Khanty-Mansiysk is an oil-rich and hilly region in central Russia. About 1.5 million people populate this vast area the size of France. The English-language newspaper Siberian Times has called it “the Siberian equivalent of Texas.” Over half of Russia’s oil is produced here. Today, the capital of the region (also called Khanty-Mansiysk) is a booming oil town with futuristic architecture, downhill ski slopes, and world-class cross-country ski tracks.
The area was historically populated mostly by the Khanty and Mansi peoples, as well as other ethnic groups. Under Soviet rule, the government developed parts of the region, introduced standardized education in Russian-language schools, and offered replacements for traditional nomadic homes with housing in newly erected villages. Local Khanty and Mansi languages, which are related to Hungarian, are now spoken by few.
Photographer Fyodor Telkov visited the village of Varyogan, where just 660 people live, all composing five very large Khanty families, for whom the traditional Khanty lifestyle remains central.
Vitaliy Kazamkin (47 years old) and his son Anton (6 years old). A Khanty family from the “Bear clan.” The Kazamkins own two houses in the village, and their children attend the local school, but the family spends most of its time in nomadic homes in the taiga. Vitaliy Kazamkin established a small tourist business there, for visitors who wish to stay in traditional Khanty houses.
Each Khanty family living the in the taiga has three nomadic homes: one for the winter, one for the spring, and one for the summer. Moving from one to another depends on the season, on the deer herd, on deer feed, and so on. Each settlement has a house, a deer enclosure, cellars, and sledges for transportation. Each family member owns their own deer within the bigger family herd.
The Khanty hunt for food, not for recreation. They often carry a hunting rifle. Poaching and illegal recreational hunting are harmful for the traditional Khanty way of life.
Khanty are careful hunters and always make sure that the bird population does not sink below certain levels, in order to sustain a balance in the environment and to be sure there will be more food tomorrow.
Khanty spirituality is a deeply personal sphere. The Khanty people do not readily speak about their traditional beliefs, as people were persecuted for this under Soviet rule. Shamans were often punished for their religious activities in the USSR.
From left to right: Anton Kazamkin of the Khanty people (6 years old), Nelya Pyak of the Nenets people (41 years old), Vitaly Kazamkin of the Khanty people (41 years old). Khanty people believe that the souls of ancestors are reborn in younger generations; therefore children are respected and loved in Khanty families.
Fish is a staple food for the Khanty. The number of fish in the region’s rivers and lakes is essential for upholding traditional ways of life.
Khanty cuisine is based on efficiency and simplicity of food preparation. Khanty eat a lot of boiled fish, boiled meat, or frozen raw meat.
Traditionally, women have a lot of responsibilities; among them are cooking, preparing firewood, making clothes, rearing children.
Maxim Kazamkin (9 years old), a Khanty of the “Bear clan.”
A “Labaz” is a house built on posts high off the ground in order to keep out wild animals. This small building holds tools, household goods, clothes, meat, and various spiritual items. The Labaz and the area around it are considered holy, and one cannot enter or take anything from it after sundown.
Deer provide meat, furs, transportation, decoration, and bait for other animals.
Oil extraction has pushed Khanty people out of their traditional areas of settlement. Vitaly explains that Khanty people always lived near rivers in order to go fishing, and there are usually more fish in areas with oil reserves. This is due to the fact that oil reserves provide heat for the water in the wintertime, and thus offer more oxygen to fish under the ice. As a result, oil extraction facilities pop in places of importance for the Khanty.
Khanty traditionally predict the weather by looking at the stars, are familiar with animal tracks, and boast knowledge of how certain animals and fish behave in the wild.
Raisa Pakacheva (46 years old), from the “Beaver clan.”
Every nomadic home has an electric facility which operates on diesel fuel. The Kazamkin family usually uses electricity from sundown to about 8p.m. To save fuel, the family uses dull light from kerosene lamps on dark nights.
When new oil reserves are discovered and oil extraction facilities are built, this results in shrinking territory for bears to roam. A bear migration pathway from the north to the south goes right through the Kazamkins’ nomadic settlements, where bears find easy prey—the Kazamkins’ deer. The family tries to protect its herd from these predators.
A typical Khanty house is a low wooden structure with small doors. There is a common room with a small storage area in the front, two windows and a wooden countertop. Before, the roofs of these houses were typically covered with moss, or sometimes with deerskin in the winter and tree bark in the summer.