Ugria (Yugra or Yura) is mentioned already in the works of old
Arabian authors. The missionary and traveller Al Garnati writes:
"But beyond Visu by the Sea of Darkness there lies a land
known by the name of Yura. In summers the days are very long there,
so that the Sun does not set for forty days, as the merchants
say; but in winters the nights are equally long. The merchants
report that Darkness is not far (from them), and that the people
of Yura go there and enter it with torches, and find a huge tree
there which is like a big village. But on top of the tree there
sits a large creature, they say it is a bird. And they bring merchandise
along, and each merchant sets down his goods apart from those
of the others; and he makes a mark on them and leaves, but when
he comes back, he finds commodities there, necessary for his own
" (Al Garnati:32). If the country called Visu
has been identified with ancient Vepsaland (due to linguistic
affinity with the Russian word for Vepsans, 'ves') or with Perm
(due to geographical vicinity with Yugra), Yugra itself has been
unanimously associated with the Ob-Ugrians - the Khanty and the
Mansi. In the giant tree mentioned by Al Garnati we can recognise
the World Tree, familiar from the mythologies of various North-European
peoples. Some authors have also related the following report of
Al Garnati's to the Ugrians: "And from Bulgar merchants travel
to the land of heathens, called Visu; marvellous beaver skins
come from there, and they take there wedge-shaped unpolished swords
made in Aserbaijan in their turn
But the inhabitants of
Visu take these swords to the land that lies near the Darkness
by the Black Sea, and they trade the swords for sable skins. And
these people take the swords and cast them into the Black Sea;
but Allah the Almighty sends them a fish which size is like a
mountain; and they sail out to the fish in their ships and carve
its flesh for months on end." (ibid:58-59). Nevertheless,
it ought to be clear that the vicinity of the Darkness and the
Black Sea (the polar regions and the Arctic Ocean) is not characteristic
of Ugria alone, and that the last report regards peoples who derived
a substantial part of their livelihood from whaling.
The protagonist of a sacred story written up by Munkácsi in the previous century was taught by his elder sister as follows: "As you depart, look down; there will be seven tents of broadcloth there, and sheep and pigs teeming around them. You descend to the tents. One-eyed people will come out of the tents; one eye of each has run out, but the other one is whole. You ask them: "Whose sheep and pigs are you herding?" They will answer: "We are herding the sheep and pigs of Paryparseg." Then say: "Don't speak like that; better say: "We are herding the sheep and pigs of Tari-pes'-nimala-s'av." After me, the Lord of Fire will come, and if you tell him you are herding the sheep and pigs of Paryparseg he will burn you with his fire, but if you say: "We are herding the sheep and pigs of Tari-pes'-nimala-s'av," you will fare well." After that heal their eyes Then continue your way, you will come up to seven tents of broadcloth, the place will be alive with cows. Go down again; people with only one arm will come out of the tents. You ask them: "Whose cattle are you herding?" Go on again, you will find seven tents of broadcloth in yet another place. There you will see only horses all around. As you go up to them, one-legged people will hobble out of the tents. You ask them: "Whose horses are you herding?" " (Shestalova-Fidorovich 1992:8-9). The story is about the creation of the world and the establishing of the present world order; the hero appearing under the name of Tari-pes'-nimala-s'av is the most popular deity of the Ob-Ugrians, the World Surveyor Man, born of the sky god Numi-Torum and the goddess Kaltesh. A detailed account of the latter can be found in the essay "Little Mos'-Woman. The Story of a Fairy Tale."
The rich military vocabulary of the Ob-Ugrians and several motifs in their mythology and folklore imply contacts with the cattle-breeding cultures of the steppe area. Presumably, not all the Ugrian cattle-breeders made their way together with the Huns or after them through the steppes between the Urals and the Aral and Caspian Seas into Europe to evolve into Hungarian tribes in the grassy plains of Bashkiria, but part of them were forced by the flux of the Great Migration to the West Siberian Lowlands where they assimilated among the local Ugrian hunters and fishers. Moreover, it is likely that part of the Ugrian tribes that reached Europe also moved up along the rivers Volga and Kama and came into contact with the Ugrian population of the upper Pechora river. Later influences from Turkic peoples must be taken into account, too - in the 16th century, several Ob-Ugrian princes were forced to pay tribute to the Siberian khan and participate in the military ventures of the Khanate. In some sources, Alach, Prince of Koda figures as an important ally of the Siberian Khan Kuchum and is said to have been awarded one of the Yermak mail-coats taken from the enemy (Bahrushin 1955, 1:114). The close connections between the Ob-Ugrians and the Turkic Tartars are also demonstrated by the fact that even in the 1660s, the idea of restoring the Kuchum Khanate was still popular with the Khanty of Beryozovo (Ibid).
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mansi got their living mainly from hunting. Fishing played a less significant role in their economy than among the Khanty. An important field of activity was forest apiculture. The hive trees were private property; the owner possessed them by the right of "purchase, inheritance and sign" (Bahrushin 1955,2 : 97). The Western and Southern Mansi bred cattle and tilled soil. The Northern Mansi also went in for reindeer herding.
According to some sources, Novgorod launched military campaigns against the Yugrans "living with the Samoyeds in the Land of Midnight" already at the end of the first millennium (Bahrushin 1955,1:86). At that time, the Russians probably came into contact with the Mansi who were still living in Europe, along the upper course of the river Pechora, in the neighbourhood of the Komi. (See map) The name 'Voguls' (Vogulichi) appears first in 1396, denoting the Mansi tribes living around Perm. In the 15th century Russian sources the same name (Vogulichi, Gogulichi, Bogulichi) is given to the Mansi living on the opposite side of the Urals, along the river Pelym (Bahrushin 1955,1:87). Up to the thirties of the present century, the Mansi were known under the name of Voguls; only after that their own name (maansi or maansi maakhum - the Mansi people) came into wider use.
The Novgorod Chronicles tell us of a military campaign under the leadership of Yadrei in 1193, which ended in the destruction of the Novgorod forces. The defeat was blamed on some Novgorodans who had reportedly "been in contact with the Yugrans" (Bahrushin 1955,1:75). In the 13th to 15th centuries, Yugra was supposed to pay tribute to Novgorod. But taxes could be collected only by means of armed forces. The chronicles describe several campaigns, mentioning the strong resistance of Yugran princes who took shelter in their strongholds. After the annexation of Ustyug by Moscow in the 14th century, Muscovian campaigns began instead of the Novgorodan ones. In the 15th century, Moscow's most important stronghold in Permland and the starting point for all expeditions going to the East was the diocese established on the river Vym by Stephan of Perm. For instance, Prince Vassili of Perm together with the warriors of Vym took part in the 1465 expedition to Yugra (Bahrushin 1955,1:76). But the Yugrans did not confine themselves to passive resistance. We know that in 1455, the Voguls of Pelym launched a campaign under the command of prince Asyka. Moscow reciprocated with the campaigns of 1465 and 1467; in the course of the latter, prince Asyka was captured and brought to Vyatka (Bahrushin 1955,2:113). In 1483, Moscow sent forth an expedition against the princes of Yugra and Koda; the "grand duke" Moldan was captured (Ibid). In 1499, Moscow dispatched a great force against "Yugra, Kuda (Koda) and the Gogulichi", led by the princes Semyon Kurbski, Pyotr Ushatyi and Vassili Gavrilov. The 4000 strong army, using dog and reindeer teams, reached the Lyapin stronghold of the Khanty, located on the river of the same name (Bahrushin 1955,1:76-77). We are told that 40 strongholds were taken and 58 Khanty and Mansi princes captured in the expedition. Even though already at the end of the 15th century the Grand Duke of Moscow assumed the honorary title of Prince of Yugra, it was only in the middle of the 17th century that Moscow succeeded in subduing Yugria. The Mansi of Pelym continually sent forth counter-campaigns to the lands of Perm. Thus, the year 1581 went into history as the year of the raiding of Kaigorod and Cherdyn. According to Moscow's estimates, the army of the Mansi and their allies, the Tartars, stood 700 strong (Bahrushin 1955,1:99; 2:144).
After the conquest of Kazan in 1552, Moscow's previously rather unsuccessful Eastern policy underwent a capital change. Side by side with the aristocracy who had so far put up with the irregularly paid tribute from the border areas, there now emerged a new power - entrepreneurs desiring to establish a permanent foothold in the new lands. As early as 1558, the entrepreneurs Stroganovs from Sol Vychegorsk asked the Tsar's permission to start settling the new lands. At first, the Stroganovs, on the lookout for better conditions for salt-producing, took hold of the lands by the River Kama, between the mouths of Lysva and Chusovaya; but in a few years they expanded their domain up along the Lysva and the Chusovaya and petitioned, in 1574, for the right to settle also on the "Siberian side, beyond the Stones of Yugra (the Urals), by the rivers Tagchei and Tobol and Irtysh and Ob and others" (Bahrushin 1955,1:96). The village registers of the age testify to the swift growth of the Stroganovs' wealth: in 1579, there were one little town, 30 villages and settlements with 203 households and one monastery on their lands; in 1649, however, there were three townships, four fortified settlements, one sloboda, six church villages, and 231 villages and settlements with 1844 households and a population adding up to 5701 souls, altogether (Bahrushin,1:97). And all that was definitely not located in "uninhabited regions" and "dark woods, along the rivers and lakes of wilderness", as they put it in their petition (idem:96), but in a country populated by the Mansi and the Tartars. It is only natural that the natives of the country did not sit back and remain passive observers of their expulsion "with great violence" from "their old hereditary demesne to found new villages and settle new people there, and take away their honey woods and beaver-trapping sites and fishing waters, which had yielded the produce for their payment in kind" (idem:98). Thus, the Stroganovs in their turn had cause to complain to the Tsar. "But we are told that those whose slobodas are situated near the border, but the Voguls live close by their slobodas and the region is forested: that the people and farmers are not allowed to set foot outside their strongholds there, and they are not allowed to plough the fields nor burn the brush. And furthermore we are told that they and the small people come secretly and drive off their cattle and horses and kill the people; and they do not let those in the sloboda do their work and evaporate salt," the Tsar's letter summarises the complaints of the Stroganovs. (Idem:98) Thus in 1572, the Stroganovs asked the Tsar for permission to chase the Siberians, unimpeded, and "avenge for the injustice that has befallen us". In that very year, they were indeed granted the right to "establish strongholds along the Tahchei and Tobol rivers and hold firearms and maintain gunners and arquebus shooters and guards taken from amongst the Siberians and Nogaians" (idem:101). In addition, the Tsar ruled, in 1572 and again in 1574 and 1781, that they had the right "to retain voluntary Cossacks and defend themselves against the Voguls with those Cossacks and their own people" (idem:100). All that resulted in the launching of a campaign, in 1582-1584, arranged and financed by the Stroganovs and led by the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich, which began with the destruction of a Vogul war band that had invaded the Stroganovs' territory and was meant as a punitive expedition against the Pelym Mansi and their ally - the Siberian Khanate.
Even though Yermak succeeded in taking the capital of the Siberian Khanate, Kashlyk, this did not entail the submission of Siberia. Already in 1592, another campaign against the Mansi of Pelym was launched. It ended in 1593 when the stronghold of Ablegirim, Prince of Pelym, was taken, the prince and his family captured and the Russian fortress Pelym erected in the stead of the stronghold. Although in the following year the Pelym principality suffered the loss of its lands lying on the Konda, the Mansi did not give up resistance. In 1599, they once again brought "war, theft and treachery" to the banks of Chusovaya and Kurya and plundered the Stroganovs' possessions there (Bahrushin,2:143-144).
In 1562, ten years after the conquest of Kazan by Ivan IV had laid the foundations of the Russian Empire, a new map of Russia was printed in London by Anthony Jenkinson, featuring Yugria located on the lower course of the Ob. An illustration shows Yugrans kneeling before a Madonna-like idol. The explanatory note reads: "Zlata Baba, that is the Golden Dame of the Obians, zealously worshipped by the Yugrans. This idol is consulted by the priest as to what they must do or where they must go; and she (the miraculous oracle) gives answers to some that seek her counsel, and certain consequences follow."
The first reports of the Golden Lady of the Obians are found in the 14th-century Novgorod Chronicles, with reference to Stephan of Perm. Next, the golden idol is mentioned in the 16th century by the subjects of the Grand Duke of Moscow, commissioned to describe the trade and military routes of the expanding Russia. The first European we know of to comment on the golden lady is Mathias from Miechov, Professor of Krakow University. In connection with Yermak's campaign, the Siberian Chronicle also tells us about the golden woman: a hetman of Yermak's, by the name of Ivan Bryazga, invaded the Belogorye region in 1582 and fought the Ob-Ugrians there, who were defending their holiest object - the golden woman. (See Karjalainen 1918:243-245, Shestalov 1987:347.) And Grigori Novitski's statement that in earlier days there used to be in one shrine in Belogorye together with the copper goose "the greatest real idol", and that the superstitious people "preserved that idol and took it to Konda now that idol-worshipping is being rooted up", has also been regarded as relating to the golden woman (Novitski:61). In actual fact, no European has ever seen that idol and most probably it never existed in the described form (as a full-length woman made of gold). Grounds for that kind of rumours were provided by the Ob-Ugrian folklore, where Kaltesh-ekva is usually described as golden. An extract from a Mansi song, collected by Munkácsi, gives the following description of her:
Novitsky, however, wrote about the above mentioned goose-idol: "The goose idol very much worshipped by them is cast of copper in the shape of a goose, its atrocious abode is in the Belogorye village on the great river of Ob. According to their superstition they worship the god of waterfowls - swans, geese and other birds swimming on water His throne in the temple is made of different kinds of broadcloth, canvas and hide, built like a nest; in it sits the monster who is always highly revered, most of all at the times of catching waterfowls in nests This idol is so notorious that people come from distant villages to perform atrocious sacrifice to it - offering cattle, mainly horses; and they are certain that it (the idol) is the bearer of many goods, mainly ensuring the richness of waterfowls " (Novitsky: 61). We might add that the goose was one of the shapes of appearances of the most popular god of the Ob-Ugrians the World Surveyor Man, and that Belogorye is still sometimes referred to as his home. Novitsky also describes a site for worshipping the Ob Master: "The home of the Ob Master was presumably near the stronghold Samarovo in the mouth of the river Irtysh. According to their heathen belief he was the god of the fish, depicted in a most impudent manner: a board of wood, nose like a tin tube, eyes of glass, little horns on top of the head, covered with rags, attired in a (gilt breasted) purple robe. Arms - bows, arrows, spears, armour, etc - were laid beside him. According to their heathen belief they say about the collected arms that he often has to fight in the water and conquer other vassals. The frenzy ones thought that the atrocious monster is especially horrifying in the darkness and in the large waters, that he comes through all the depths where he watches over all fish and aquatic animals and gives everyone as much as he pleases." (Novitsky: 59).
With the growing influence from the Moscow, the impact of the orthodox church to the Ob-Ugrians increased. The Mansi living to the west of the Ural were most probably christened already at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. A report from the year 1600 includes a complaint of a newly christened Mansi Kuzma Arkantshiev about his deprivation of arable land, pastures and hunting grounds, though (Bahrushin 1955,2: 98). A historical record from 1603 writes of the christening of the Mansi at the Tchusovaya - murza Baim, Kulak and Kazak Artybashev - and the Tagil Mansi Obaitko Komayev. Each of them was given "two pieces of common broadcloth, a shirt and boots" and taken to the ruler in Moscow. They departed Moscow with gifts, murza Baim, for example, got five roubles, "a piece of fine broadcloth and taffeta" (Ibid.: 99). After invading Pelym and the imprisonment of Ablegrim in 1593 the local Mansi asked Taustei, the younger son of Ablegrim, and Utshyut, Ablegrim's grandson, to rule their country. Utshyut, baptised as prince Alexander in Moscow, died before arriving his native land, still, until 1631 or 1632 Pelym was ruled by his son christened as Andrei (Ibid.: 145). The christening of the Mansi en masse started at the beginning of the 18th century - in his book Novitsky describes the christening of the Pelym Mansi in 1714 and the Konda Mansi in 1715. The words of the village elder and the caretaker of the sanctuary Nahratch Yeplayev have been recorded: "We all know why you have come here -- you want to pervert us from our ancient beliefs with your smooth-tongued flattery and damage and destroy our revered helper, but it is all in vain for you may take our heads but this we will not let you do." (Novitsky: 92-93) Novitsky describes the above mentioned idol as follows: "The idol was carved of wood, attired in green clothes, the evil looking face was covered with white iron, a black fox skin was placed on its head; the whole sanctuary, especially his site which was higher than anywhere else, was decorated with purple broadcloth. Other smaller idols nearby which where placed lower were called the servants of the real idol. I think there were many other things in front of him - caftans, squirrel skins, etc " (Ibid.: 93) The village people requested that the sanctuary be left untouched, saying: "And even if the highest order of your powerful ruler is to destroy our idols and sanctuaries, still, we ask you to impose a tax on them, as Yermak did in his days by taking 3 roubles a year; let us raise the tax and we will give you four (roubles) a year if you will disobey the order." (Ibid.: 94) At last Nahratsh who has consulted the elders proposes a compromise: "We will now obey the ruler's regulations and ukase. So we will not discard your teaching," said he to the clergyman," we only beg you not to reject the idol so revered by our fathers and grandfathers, and if you wish to christen us, honour also our idol, christen it in a more honourable manner - with a golden cross. Then we will decorate and build a church with all the icons ourselves, as a custom goes, and we will place ours also among these. Secondly, do not allow us eat horse-meat, for there is not a food in the world that we like so much that we would give up our lives for that First and foremost we ask you not to separate us from our many wives and reproach us about our polygamy in the future; do not christen our wives at all, we will each of us perform the immersion for our wives and make cross-signs. If we are allowed all that we will accept your religion and rules." (Ibid.: 94-95). And even if the Mansi of the Nahratsh village never understood why their momentous proposals incurred the Russian's displeasure who kept on talking about the tricks of evil and mixing up the light and darkness (Ibid:95), they became frightened by threats -- many of them were christened and the sanctuary destroyed. The only concession was that the reformers agreed to burn the idol on the other side of the river, away from the village people (Ibid.: 98). The destruction of idols in order to fight the heathen beliefs occurred at other places as well: during the year 1723 1617 different idols and spiritual dolls were confiscated and burnt in Beryosovo county alone. (Bahrushin 1955,2: 106 - 107).
More than the forced christianization, the slow but steady flux of the Russian peasants, hunters, merchants, manufacturers and other adventurers to the east proved fatal for the Mansi. Fortresses were built on the main trade routes, around them spread the lands of new settlers. The Mansi who lived west to the Ural were first to be deprived of their lands and to become economically dependent of the Russians. The next were the Mansi living to the east. Kuzma Arkantshiev, whom we mentioned above, complained in 1600 that a peasant Matyuska Kunkin took his pastures at Tura, an inhabitant of Verhoturye Sidorka Tshepurin took his old fields, the parish clerk Kharka Nedyakov took his pastures, but Mikolka and the same Matyuska Kunkin took his fishing and beaver hunting locations on the river Tshernaya and that all his animals are dying but there is no place to scythe hay or cultivate fields anymore" and that "the Russians hunt beavers and fish at the river, but before the town of Verhoturye was established" the land was all his (Bahrushin 1955,2: 98-99). And the Mansi farmers of Tabary complained to Tsar Mikhail: "and what used to be our fields, pastures and other arable lands was all given from us, your orphans, to the Russian peasants of Tabary" (ibid.) The scope of the flow to the east is perhaps best described in a 1608 register of village lands: of the 361 inhabitants of parishes around Vym 35 were registered killed on the other side of the Ural, moreover, 8 of the local inhabitants had went to Siberia, escaped or recruited Cossacks. Which means that nearly 11% of the whole population altogether had travelled east (Bahrushin 1955,1: 81). And not all of them were the most honourable of the nation. In 1623 the voivode of the Mangazei fortress near Taz river wrote that all kinds of people from the Mezen, Pustozero and Vym regions come there, people who have fleed from home because of taxes and accumulated debts, but also because of theft (ibid.). In 1638, 24 out of 63 households in the Izhem and Ust-Tsilem region were empty, since "the residents had travelled" to different Russian and Siberian towns (ibid.).
A part of the Mansi who stayed in the strange cultural surroundings and economical dependence became Russianized or Tartarized while a part of those deprived of fields, hunting and honey forests and fishing waters withdraw to the places where the new settlers had not yet reached. The process continued until the 18th century. Z.P.Sokolova who has studied the evolving and social structure of the Ob-Ugrian peoples argues convincingly that in the 18th and 19th century the number of the natives of West-Siberia was increased mainly by the new settlers coming from south and west. While at the end of the 19th century 1179 people were living at the parishes around Konda, a century later their number was 1891 (Sokolova 1983: 161).
The number of the Mansi which had increased until the last decades
of the 19th century, started to decrease due to the perishing
of the Southern Mansi around Konda, and by 1930s - 40s the number
fell to 5500. The growth in population after 1940s is merely seeming
- according to the population census in 1989 8500 Mansi were registered
but only 37,1% i.e. 3154 of them regarded the Mansi language as
their mother tongue. According to the census in 1926 the number
was still 5179. Today, the Mansi are settled mostly in the villages
on the North-Sosva and its feeders and in a couple villages near
the river Ob which are mainly inhabited by Khanties. A smaller
number lives also in Beryosovo and Khanty-Mansiisk. The latter
is most probably the only place where one could find the last
remaining people who can speak the South-Mansi dialect.