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The religious worldview of the indigenous population of the Northern Ob' as understood by Christian missionaries.

On the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church had at least nine missions operating among Siberia's indigenous peoples. The Red victory in the ensuing civil war led to the elimination of all missionary activity, whose resumption was possible only after the fall of the Communist regime seventy years later. The few accounts of Christian missions published in the USSR were tendentious in the extreme. Only in the post-Communist era have scholars in the former Soviet Union been free to explore the rich archival and journalistic resources left by the missionaries.

Anatoliy Ablazhei's article was chiefly addressed to scholars in Russia. It explores the extent to which the newly available missionary accounts are useful sources for contemporary scholars investigating native religion and cosmology. His work is reproduced here in translation for several reasons. It exemplifies the new wave of Russian scholarship about missions history, giving us a glimpse of the mass of documentary material available for researchers to use. Its critique of Russian Orthodox perceptions of native religion and the imperfect methods employed to spread Christianity in Siberia provides us with material from a mission field little known in the outside world. This information can prove useful for comparative missiological investigations. Above all, however, its value lies in its con tribution to the ongoing debates about contextualization and syncretism, the validity of the Gospel for all peoples, and the appropriation of Christianity by the world's indigenous peoples. It exemplifies the errors of ignorance often committed by outsiders trying to spread the Gospel within a thoroughly alien culture. As Terence Ranger reminded us in the first Adrian Hastings Memorial Lecture at Leeds University in November 2002, authentic Christianity is indeed possible among indigenous peoples. The Holy Spirit can inspire a transformation of their lives and culture, without an excess of Eurocentric accretions. (1)

The fullest possible reconstruction of traditional worldviews requires the use of a wide range of sources. Among these are the documents of the [Russian] Orthodox religious missions to the pagans that operated in the Northern Ob' region [of western Siberia] for more than three hundred years. The present article uses materials relating to the concluding period of the missions' activity, from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The information of interest to us is found in various types of diaries, reports, and accounts emanating from missions as a whole and from individual missionaries, predominantly those who had interacted directly with the local population during their missionary trips. Most of the material used for the analysis is from the Obdorsk Mission, founded in 1854, which worked for the most part among the Nenets, Khanty, and Mansi populations, who knew very little or nothing about Christianity. There are grounds for believing that in this case we are dealing with cultural traditions little affected by the alien cultural influences that enter during conflict with a different culture, thus increasing the value of the sources used.

Missionary documents as sources bear specific characteristics stemming both from the particular worldview of the missionaries as bearers of alien cultural traditions and from the type of relationships they had with the indigenous population. As a rule, the missionaries gained their information by indirect observation, such as knowledge of one or another traditional rite obtained by chance or through disclosure during conversation with a local inhabitant. Communications of the latter type were rather rare, considering the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the missionaries to the native people's cultural riches and the staunch unwillingness of the latter to reveal their ancestral secrets to outsiders. This limitation was compounded by the almost universal lack of knowledge of local languages and customs (especially characteristic of the earlier period of Orthodox missions in the Northern Ob') and, with rare exceptions, by a general unwillingness to investigate in depth the specifics of traditional culture. Serious attempts to become deeply involved in the local milieu and fulfill the role of spiritual mentors, as well as a sincere determination to enlighten the "lost natives" rather than simply formally baptizing them, date from the final years of the missions, mainly the early twentieth century.

Missionary Methods

According to the 1822 [Russian government] Statute on the Administration of the Natives, the indigenous peoples were accorded full freedom of religious belief. Adoption of Orthodoxy was encouraged but was not obligatory, which ruled out the methods of forcible baptism characteristic during the eighteenth century. This legislation forced the missionaries to seek new modes of activity based more on seriously plunging themselves into the life of their existing and potential flocks. They began single-mindedly gathering information about the local peoples, studying their religious beliefs and the details of their everyday lives. Study of the local languages was encouraged; missionaries in fact compiled several dictionaries, and portions of Sacred Scripture were translated. The Obdorsk branch of the missionary Brotherhood of St. Gury had a special "museum of the Brotherhood, or repository for a collection on the ethnography of the peoples of the Tobol'sk North, whose aim was to assist the study of the life, customs, and mores of the natives by graphic means." (2) Several missionaries, particularly the hieromonk Irinarkh (Ivan Semyonovich Shemanovsky), published works on the ethnography of the people of the Northern Ob'.

The main conditions for success in Christianizing in the period under review consisted in making missionary trips through the localities where the baptized population had lived from time immemorial, relating to them within the confines of their customary dwellings and establishing close contact with representatives of the various categories of traditional society. The missionaries frequently made no distinction between the peoples of the north, lumping them together under the general term "natives," which demonstrated a lack of understanding of the differences between their ethnic cultures. Nevertheless, there were instances of intelligent discerning of the discreteness of the cultures of the region's peoples. The missionaries began to "hear" and "listen to" the voices of these cultures. Instead of a monologue, the predominant form of contact became dialogue, a clear example of which we see in the following missionary account: "At first the conversation, as ever, was general. We talked of the daily life of the natives, about their troubles and misfortunes, about buying and selling, about the lives of the Russians.... We touched on Christ ... an old pagan man said how much he liked the way the priest sings in church and how the Russians pray. To my question 'Why don't you get baptized and become a member of the church?' the old man replied that the priest had spoken to him many times about this, but he did not want to be baptized now.... The old man said ... that we foreigners should also sacrifice reindeer to God." (3)

Two elements in this account are significant: the missionary view that conversation is the best form of communication with the native population (which can also be found in other documents) and the mention of sacrifices to "God." It is not clear which "God" is meant--Christ, the icon of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker (whose identity was transmuted through the local worldview, a matter to be discussed in more detail below), or a figure from the native pantheon. Regardless of the answer, the missionary's interlocutor considers sacrifice the best gift (as the Russians do singing or prayer). From this incident we can draw the conclusion that to the traditional worldview both religions (paganism and Christianity) coexisted on an equal basis. They were distinguished only by the objects and means of worship used by one people or the other.

Missionary Evaluation of Native Worldviews

Since the elements of traditional worldviews that missionaries found most interesting were religious perceptions, not a single missionary account omitted a distinctive "theoretical section" in which the authors attempted to interpret local beliefs. One report, for example, described the people's "religious cult of shamanism" as "one of the oldest religions of mankind. It has no doctrine, and all its power and essence consist in beliefs indissolubly linked to ceremonies making scant appeal to human reason. They subjugate people mentally, filling all the natives' fearful and timid interior world with images and perceptions, forcing them to live and struggle with visible and invisible enemies under the most severe and burdensome conditions." (4) In this particular case the peculiarities of the indigenous religion are explained (which was one of the basic tasks) from the point of view of its specific role in the natives' daily lives. This approach coincides in many respects with contemporary views on the character and role of traditional worldviews, which for "the majority of the northern peoples are not only spiritual expressions of the various layers of ethnic cultures, but are also a special means (mechanism) of psychological adaptation to the extreme social and climatic conditions of the Far North." (5)

As regards the term "shamanism," within which the missionaries typically subsumed the whole gamut of traditional beliefs, it obviously cannot reflect all their complexity and multiple layers. For the missionaries shamanism was the most tangible, understandable, and significant element of indigenous religion. It therefore became the object of the most strenuous opposition on their part, even though the level of its development among various peoples differed. (6)

In explaining the peculiarities of the environment within which traditional worldviews were formed and functioned, the missionaries pointed out that "the beliefs of the Ostiaks and Samoyeds were formed partly under the influence of the conditions of life ... economic, family, and social." (7) In the missionaries' opinion, "the peculiar conditions of life of the natives inhabiting the region of the Obdorsk Mission, their distance from the parish church (between 300 and 600 versts [320-640 km. / 200-400 mi.]), their frequent absences from their dwellings for hunting, and in general their nomadic way of life" also created obstacles in the path of Christianization. (8) From the missionaries' point of view the natural environment also determined various elements of the worldview that arose through contemplating it: "The Ostiaks regard elevated locations and mountains as holy, because, as they say, 'God could see better' from such places." (9) But "God sees" through the eyes of people; in one of these high places a missionary saw "a heap of antlers that, according to Vasia, were placed on the summit to show the route." (10)

The missionaries considered that strict observance of ritual was another extremely important facet of the indigenous population's spiritual life. As one observed, "The kernel or leaven of morals, rituals, and beliefs of tundra paganism is unshakable fidelity to the traditions of the ancestors." (11) Irrespective of rational bases for the retention of traditional religions, the missionaries saw the root of the evil in the habitual nature of the beliefs, which led to "deep-rooted fanaticism." A missionary writing in 1910 came to the following conclusion: "If he sticks to his shamanistic belief, it is mainly through habit." (12)

Striving to overcome such tradition, the missionaries devoted enormous attention to educating children in school. In 1919 the missionary Shikhalev wrote: "I consider that the most important question for the mission, for our missionary life, the basis and main foundation for the mission are native boarding and day schools and orphanages." (13) It is no accident that the missionaries encountered strong opposition from the indigenous population over the issue of education. The latter correctly saw the schools as a special institution to destroy their traditional way of life. One of the teachers in a mission school wrote in his report: "The reason [for the small number of students and the continual dropping off of their numbers--A.A.] was their unwillingness, which they expressed to me, to educate their children. This unwillingness came from die-hard superstitious convictions, for they saw that if their children became literate, they would no longer imitate the people's superstitions." (14)

The Shaman

Mission documents pay tremendous attention to the figure of the shaman, whom missionaries viewed as their basic ideological opponent. According to the missionaries, the shaman in traditional society had an exceptionally important role, not only in the religious sphere, but in all aspects of life. The shaman is "a person possessing the ability to enter into communication with invisible spirits and to learn their demands under a trance.... In all the circumstances of life a native needs the shaman's help, and the shaman, according to the words and beliefs of the natives, is chosen by God, a teacher and doctor." (15) I draw your attention to the fact that the word "God" here has been written with a capital letter, as in the case of the Christian God, even though it has been used to refer to a pagan deity. As becomes clear from missionary accounts, the shaman also performed the task of protector, which was extremely important in traditional worldviews. At the same time, he was the interpreter of the principles of traditional beliefs, being in the eyes of his fellow tribesmen the guarantor of their retention and continuance.

In 1857 one of the missionaries visited, in his own words, "an elder and shaman famous for his influence on other idol worshippers, who kept two idols.... Acquaintanceship and friendly communication forced the shaman to relate the absurd history of the significance and influence of old idols on the Ostiak clan." We must distinguish several important points about this description. First of all, taking into account the reasons advanced above, we do not have to agree with the missionary in defining the "protector of idols" as a shaman. Z. P. Sokolova notes that the images of the ancestors (and these images were probably what the missionaries meant when they referred to idols) were usually guarded by a special person, but "this was not the shaman, although often identified as one." (16) The missionary's direct reference makes it clear that he was convinced that shamanism and "idol worship" were things of the same order.

Finally, and most important, the document refers to "friendly communication" as forcing the interlocutor to relate something important to the other person. This is one of many examples of the complex process of intercultural interaction, which is mutually enriching when information passes in both directions: from the native to the missionary and vice versa. In the excerpt in question the conduct of the "shaman" is comparable to the way in which the missionary behaves: he explains the principles of his religion, its significance, its influence on the life of his people, and its necessity for their continued existence. These functions are significant in the practice of traditional religion, for in order to explain them, the "shaman" himself must think through and formulate his convictions. For a member of a traditional society, this communication is an absolutely new phenomenon, formed under the influence of cultural interaction.

The missionaries gained reasonably clear views about the role of the shaman in the daily lives of the indigenous population, and not only in the sphere of the sacred. In some accounts dealing specifically with shamans, however, the missionaries preferred to use the name they heard: "The natives express complete faith in witch doctors, prophets and exorcists, Tadibe, who travel all over the tundra with the aim of enticing their brothers and sisters into the world of superstitions and prejudices." (17) From another account it is also evident that the missionary did not know that the Tadibe [also Tachibe--A.A.] is one of the categories of shaman: "I entered the chum. (18) There was a great assembly of natives in it. Evidently something special was afoot. Soon I managed to discern that the owner of the chum had lost a large quantity of fur trade goods and had asked the witch doctor 'Tachibe' and was seeking the thiet.... The assembly included simple spectators and a large number of those upon whom suspicion of theft had fallen. 'Tachibe' had practiced his sorcery for five days already and yet had not been able to ferret out the necessary suspect. To my question about whether he really knew anything and whether he could find the thief by this means, 'Tachibe' spoke his mind, not without fear, in the presence of the assembly of natives, saying that he knew nothing positive, but if he took on himself the role of 'Tachibe' and beat the 'Pender' drum, it was only because he had been asked to practice sorcery." (19)

This description coincides with the characteristic noted in ethnographic investigations of the Nentsy, according to which "shamans of the ia nayy (ia nayy tadibia) category are shamans connected with the spirits of the earth. They 'healed' the less seriously ill, sought lost reindeer, and so on. Unlike other shamans they performed their rites at night around the campfire." (20)

In analyzing the missionaries' conceptions about shamans and shamanism, it is important to reemphasize that they accorded them a decisive significance as protectors and transmitters of traditional culture, predominantly religion. This recognition is evident from the means proposed to struggle against them, namely, the missionaries would "compile and present to the consistory a list of all shamans, having obtained signatures from them to the effect that they would not do this [i.e., would not offer sacrifices--A.A.] again." (21)

Nature Spirits and Spirit Protectors

In recording the various aspects of traditional religion, the missionaries noted the existence of a cult of nature spirits: "According to Ostiak and Samoed notions, the world is full of numerous spirits, both good and evil. Everything has its own deity--water, fire, wood, stone, and locality--and these deities have an enormous influence on the fate of humankind. Particularly dangerous is the influence of evil spirits, which try to harm people wherever possible. They send various fears.

People must beware of angering them in any way, thus attracting their wrath. If, despite everything, they become angry, then attempts must be made to mollify them, or else something very bad would happen. ... According to Ostiak and Samoed beliefs, no medicines can help poor humans. The only way to combat disease is to offer penitentiary sacrifices to the spirit that has sent the disease." (22)

Missionaries cite examples of cult practices with regard to these deities: "At one sacred place I saw reindeer antlers scattered about with dried bread rings [baranki] threaded on them. Reindeer hides, antlers, and heads had been placed on two sticks." (23) The accuracy of this observation is confirmed by the description of a similar location in one of V. N. Chernetsov's travel diaries: "It [the sacred place--A.A.] consists of a large heap of antlers.... Omdiu [the guide--A.A.] placed a dried bread ring on the ialia (sacred tree)." (24) The missionaries transferred the division of the world into good and evil, which is characteristic of Christianity, to the traditional religion of the indigenous peoples. Judging by contemporary data, however, there was no such division, and the spirits of the underworld (naturally seen as evil by the missionaries) could perform good deeds as well. (25)

The missionaries recorded the presence of family spirit protectors quite accurately. In the description included below, a distinction between specific aspects of the Khanty and Mansi cult is also mentioned. "Besides shamanism the Samoeds, and in particular the Ostiaks, practice idol worship. Worship of the shaitans, anthropomorphic depictions of the deities ... continues in almost every yurt or chum. There is a deity--a shaitan--which the whole family reveres, bows down to, and makes prostrations to as a sacrifice. They keep their shaitans in boxes in the front corner. When you go in to the chum, they try to hide this box." (26) From this description it is obvious that in this case the missionaries were in contact with a population ignorant of Christianity, because their neighbors, the Mansi and southern Khanty, who had experienced Christian influence, already had icons in many of their homes. The missionary would have made direct reference to their existence, as, for example, in the following report: "Some of our informants state quite categorically that earlier 'before the Russians' they had puby in the right corner." (27) This comment refers to the fact that icons, which had to be placed in the right corner, had displaced the spirit images, now found on the left. Also, the missionary would not have been given access to a box that had been retained, since "relations between humans and the spirit protectors had an intimate character." (28) Infringement of this prohibition, all the more so when missionaries were concerned, laid the owner open to the supreme penalty.

Christian Influence on Traditional Worldviews

One of the most complex questions in the context of the theme under discussion is that of the influence of Christianity on the traditional worldview of the peoples of the Northern Ob'. In the present article analysis of this matter will be concentrated on the transformations to which the figure of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker was subjected through cross-cultural interaction. He was the most popular Christian saint among both the Russian and the aboriginal populations of the area. Two reasons for these changes must be distinguished. First, the church itself contributed significantly to the process by building a church of St. Nicholas in almost every newly founded Russian settlement. Second, and more important, was the phenomenon of so-called folk orthodoxy, that is, a noncanonical variant of official doctrine that included a considerable number of pagan elements characteristic of the Russian peasant population ever since [early medieval] Kievan Rus'. Speaking of the influence exerted on the aboriginals' worldview by proximity to the Russian population, investigators concluded that "only in the few places where the Ostiaks were significantly influenced by the culture of the Russian population do we have a gradual modification of the general Ostiak worldview." (29)

The missionaries themselves paid a great deal of attention to the worldview phenomenon connected with the figure of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker. If we compare accounts from different periods, we can clearly follow the evolution of religious stereotypes and the gradual adaptation of figures of the Christian pantheon by traditional religion. A mission report from 1857 notes, "Some, however, extended their folly as far as calling their idol [in this case meaning the family spirit protector] St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker's brother." (30) Gradually, however, the authority of the Christian saint rose, and in 1916 the missionary Tutomlin pointed out that "among the native shamanists St. Nicholas Mirlikskii the Miracle Worker is revered everywhere. The natives consider him a Russian god stronger than pagan ones." (31) The Khanty Mikola, however, was not the Christian St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker but a substantially new deity subsuming within itself traits of various religious traditions. According to M. B. Shatilov's observations, "Ostiak religion contains elements of a whole range of beliefs.... there is an identification of Christian saints with Ostiak deities or heroes of the national epic, for example Mikola-Torum or Mikola-Ike." (32)

A corresponding cult rooted in traditional observances developed in relation to the new deity. The missionaries were correct in considering it a result of Christianization, when they wrote about the practice of "vows" made to Mikola to ward off various misfortunes such as reindeer plague, diseases, failure during the hunt, and so forth. Analysis of reports about such vows (a usual expression of which was the obligation to cross oneself) allows us to conclude that baptism (an important act from the point of view of the church) had very little significance for the newly baptized person. It was understood to be a superficial formality and therefore was undergone perfunctorily. Christianity could thus be partially adopted, merely by accepting some of its propositions and ceremonies. The result was additions to the structure of the traditional worldview and limited modification of certain elements of religious consciousness--all changes that fit the needs of traditional society.


In conclusion, the evidence demonstrates that because of a whole series of objective and subjective reasons, missionaries, as bearers of Christian traditions, formed perceptions of the traditional worldview of the indigenous population of the Northern Ob' that were in many ways incomplete and frequently incorrect. Their conceptions must be carefully checked against the data of ethnographic investigations. Nonetheless, they did record a series of elements completely correctly. The missionaries distinguished three constituent parts of the aboriginal religious consciousness: shamanism, worship of nature spirits, and the family spirit protectors. They considered the main figure in ceremonial cult practices to be the shaman, who also played an important role in daily life, fulfilling medical and other functions. Missionary statements about the adaptive role of the traditional worldview also coincide with ethnographic data. The adoption of Christianity could take the form of simply incorporating individual Christian elements as additions to the existing structures of traditional consciousness, while rethinking and reinterpreting the new elements as appropriate.


(1.) The remainder of this article, following these introductory remarks by the translator, is a translation of Anatoliy M. Ablazhei's text. Except where marked "A.A.," bracketed comments inserted in the text are by the translator, who also supplied subheadings. Preparation of the original article by Ablazhei was funded by the Russian Humanities Scientific Fund.

(2.) The Tobol'sk Section of the State Archive of Tiumen Oblast' (TF GATiumO), fond 58 (Tobol'sk Diocesan Committee of the Orthodox Missionary Society).

(3.) Ibid., fond 703 (Khensk missionary station).

(4.) Ibid., fond 58.

(5.) Z. P. Sokolova, "Adaptivnye svoistva kul'tury narodov Severa" (Adaptive characteristics in the culture of the peoples of the north), Sovetskaia etnografiia 4 (1991): 15.

(6.) Z.P. Sokolova, "Perezhitki religioznykh verovanii u Obskikh Ugrov" (Remnants of religion among the Ob' Ugrians), in Religioznye predstavleniia i obriadov narodov Sibiri v XIX-nachale XXvv. (Religious perceptions and rituals of the Siberian peoples in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) (Leningrad, 1971), p. 223.

(7.) TF GATiumO, fond 58.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Istochniki po etnografii Zapadnoi Sibiri (Sources of the ethnography of West Siberia) (Tomsk, 1987), p. 59.

(11.) TF GATiumO, fond 58.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Ibid., fond 156 (Tobol'sk religious consistory).

(15.) Ibid., fond 58.

(16.) Sokolova, "Perezhitki religioznykh verovanii," p. 214.

(17.) TF GATiumO, fond 58.

(18.) Chum is the Russianized form of an indigenous word for tepee.

(19.) TF GATiumO, fond 703.

(20.) L. V. Khomich, Nentsy. Istorkio-etnograficheskie ocherki (The Nentsy. Historical and ethnographic studies) (Moscow and Leningrad, 1966), p. 212.

(21.) TF GATiumO, fond 156.

(22.) Ibid., fond 58.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Istochniki po etnografii Zapadnoi Sibiri, p. 73.

(25.) I. N. Gemuev, Mirovozzrenie Mansi. Dom i kosmos (The Mansi worldview. Home and the cosmos) (Novosibirsk, 1990), p. 20.

(26.) TF GATiumO, fond 58.

(27.) Gemuev, Mirovozzrenie Mansi, p. 20.

(28.) Ibid., p. 30.

(29.) M. B. Shatilov, Vakhovskie ostiaki (The Vakhov Ostiaks) (Tomsk, 1931), p. 99.

(30.) TF GATiumO, fond 156.

(31.) Ibid., fond 58.

(32.) Shatilov, Vakhovskie ostiaki, p. 99.

Anatoliy M. Ablazhei is a member of the Institute of Philosophy and Law of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, based in Novosibirsk.

David N. Collins, translator, was Senior Lecturer and Head, Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds, England. Collins has written extensively on Siberian missions and history, including editing the twelve-volume series Siberian Discovery (Curzon: 2000).
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Author:Ablazhei, Anatoliy M.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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