The Siberian Collection – A New Perspective

1 h

Girl of the North Country

The Siberian collection includes five unique items from the Siberian Nenets people. They were donated by a Polish exile. This is a story of how we got to know them.

Objects have no consciousness; they can’t talk or tell stories. But if they could, they wouldn’t spend all their time talking about themselves, as some of us do. They’d rather talk about the world they were part of. About the people, animals and ghosts. About the elements. It would definitely be a fascinating story. But we won’t get it. If we want to learn the secret that the exhibits conceal, we must uncover it ourselves. To do it we will need some imagination and knowledge but must importantly, we’ll have to set off on a journey. This is exactly what this story will be: an account from a trip. It will include travelling backwards in time as in the course of our research on the over one-century-old items we go on a metaphorical trip back to their sources. But it will also mean travelling in space as every source, not only the ethnographic ones, has its geographic place of origin. And each of these places has its own people. People have their ancestors, and these ancestors used to possess things. What happened to these belongings? Well, one hundred and fifty years ago, some of them came to Krakow. They are now kept in a warehouse at ulica Krakowska. Better ask the way than go astray.
The MEK Siberian collection contains various items from the vast land of northern Asia. Although the collection is not huge and consists of only about 350 items, it's easy to get lost in it. It comes from eleven ethnic groups, or maybe more. The fact that the items were very concisely described, and sometimes not at all, does not make things easier. Usually, however, one piece of information was recorded on a tag attached to the items: the name of the donor. The person in whose luggage they arrived. Employees of the institutions of the time who were given these items had no idea about the peoples of Siberia. Usually, however, they wrote down the name of the person facing them. To us, the names of the donors mean we can fish out some items from the nondescript mass of clothing made of fur, leather, feathers and bones. And divide them into groups, sets, subsets. Give human biographies an opportunity to start talking about unknown biographies of objects. One of such names on the list of donors is that of Izydor Sobański. In the catalogue it was repeated five times. What are those objects?
As you can see, there are five items of clothing made of fur and leather. Judging by the form, you need such clothing in a place where it gets very cold. Red colour, reindeer leather and furs must also be popular there, and brass rings and chains have a role to play.
Who exactly was Izydor Sobański? A short search on the Internet says that he was definitely not a person with a prominent position in the pantheon of famous Polish exiles. In fact, he has apparently not occupied any position at all in any pantheon. He is virtually unknown. But let's give the floor to his relative, Michał Sobański:
That's all we know about Izydor. Let's take a closer look at the items themselves and what we in our museum know about them. Where can we get such information from? As we know, these items found their way to the Ethnographic Museum from the former Museum of Technology and Industry. It’s the information from this museum that forms the basis of what we know. In two cases, the original nineteenth-century tags from this museum have been preserved. What do we learn from them? Do they explain things? Let's take a closer look.
"Fur coat, Samoyedic people, bought in Obdorsk in Siberia. Reindeer fur trimmed at the bottom with white dog fur.
Donated by I. Sobański. "
"Samoyedic hat. Upper crown and paws with claws from wolverine fur - the front made of the fur of white dogs that were used to pull skis. Inner part of the hat crown made of reindeer fur. Sewn with reindeer veins. Rings were used to pull sleds, carry loads and keep balance. Donated by I. Sobański."
The fur coat is clear, it’s simply a coat. It is true that it has a strange style, but as you know, humanity in the course of its existence has produced a huge variety of forms of the items they have used. As for the hat, the situation looks similar. Since it is Samoyedic, that is it belonged to the inhabitants of the northern tundra, it must be "shaggy" and made of thick fur, because as everyone knows, there, in the north, it gets very cold. Brass chains and rings were used to pull sleds and carry loads. That’s clear. But hold on... to pull sleds? The person in the hat on his head pulled a sled with brass chains attached to it? Was it done voluntarily or was it some form of punishment? And would he be able to pull such sleds far in fresh snow? Or maybe several people wearing such hats were harnessed to one sled? Really? And did the Samoyeds really have problems with keeping their balance to such an extent that they needed special weights in their hats? In the hope of dispelling doubts, but also in search of additional information, we went to Sanok, to visit a retired museologist, prof. Jerzy Czajkowski, who, as a young ethnographer in the 1950s worked to describe the Siberian MEK collection. His work, and also his master's thesis, was the only comprehensive study on this collection. Thanks to our interview with him, we also learned something about the post-war methods of working with such a collection and the realities at that time. The items were cut off from their place of origin by the border with the USSR, and the present department of non-European cultures in our museum, the so-called "Exotic Department", did not exist at all.
That wasn’t the right way. The professor was then just a Krakow student who had recently arrived from Kolomyya (at present in Ukraine, but in Poland before 1939). A man who immediately after the war managed to get a job in the museum that was still a young institution. Work on the Siberian collection was just an episode for him. It allowed him to get his MA in ethnography. Soon afterwards, he moved to Sanok, became interested in the open-air museum, folk architecture and forgot about the subject. By the way, from the words of professor Czajkowski, it seems that Krakow was certainly not a place where items from the north would feel at home. Hardly anyone considered them important. It seems that no one spoke their language either, so they remained silent.
But let's get back to the old tags. There are two pieces of information that should interest us. The place of purchase of the "coat" was Obdorsk. The ethnic group in both cases were the Samoyed. You can search the contemporary maps of Siberia for as long as you like, but you won’t find a settlement of that name. You’d only manage if you were to go 90 years back in time, when the large, tsar market settlement of Obdorsk was renamed Salekhard - the capital of the newly-established Soviet Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District.
The settlement of Obdorsk was founded in 1595 by Russian merchants as a trading post to boost fur trade. Furs used to be the priceless natural wealth before the oil era. At first it was called Nosovy Gorodok in Russian, and later went by the proper name taken from the language of the Komi people. Obdorsk meant a place on the banks of the Ob river in this language. Over the years, the settlement became one of the administrative centres of the Tobolsk Governorate - the largest of the territorial units of the Russian Empire. In the nineteenth century it was also a very frequent place of exile. Obdorsk was known for its fairs. It was also a place where the cultures of the Nenets, Khanty, Russian and Komi peoples meet. Indeed, if any European were to come into contact with indigenous people, Obdorsk was the perfect place to do so. Groups of yasachni subjects and nomads i.e. "free" Nenets lived around Obdorsk. There were frequent clashes between them and the Cossacks, who maintained law and order in Obdorsk, had their hands full. As late as in 1839, a rebellion of a part of the nomadic Nenets under the leadership of a man called Wauli Piettomin took place. In 1841 he was captured and sent to "eastern Siberia", where he died. The real Geronimo of the Siberian tundra made place for other rebels from a distant country who were to appear in his home tundra in twenty-three years’ time.

In 1933, in view of the new Leninist-Stalinist vision of developing the north, Russia and the world, the settlement changed its name to Salekhard. Oil and gas were of great importance. New administrative districts were established, including the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, which naturally had nothing to do with real autonomy. The name Obdorsk was dropped and an old, Nenets name was adopted to describe this place. Salekhard, Sol-chard, a settlement on the peninsula.
The second piece of information on the tags tells us about the Samoyed origin of the items. But who are they, or perhaps who were they, these Samoyeds? Let's start with the word itself and try to briefly describe this group of people. Maybe in this way we will get a bit closer to the mystery of Izydor's clothes?
In fact, we can say right away that by using the term Samoyed we refer to an ethnic group currently living in an area of over one million square kilometres along the coast of the Icy Ocean. Just as the Poles live more or less within an area delimited by the rivers Oder and Bug, the borders of the Samoyed country are marked by two peninsulas: Kola in Europe and Taymyr far on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains.
As for the word Samoyed, scholars have been arguing for a long time and seem to have never come to an agreement other than the fact that it is not known where it comes from. It was certainly already used in the well-known eleventh century chronicle of the monk Nestor, The Tale of Bygone Years. Nestor writes about Samoyadyu (Самойадю), a group of inhabitants of the far north. But where did he get this name from? Was it related to the words same-yedne (самэ-еднэ), meaning Saami land in their language, or perhaps connected with the eastern tribe of Somat or with the Russian word samodyn, once allegedly used by the indigenous inhabitants of the north? We don’t know. It is known, however, that the term Samoyed referred to the indigenous people of the northern tundra, but mainly its European part. Their brothers from beyond the Ural were also called Yurak. This was the situation until 29 March 1928, when at the meeting of the Soviet Committee for Cooperation with the Small Nations of the Far North a resolution was passed stating that "the term Nenets should be introduced and used instead of the word Samoyed."

Thus, in academic terminology, a new word appears, "the Nenets." Certainly, it will not surprise anyone that in the language of local people it means “a real person”. Neney, Nenec, “a real man”. In this way, perhaps justice was given to the nation, which, as already noted in the 18th century, calls themselves "the Nenets."
Who are the Nenets? Perhaps the right answer is: the indigenous inhabitants of the Nenets land. And even though the notion of indigenousness is extremely ambiguous - the world has only recently lost the fight against categorising everything, and once did not care about categories - nevertheless, the Nenets were present in their tundra probably already at the time of the chronicler Nestor, certainly in the sixteenth century as confirmed by documents of Pustozyorsk settlement. But actually, why should they not have been there since the dawn of time?
In fact, there are three theories. The first is that they came from the west and the north. The second, that they came from the south, from the Sayan Mountains. And the third, by Georgy Prokofiev, saying that today's Nenets are a mix of "southern" and "northern" cultures. To this day, tales of Sirta have been preserved among the reindeer herders. About peoples who went underground for fear of newcomers from the south. Today, archaeologists are digging up ancient settlements. However, they aren’t finding any traces of herding in them such as those of the contemporary Nenets and of their recent ancestors. What they find instead is evidence of sea hunting and parts of clay pots, something that the Nenets didn’t want and wouldn’t appreciate until recently when they had to buy them from Russian traders. If we take a brief look at the Nenets through the millennia, we get, according to Andrei Golovnev, a picture of a constant evolution of cultures that regarded vast areas beyond the Ural as their homeland. First, the Mesolithic Uralic cultures which preceded the Ural and Samoyed cultures. These, in turn, split up into the Ugric peoples (the Khanty and Mansi), and the Finno-Ugric while the Samoyed group that is of interest to us is related to nations of the Nenets, the Enets, the Nganasans and their southern brothers, Selkups. So much for statistics. The present-day Nenets are, like the Poles, citizens of the 21st century.
The Nenets took over the northern country, covered with tundra, overgrown with moss and full of swamps in the summer, ice-clad in the winter. All search results will redirect an Internet user to thousands of photos of Nenets reindeer herders and it is as such that they function in the 21st century imaginarium. Certainly this refers to those contemporary Nenets who today on their sleds, snowmobiles and tractors, travel the same routes as before. In the summer they go north, towards the coast, to convenient, insect-free pastures. In the winter they go south, to find shelter from the icy wind, to the border of the tundra and the forest. However, it has not always been like that, there have been many turbulences and nuances in their past. Nobody is free of history. According to scholars, the Nenets started out as arctic hunters of wild reindeer, gradually turning to herders. First in limited numbers, and later on a mass-scale. It is not known when this change began. There are some scholars such as Yuri Kvashnin, who claim that it was only in the 18th-19th centuries, when it began to pay off and was introduced into a wider system of taxes, levies and trade. Groups of people don’t live on isolated islands but in a continuous relationship with one another. The Nenets were influenced by their neighbours, such as the Komi people whose language was adopted by many groups of Nenets or Russians - initially colonisers, then administrators protecting their "northern interests".
At the time when Izydor Sobański may have come across the Nenets, many of them were pagan according to contemporary terminology. Still alive was the heritage of the "first religion", as is sometimes called an entire system of beliefs associated with shamanism and the shamans as mediators between the worlds of spirits (lower and upper), and the middle world, the world of man. The Nenets were also animists, they saw the world and its elements as animate. The main creator of the world was Num - the god of heavens. But they also worshiped gods who were more mundane, often imagined in the form of wooden figures. Like our ancestors from Drachenloch caves, they offered them bear and reindeer skulls. They also sacrificed dogs. Once also supposedly people. According to church documents from 1892 in Timan Tundra, tadibe (shaman) Parkek sacrificed a 16-year-old girl. But is this information objective? Or maybe it formed part of an epic war of the Orthodox church with shamanism, which was, according to them, the mainstay of Satan. It is certain that in 1827, an Archangelsk monk, archimandrite Vienimin destroyed the main sanctuary of the Nenets on Vaygach Island, where several hundred wooden figures which had been there for hundreds or even thousands of years were burnt. Perhaps the secret name that the gods used during the rituals for the Nenets shamans, Jewa (orphan), was embodied literally.
Lenin and Stalin reconciled both these visions of the world in one prison cell. After the revolution, both Orthodoxy and shamanism were persecuted. It was a long process, which was accompanied by social and administrative changes. Reindeer herders became workers. The way of life was transformed into a production method. The tundra ceased to be the centre of the world; the momentum shifted to the subsequent ranks of local administration, from settlement through town and ultimately to capital administration itself: Moscow. The 1920s marked a period of nationalisation, the division of the society into workers and Kulaks. The Kulaks were eradicated in the 1930s, as were the enemies of the nation. The 1940s and 1960s stood for mergers of unprofitable kolkhozes. Sovkhozes were established. In 1943, Mandalada, the Nenets armed rebellion against collectivisation was crushed. It is said that as a result of repressions, the shamanic drums (Golovnev) went silent in the tundra. There was no one left to play them. Although, as the author of Speaking Cultures himself emphasised, some individuals remained who still used the drums. At least from time to time. In secret and sometimes contrary to public opinion. Over the years, the "non-feasible" settlements were closed down, people were resettled to more promising ones. There was growing alienation between children raised in boarding schools and their parents. It was increased by the obligatory military service for boys. But as we know, this system also finally collapsed together with the Soviet Union. Groups of Nenets still live in the tundra, they still graze reindeer. In other conditions and on other economic principles. Their vocabulary now includes new terms, such as oil and gas, ethics, traditional culture, folklore, subsidies for maintaining traditional life-style, etc. This is how the history of the Nenets, which Izydor Sobański himself could not have had any idea about, has been going on and on. The Nenets now number about 44,000 which puts them at the forefront of the most-populous indigenous nations of the north.
But let’s go back to the items in the Krakow museum: this is all that may be deduced from the museum tags. As we already know where the items come from and what ethnic group they belonged to, we have decided to ask an expert of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Yuri Nikolayevich Kvashnin, an experienced researcher, well acquainted with the Nenets. His visit to our warehouse has brought unexpected results. But first things first.
To start with, Yuri Kvashnin shared some information about the items.

1. The fur coat

This is undoubtedly a coat which had once belonged to the Nenets, or more precisely to a Nenets woman, as it is a woman's garment. The Russians call it panica coat, and from that moment on we can call it that, too. The Nenets themselves call it pany or, more precisely, nye pany. Here, however, the subject gets more complex, but it also more interesting. There are generally two types of Nenets women’s garment. One of them is panica, while the other is the so-called yagushka. Panica, such as the one in the museum, is an item of clothing occurring less frequently and on a more limited area, which may be described as the western part of the territory inhabited by the Nenets, and even more precisely as the westernmost locations still inhabited by this group; the Kanin Peninsula. It is also definitely used less frequently today. Actually, it is never used on an everyday basis. Yagushka is a type of garment widespread among the Nenets today, especially to the east of the Ural Mountains. That's where Salekhard earlier known as Obdorsk is located, the place where this item was acquired by I. Sobański. Salekhard is located east of the Ural, therefore not where the panica is usually worn.
So how was our panica found there? According to Yuri Kvashnin, in the nineteenth century, this type of garment was found among the eastern Nenets, primarily due to matrimonial practices of bringing women from distant lands, in this case from the west. The women came in their native clothes. The fact that Sobański got his panica in Salekhard is one of the proofs of this practice. “Fascinating!”, said Yuri.
After a closer look at the panica, you can also specify its type even more accurately. It is so-called piena-pany. It is a garment made from strips of leather from reindeer legs, from the so-called kamus. Piena - kamus, pany - coat. Piena-pany is definitely an elegant outfit, not to say festive. Once the one from our museum was probably used as such. You can also call it archaic, something like great grandmother's clothes or a highlander's outfit.

2. Fur clothing

Something that is briefly described in the museum's catalogue as "Fur outerwear in the form of coveralls" has been identified as men's outer garment. Its Russian name is gus, the Nenets themselves call it sawak, or sometimes sook. At first glance, the sawak looks very warm. This was its main function.
To understand it, you need to imagine other items of Nenets clothing. In 1594, Gjurgen von Linschoten, a Dutch sailor, wrote
Their coats are furry, with the fur worn on the inside, with gloves for the hands sewn to the sleeves so     that they can be put on and taken off all the time. A hat was also attached to the coat (hood).
               This is one of the oldest descriptions of malica, the basic clothing of the Nenets men, which is still in use day. Unfortunately, we do not have one in the museum. However, what we do have, namely a sawak, was put over malica to keep extra warm in severe cold weather. Also when you had to sit on sleds for a long time. It was put over malica and worn without a belt, and before going into a tent (chumu) it was taken off and left outside. Sawak did not belong to the zone of the house, it was part of the winter tundra. Dressed in a sawak, you could spend a night out in the snow in the coldest temperatures. So it was an outer garment which was used not only by the Nenets to protect them from the cold but also by European visitors who wanted to survive there. Certainly also by exiles. The one in the museum has red piping on the sleeves. Once it was made from light colour fur. Does this suggest its festive character? Perhaps.

3. Boots

The boots bearing Sobański's name confused our colleague. Traditional fur Nenets boots were called piwa or piema and similarly to them, they were made of reindeer legs. However, the sole of Sobański's boots is unusual. European, said Yuri. Indeed, it has a leather sole, a small heel, a leather upper, while Nenets footwear is made entirely of fur, including hairy soles made of bristles growing under the reindeer hooves. The size of the boots is also unusual. Around European size 42-43. Probable mainly for the Europeans, very rare among the short Nenets. “Were they Sobański's boots?”, our expert wondered. An interesting hypothesis.

4. Trousers

Unfortunately, we cannot say much about them, neither can Yuri. Except that suede trousers were once used and they were called miarey (suede) pimya (trousers). Not many pairs have survived to this day. It is also difficult to say whether they are typical of the Nenets. They certainly were and item of men's clothing and were owned by Izydor Sobański.

5. Fur hat with chains

It resembles the festive headgear of Nenets women, called wadak in the language of the Nenets, and kapor in Russian, which may be translated as a bonnet. And this is the term that we’ll use to describe it from now on. However, the ones seen by Yuri Kvashnin were very different from the one in our museum. The fur is different, usually it comes from a reindeer, and in our case it is wolverine, a rare animal; it also has a different cut and a different style. If it was not for the tag describing it as Samoyed, Kvashnin would hesitate to assign this item of clothing to this particular group. The only thing we could take for granted was that it was part of a woman's garment. And also the fact that the chains and rings certainly did not serve to pull sleds.
We had to stop at this, luckily only for some time.
Shortly after his visit to Krakow, Yuri Kvashnin sent us a lithography he had found by a Russian artist from the 19th century, Vladimir Svierchkov. As the artist was born in 1821, this print had to be made in the second half of that century. As the author's caption says, it had been drawn from nature. The title reads: Samoyeds from the Arkhangelsk tundra. What does it show?
There is a group of Nenets in it, but according to the description, they are the Nenets living in the Arkhangelsk tundra, probably on the Kanin peninsula, in the west. However, something else in the picture is more important. With her back to the artist, a woman is sitting wearing two items of clothing that are extremely important to us. The first is a bonnet similar to that found in our collection, the second, an almost identical panica! Thanks to the lithography, we moved backwards in time for a moment, along with our exhibits. We saw both the bonnet and the panica in use. On a living person, worn together. Two elements that form one outfit.
But who is this person? It would be great to ask her to turn around so that we could see her face. But we can see the faces of the two men. At least one of them must have come from afar. He is wearing almost the same sawak as the one we have in Krakow. So he was on a journey. The other man is holding a cane or a stick and he is wearing a malica. They are facing the sitting woman. Are they talking to her about something? And, how old is she? Is she an old woman or a girl? Is the child in fur coveralls hers? What does this picture actually show? Unfortunately, we don’t know. We can only guess. Is this a wedding? Does it depict a scene of asking for advice from someone with a higher status? The person wearing woman’s garments is sitting in front of the men, which is very unusual behaviour in the patriarchal social structure of the Nenets. And that wolverine bonnet ... To get answers to these questions, you would have to have someone to ask. But at this point some hope appears unexpectedly. The museum from Naryan-Mar, the capital of the Nenets Autonomous District, responded to our requests to identify items in a very unexpected way. They responded with a photo. A photo showing a bonnet almost identical to that in the collection of our museum. It’s also identical to the one we see in Svierchkov’s lithography.
Is the photo a nineteenth-century one? No! It was made in 2004! In the Barents Sea Oma settlement. The style is similar. So is the material. And an identical detail: a semicircle made of red cloth, sewn in the back of the headwear! All this is not found in other Nenets bonnets. All we could do was go to Naryan-Mar and then to Oma and ask. Ask the people who took the photo and the person from the photo, about the headwear that she was wearing in 2004. We assumed that the information we obtain about the bonnet in the photo would also apply to the bonnet in our museum, as well as the one from the 19th century lithography.
               So it's time to set off. The route takes us through Moscow, to the town of Naryan-Mar, the capital of the Nenets Autonomous District, on the banks of the Pechora River.
The city has about 30,000 inhabitants and was built relatively recently, in 1929. It became the administration centre and the headquarters for mining the region's resources. To this day, it occupies the fourth position on the list of the largest oil and gas resources in the Russian Federation. It is modern. Illuminated. And the drivers stop long before a passer-by steps on a zebra crossing. When it was being built, it was with false enthusiasm aimed at attracting workers from all over the Soviet Union.
That's exactly what happened and their descendants are now living in Naryan-Mar. Along with staff working shifts at the boreholes and new arrivals from central Asia. A daily jet flight connects them with Moscow. The people are worried that together with the construction of a planned road, cheap work-force lured by the promise of the inhabitants’ oil wages will flood their town, looking for an opportunity to earn some extra money. However, for the time being, children run unattended in the streets. Laundry dries on ropes in front of blocks of flats and the police don’t appear to have much to do. The strategic tundra treasure - oil is important. The Nenets are a small minority in the town’s population. Although officially transformed, the Nenets folklore is the cornerstone of the town’s identity. There are dance and music groups, it has a Palace of Culture full of glass chandeliers where concerts take place and VIP guests are invited. Folk groups also have their rehearsals there. The office of Yasavey Nenets association looking after the welfare of the contemporary Nenets population, is located in the basement of a block of flats.
The Nenets Museum is an institution founded in 1934. It was their staff who photographed the bonnet in the Oma settlement, they also sent the photo to us. That's where we go to ask how the photo was made hoping to find out some more about the bonnet.
Who coined the saying that the ethnographer always arrives too late? The Oma bonnet had burned in a fire! Rare and shamanic? After these events, it seems to have been even rarer. Did this type of bonnet really have anything to do with shamanism? Shamanism in the female version?
               The fact that the item is rare is confirmed by scarcity of similar exhibits in museum collections. One is in Krakow. We know of another one, kept in the vast collection of the Russian Ethnographic Museum. Thanks to the curators of this museum, we know that the bonnet found its way there in the 1920s, thanks to a well-known Soviet ethnographer, Sergey Rudenko. Rudenko, however, did not leave any information about the alleged shamanistic nature of the item. There is no information on this subject, the employees of this institution describe it as an ordinary hat, which also applies to both the bonnet in Krakow and to every other bonnet. Rudenko lived and worked in difficult times. Particularly the cult of shamanism and shamanic items did not have the easiest life then, not to mention their rightful owners. Many of them died. Ethnographers were accused of supporting kulaks (including shamans). Many kulaks were handed over to the secret police. Rudenko himself spent a lot of time digging with a shovel the channel connecting the White Sea and the Volga. And we aren’t talking about archaeological digs here.
So it was a common "shaggy" hat made of wolverine fur. For those who like logical truth, even the fact of the presence of the not very nice looking, thick, "shaggy" wolverine fur may be explained by the severity of Siberian winters. The only thing that may raise doubts is a short note from another scholar from the old times. It was Matias Alexander Kastren, a Finnish subject of the tsar who, in his extensive work entitled On the Journey to Lapland, Northern Russia and Siberia (1838-1844, 1845-1849), writes about a Samoyed witch
[...] her head, shoulders and part of her face were covered by a conical wolverine hat, with copper rings hanging on her back. She walked around the fire, stopped briefly at each of the four sides and bowed to all four sides.
Does this description not remind us of something?
13 years after Kastren, our Izydor met the Nenets. At about this time the Nenets were drawn by Svierchkov, or actually von Svierchkoff, Kastren’s countryman.
Thanks to the museum staff in Naryan-Mar, we managed to get to one more interesting source, namely a book written in the 1930s by Alexander Yevsugyn, secretary of the party committee of the then Nenets District. A Nenets by descent, who at the end of his successful career in consolidating Soviet power in the north, discovered in himself a vocation for ethnography. He met with the population, recorded the old people's accounts. He then wrote a book called The Nenets of the Archangelsk Tundra.
In addition to descriptions such as the one of a beating of Orthodox clergy by politically conscious Nenets youth, he included many interesting accounts of the indigenous people. Most often related to him. He writes about them saying
Female and male hats from wolverine fur were not worn in the chum (tent), this was because the wolverine was considered a relative of the bear. The exception was only a shaman at the time of the kamwan (rite).
Or when reporting the account of traveller Maximov, who describes a shaman he meets:
[...] I see him as if it were today, in a shaggy wolverine hat, covering his ears, from under which I could see his red face with blood-shot eyes.
We’ll return to this author later. Meanwhile, an ambiguous picture of the bonnet emerges as an item related to the sacred, a part of the shamanic outfit. By the way, in the language of the Nenets, the shaman is called tadibe, the word comes from the Evenks, a completely different nation, unrelated to the Nenets.
The religion of every nation is usually very complex. It consists of layers upon layers referring to one another and commenting symbols whose roots sometimes go back to obscure times. But let's try to understand a little why this hat would have something to do with the between worlds’ activities of a Nenets tadibe. Let our guide be Andriey Golovnia's book, Talking Cultures.
Where to begin? Let's start with women, because it was their world that the bonnet belonged to. As Golnovnia himself points out, male shamanism differs from its female version. Just like the world of men differs from the world of women. The world of men is the tundra. It's aimed at the outside. The world of women is the world of the tent. It does not lead to heaven. It is a well in the bottomless depths of the inner world, including the underworld. According to accounts, a Nenets tadibe could pierce themselves with a spear or a knife and not suffer any injury on the body, and not lose a single drop of blood. The women shamans, on the contrary, would cut off a piece of their tongue and throw it into the fire. They cut the skin on their breasts, and when they started bleeding, they gave their blood to the ill to drink. Blood in women's ceremonies flowed abundantly. A river of blood flowed through the underworld and the red was the colour of women. Let's look at the red semi-crescent sewn into the back of "our" bonnet.
And so red. The second typical feature of the bonnet, which we can’t ignore, is its "shagginess". This is due to the long and hard wolverine bristles. Is it only to protect the wearers from freezing cold? The Nenets have a saying that if you stopped warming a small child by the fire, it would quickly grow fur. In fact, a living person has no fur. The fur is an attribute of animals and, even worse, creatures from the edge of worlds. This is a place of a female shaman, but not only. One of them is the so-called Ash Hag otherwise known as a Parne. She is half-woman, half-bear, but also appears in the form of a wolverine or a wolf. The parne dreams of transforming into a human being but if it happened, people, especially children, would be in mortal danger. You may be suddenly taken by her to the other world or even slain. That is why the Nenets never throw away old clothes. What could happen? A parne wandering in the tundra could find it, put it on and turn into a human being, or rather a dangerous parody. By the way, nobody should be surprised if they hear the Nenets or Selkup today say they have seen the footprint of Yeti, the snowman, in the snow. It's a Parne. So, a Parne is "shaggy", she has fur. Where does the wolverine come from?
The wolverine is the brother of the bear. A being which can see the second lower world. It can cross its border, just as Parne can cross the line between animalism and humanity.
The wolverine depicts the dark shamanic spirit which women encounter. Which they also fight, protecting the "inner" world from the invasion of forces from the bottom of the earth. The border between the worlds is, in the case of women, nothing else but going inside a house. But the woman is an entrance herself, she is a gate herself. The woman bears new people, new souls from the underworld into the middle world. In the Nenets culture, the greatest helper that women have in protecting the entrance to the tent is the dog. The dog, its skin and fur, also guard the safety of the entrance to the inner world. The women's interior. The dog's fur is dark fur, associated with the lower world. This fur can also be found on the bonnet. Not only there. The lower part of the panica, also the one in our museum, is covered with white dog fur. From the waist down, the whole woman's outfit is protected with white dog fur.
And the brass chains and rings? And especially the rings? An old Nenets legend tells of a hunter who killed a white vagenka (female reindeer) when he was hunting. When he took out his knife and began to skin it, the knife got stuck in something hard. It was a brass ring in the animal. The hunter took it to his tent, where it then guarded the hearth at his home. The female elements. A world of the chuma and something much more profound. Cavernous even. But wait a minute ... Let’s stick to our story. We’ll return to this theme of bringing a woman into the tent, that is to the wedding, later. What we can say right now is that the sound of metal had the power to penetrate the worlds.
So the Oma bonnet was destroyed. It burned in a fire and we will never see it again. All we could do was go to Oma and talk to its last owner. After all, despite the fact that the item was destroyed, its memory was not. Or maybe there are more bonnets like that in Oma?
Contemporary Oma is a town of about 700 inhabitants, located on the banks of a small river of the same name, right at its mouth flowing into the Barents Sea. Oma, in fact, is a small piece of dry land surrounded by vast swamps. Mainly for this reason, in the summer you can reach it only by plane. In winter, the swamps freeze. Oma is a place where two cultures meet, the Russian and the Nenets. However, both these peoples have been living in the very town since relatively recently. Perhaps because of this, the settlement is divided into two parts. The main one - Russian - and the one in the suburbs, much more modest - Nenets. The settlement was founded by Russian Old-Believers, peasants who wanted to live independently and in their own way, on the outskirts of the "Russian" world. Further on, was the home of a completely different culture. Later, it was effectively destroyed by Joseph Stalin, through a decree according to which initially Oma was to be settled by Russian inhabitants of the closed-down nearby settlements, creating a so-called consolidated settlement. Under new regulations, much later on, in the 1950s and 1960s, the nomadic people were also forced to move into the settlement. And so Oma became bi-national, which did not happen completely without conflicts, and Oma's community is difficult to call integrated even today. For the Nenets, the administrative processes were extremely traumatic. In 1933, the Kanin group of Nenets, the ones closest to Oma, was disassembled and nationalised, which mainly meant their reindeer. In 1955, larger and more efficient collective farms were established and turned into sovkhozes in the 1960s. Most people who herd reindeer spend the summer on the nearby Kanin peninsula, from where, when winter comes, they move closer to the settlement itself, but rarely cross its border. A large group of Nenets women, pensioners, people who are no longer herders live in Oma. In the autumn of 2017, the echo of local shots from wild geese hunting did not stop from dawn until dusk. Cows grazed on wet pastures. It is hard not to get the impression that the Nenets are not at home in Oma. However, the sleds in front of the houses, filled with objects for the winter, are a clear sign of the presence of northern reindeer herders.

Who is, or rather was, the owner of the bonnet in a photo? It is Mrs. Zinoida Barmich, a district feldsher.

Who is hiding under the bonnet in the photo? This is her daughter Tatiana, who works as the settlement's administrative staff.

Neither of them look after the family hearth very attentively. Neither of them looked after herds of reindeer. And yet the wolverine hat belonged to them. One could say that it belonged to them although it was not supposed to happen, because the plan was different. But plans often change and quickly become outdated. What is certain is that it burned down in the attic of Mrs. Zinoida around 2008. An arcing electric wire did its job, unlike the electrician who had been asked many times to repair the installation. During several meetings in the Oma administration building covered with plastic panels, they told us the story of the bonnet.

First of all, we met two earlier generations of its owners: Mrs. Zinoida’s grandmother and mother. Grandma Chyonia, born in 1885, used to be called Nieko (woman) before she was baptised. In the memory of the living, it was she, as the first, that the bonnet had belonged to. And then to Zinoida’s mother Vera. As for them, yes, they must have spent plenty of time looking after the family hearth. But most importantly, we also heard the story of Tamara, Mrs Zinoida's sister and her wedding, it was in the middle of Kanin tundra, in the 1960s, that the bonnet was used for the last time. Used during a wedding!

So Vera gave the bonnet to her daughter Tamara for the girl’s wedding. After that, Tamara died prematurely and the bonnet was given back to her mother, Vera. And when she, in turn, died, it passed to her second daughter, Zinoida, educated in the city. Are all ordinary hats sent back to the mother of the deceased owner?

The subject of the wedding did not disappear during all the other interviews with the residents of Oma. It is true that it was about the past, often heard from others, but we have no alternative accounts and neither did our interlocutors. They tried to unravel the secrets of this headgear, which belongs only to the world of their female ancestors.

If one were to generalise, it could be said that the Nenets are not very talkative or sociable people. Especially when it comes to the subjects which are dear to them, things that protect them from strangers. More valuable from our point of view was a meeting with a group of women who live in Oma. Especially, as completely new subjects came up.

Husband? Sobański the husband of a Nenets girl? That's how he came into the possession of the bonnet, of the type, as was repeated once more, that was used as wedding headgear? Besides, not only the bonnet was connected with this type of event. The panica was also a festive wedding garment. A costume which mothers sewed for their daughters for one purpose only... Today, this purpose may be folkloristic events, but before there was only one reason to make it. And the reason was a wedding. What's more, our interlocutors recognised another element from our collection, which until now was not associated with Sobański. It's a harness made of walrus tusk and red leather ribbons. Until today, used by local women at weddings and for festive occasions.
So, a wedding? Wedding as a natural environment of the three items from Sobański’s collection? The bonnet, panica and harness? Since apart from being museologists, we also sometimes try being scholars, we investigate written sources. Will they help us? In this case, we look into the book by W. Yevsugyn, the Nenets party member who converted to ethnography at a mature age. You can find there two fragments about the items that interest us.

Firstly, a description of a harness used at weddings, "The bridles were decorated with woven, suede red ribbons. The plaques were made of walrus tusks. "

You could say that this is an exact description of the exhibit from our museum.

Secondly, the bonnet. An unusual bonnet made of wolverine fur. Surprisingly, we come across it again while reading the description of a funeral rite, "A woman (the deceased) was dressed like a living one, in the best remembered and expensive bridal panica made of beaver fur and a wedding hat made of wolverine fur. Girls were dressed in the same panica, hat and boots for their wedding."

Best remembered and expensive! Dead people were dressed in them. Could such items have been put up for sale?

Similar, though much less detailed information may also be acquired from a Russian ethnographer of the 1960s, N. F. Pritkova. In one of her texts on Nenets clothing, there is a mention of a bonnet made of wolverine fur as a "wedding bonnet" or "the matchmaker’s bonnet". However, the researcher doesn’t include any examples or direct reports on the use of such an item.

We could cite from the ritual wedding scenario. With the sequence of inquiring, matchmaking, bargaining and ultimately transporting the bride wrapped up and in a sled to her husband's camp, where she should spend the rest of her life. However, this also will not give us detailed information about the bonnet itself. Perhaps more vivid would be a story that we have told earlier, which may be read as a metaphor for the wedding itself. About a man who kills a white (bridal) female reindeer, cuts out a copper ring (perhaps similar to the one in the bonnet) from her guts and takes it to his tent, which from now on it has to guard and protect. A girl had to be killed before she became something new. Wife, guardian of a new, inner world, designated by the suede walls of the tent.

So the Oma bonnet had belonged to the sphere of weddings. It seems that we have reason to suppose the same about the one which is so similar and now in the Krakow museum. One more doubt remains. After all, according to the tags, the bonnet was acquired by Izydor not on the Kanin peninsula, where Mrs. Zinoida lives, but in Salekhard, a thousand kilometres further to the east in a straight line. A thousand kilometres separated by mountains, swamps and rivers. This is true, however, the Kanin peninsula and Salekhard are located in an area inhabited by the Nenets. What's more, women were often brought from distant places. Did the owner of the Krakow bonnet also travel this way? Has anyone ever travelled such a long way? Any bride? Well, yes! And we have proof for that.

It is amazing, but thanks to a journalist Irina Khalzerova, we found a recording of a song sung by the recently deceased Marina Prokopevna Ardeyeva, born in 1929, in the settlement of Oma. The song was recorded in 2012, but Marina Prokopevna had learnt it from her mother. It is called A Song about a Poor Girl. What is it about? First of all, like most Nenets women's songs, it tells a "real" story. In this case, about a girl, married in quite dramatic circumstances, at Salekhard. In the place where the "wedding" items were acquired by Izydor Sobański. So such things really happened? Maybe it also happened to the owner of the garment which is currently in Krakow? Let's listen. The translation was made by the Ethno-Culture Centre staff from Naryan-Mar.
My three brothers/keep on going to Salekhard./But what do they do there?/It’s not for me to know.

One day/my older brother,/says,“My dear, the time has come for you,/we're going to Salekhard./We’ve given you away./Now you are betrothed.”

The bride price/were reindeer./So they harnessed the reindeer./My elder brother’s wife,/she took a panica/from a tied sled./She made me wear it.

And so we went/to Salekhard./It took us four Russian days./Four long days/we travelled there./
And then we saw Salekhard’s fires.

What’s that?/What's happening?/They leaned against the fencethe ends of the sled.
The host's son/he stood before us./He shook our hands,/he took his hat off.

We followed him inside./He brought/a barrel,/he asked us to sit down/at both sides of the table.
We started to drink "wine" (vodka)/and three of my brothers/got completely drunk.
But they were still sitting upright,/while I passed out.

When I woke up/the host’s son/was holding me in his arms./One of his hands
was my pillow./And with the other hand/he embraced me.

I jumped in fear!/I opened my eyes./My three brothers,/they were gone!
I ran out,/they’d already left.

I could only see the spot,/where their sleds had been./That was all./I started crying and screaming./Where did they go?

The host's son,/Said,/“My dear,don’t cry,/there’s nothing to cry about.
Now you'll be the mistress/of this place”,/the host's son/ said just that.
On our way back to Krakow we had something to think about. Is it a wedding outfit of a Nenets girl that found its way in the museum thanks to Izydor Sobański? A bride from the 1860s? Dating is not without significance, as so far no museum in the world has been found to possess an older version of the same type of garment as one in Krakow. Is "ours" the oldest surviving?

But let's sum up.

According to a catalogue tag, 5 items donated by Izydor Sobański are in the possession of the Ethnographic Museum through the Museum Technology and Industry.

Men's outfit.

In fact, why should it not be a garment belonging to Izydor himself? This would be suggested by the "European" modifications of the Nenets boots.

Women's outfit.

It was not a garment used every day. The furry, wolverine bonnet was certainly a ritual item and closely connected with the mystical world of the Nenets woman. Belonging together with her to a specific location in the spiritual space of this northern nation. It could have been used in various rites, such as casting a spell on the wind, as Kastren reported. But was it really about casting spells on the wind? Was it a prayer to the goddess of wind? Or to the wind itself.

The Oma analogy of our item was connected with the wedding ceremony. It was put on the bride's head. Why might not the one from our museum have had the same function in the past? Especially as it came together with a panica. Festive and also archaic garment of a Nenets woman according to the accounts of our interlocutors, according to sources, iconography, and finally, according to a song, put on by women on their wedding day. And then also after they died.

An additional element is a fragment of the reindeer harness. Fragment of tusks and leather, red ribbons. We don’t know where it came and whether it was also donated by Izydor Sobański. But we know for certain that the Nenets women from the Kanin peninsula recognised it as a harness used during the wedding ceremony. So doesn’t it fit perfectly into our puzzle? Who else if not Izydor could have donated it?
Of course, the question crops up how these items came into the possession of the Polish exile who was furthermore an aristocrat. There are at least several possibilities. Sobański could have been only an intermediary, and the items might have belonged to someone else. He could have bought them from desperate people. He could have received them from someone who later died. Yes. But the logic of this outfit, the male and female items, and finally the wedding harness, indicate two people.

A man and a woman.
Was the man Izydor, and the woman Nieko (woman) whose name we don’t know? Or maybe someone else? We don’t know and we’ll never find out. In such a situation, a story is always hidden, unspoken and unwritten. Because even if there really was some Nieko, she never came to Europe. She did not go to the Swiss Kefikon castle and did not live in Odessa until the end of her days. Is this surprising? We know similar examples from the biographies of other Polish exiles, Wacław Sieroszewski and Bronisław Piłsudski. But how was it in this case? Or maybe the story was completely different. Tamara, the owner of the Oma bonnet, died in childbirth.

The only thing left are the clothes in the museum. What comes to mind here is the Nenets’ fear of throwing away old clothes. Unworn, clothes belonging to nobody may, after all, be taken by the Parne tundra demon to impersonate a real human being. Let’s then, stop here at what we know.

And because every story should have an ending, and this especially true for a story potentially as romantic as this one, the song of the Nobel Prize-winning Robert Allen Zimmerman, popularly known as Bob Dylan, comes to mind. The song is called Girl of the North Country.

Girl of the North Country

Well, if you're travelin' in the north country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm,
When the rivers freeze and summer ends,
Please see if she's wearing a coat so warm,
To keep her from the howlin' winds.

Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
That's the way I remember her best.

I'm a-wonderin' if she remembers me at all.
Many times I've often prayed
In the darkness of my night,
In the brightness of my day.

So if you're travelin' in the north country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.
And maybe in this case it was not so romantic at all? "He bought her for some vodka," our interviewees from Oma suspected realistically.

The Epilogue

Our way back from Oma led through the magnificent port on the White Sea - the northern city of Arkhangelsk, the capital of Russian Pomerania. As it turned out, in 2007, Tatiana Sinycyna, a reporter of the local TV station, visited Oma when working on a feature on a mysterious murder. She accidentally went to the house of Mrs. Zinoida, where the crew filmed…? Yes, exactly, Mrs. Zinoida herself wearing the bonnet! Thanks to the generosity of Tatiana Sinycyna, we can see it again, "live". A real look into the past. Fortunately, its counterpart in the Krakow museum is with us, safe.
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Internet sources:
1. Map of Tobolsk District: РАН (Russian Academy of Science) - Атлас Российский (1745), цифровая копия сделана Российской государственной библиотекой (, Общественное достояние,
2. Pictures of Obdorsk:,
3. Pictures of Nenets: Fridtjof Nansen – National Library of Norway, Сергей Александрович Морозов. Творческая фотография. М.:Изд-во «Планета», 3-е изд., 1989, Viktor Zagumyonnov,,_Yamal_1982.jpg 
4. Song Narjan Mar, Singer Kola Beldy:
5. Pictures of wolverines : The wolverine, William F. Wood,, Rosomak na XIX wiecznej ilustracji „Przyjaciel ludu”,
6.Bob Dylan i Joan Baez: Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration