Merja Salo and working group in Siberia

Khanty, Mansi and Komi culture in Western Siberian museums

Last summer, we made a month-long trip to Western Siberia as part of a Khanty language research project. In addition to two authors, a linguist and a botanist, it was taken part by Merja’s teenage daughters Selja and Talvikki. We travelled very ecologically: by train, bus, smaller and larger ferries and motorboats from the south towards the north. A lot happens during a long trip, but we chose our seven visits to local museums as the topic of this article. The culture and artefacts of Ob-Ugric peoples are showcased in many small, relatively new museums across the Khantya-Mansia or Yugra region as well as in Yamalo-Nenetsia, but also outside them.

Our first destination is located in a southern part of Western Siberia just under 40 km outside Yekaterinburg, in an area from where it is 700 km to the nearest Mansi village by the Pelym River. Established in the Shitovsk valley a dozen years ago, the historical–ethnographic park is called Zemlya predkov [The Land of Our Ancestors]. It is run by Komanda iskateley priklyucheny (KIP, [Seekers of Adventure], a tourism-oriented enterprise that organises a variety of activities and maintains the park structures and exhibitions. During our visit, the park was hosting the annual children’s camp, with the programme including learning about Mansi culture. The children were primarily Russian, and it was unlikely that any of them were members of Finno-Ugric minority peoples. The park is located in a beautiful pine wood with a variety of structures related to Mansi life and beliefs as well as enclosures for animals dotted around the site. The most important animal species is the reindeer, which were happy to approach you for a bit of petting and for treats to eat. The area also boasts a Raven, the mythological bird, but also geese, cats and dogs roaming free – the latter to the particular amusement of children. The items in the buildings are genuine and old, sourced with a great deal of effort from Mansi villages located hundreds of kilometres away: clothes, household items, fishing and hunting gear, boats, etc. There was also a more unusual item, a menstrual pad, a belt-like item worn between one’s legs. Our guide was the park manager Alexey Slepuhin, a medical doctor with an in-depth knowledge of ethnology, who was happy to spend hours telling us about the lives of the Mansi and about how the artefacts were sourced for the park. In separate small houses, there were also handicrafts, jewellery, drawings and other items for sale, with at least some of these made by Mansi and Permic artists. The park is an interesting place and definitely worth a visit even though located in an area unfamiliar to contemporary Mansis. There are also petroglyphs (rock paintings), dolmens (portal tombs) and menhirs (standing stones) as well as a Stone Age toolmaking site. Some of these have been dated to be 5,000 years old.

The Torum maa Ethnographic Open Air Museum is located in Khanty-Mansiysk, the capital of Khantya-Mansia, and is one of the most important tourist attractions of the city. The idea is also to attract international tourists, as the texts explaining about the buildings and items are not only in Russian but also in English. The Mansi-language name of the museum means ‘sacred land’ (the word maa is part of the shared vocabulary of Finno-Ugric languages, including Finnish). The establishment of the museum in 1987 was contributed to by two famous Ob-Ugric authors, the Khanty Yeremei Aipin and the Mansi Yuvan Shestalov. The area features a group of old dwellings of both peoples, bear caches and guardian spirit houses as well as a representative collection of hunting and fishing gear. The traps are made more authentic by the fact that the museum site is surrounded by a fantastic conifer-dominated forest. A large selection of exhibits related to the lives of the Khanty and Mansi can be found inside the houses. The museum guides are members of these indigenous peoples, and the programme features a variety of traditional celebrations, seminars, lectures and children’s events.

Further up north, the next museums were found on the Nenetsia side of Yamalia by the Ob River in the village of Muzhi, which actually is the administrative centre of the Shuryshkar Raion and looks more like a small town. Muzhi has as many as three museums, which form a single complex in terms of administration. The main museum, the raion’s historical and local museum established in 1985, consists of a natural history and a cultural history section. The stuffed animals and birds were in poor condition and should be replaced by new ones or by a virtual exhibition of the species. The room focusing on Uralic fairy tales was interesting and suitable for children. One of the rooms exhibited Uralic rock types and jewellery made from them. By contrast, this building featured very few Khanty artefacts. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, some of the exhibits were on a tour and secondly, the lives of Khanty are presented in a separate museum site slightly outside Muzhi, which is only accessible by means of a boat ride provided by the locals.

Our ride to the idyllic Khanty-Muzhi was organised smoothly thanks to assistance by the main museum staff. Founded in 1999, this open-air museum boasts a beautiful view of the Ob River and is surrounded by a sub-xeric heath forest. Some of the museum route passes through the forest, where there are two-storey granaries and bear caches, a trap trail, etc. You will see Khanty summer and winter dwellings from the early 1990s, including a birch-bark dwelling covered by tarpaulin and reindeer hides. More buildings have been sourced during ethnographic expeditions and also quite recently from areas including by the Kunovat River. Only some of the museum buildings were open, but there was still plenty to see. Our guide, the Khanty Alla Koneva is a museum professional and very keen to present the exhibits. The museum collection also includes many different kinds of sleds and sleighs as well as hunting and fishing gear. The museum hosts a children’s camp every year, and last summer it started the day after our visit. We got to see the conditions of the camp and saw how the children would sleep on reindeer hides underneath the traditional cotton fabrics hanging from the ceiling to protect them from mosquitoes. In addition to our guide, there were several people on the site busy organising the programme for the Khanty children due to arrive from different parts of the Yugra.

The third Muzhi museum was opened in 2006 and is dedicated to one of the minority peoples of the region, the Komis. The Komis arrived over the Ural Mountains to Western Siberia rather late, perhaps only starting from the mid-1800s. The Komi izba museum is a grand new wooden building housing a great collection of items including colourful, silky costumes, dishes and furniture belonging to Siberian or Izhma Komis. These reveal that Komi culture and lives differ in many ways from the lifestyle of Ob-Ugric Khantys and Mansis based on hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry. The energetic museum director Tatyana Anufrieva got Selja and Talvikki dressed as Komi girls, as whom they could actually have easily passed in terms of their looks. There is a new wooden Orthodox church next to a Komi house.

The sixth and seventh museum of our journey are located in the Khanty village of Ovgort by the Synya tributary of the Ob River. The former school of the village houses an exhibition presenting Khanty lives and the surrounding nature, which is surprisingly diverse for a museum of such a small community. The museum gained access to this building in 2015. The groundwork had actually started 40 years earlier, which is when local students led by their biology teacher Yelena Tuylikova started to record the spiritual and material culture of the Synya Khantys. We were told about the history and collections of the museum by Lyubov Nenzelova. Almost right opposite there is a Komi house with two rooms, which has very recently been opened as a museum and for which new exhibits are collected all the time. The activity is maintained based on volunteering. The place was presented to us by Anastasia Popova. There are still a few Komi families living in Ovgort, and you can tell their houses apart from Khanty houses based on their wood carvings and small balconies.

At the northern turning point of our journey, in Salekhard, the capital of Yamalo-Nenetsia, there is also a large general museum and exhibition complex of the history of the region’s indigenous peoples, the Khanty and the Nenets, but it was being renovated during our expedition. The only history-related place to visit was a new site fenced with sharp wooden poles called Obdorsky ostrog [Obdorsk Fortress], a reconstruction of the Obdorsk Fortress established by Russians. We were not able to enter the building there, either, but were allowed to walk on the grounds.


Photos by the authors.