Tribes and Dialects
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Russian chronicles did not differentiate between the Ob-Ugric peoples until the 20th century. The Zyryan-Komi designation jögra 'Khant' became jugra in the chronicles, including also the Mansis. The first reference to the Jugra people is by G. Rogovich from Novgorod and dates from 1096. The first time the Khants were mentioned separately in written records was in 1572, and they were then referred to as the Ostyaks.
Habitat. The Khants live in north-west Siberia in the Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Districts that are located in the Tyumen region of the Russian Federation. Their location is to the east of the Mansis in the Ob-Irtysh river basins, stretching for 1,500 kilometres from the Vasyugan, a tributary of the Ob, to the Ob's estuary. The Khant villages are mainly situated in the river valleys (Vakh, Kazym, Agan, Salym, Yugan and others), the northernmost reaching the estuary of the River Ob where it flows into the Arctic Ocean. The Khants inhabit a region of vast swamps; the Vasyugan Marsh covering 54,000 square kilometres, for example, is larger than the territory of the Estonian Republic.
Population. The results of censuses give the number of Khants as follows:
The Khant population has remained relatively stable but the consistent decline in the use of their mother tongue indicates a process of transition to the Russian language. The census figures are, however, a little misleading as they do not give any idea of the percentage the Khants formed of the total populations. In the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District the total number of inhabitants has increased eleven times during the last fifty years, while the percentage of the Khants among the population has constantly decreased (9.2 % in the 1959 but only 1.8 % in 1989). The resettlement caused by the developing oil and gas industries has scattered the Khants, and industrial activities and thriving migration have dangerously saturated and polluted both the physical and mental living space of the Khants.
Anthropologically, the Khants are representatives of the Uralic race. Over half of their racial characteristics are predominantly Mongoloid (particularly in the Beryozovo region). They are short (the average height for men is 158 cm and for women 146 cm), and their broad-shouldered stocky trunk has a characteristic convexity. They have narrow eyes and high cheek-bones and their eyes and hair are dark.
The language of the Khants is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, comprising together with the Mansi and Hungarian languages the Ugric language group, and together with the Mansi language the Ob-Ugric subgroup. For the Khants, the Mansi language is the nearest kindred language. The Khants and Mansi languages began to branch off from their common Ob-Ugric proto-language in the 13th century, approximately.
Due to the vast area and sparse population, the Khant language divides into numerous dialects. The two main dialect groups are the western and the eastern dialects. The western dialect group consists of a) the Obdorsk dialect, b) the dialect on the River Ob and c) the dialect on the River Irtysh; the eastern dialect group is divided into a) Surgut and b) Vakh-Vasyugan dialects. There are 13 vernaculars. The differences between these dialects are noticeable and they hamper communication.
Language contacts. About 30--40 % of the root words in the Ob-Ugric languages are common. As a result of different linguistic contacts the Khant language has gained abundant loan-words from the Zyryan-Komi (about 350), Tatar (about 200), Nenets, and Russian languages. The first Russian words were borrowed before the 20th century and they have been fully assimilated. Recent Russian loan-words have, more or less, retained their original form because of the now common bilingualism among the Khants. The influx of these in the language is limitless.
History. During the first millenium AD the ancestors of the Ob-Ugric people left the regions of the Rivers Pechora and Vychegda, crossed the Ural mountains and reached the banks of the lower Ob in northwest Siberia. Two phratries, the Mos and the Por, inhabited the northern territories. It has been suggested that the Por were an ancient local people that later became assimilated by the Mor (assembled Khant, Mansi and Hungarian tribes). It is assumed that the Khants and the Mansis separated during the 13th century when the Khants moved eastwards. The separation of the Ugric peoples and dissolution of their clan system was accelerated by the military interests of the Russians and Tatars in these territories and their natural resources. Records from the year 1265 show that jugra, the land of the Ugric peoples, was a tributary to Novgorod. Military expeditions by Novgorod (for example, those mentioned in the chronicls of 1323, 1329, 1364) and later by the Muscovites followed. A more severe expedition by the Russians took place in 1483 and their territorial influence expanded even further in 1499. Ivan III demanded the unconditioned recognition of Moscow's supremacy. Even though the Khants had retreated to the east without offering much resistance they were still not left alone. They had to pay taxes both to the Russians and to the Tatars, as the Tatar khan Kuchum declared himself the Emperor of Siberia, in 1563. The Khant tribes lived and fought under the leadership of their elders (though it must be said, preferring retreat to fighting). It is known that in the 16th century the territory in the middle reaches of the River Ob belonged to the Samar (hence the name of the settlement Samarovo, the present Khanty-Mansiysk), the lands of the lower Ob belonged to the Alach, and the Surgut region to the Partak and Halanok. When the Russians defeated the Tatars in 1582 they also started to strengthen their power over the Khants' lands. A succesion of fortress towns were built: Tyumen in 1585, Tobolsk in 1587, Surgut in 1593, Obdorsk (later Salechard) in 1595, and others. The Khant elders managed to retain their position and began to collect tribute from their subordinates. Gradual Christianization continued. The Khants have officially been regarded as Christians since the year 1715 after the extensive baptisms of monk Fyodor. Nevertheless, shamanism and animism have persisted, even to this day. The Khants were also economically subjugated. With the help of liquor the Khants were commercially exploited by traders eager for cheap furs. The predatory policy of Russian merchants and officials was so efficient that by the end of the 19th century the Khants, harassed by economic difficulties, were broken and close to ruin. The colonizers had seized their best lands as well as their incomes, and had brought along dangerous diseases and destructive habits (liquor being the biggest curse). It was commonly thought that the Khants would survive for no more than a couple of decades.
The arrival of Soviet power was accompanied by great promises and expectations for the Khants and other northern peoples. In 1925 a Northern Committee was founded in Tobolsk with the intention of leading the Khants, Mansis and Nenets along the road of progress. In 1930 the Ostyak-Vogul National District (renamed in 1940 the Khanty-Mansi National District) was formed. This new life was no less disturbing to the Khants, causing only fear and bewilderment. The establishment of collective farms followed accompanied by severe repressions. By attacking the traditions of the people the new ideology incited the persecution of shamans and the destruction of sacred groves and burial grounds. Khant children were forcibly removed to boarding schools. The largest outburst of resistance, led by the elders, became known as the Kazym rebellion. The opposition was ferociously suppressed by the army; Khant villages were burnt and much of that connected with the culture of the Khants was destroyed altogether. Cultural centres and 'red tents' were built to propagate the Soviet way of life and its accompanying customs. From then on, anyone who took part in the customary bear funeral rites could be subject to ten years' imprisonment. Bear hunting was also forbidden.
In the 1950s and 60s vast gas and oil reserves were discovered in western Siberia. The Khants, hardly recovered from the blows of Stalinism, now found themselves at the mercy of technocrats. The piratic economy has been ruthless and greedy. Oil has polluted pastures and waters once filled with fish, the gas and oil lines have blocked the paths of the reindeer, wildfires have destroyed forests. Still, every year 20,000--25,000 tons of oil pollutes the soil, spilled in technical failures (at least one accident every three days). 50 % of the natural gas is simply consumed in senseless burning brands. Industrial pollution reduces the fishing grounds by about 10,000 hectares every year. In the district of Nizhnevartovsk alone a fire destroyed 260,000 hectares of forest in 1989. At the same time there has been an explosive increase in population (mainly due to urban migration). In 1969, 289,000 inhabitants lived in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District, by 1979 the number of inhabitants was already 596,000 and in 1989, 1,268,000 (a growth of one million in 20 years). The frailty of the northern biosphere and its resources has been totally ignored.
The overwhelming pressures of industry and alien ways of life have cast doubt on the further existence of the Khants as a nation. As early as the 19th century, M. A. Castrén and K. F. Karjalainen were recommending that the Khants should be educated in a native spirit and in native surroundings, teaching them to respect their people and customs. In fact, the authorities have "developed and raised" the level of the Khant's economic and cultural life but taking into consideration only the authorities' own needs. This has deprived the Khants of any self-confidence of determination and furthered their decline.
Economic, cultural and linguistic discrimination of the Khants has taken the form of public harassment. They are referred to as dogs, and derisive remarks are made about their dark skin. They are not allowed to work in the mines in case "they break something" or "earn too much". The rapid regression in the living conditions of the Khants is reflected in the decline of industry and in heavy drinking which has an all too common tendency to lead to suicide (Cf. the Mansis).
Writing. An attempt to create a written language for the Khants was first made in the 19th century. The Gospel according to Matthew, translated by P. Vologodsky, was the first publication to appear, in 1897 in London. Primers initiated by clerics were published in 1897 in the Obdorsk dialect (the author being I. Yegorob) and in 1903, in the Vakh dialect (F. Tveritin). These were followed by a number of clerical editions but due to general illiteracy they were never widespread. A more consistent attempt to create a literary language was made in the 1930s. This time it was part of the campaign against illiteracy and was accompanied by ideological brainwashing. Preparations began at the end of the 1920s at the Institute of Nothern Peoples in Leningrad. New primers appeared (P. Khatanzeyev's Hanti kniga in the Obdorsk dialect in 1931; in 1933 Hant bukvar in the Kazym dialect) and thereafter the Kazym dialect became the basis of the written language. About 30 titles were published in the 1930s. The Khant alphabet was designed using Latin characters with some additional symbols added to designate special phonemes. In 1937 it was replaced by the Russian alphabet. The reduction of the number of the characters and simplification of the alphabet were regarded as a considerable achivement but at once difficulties in expressing the accurate phonemes in written form appeared. In 1940 a new literary language was created on the basis of the Central-Ob vernacular and in 1950 another attempt was made combining the Surgut dialect and the Vakh and Shuryshkar vernaculars. Thus, five written languages have been created for 20,000 Khants, while three of these were based on three vernaculars spoken by the River Ob.
At present the Khants are educated in Russian, learning their mother tongue only in preparatory classes. Some fiction, textbooks and political literature have been published in the Khant language. The first native poet was D. Lazarev (b. 1917); M. Shulgin (1940), P. Saltykov (1934), R. Rugin (1939) and others are among the best known.
Research. The first words and text fragments appeared in N. Witsen's work Noord en Oost Tartarye (Amsterdam, 1692). The next publication of considerable importance is J. Ph. Strahlenberg's Das nord-und östliche Theil von Europa und Asia (Stockholm, 1730) where, for the first time, the Khant language was placed among the Finno-Ugric languages. Examples from the different dialects of the language can be found in P. S. Pallas's comparative dictionary (1787--89). Academic research on the Khant language was begun by the Hungarian, Antal Reguly, and the Finnish linguist, M. A. Castrén -- a grammatical survey and a dictionary (Versuch einer ostjakischen Sprachlehre, 1849) were published by the latter. The northern dialects of the Khant language have been studied by a Hungarian, P. Hunfalvy (Ueber die Sprache der Nord-Ostjaken, 1890). Khant dictionaries have been compiled by H. Paasonen and K. Donner (Ostjakisches Wörterbuch nach den Dialekten an der Konda und am Jugan, 1926) and K. E. Karjalainen and Y. H. Toivonen (Ostjakisches Wörterbuch I--II, 1948). W. Steinitz has compiled both a grammar and a textbook covering different dialects of the Khant language. He has also compiled a dialectological and etymological dictionary (1966).