Anthropology Friday: Old Believers, Buryats, and the Russian Far East

Georg Adolf Erman

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (vol. 2.,) published in 1848 (though the journey itself took place around 1829.) For the past few chapters he has been traveling through the more Russian part of the region, which is of course of considerably less interest from the anthropological point of view, but the following bit attracted my attention.

First, a little necessary background: Erman is a German scientist who, along with several others, has been hired by the Norwegian government to measure the magnitude of magnetic lines across Russia. Doubtless he also has the support of the Russian government, but I don’t really know the details because that was covered back in Volume 1, which I haven’t read. Erman and his crew travel from yurt to yurt or town to town, staying with the locals and hiring new animals as needed. When in town, the local authorities assigned some villager to house him for the night, the occasion which begins our vignette:

“The house assigned to us was upon this height, and, though of an antiquated character, was still in a better style than any we had yet seen in Siberia. It consisted of two stories, the upper of which was reached by a broad, ill-lighted staircase, with many turnings, and within the house. …

“The knowledge of the fact of our being lodged with a family of bigoted schismatics, was forced upon me in a manner not the most agreeable, by their refusing to supply us with any other than broken and unserviceable utensils for our table or cooking. They had been persuaded that we were foreign infidels, with whom all intercourse was forbidden to the faithful. I was consequently obliged to open negotiations with the roaster of the house, a man advanced in years, and, though subdued by excessive mortification, of unusually large and powerful frame. He assured me that, not only the Mohammedan Tatars, but even the Jews, were considered more of a Christian people than the Germans; for the former would, both of them, observe a fast or abstain from particular meats, whereas the latter indulged in any abomination at any season. He likewise expressed the annoyance he felt at my keeping such an unclean and accursed animal as a dog in my chamber.”

EvX: I assume the Schismatic here is an Old Believer:

In Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers, more accurately Old Ritualists … separated after 1666 from the official Russian Orthodox Church as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. Old Believers continue liturgical practices that the Russian Orthodox Church had maintained before the implementation of these reforms.

Russian speakers refer to the schism itself as raskol (Russian: раскол), etymologically indicating a “cleaving-apart.”

The proposed changes were, by modern standards, quite slight, but the Old Believers were having none of it.

Opponents of the ecclesiastical reforms of Nikon emerged among all strata of the people and in relatively large numbers (see Raskol). … The Old Believers fiercely rejected all innovations, and the most radical amongst them maintained that the official Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist. Under the guidance of Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620 or 1621 to 1682), who had become the leader of the Old Believers’ movement, the Old Believers publicly denounced and rejected all ecclesiastical reforms. The State church anathematized both the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them at the synod of 1666. From that moment, the Old Believers officially lacked all civil rights. The State had the most active Old Believers arrested, and executed several of them (including Archpriest Avvakum) some years later in 1682. …

After 1685, a period of persecutions began, including both torture and executions. Many Old Believers fled Russia altogether, particularly for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where the community exists to this day. Old Believers became the dominant denomination in many regions, including the Pomors of the Russian Far North, in the Kursk region, in the Ural Mountains, in Siberia and in the Russian Far East. The 40,000-strong community of Lipovans still lives in neighboring Kiliya Raion (Vylkove) of Ukraine and Tulcea County of Romania in the Danube Delta. By the 1910s, in the last Imperial Russian census just before the October Revolution, approximately ten percent of the population of the Russian Empire said that they belonged to one of the Old Believer branches (census data).[citation needed]

In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II signed an act of religious freedom that ended the persecution of all religious minorities in Russia. The Old Believers gained the right to build churches, to ring church bells, to hold processions and to organize themselves. … People often refer to the period from 1905 until 1917 as “the Golden Age of the Old Faith”.

Small hidden communities have been found in the Russian Far North (specifically remote areas of Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Komi Republic) and various regions of Siberia, especially concentrated in the areas between the Altai Mountains and Tuva Republic. Perhaps the highest concentration of older established Old Believer communities, with foundations dating back hundreds of years, can be found concentrated in Eastern Siberia, specifically the Transbaikal region in desolate areas of Buryatia and Zabaykalsky Krai. Others, like the Lykov family, fled later into the wild to avoid Communist persecution.

The Lykov Family is interesting in its own right:

The Lykov family (Russian: Лыков) was a Russian family of Old Believers.[1] The family of six is known for spending 42 years in complete isolation from human society in an otherwise uninhabited upland of Abakan Range, in Tashtypsky District of Khakassia (southern Siberia). Since 1988, only one daughter, Agafia, survives.

Back to Erman and the Tunguzes (AKA Tunguses):

“The marriage tie is considered indissoluble by the northern Tunguzes, and, though they allow a plurality of wives, these are generally treated with kindness and affection; though it is usual to resign one of them to the Russian adventurers who visit the tundras in the summer, from whom they expect a share of the proceeds of their hunting excursions in return. …

“In addition to the fragments of weapons, mining-tools and trinkets already described by Spaskyi and others, we were
here shown a number of circular metallic discs, of four or six inches diameter, one surface of which was polished for a mirror, while the opposite side was uniformly furnished with a sort of button, having a hole drilled through it, and which was evidently intended for a handle. The exterior rim surrounding this button was ornamented with elegant figures in relief, which, as well as on the other articles, were almost always representations of animals. I was much surprised at never seeing among these the argali, or wild sheep, which is so constantly found upon the monumental relics of the Nomadic Siberian tribes; whereas the ass, which is in such universal request in the southern adjacent
countries, occurred in almost every compartment. The most important consideration, however, is, that these mirrors are found in graves which, as the present Tatar inhabitants of the circle maintain, belong to a race now extinct, and totally different from theirs. Now, we know that mirrors, precisely similar to these, are still in use among the Buraets in their religious ceremonies, and that they are peculiar to the ritual of the Buddhists ; and they thereby furnish another argument for the antiquity and extended influence of this remarkable creed.”

EvX: A quick search for “Russian burial mound mirror” returned this beauty:

Silver mirror with gilded and embossed decoration. Image: Leonid Yablonsky

According to the article, “Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian life“:

A Sarmatian burial mound excavated this summer in Russia’s Southern Ural steppes has yielded a magnificent but unusual treasure.

The artefacts contained within the mound are helping to shed light on a little-known period of the nomadic culture that flourished on the Eurasian steppe in the 1st millennium BC. …

The kurgans which are scattered across the steppes contain many Scythian and Sarmatian relics and while the nomads successfully interacted with the Persian Achaemenid and Greek civilizations, they still preserved a unique culture of their own. …

An underground passage near the entrance was the first area of exploration this season. A massive cast bronze cauldron with a diameter of 102 cm was discovered there. Its handles were fashioned in the traditions of the Scythian-Siberian animal style with an image of two griffins, beak to beak. …

A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.

Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.

Recall our conversation last week on the subject of griffins. [Spelling note: A griffon is a type of dog.] Also, the Wikipedia page on Sarmatians, an historical confederation of Iranian peoples.

Moving on, the tale of a banished soldier from Napoleon’s Army:

“[We] drove on to the village of Torgashino, on the right bank of the Yenisei, to visit some springs there also. Our postillion’s inquiry, whether we wished to stop at the porcelain manufactory, was a suggestion so unexpected, that my curiosity was excited to enter a small wooden house, the master of which addressed me in a foreign accent. I soon learned that he was an Italian, named Antonio Fornarini, a native of Ancona, who had followed the colours of Napoleon into Russia. He had settled at first, along with other prisoners of war, in Little Russia, but having engaged in some revolutionary attempts there, had been banished first to the government of Kasan, and subsequently to Krasnoyarsk. Here his thoughts were directed, by the mountainous character of the neighbourhood, to seek for the available productions of his native land; and thus he discovered, after a tedious search, a variety of clay, near Yeniseisk, applicable to the manufacture of china and earthenware. Many specimens of his skill were afterwards shown me in the city…

“I may here add, that I encountered a Frenchman the next day, in Krasnoyarsk, who had belonged to the old guard, and who was now steward of the household to the governor. He, too, had married a Siberian wife, and assured me that he had no desire to return to his native country, where he had been nearly forgotten, he supposed.”

On the Warmth of Ostyak Clothing:

“Professor Hansteen, whom I overtook here, had passed through Nijnei Udinsk the day before, and from him I first learned that the cold of the preceding night had been more severe than any we had previously experienced in Siberia. Some quicksilver, which he had used in making an observation with his sextant, had frozen in a shallow saucer just under his window, and was found so in the morning. I had been so completely protected by my Ostyak dress, and a piece of voilok which I had thrown over the open part of my sledge, that I had never felt this excessive cold. …

The Selengyin Buryats, (c. 1900)

In Irkutsk (Buryats):

“Our vicinity to the Celestial Empire could hardly be forgotten in presence of the Buraets, who are closely allied to the natives of the northern provinces of China in language and customs, and by whose victorious ancestors many usages were imposed upon their southern neighbours, which are now supposed exclusively characteristic of the Chinese. Numbers of them came down to the city every day from the mountains. Their winter traffic is in hay, or peltry obtained with the bow. They brought the hay in wagons drawn by oxen, which I had never seen in Siberia before. Many came on horseback. They wear their hair in a long tuft, partly covered with a hat made of black sheep-skin running- into a cone above the head, and having long flaps of the same material, which they can draw over the sides and back of the head. The mantle of the poorer sort is also of skins, with the hair inwards; but the richer and more respectable class always wear it of cloth, but similar in fashion. It is a sort of cloak with sleeves, the two front parts of which wrap one over the other on the breast, so that the upper flap lies on the left shoulder. The edges of this wrapper, as well as the shoulders and back, are always faced with fur or stripes of red cloth, which gives an appearance of civilization and even elegance to the poorest. Every one carries his smoking apparatus at his girdle, and his tea-cup projecting under the breast of his jerkin.”

Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The Buryats… numbering approximately 500,000, are the largest indigenous group in Siberia, mainly concentrated in their homeland, the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia. They are the major northern subgroup of the Mongols.[4]

Buryats share many customs with other Mongols, including nomadic herding, and erecting gers for shelter. Today, the majority of Buryats live in and around Ulan-Ude, the capital of the republic, although many live more traditionally in the countryside. …

The Buryat people are descended from various Siberian and Mongol peoples that inhabited the Lake Baikal Region including Kurykans, who are also the ancestors of the Siberian Turkic Yakuts. Then in the 13th century the Mongolians came up and subjugated the various Buryat tribes (Bulgachin, Kheremchin) around Lake Baikal. The name “Buriyad” is mentioned as one of the forest people for the first time in The Secret History of the Mongols (possibly 1240).[6] It says Jochi, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, marched north to subjugate the Buryats in 1207.[7] The Buryats lived along the Angara River and its tributaries at this time. …

The historical roots of the Buryat culture are related to the Mongolic peoples. After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions – Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more “russified”, and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha, may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built.

Traditional wooden Buryat hut/yurt

“In spite of the climate, the flora of Irkutsk is richer than that of Berlin, exhibiting the plants of warmer countries intermixed with those of the arctic regions. … The same holds good with regard to the fauna of the Transbaikalian districts. We see the Tunguze, mounted on his reindeer, passing the Buraet with his camel, and discover the tigers of China in the forests where the bear is taking its winter sleep. …

“Just at the outskirts of the town we fell in with the encampment of a Buraet family, where we had our first opportunity of gathering some particulars of the mode of life and habits of this remarkable race. Their dwelling consisted of two conical tents upon a level plot of ground, and en-
closed with a wooden paling, to prevent the horses from straying. The rest of their cattle were, as usual, left to pasture upon the neighbouring steppe : there the cows, sheep, horses, and camels, which compose the possession of the Buraets of Seknginsk, find a certain, though scanty, subsistence through the winter. Their tents, like those of the Sämoyedes, were constructed with poles meeting together at top, and encompassing a circular space below. Their felt tent-clothes, which supplied the place of the Obdorsk deer-skins, were, like them, doubled, but the Suraets arrange their tent-poles at a much greater angle above than the Samoyedes. …

“The Buraets, in this quarter, have lived in fixed habitations … from time immemorial. They possess large herds of cattle; but for their food they use mare’s milk. They make hay in the valleys, and hunt the fur animals for their own use, and for trade also; for we met them frequently on the road, with sledges drawn by oxen, on which they were carrying their hay to Irkutsk. The men carried bows, which were much smaller than those of the Ostyaks, yet may possibly be quite as effective ; for instead of the hard wood in the middle, the bows here were lined with handsomely polished plates of cow’s horn. …

source: Guide to Buryatia, Russia

“The men had their hair, which they let grow upon the crown of the head, plaited into a long queue that hung quite down their backs. The rest of the head was cut close, but not shaved, as among the Tatars. The complete removal of the hair is distinctive of the priesthood. The head-dress of the women was extravagantly rich. They wore their hair in two thick braids, which fell from the temples below the shoulders; besides which they bind a fillet round their foreheads studded with beads of mother of pearl or Uraliaa malachite, and enriched with roundish pieces of polished coral. The unmarried girls interweave their braids with strings of the same costly materials. The beauty of the females is well deserving of such ornaments. Their eyes are lively and impressive, and their cheeks, notwithstanding the darkness of their skin, are tinged with a ruddy hue. A dress, fitting closely to the person, displays the symmetry of their delicate figures, and most of those whom we encountered seemed to be above the middle size.

Pandito Hambo-Lama Damba Ajushchev, the Buddhist fellow on the left, is the head of Russia’s Buddhists and lives in Buryatia. He is standing with Muhammad Rachimov, Talgat Tadschuddin, Cyril I, Berel Lazar – together with Vladimir Putin on the Day of Unity (2012) in front of the Minin and Poscharski monument in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow. (Note this was partly translated via Google so I apologize if part of it is garbled.)

“The inside of their houses displays a whimsical association of civilization and rudeness. The fire-place is nothing more than a hole dug in the middle of the apartment, with the felt-mats and cushions on which they sleep ranged round it. We had already seen some specimens of their metal ornaments in Irkutsk. Their implements for striking fire are deservedly preferred to the European, and bear a high price among the Russians. … We often remarked the steel work of their riding gear and other articles of furniture, so beautifully engraved, and so firmly, and cleverly inlaid with plates of copper and silver, as to rival the execution of the artists of Tula, I may here mention, among other samples of their workmanship, a pipe, which had been executed in the steppe, and which could hardly be turned out more elegantly finished from any workshop in Europe. It was only about a foot long, which is the usual size here, and had an exceedingly small bowl; which, as well as the stem itself, was wholly of silver. Both of those portions were adorned with reliefs, and inlaid with red coral, while the stem was in two parts closing so neatly with a sort of hinge, that the junction along the bore was sufficiently air-tight. The only Chinese articles we saw with them were tea-cups and bowls of varnished wood, which are capable of resisting the action of boiling water.

“An object which from religious associations seemed more deserving our attention, was a sort of altar which stood against the wall of the tent opposite the door. It was a kind of double chest, carefully finished, the lower portion of which was about four feet long, … The hinder sides of both were precisely in a line, so that the greater breadth of the lower chest left it to project beyond the other, and form a sort of table in front. Several drawers were contained in the lower chest, in which all the requisites for the performance of religious worship were deposited during journeys.
A highly coloured painting hung down upon the front of the upper compartment and concealed it entirely. It was a representation of Chigemune, the principal burkhan or saint of the Mongols, sitting as if engaged in prayer with his legs drawn under him. Upon the table before this figure, six round bronze cups of about an inch in diameter were ranged at equal distances; they were filled with water, and a mirror, also round, and of the same metal, lay among them. This apparatus is used by the lamas or priests for a purpose which is compared by the Russians to the consecration of water according to the Greek rite, but it is more probably a symbol of the transmission of spiritual endowments. The figure of the burkhan is held opposite to the mirror, a stream of water being at the same time poured over it into the little dishes, which in this manner receive the image of the divinity along with the water. The discovery of similar mirrors in the Kurgans or strangers’ graves, in the circle of Minusink, has been already noticed.”

That’s all for today; see you next week!