(Maksimov 1909c: 105).
Describing a seal hunt on the coast of
the Kanin peninsula, Maksimov writes quite rudely about the Nenets:
patience - waiting on the waterline for an animal for days -
could only be attributed to the half-idiots of the Samoyed tribe
(Maksimov 1909a: 40).
He also calls them dirty and
characterises their existence as «a dog's life» (Maksimov
1909b: 16). Maksimov refers to their filthiness again (Maksimov
1909c: 101), and calls the Nenets «half-savage»,
«patriarchal and short-sighted» and «careless»
(Maksimov 1909c: 117, 118). He also considers them as insensitive,
illustrating it with a situation where he inquires a Nenets woman
about her life:
woman gives all the answers with such a calm intonation as if
answering questions: does she eat, sleep or ask for a crumb
(Maksimov 1909c: 118).
Describing his meeting with the Nenets
in their yurt Maksimov notes that the «Samoyeds» received
him in «perplexity and confusion» (Maksimov 1909c: 94,
At the same time Maksimov describes
them performing domestic works (sewing their coats, carving toys,
scraping hides) and notes:
It was all
performed in a deep focused silence (Maksimov 1909c: 95).
Maksimov contemplates on the reasons of
«simplicity» of the Nenets culture, viewing the Nenets as
dependants of reindeer:
This is why the
Samoyed always depend on the whims of reindeer: the latter need fresh
food and new places constantly and that is why they set up their
yurts where the instinct of the animals takes them. That is why the
whole life of the Samoyeds is closely connected to the phenomena of
the animal existence of reindeer. The animals will inevitably look
for food where it could be found - so the Samoyeds follow them
as loyal servants. This also justifies the nomadic life of this
North-Russian native tribe and all the simpler customs and external
ritual phenomena of domestic life (Maksimov 1909c: 97).
Maksimov also shares his comments on
the difference of character of the Komis and Nenets:
pragmatic Komis who had several possibilities to observe the
character of their insensitive neighbours have come to a completely
positive and accurate conclusion that the Samoyeds, destined to fight
nature and the numerous obstacles thrown at their way by nature for
centuries, are truly hard-working. They can tell by the fact that
some of them never work and just sit around. The Komis also know that
the hard-working and patient Samoyeds are whole-heartedly loyal to a
promise: if a person who made a promise happened to die, his place
was taken over by his brother or some other relative (these are
recent facts). If a Samoyed wishes to cheat on someone he will be
caught on the act very easily (Maksimov 1909c: 109).
Maksimov also describes how the Nenets
have learned to lie from the Izhma-Komis:
business of the neighbours has waken the self-consciousness and even
revenge of the Samoyeds as could be proven by recent examples. A
Samoyed once sold a resident of Pustozersk the furs of arctic fox for
a certain amount of bread and drank for the agreement. The resident
of Pustozersk got drunk faster and fell asleep. The Samoyed lost
neither his awareness nor self-control and left with the money and
the sold furs. The next day he sold the furs to another farmer and
the third day «disappeared into the tundra where no-one can
track him down even with hounds,» as one of the victims put it
(Maksimov 1909c: 114).
The presented arguments about the
Khanty and Nenets people which seem quite contradictory at first
might be reduced to a general conception of 4 factors which had
influenced the development of the natives of West-Siberia.
The Finno-Ugric, Uralic origin - only Bartenev
mentioned that (1896).
The common spirit of Siberia, which is caused by the influence
of nature and environment. It is emphasised mostly by Islavin
(1847), but to some extent also by Maksimov (1909c).
The influence of civilisation, which is observed by a
number of authors (Islavin 1847; Finsch & Brehm 1882; Bartenev
1896; Maksimov 1909).
A seemingly intuitive central idea (which also refers to the
landscape and lifestyle) that certain conditions are in a way similar
to other conditions for the existence of «universal
proletariat», «universal social marginal groups».
This factor could also be called «Proletarian existentialism».
Jacobi (1895) expresses it probably in the best way by pointing out
far-reaching parallels between the Khanty people and the Saxon miners
or between other marginal cultural groups. The social marginality of
the Nenets is also discussed by Islavin (1847) and as mentioned
before, by Castrén (1860).
Such presentation of only four factors
is highly deterministic. The Khantys and Nenets are presented as a
product of a given environment and conditions. It is as if they did
not have an active say in their nature. As if they did not shape
their features or personalities themselves. They merely represent the
cumulative effect of external conditions. Perhaps we may thus
establish the primary hypothesis of the ethnographic descriptions of
the Nenets and Khantys of the 19th century. In those days no
attention was paid to the cultural categories of identity.
The 19th century Russian authors
treated in this paper are little-known today. The «avant-garde»
of the 19th century research on the Khantys and Nenets is not
represented by them but rather by Castrén and Munkácsi.
Such descriptions have been presented by a number of authors, forming
the «average science» of the 19th century. The current
paper was a first brief treatment of an extremely limited set of
problems and selection of sources of the descriptions of the Nenets
and Khanty character in the 19th century Russian ethnographic
literature. At the same time, this short discussion shows that the
kind of deterministic views on the character of the Khantys and
Nenets were typical of the 19th century Russian ethnography.
Translated by Kait Realo
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V. 1896. Na Krainem Severo-Zapade Sibiri. Ocherki Obdorskogo
1833. Poezdka k Ledovitomu Okeanu. Moskva.
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i Sibiri (1838-1844, 1845-1849). Magazin Zemledelia i
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Sobranie Starykh i Novykh Puteshestvii. II. Moskva.
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i ugrov. Yekaterinburg.
V. 1847. Samoedy v domashnem i obshchestvennom bytu.
A. I. 1895. Ostiaki severnoi chasti Tobol'skoi Gubernii. Ezhegodnik
Tobol'skogo Gubernskogo Muzeia. Vyp. IV, pp. 1-25.
Linschoten, G. 1915. Niderlandskaia ekspeditsia k severnym beregam
Rossii v 1594-1595 gg. Zapiski po Gidrografii. Petrograd. Tom
XXXIX, vyp. 3., s. 480-506; vyp. 4., pp. 570-584.
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1909b = Sobranie sochinenii S. V. Maksimova. Tom deviatyi. God
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1909c = Sobranie sochinenii S. V. Maksimova. Tom desiatyi. God
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For exact view, here is a pdf version of this article,
charactr.pdf, size 189 kb.
It seems appropriate to present at least one
text sample of Castrén
since it also characterises his method of description which is far
more eloquent, thorough and attentive than that of most of the
authors discussed in the current article.
Castrén's viewpoint to the
Nenets (hereby he refers to the type of a typical native) «character»
is at places remarkably adequate, as it includes also a certain hint
to the question of how the 19th century researchers' and travellers'
knowledge about the general characteristics of such tundra and taiga
people is obtained:
Members of our
colourful circle enjoy themselves quite differently from each other.
A Russian sings cheerful songs, makes jokes and laughs, acts like a
fool. A Komi says prayers, tells the life stories of saints and holds
moralising talks. A Samoyed sits by himself and listens attentively
to the wiser talkers (Castrén 1860:175).
Therefore, Castrén has described
one of the main characteristic features of the Ob-Ugrians and Nenets
of the 19th century - their quiet nature - situationally,
as opposed to the categorical-declarative phraseology of the other
In the scientific literature of the 19th and the
beginning of the
20th century all Samoyed peoples went under the same common name. Of
all the Samoyed people only the Nenets are treated in the current
paper. The ancient name form has been preserved in the quotations.
Until the beginning of the 20th century the Khanty
people were called
Ostyaks and the Mansi people Voguls. Such name forms have been
preserves also in the quotations. Next to the Khantys the Sölkup
people were also called Ostyaks (or Ostyaks-Samoyeds).
Most probably, V. Islavin refers to the narta.
The Samoyed-Mongol people - it is not quite clear what
Bartenev refers to. He might mistakenly consider the Nenets as
belonging to the Altai language group or the Mongoloid race.
The Ostyak-Finnic people - refers most probably
to the fact
that the Khanty language belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the
Uralic language group.