Baikal matters of the Russian old timers

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Before seeing the Baikal the Russian pioneers knew some information about it. The reports about the lake-sea came together with the description of the peoples who lived on its shores or near it. Here is an example from the report of well known explorers Vasca Vietezev and Kurbatka Ivanov: “And in questioning the Tungus prince Mozheulko and his people from the ulus (village) spoke about the Bratsky people and about the Lama and that the Bratsky people call the lake the Baikal, and about the Tunguzsk peak, and about the Shilka River, and about Vitimsky peaks. And the Tungus Kumkagiri and Chilkagiri and many other families live at the Lama and Baikal, but the Tungus do not know the number of those people, how many they are in the clan; and those Tungus have a lot of sables. And there is an island called Olkhon on the Lama, and it takes one day for a ship to get across the Lama to the island; and many Bratsky people live on the island, having lots of horses and other cattle, and they plant millet; and it takes another day to get back from the Olkhon Island to the other side by ship across the Lama. And on the other side of the Lama the Bratsky people live riding horses and the Tungus people riding deer; and from those Bratsky people to the right side of Lake Baikal, to the Yenisei top the Tochali people live cattle-breeding”.

The chronicles hold the description of the first pioneers and “colonialists” (which has some truth in it) in the Baikal land. Here is one of them put down in 1643. The foreman Skorokhodov with 36 Cossacks going along the coast of Lake Baikal to the mouth of the Upper Angara imposed a tribute in furs on all the Tungus people they met, but walking further on the shore of Lake Baikal to the mouth of the Barguzin River, the Tungus living there were not so easy to conquer. Although for security reasons the Cossacks built a cabin at the very beginning of their military plans, the Tungus gradually found the Cossacks and killed them, until only two Cossack left who were sitting in the cabin from Christmas until Easter Day. And they hardly rescued in a small boat at the Baikal Sea and, thus avoided the fate of their fellows.

After that incident Pentecostal Kurbat Ivanov with 70 Cossacks set off to swim in the sea Baikal from Yakutsk on a big boat and, having arrived to the Olkhon Island he conquered by force of arms around 1000 of the Buryats living on this island; the consequence of this defeat was that the Russians accidentally attacked the Buryats and proved by this victory their courage and prudence. When the Buryats were defeated, they were very much surprised; and as they did not have means to improve their state, the Cossacks easily conquered them; and they obeyed soon”.

In scientific, belles-lettres and journalistic literature one can find lots of information about the role of the Cossacks and cultivators in the development of Siberia and the Baikal region. But there is less data on the contribution of hunters to this activity, although in many cases, they were pioneers of the taiga. The reasons for this were very simple. Firstly, Russia had no its foreign currency sources in the 16 or 17th centuries, and the primary means of public expenses payment in the field of international relations was fur: it "sponsored" foreign embassies, foreign ambassadors in Moscow. And the eminent people in Russia wore clothes, decorated with jewelry and fur, or made of fur; and they loved to make gifts made of fur "from the master's shoulder" (Russian expression, meaning “generously”). Secondly, the possibility of hunting for valuable animals (especially sable) and fishing in Western Siberia rapidly decreased, and the center of fur production moved to Eastern Siberia.

Naturally, only those hunters, who could stand severe frosts, went to harsh taiga regions, because hunting in its various forms, especially for fur was carried out in winter. This point predetermined that among professional hunters the majority consisted of people native of northern regions of the country. According to the customs book of Ilimsk Fortress, in 1658 among the hunters who came to hunt in the taiga at Lake Baikal, there was no person from places lying to the south of Kargopol, Vologda, and Galich. There were 372 people who came from five northern cities – Ustyug, Vaga, Vychegda, Vychegodsky Sol, Usolie; they represented 64% of all hunters. The “indigenous" Siberians among field men were only less than one percent. If we confess that a significant part of people from the north took root in these areas, undoubtedly, the origin of psychology of a Baikal man must be sought in the character of a northerner.

One might say, that social and psychological features of hunters’ everyday life organization were forced by external conditions and heated by the old Russian traditions and determined the life of collectivism, life "together with the whole world". The cropping in unfamiliar places, in hard climatic and relief conditions was impossible to do individually. The main “production unit” was the so-called vataga (“band”), an artel (a community, a team), temporarily formed for common business. In Russia such bands were formed to seine on the Volga and the Dnieper Rivers, to implement other business functions of temporary nature. The head of the band was a votazhok, or vataman, the leader of the artel.

The vatagas that united for fur production in Siberia were of two main types. The first one was called svoeuzhennik or skladnik. Its members were required to kick in their shares (uzhina) to the collective equipment and gear: hunting equipment, clothing, food, etc. They were carrying the necessary travel and acquisition (purchase) of vehicles expenses. They carried out all activities related to fishing together; they built cabins and traps for animals, provided firewood together, etc. The bag also went to the common pot, and only after leaving the taiga and paying the prescribed fee (one tenth of furs, which goes into the tsar’s treasury) all of the furs were divided into equal uzhina-parts, and only the vataman got two parts. In the formation of a vataga of the first type the family ties played the decisive role (blood brothers and cousins, male relatives on the maternal line, their grown up children), so the most senior and experienced member of the family often became a vataman.

Bands of the second type are pokruchenniks (probabaly, originated from the Slavic words cover, patron “protection, assistance, benefactor by some person” hence the negative meaning of the word pokryvatelstvo “concealment”) were formed on the basis of recruitment of individual volunteers – okhochy, i.e., willing people from wealthy industrialists (by the way, the word okhota (“wish”, “hunting”) in the meaning of “to catch animals” is a euphemism, because hunters tried to hide their true intentions to “kill animals” before others and, especially, otherworldly forces. The pokruchenniks received from their master everything that skladniks collected by parts. Like in the case with skladniks, the bag of pokruchenniks was common, but after paying the prescribed tithe to the tsar’s treasury, they had to pay two thirds of production to the owner, the remaining third could be sold and the money was divided among the members of the band. Although pokruchenniks were not usually tied with “brotherly” kinship, the conditions of a most difficult occupation, common business and a long way together often made them collectivists.

We dwelled the issue of hunting vatagas in detail just because their norms of morality and order were the basis of a “common law” of inhabitants at the Baikal. When the fur-trade of valuable species became less profitable than before in the 18th century, hunters were forced to settle in places that were suitable not only for hunting less valuable animals, but also for agricultural production, cattle-breeding, fishing and coachmen occupation. The latter rapidly developed in Siberia because of the emergence of a lot of new postal stations, increase of commercial and official traffic. Cabbing as a trade of transportation became the solid foundation of the Siberian economy; it also gave rise to many Russian villages in these harsh lands. And the residents of those villages took as a basis the combination of those norms for “charters” that had developed in the Russian village communities, military and business communities of the Cossacks and the fishing vatafas of various types. Should we wonder that indigenous Siberians are distinguished by their obvious collectivism?

The residents of the Baikal are a peculiar group, speaking in scientific language, a representative sample of the population of Siberia. With regard to the Siberian natives, or voluntary tillers, or exiled settlers, or descendants of the Cossacks – all of them are represented in different settlements. And all of them, having been living for quite a long time in these places, acquired features of a true Siberian with his nature and qualities.

Historically one can see a lot of opposing evidences in their characterisations. One of them, a very colorful one, belongs to the Irkutsk writer and local historian N.S. Shchukin that reveals domesticity of a Siberian peasant: "At the thought of a Siberian peasant we ought to forget serfdom, bondhold, tributes and the like. A Siberian peasant belongs to the state; he performs duties, pays the taxes and works year-round for himself. He has some property and disposes of it at his whim. He has an inheritance, passed on to his grandfathers on the right of the initial occupation. He sells it, mortgages it and nobody can put obstacles on his way. He has no documents on the right of possession, but everyone knows that the land belongs to him. If he wants to expand his possession, he chooses a convenient land, clears it from the forest, burns the litter and roots, lifts the sod, plows, sows and gets a rich harvest the very first year”.

As often as not the alternativeness of real human qualities counterbalanced the view of pragmatism and efficiency of a Siberian peasant, which caused rather negative comments about his moral virtues. N. Shchukin describes some of them: "The Siberians are roguish, mistrustful, and suspicious. To pledge his word and not to fulfill their promises is a usual thing with them; to get locked up and to swear by god is considered as boldness. The possibility to raise money easily has made them lazy and un-enterprising. Among the peasants only egoism is noticed: no union and common fellowship. Everyone sees an enemy in others if not now, then in the future, he feels happy of a neighbor’s trouble, and does not think, that the same can happen to him one day".

Reasonable people understand that many of the negative features of a Siberian is not so much his natural essence, but rather a phenomenon caused by external conditions. M. Zagoskin, describing some of the life circumstances of Siberian peasants, in particular, their dependence on local authorities, wrote: “we can not but note the demoralizing impact that has on a person being treated as powerless, meek “cattle”; such treatment kills power, consciousness of human dignity and humiliates mentally not only a farmer but others even of higher social position, and leads to weakness of character, apathy and immorality. Peasants, moreover, can sink in premises and become drunkards. Accustomed to the fact that he is easily offended by a Gipsy, a tramp, and robbed by a Jewish publican, the peasant looks indifferently at his robbers, sometimes elected by himself, and pays them for all: for a guard, foreman, headman and the head ...”.

The view of the Decembrist N.V. Basargin is diametrically opposite to existing unflattering reviews of our Siberian ancestors: “The common people seemed much freer, bright, and even better educated than our Russian peasants, and especially landlords. He knew human dignity better, valued his rights more. Afterwards I happened to hear from those who had visited the United States and lived there for some time that the Siberians have a lot in common with the Americans in their manners, habits, and even way of life ".

Such a wide range of views about the features of the Siberians inspires to make an analysis, in which there is a place, as in most spheres of life, for contrast judgments in the antithesis of good and evil, and they both have the right to exist and have certain objectivity in relatively opposite viewpoints. “The truth is somewhere in between” – this thesis leads to search not only for the content of polar characteristics, but also their causes.

The negative attitude to the Siberians, in my opinion, was stimulated by the fact that among them the number of “out of the ordinary” people was much more than that of the population of Russia in general; they were abandoned by fate in this harsh region for two main reasons: 1) committing some crime or offense against public order, and as a result they were exiled to Siberia, or transmitted to its criminal dungeons; 2) the desire to get rich quickly in these harsh, but equally attractive in terms of career and good luck places.

Describing some features of the second category of such people, the writer Mikhail Alexandrov, who visited Irkutsk in 1827, wrote:

Yet we've got two things in Siberia –

Labor to corns and business account.

Everybody needs bread and dinging coins,

So why should curiosity come to any mind.

The merchant sits like an owl, by his counter

His wife drinks tea with godmother.

Bureaucratic class cares about a raise

And does not build a solid nest.

Here today and tomorrow behind the Urals,

He, who profited leaves as a general,

He, who could not, goes with his staff.

The newcomers “Varangians”, if they had enough money and (or) power, often opposed themselves to “indigenous” people, considering the latter to be backward provincials and losers. This point is reflected in the Polish researcher of the Baikal B. Dybovskiy’s essay about Irkutsk written in the 1860s: “The main style of the society came from Russian officials: they introduced all the features of their society to Siberia, and only rarely those were positive features of European society; they looked down on the Siberians, even with a certain tinge of contempt; this resulted in the feeling of hostility, envy, and sometimes even hatred on the part of Siberian people, and in many cases began this feeling started to develop into actions”.

Needless to say, that all sorts of “temporary” people often differed from others with their outwardly activity, exclusiveness, manners, habits and behavior, striking the eye of any inexperienced observer. Thanks to this group of people all the Siberians were judged in general as such. By the way, such individuals (including, respectively offspring reared by different taty (“thieves”) and varnaks (“hooligans”)) always dominated in the total mass of the Siberian folks in this or that sphere.

“Temporaries” (local called them poselga) existed at all times and among all peoples. But it was not them, after all, who ran the show in stable communities where people were accustomed to their land and understood its meaning for themselves and their descendants. History shows that in such communities healthy forces start eventually to outweigh, and those who want to live a normal life and have an indigenous potential, and who require the restoration of reasonableness in everything, including the relationship with nature.

Z. Freud and his followers (notably K. Jung and A. Adler) established a strong opinion about two the most important truths of human existence. First, it is impossible to truly understand a nation or group of related peoples without knowing their myths, legends, tales that carry information about their origin and spiritual foundation. Second, even nowadays myths live in the depth of the human soul, in psychology of ethnic group, erupting through particular deeds, behavior and actions of people.

In this regard, the Russian people can be deeply understood in its regional and ethnic variations, if we refer to their specific legends and deities. As for the “natural character” of the Russian people soul, there existed and still exist ancient Slavic deities that govern human interaction with the environment. Here are just some of them.

Yarylo is the god of sun and the god of sowing; and at the same time he is the god of male semen who symbolizes the successor of the family who cares about fertilizing nature (and human tribes as part of it). In honor of Yarilo in late April Yarilin happy holiday was held, they reeled khorovods (“circle dances”), baked figures of birds of flour.

Volkh is the name of god that comes from volokhaty ("hairy"), it was used as a synonym for bear, as to the latter a taboo was imposed. The holidays of bear awakening in spring (hence the whole of nature awakening) was held in March, 20 – 25 (Oilseed Week), people put on skins of bears and other animals. It is worth recalling that the similar “bear” festival existed in ancient Greece and was named komoeditsa (“comedy”, from the Greek comos “bear”).

Volos, or Veles is the “cattle god”, usually represented as a bull (the tour). He patronized hunters, designated the spirit of a killed animal, or the spirit of hunting prey. It was a tradition to leave on a compressed field “from the ears for Volos’s beard”, i.e., the Slavs believed that the ancestors, resting in the ground, also help them in everyday affairs. Thus, the cult of the cattle god somehow connected them with their ancestors and with the harvest. Herbs, flowers, shrubs, trees were called hair – volos – of the earth. Possibly, in a pragmatic way of such worship there is some recognition of the importance of animal excreta (animal dung) for soil fertility ( in Russian – navoz). In Christianity, Veles turned into Vlasy – the patron saint of animals.

Dozhdbog is one of the major gods of the eastern Slavs. The author of “The Lay of Igor's Warfare” refers to all the Russians as Dozhdbog’s grandchildren. This god gave the man all the most important (in space standards) things: the sun, heat, light, motion, etc.

Kashchei is the god of the Underworld; he represents calcification, numbness of all the nature from the cold in winter. Many characters of fairy tales turn on in stone, wood, ice and other state for some time, i.e. ossify. Then comes a hero – a beautiful girl, a good man (spring, sun), and the hero makes everyone come alive from his/her kiss (ray) or tears (eavesdrops).

Kolyada is the sun baby. This god was represented as a beautiful baby, captured by the evil witch Winter, who moulds it into a cub wolf. Only when the wolf skin is removed from him and burned in the fire (warm spring), then Kolyada will appear in all the splendor of his beauty. The Kolyada holiday was celebrated in winter Christamastime from December, 25 to January, 6 (Veles day). Costumed Kolyada “went from house to house, singing carols – songs glorifying Kolyada, giving benefits to all, demanded treats and gifts – bagels, pies, cakes – symbols of fertility. The round loaf (karavay), for example, was a symbol of fatness of the cow (Old Slavic is kravy).

Kupalo is a funny and beautiful god, dressed in light clothes, holding flowers and wild fruit. His feast day is one day of the summer solstice from the 22nd to 24th of June, the time of the highest point of nature creative forces development known to the Siberian peasants (especially Semeiskie) as Ivan-travnik (“herbalist”) or Ivan-koldovnik (“magician”). By this time Yarylo (or other deity of male seed) has fulfilled their mission, since grains thrown to the land have sprouted, given seedlings. Therefore Yarylo, Kupalo (kupa – “a bush, a sheaf of old plants and grass”) can and should die before next spring, so at the festivities in the night on June, 24, people burn their straw dolls. At dawn all participators of the celebration bathed in rivers in order to absolve themselves of evil sickness and disease. At night peasants also sought to protect their houses and cattle from the machinations of evil spirits: wizards, witches, and other satanic forces. In Kupala night, according to legends, there happen all sorts of wonders, and mysterious blossom of rare herbs: the gap-grass, ferns, etc., appeared fruit never seen before.

Those who are familiar with the folk traditions of the Siberian Russians, and participated in festivities (Epiphany, Shrovetide, Easter, Trinity), could see firsthand the persistence of these deities and myths in their obligatory, though sometimes hidden, presence in public festivities. It is impossible to imagine the life of Russian people in these harsh places without such events that could not but form gracious attitude to nature.

Speaking about the Russian old residents of the Baikal, I should dwell on the story of the Old Believers – Semeiskiy, some of them, as it will be shown later on, have settled on the shores of Lake Baikal. You can find some peculiarities of this ethnic group of the Great Russians in the memories of the Decembrist A.E. Rosen who, moving from Chita to Petrovsky Zavod in 1832, happened to drive through a villages of Old Believers, and left very flattering descriptions about their inhabitants. These stories were so thoughtfull and informative that N.A. Nekrasov used them in his poem "Grandpa", portraying life, manners and extreme diligence of the residents of one of the Semeiskiy’s villages – Tarbagatai. He devoted them these lines:

“Will and labor of a man
Delightful wonders work”.

It is necessary to show the Old Believers not only in connection with their ancient roots, uniqueness and originality, but also because for many, especially, strong and hardworking Siberian peasants, they were some kind of reference group, the values of which were honored, affairs and actions imitated.

In Siberia it was the Old Believers who are called Semeiskie, for secessionism and opposing to “Nikonian” church in the time of Anna Ioanovna reign in 1733 and Catherine the Great in 1767 they were sent to the harsh edges and moved there with their families, mostly from Dorogobuzh and Gomel. The Semeiskie were able to convert the once desolate places of Transbaikalie, turning them into the granary for many other Siberian regions with their perseverance, hard work and collectivism. When A. Rosen visited their villages and saw the fruits of their labor, he wrote: “The ground gives glorious wheat, whiteness of this flour is equal to Moscow and French rolls, and besides, I found a pleasant taste and smell of wheat there. Wealth and contentment of the villagers made me think that I see the hard-working Russians in America, rather than in Siberia: but in these places Siberia is not worse than America, the land is also free, fertile; the residents managed themselves, they openly selled their works, and they will be blessed, until stupid people interfere in their affairs, forgetting that the arranged community in continuation of the century understands its real benefit better than any outsiders” .

The Semeiskie were not only hard-working, and talented, but also as all Old Russians, fertile: women gave birth to 10 – 15, sometimes even 20 children. This was the reason why they subsequently spread not only in Transbaikalie, but also in the Amur region. The Semeiskie resettled on the Baikal shores by individual families and whole groups. Some of them, apparently, were isolated from their coreligionists after the riot in Bichura in 1869 and sent to the shores of Lake Baikal. A.M Stanilovskiy found in the village of Istok – Kotokelsky (now Baikalsly region of Buryatia), several families of Old Believers who had moved here from the village of Zhirim (now Tarbagataiskiy region of Buryatia) in 1905.

One more reason to speak about the Baikal Semeiskie is that in their mentality they carried ancestral Old Russian positions and views on the essence of interaction between humans and the environment. The Old Believers' relationship to nature, related to ancient pagan beliefs, can be called unique and grace-filled. Their environmental traditions, many religious holidays have always been associated with the homage of nature, its flora and fauna. Here is just one example, describing the day of Ivan Kupala-Travnik (June, 24), that is associated with a lot of superstitions, magic agrarian rituals of producing value. “The highest bloom of nature and its signs are the blooming fern, plenty of ants, the grass under the dew – a farmer tries to use all these signs in a right way to become rich; he uncovers treasures with the help of a fern flower; to increase fertility and abundance of animals he scatters and throws flocks of ants to coops, barns, using a usual magic method as “resemblance is called by resemblance”.

You can say that the “natural” Old Believer’s mentality, mixed with “pagan” attitude to all life was largely opposed to the Christian –indifferent or even conquest – attitude to flora and fauna; to the vow of Christ to people: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, scaring all animals and all birds, everything that moves upon the earth, and all the fish of the sea that are in your hand; every moving thing that live should be food for you; I give you all, and the green herb... ".

The Old Believer, as the Old Russian man, being mainly a farmer and pastoralist, did not try to dominate over nature; he builds his being in its natural laws. Even actively processing and transforming the land, he sought to draw over all of its external powers, establish the good and fight with the bad on it.

In this aspect it is interesting to mention that the Old Believers’ rules towards the world around were defined by special relationships of people and fauna as well as flora. Just like people, who are divided into insiders and outsiders, flora and fauna are divided into “clean” and “unclean” for the Old Believers. Thus the water purity depends on its source. Running water from a river is the purest because it is cleaned by natural mechanism and it contains abstergent elements. According to the legend, every morning God sends his angels down to the river the water of which Christians drink to make it pure. And this water is used to drink, to do household and to carry any religious ceremony together with other purifiers (like candles). The water from wells and springs can be used only for household after additional purification ceremony (prayer) and if there is no running water nearby. The water from slack springs such as a pond, or lake is regarded unclean for two reasons. Firstly, harmful organisms flock in flock water. Secondly, flock water is a favorite place for demons whose aim is to harm the human body. Animals can drink such water, but people never use it, even for household purposes. Moreover if you bring such water into the chapel, then you should carry out the purification ceremony of the icons.

Another part of nature that also has a symbolic connotation is plants and plant products. Most plants, including poisonous, are considered “clean”, they do no harm to religious rituals. The exception is hop, tea, coffee and tobacco. All the “unclean” plants have two distinguishing features. The first one is that they are considered alcoholic, because they can influence human behavior. The second one is that their origin and penetration into the Christian world was recorded in religious writings. According to these myths, Satan envied God and tempted followers of God by smoking and drinking to blunt their minds and weaken them physically. The first victims were the Arabs and Turks, then the Greeks. The tobacco is considered the dirtiest out of all intoxicants.

Like plants, all animals, birds and fish are divided into “unclean" and "clean" and, accordingly, edible and inedible. The dog takes the lowest layer in the classification of animals according to the cleanness; it is the most unclean and polluting animal. It is never allowed to enter the house and is rarely touched. One of the reasons for its impropriety is its being carnivore, it is a carrier of diseases and the most “rotten” animal. This group includes all the carnivores that have “dog legs”, such as bears, tigers, cats and mice. Cats end a series of “unclean” animals; they are allowed to enter the house and to be presented to children.

In fact, the rules are flexible and dynamic; they may vary according to the needs and interests of the individual as well as the changes of everyday lifestyle. For example, many rules of modern Old Believers toward nature were reviewed. Today youth do not consider the dog a nasty animal, children play with it, and if it enters the house, the purification ceremony is not carried out. All Semeiskie of the Baikal region drink tea and coffee, many of them are smokers.

Specifying the story of the Baikal Semeyskie it is with quoting the evidence of A.M. Stanislavsky about their moving to Lake Kotokel: “New settlers are addicted to freedom of the new place, they speak with enthusiasm about cranberries and bilberries that grow right here near their windows, and that say that they found these berries in the moss that they used to calk new houses with, that there is much of the forest that they can cut for a tillage; they were dreaming that in spring they would plow the land that is quite good for agriculture, in spite of the assurance of local Siberians it is not. In a word there is feeling that they, exhausted in “limited places”, searching for a better life, will be wonderful enlighteners, cheerful guides of the next stage of mankind’s cultural life” (297, p. 88). We should say that “the forecast” of Stanilovsky he provided in 1905, came true in the coming years.

The Baikal Semeiskie concerned much about the Russian folklore, kept it in folk culture and often used its pieces in their daily life.

As a wonderful example of it I can provide puzzles of Semeiskie from Istok village about nature, climate and people.

  • How deep and deep is Arina covered by only one board (the Baikal in winter).

  • It is neither a sea, nor a land; ships do not go and people do not walk (swamp).

  • I am driving over and over, but there are no tracks. I’m cutting over and over but there is no blood (a boat on the water).

  • No legs, no arms but can open the door (weather).

  • There is pitchfork, there is a barrel on the pitchfork, there is a hillock on the barrel, there is grass on the hillock, and there are animals in the grass (a human being).

See also


  1. A.D. Karnyshev "The Many Faces of Multilingual and Mysterious Baikal"© BSU Publishing House, 2011

Выходные данные материала:

Жанр материала: English | Автор(ы): Karnyshev A.D. | Источник(и): The Many Faces of Multilingual and Mysterious Baikal. Ulan-Ude. 2012 | Дата публикации оригинала (хрестоматии): 2011 | Дата последней редакции в Иркипедии: 30 марта 2015

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Тематический указатель: Irkipedia English