by Nikolai VEKHOV, Cand. Sc. (Biology), D. Likhachyov Russian Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation
One of the first who explored the nature, traditional culture and life of indigenous population of the Ob river valley (Western Siberia) was Ivan Polyakov, curator of the Zoological Museum of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, who traveled there in 1876. The data collected by him are interesting for the modern reader, as they characterize this northern region when it was virtually intact, before its active industrial development.
Many travelers had visited Siberia and the Far East by the mid - 19th century. They described the mainland, external borders, and the wealth of remote territories of our country. However, at that time only the regions lying beyond the Angara and Lena rivers till latitude 55 - 60° North and the southern part of the Transbaikal region were more or less studied from scientific viewpoint and fit for settlement. Many other regions beyond the Urals remained unexplored. Therefore, any studies (moreover, those sanctioned by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences), aimed at collection of reliable data on these lands, became an event of exceptional importance.
We shall dwell on the voyage of Ivan Polyakov to the area called the Ostyak territory (at that time it was possible to get there only by water - the Irtysh and Ob rivers). Let us note that the Russian Geographic Society, which he represented, was in its heyday during the second half of the 19th century, had sufficient finances at its disposal, and sponsored many expeditions which brought fame to Russia due to great discoveries. Few scientists were entrusted to carry out an independent research using the money of this authoritative scientific organization. Ivan Polyakov was an experienced traveler - he visited the Upper Volga regions, Don and Ob rivers, the Urals, Altai, and Caucasus, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany; in addition, he was supported by a well-known geographer and geologist, future revolutionary Prince P. Kropotkin* and by P. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, Head of the Geographic Society, Honorary Member of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences since 1873.
Polyakov always thoroughly planned his routes. One of his responsibilities of the Zoological Museum curator was to enrich the collections. Therefore, going to the Ob river valley with the aim of informing the educated Russia about "the most significant characteristics of its nature and residents", he paid special attention to the studies of the fauna.
In early May, 1876, the researcher reached Tobolsk. Due to ice drift he could not sail along the Irtysh and spent his time in search of publications, manuscripts, and other materials about the local fishing industry and hunting. He discovered that the Ob territory was really a paradise for such business. "I am in the area, where cedar, silver fir, Siberian fir, and partly larch prevail,"
* See: V. Markin, "Prince Pyotr Kropotkin in Britain", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2003. - Ed.
wrote the scientist. "Cedar forests, particularly in the upper reaches of small streams falling into the Irtysh, form thickets (urmans); here lives the sable; as an exception, here can also be found the marten-it is a predominantly European species; besides the sable, I can name the Siberian ferret, ermine, weasel, chipmunk; flying squirrels inhabit birch forests. Forests consisting of cedars, silver firs and larches, are inhabited by wolverines, lynxes, bears, and wolves. Foxes of different species are also widespread here: common fox, silver, et al... I saw huge numbers of water birds on the Tobol and Irtysh, particularly ducks".
On May 27 the river got free of ice and Polyakov, the photographer Lyutik and 8 - 10 oarsmen sailed down the Irtysh to the place of its confluence with the Ob and then down the Ob river, towards its mouth. There he saw many amazing things. The river banks, often washed away in spring and crumbling down with great noise, produce an effect similar to that offish stunning. The traveler witnessed "near the village of Semeyki... how after a wave running to the bank... the fish lay on the bank near the slide for about 2 versts (1 verst = 1.0668 km)..."
Ivan Polyakov reached the Ostyak territory, where he got acquainted with the specific local hunting methods of the indigenous residents - the Khanty, Mansi, Nenets. For example, the local aborigine moose could be got by two methods. In summer flocks of blood-sucking flies drove the animal to open areas, to rivers and lakes; the animal plunged into water, leaving only its head above, and thus immediately became a prey to hunters. In spring another method was used: "The passages between hills and streams are blocked by a fence from dry trees...; just a narrow passage is left; a pit is made in this passage, which is accurately covered with earth and moss to look as much as possible like the natural ground; and, of course, any moose, which chooses to use a short way..., gets into the pit."
However, by the time of Polyakov's expedition, the rich fauna had unfortunately died off. The greatest loss was caused by fires, not local hunters. The development of the region, which started at the southern borders of Western Siberian forests, slowly but steadily went down the Ob river valley. In order to prepare lands for agriculture, forests were burned, as a result of which the moose population, for example, sharply reduced, and "no trace of sables is seen there, where they were previously killed by scores".
After exploring the Irtysh tributaries, the scientist sailed down the Ob river. Here he observed the summer trade of local residents-bird trapping during shedding. Early in the morning the hunters in the boat quietly reached a secluded and god-forsaken island (there are thousands of such islands on the great Siberian river) and put up nets in a semicircle or a broken line. Then they returned to the boat, as quietly as before sailed to the other end of the island, and from that end moved towards the nets with noise and shouting. And the "islanders with anxiety, commotion, fear... rush to the nets and get entangled, which is sometimes accompanied by desperate cries, particularly of the geese".
However, the main task of this part of the expedition was a study of the river inhabitants and fishing industry, one of the major factors determining the population distribution in the Ob river valley (there was no grain farming even near the estuaries of the Irtysh, cattle breeding was practiced only in the territories of its confluence with the Ob, further replaced by deer breeding). In summer hundreds of people from the environs of Tobolsk came to the banks of the river, desolate during other seasons, for sweep net-fishing. Local residents skillfully used a traditional Ostyak fisherman's outfit (kolydan), sometimes sailing across the bays and pools in "flotillas".
Ivan Semyonovich observed many interesting things there, e.g. he learned about an unusual natural phenomenon - the "water status in the Ob river, is described - as coming to a standstill. It starts... after the river is covered with ice and lasts... till the first spring gleams. During this river standstill... the fish cannot stay in the Ob
water: it either dies or leaves for the headwaters of the streams flowing into the Ob and refreshing it with fresh water inflow".
By the time of Polyakov's visit, the seeming harmony of the primeval originality of this territory, as well as of the Irtysh tributaries, was already on the brink of disappearance. With the appearance of Russians on the Ob "the ax started clanking in the forest more energetically, the groves, heretofore preserved by the Ostyaks as objects of worship, were burning, wood fires were reaching far into the depth of untouched virgin urmans, consisting of cedar forests, spruce forests, larch, etc. Wood fires of the last century... are detrimental, as they exterminate animals or force them to migrate to other areas".
The visit of the scientist to the Lower Ob, in the town of Obdorsk, coincided with a memorable event: the members of the Bremen expedition had returned there from their trip to the Shchuchya river valley (Southern Yamal Peninsula). This great scientific venture with participation of prominent German specialists, including zoologist A. Brem, author of the famous 6-volume book Animal Life, was organized at the initiative of the Bremen Geographic Society and was supported by the Russian Geographic Society. Polyakov discussed with the foreign colleagues the catch volume and valuable local fish species, which, under methods of long preservation of foodstuffs, used in Europe, could become an object of Russian export.
After Obdorsk the researcher moved down the Ob river into the Tazov bay, which had been visited several years
before by F. Schmidt, the well-known Russian geologist, paleontologist and botanist (Academician since 1874). Ivan Semyonovich characterized the panorama in front of him as typical of Europe of the end of the glacial period, when short willows and birches predominated instead of modern vineyards, the plains were covered by mosses and lichens, and mammoths, rhinoceroses, and primeval bulls roamed in the endless wilderness. His route passed through the settlement of Vulpaslinskiye Urty, situated 60 versts away from Obdorsk. There were several tens of birchbark huts (chums) along the bank, overgrown with willow bushes of the low-lying island with mossy meadows and bogs; for the drying fish in front of the huts there were pegs with transverse cross bars.
Four or five Russian buyers from the upper Ob towns always lived in this settlement during the fishing period. During the summer they often exported 1.5 - 2 tons of dry and salted fish from there.
Sailing down the river, Polyakov visited other settlements, similar to the above-mentioned, and the first thing he did was to look into the fishers' sweep nets, examine them, and buy the most interesting ichthyological specimens for his museum. Soon he reached the island of Yaro, the waters round which abounded in fishes of all sorts, particularly sturgeons, and taking advantage of favorable weather, hurried on further.
The Ob river looked less and less like a river, the stretches of water transformed into 15 - 20 km wide pools. The water was still everywhere, only some lowland islands were hardly discernible far away. The main river bed was greatly changeable here, and the sands brought with water were forming extensive shallow areas. Soon Ivan Semyonovich reached the Ob bay proper, keeping to the southern bank: "Except for the island of Khe, there is not a single island here worthy of note, and the eye sees just boundless water expanses in all directions, reaching the horizon."
In the morning of August 16, the traveler's boat reached the mouth of the Nadym river. At that time, so far away from us, there were plenty of bears, squirrels, foxes, arctic foxes in local forests; numerous white-tailed sea eagles nested there. It is interesting to learn that the Ostyaks liked to take the fledglings to their huts and kept there, using their feathers for fitting out arrows.
Of water residents of Nadym, the scientist mentioned seals and dolphins (presumably white whales. - Auth.). Polyakov noted that in spring they used to gather in large flocks in the mouth of the Tazov Bay and in search offish could get into shallows, whence they could not get out. There they became victims of hunters, "who here as well as on the Ob river generally know no other way to hunt dolphins. Dolphins get into a desperate situation mainly alone, but sometimes they enter shallow bays in flocks, having no chance to get out". On August 20, Ivan Polyakov returned to Obdorsk, from Obdorsk to Tobolsk, and then back to St. Petersburg.
An important aspect of the scientist's studies was the culture and religion of local population. Like all Northern peoples, they were christened. But the orthodox missionaries sometimes failed to keep an eye on their flock roaming in the tundra. Without priests near about, the pagans again found themselves tete-a-tete with the nature feeding and dressing them, and of course, revered their habitual northern gods. This was the situation in Yakut uluses, Chukchi chums, on the Sakhalin and Kamchatka. Polyakov wrote that "the Ostyak is still closely connected with the nature; particularly as regards his knowledge of peculiarities of various animals, birds, and even fishes, he is a very accurate and truthful zoologist". Of course, religion was linked with hunting and fishing, the sources of existence of the local residents: "Before fishing the Ostyak... kills a rooster, splashes its blood into water in order to please the water governor and persuade him let the fisher catch some of his flock; generally, the Ostyak is a typical fetishist in his beliefs, often personifying the sacred essence of the Universe, the results of the stringent laws of the nature in primitive idols made with his own hand."
For the first time Ivan Semyonovich witnessed a local cult performance in Obdorsk, where he observed a sacrifice to one of the idols. Later he visited places sacred for Northern pagans: "Birches, as the plants most popular and, presumably, thoroughly protected, concentrated in themselves the greatest number of traces of the Ostyak religious festivities. Heaps of deer antlers are seen at the foot of many birch trees with several sprouts from the same root or small stems; ordinary logs of different sizes with a sort of eyes, nose, and mouth... Near the yurts are erected idols - new pieces of wood, maybe still worshipped. But the main one is under the larch,
standing lonely in the forest and revered more than other trees... It is a log about 2 arshins (1 arshin = 28 inches) high; its upper part, imitating the head and face, is covered by all sorts of cloth ribbons, red, black, etc.; a half of a military saber with a hilt hangs on a branch to the right of the log-a sign of the bellicose Penates... It is a tribal idol, which, presumably, is transferred to the yurta of the head of the tribe. Removing the rags from its face, we can see the leftovers of various viands, alternating with the layers of smoke precipitating on it in the yurta in the transverse slit, corresponding to the lips."
On his way back from Nadym to Obdorsk, Polyakov was present at a ritual sacrifice for the second time. The traveler recollects: "We rapidly reached the southern bank of the Ob bay, where we saw the high, sharply outlined Emangniel cape, considered to be the seat of the Ostyak deity Eman. It was decided to make a sacrifice to Eman... He has a wife and children, but no one knows how many. How he looks, is also unknown. The Ostyaks, passing Emangniel in the dark winter nights, just see a fire, which illuminates the way for them. Nothing of this kind is seen in summer nights... In order to please Eman in the direction favorable for man it is necessary to make a sacrifice... Everyone, particularly an Ostyak, should make a sacrifice, whatever he has, even a flap from his clothes. However, Eman is fond of silver... And also of vodka... On the other hand, the Ostyaks express their reverence by the fact that no water should be drunk from the bay near this place, no shooting or singing is allowed, sometimes even rowing or just moving the oars is prohibited. Certain area on the continent is a quite sacred place: it is prohibited to hunt here, women are not allowed even to walk and pick up berries, etc."
Notes and collections brought by Polyakov became a valuable and reliable material about the northern Ob region. It is noteworthy that his studies gave us the first information about heretofore little known religious rituals, life style of indigenous population of the region, and the influence of the Russian newcomers.
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