On the Traces of Khanty People, Reindeers, Wolga Germans and Soviet Champions: Part 2 Khanty Mansiysk

On the Traces of Khanty People, Reindeers, Wolga Germans and Soviet Champions: Part 2 Khanty Mansiysk

Nights are short in Siberia. After a bus trip through infinite forests we arrived at Khanty-Mansiysk at 11 pm, but the sky reminded us rather of a sunrise in springtime. Feeling like the night is still young, we headed for a drink to the Dusha Sibirij, („The soul of Siberia“), walking through a tiny settlement of abandoned buildings and pitoresc wooden houses. The pub itself was quite an experience, but getting out of the dark pub at 2 am, stepping into clearest daylight, definitely topped it.

Still, (almost) fresh and fit, we hit the road early in the morning and got some first impressions about the city. Khanty-Mansiysk owes its name to two indigenous populations (who earlier used to be referred to as Ostjanova-Gul‘ks) Khanty and Mansi, who both lived West of the Ural and settled to their current location in Western Siberia in 500AD.

The origins of the city reach back to 1637: at that time the old part, Samarova, was founded as a horse station between Tobolsk, Surgut and Berjosowa, while the new part, Perekova (meaning „re-education“), was built during the 19th century. This work was carried out by exiled criminals at first, and by political prisoners and kulaks during the 1930s. By the way: even Lev Trotsky dropped by here, when escaping on his way to the prison of Tomsk from Obdorska…. on a reindeer! (just in time to head to the USA and then come back to Russia again to join the Revolution).

The settlers developed huge collective farms, the so called Kolkhozy, replaced later by a flourishing fish industry, which played a key role for the food supply of the country during the WWII. The first oil extraction sites in the 60s radically and permanently changed the character of the city, which quickly became one of the richest of the country.

As the imposant fountain in the park of the Victory poetically taught us, the city is located „where the great, mighty Ob marries the Irtysh river“, and plenty of wild animals live in the region. In fact, not just bears and timeless forests are at home in Siberia: A park with imponent sculptures of local animals recalls an archeological site not far from the city where even mammuth bones have been found.

The Star, dominating the whole region from the highest point of the city

The Star, an eclectic monument for the foundation of the Khanty-Mansiysk on top of the highest hill delights us not only an amazing view on the region. It also offers a brief excursus about the history of the city and its people, showing in a relief the Khanty fishing and hunting, their conflict with the Cossacks resulting in the annexation of the region to Russia, and the new era opened by the discovering of oil in the 60s. The time of the hard repressions and forced resettlements of people from all over the Soviet Union, especially during the Stalinist era, remains, however, an untold story here.

We got the chance to hear more about that time during our visit to the Yugra University, where Dr. Alexandr Ivanov joined our group after giving a presentation about the tragic fate of the Kalmyks, whose ancestors migrated from Dzungaria (today’s China) in 1607. After being caught between the changing German and Soviet fronts, the Soviets in December 1943 decided to collective punish the entire Kalmyk population and to deport them to Siberia and Central Asia. About 100.000 were brought under harsh conditions to Siberia.

A visit to the archive of the city with a presentation about the Wolga Germans’ deportation to Khanty-Mansiysk in 1942 and a meeting with the local Russian-German association were followed by a visit to deported (Wolga) Germans in small groups. The old ladies (no male) opened their homes for intense conversations about their experiences and their point of view on Russian contemporary history. Some faced the Leningrad siege, some were from other parts of the country, but they all had in common their hospitality and wish to remember their past and share it with us as a younger generation.

Our next day was dedicated to the local Human and Nature Museum. An exhibition about the forced resettlements in the region provided an interesting perspective about the fate of thousands of innocent people, which mostly barely knew the reasons of their deportation and, even after, still kept trusting their leader, as a handycrafted stitched portrait of Stalin shows. A virtual museum shows a rich collection of materials about the topic and provides an interactive approach to numerous different sources, documenting the personal stories of many contemporary witnesses.

Visiting the large exhibition about the life and traditions of the Khanty population added a valuable perspective to our meeting with two Khanty families: Prof. Tatyana Moldanova told us about the Khantys rebellion of Kazym against the soviet authorities in 1933. Her husband, the Khanty folklorist Timofei Moldanov, and a second family from Surgut also contributed sharing with us their experiences, traditions and their opinions about the future of the Khanty people.

After that touching exchange, some of us visited the local ethnographic museum, which offers lots of information about the traditional way of life of the indigenous peoples. Others walked through the city keeping an eye on forms of remembering the Great Patriotic War and visited among others the House of Chess, the old port and the biathlon stadion, on the traces of Soviet champions and hungry chipmunks.

Some of us joined the Khanty families we’ve talked with in the morning for dinner. We experienced their great hospitality, but also heard some more stories about their everyday life, their traditions and their history, and spent an evening we will definitely never forget.

The fact that just two days could provide so many intense experiences at once made for a strong connection within the group, and many more unconventional adventures were waiting for us in the next days. Therefore… Keep on following us!

This article was published as part of IFAIR’s ‘Memory as a tool of change – Forgotten Places in Siberia’ Impact Group.

© Picture: Giulia Manca