Komi Zyrians Traditional Culture


Orthodox christianity and russian colonialism | Komi Zyrians Traditional Culture

The central theme of this International conference is Christianity in Komiland: its introduction and dissemination and its impact on government and culture. If I were a clergyman, I would probably emphasize the spiritual and theological aspects of this subject matter; as a social scientist, I am more concerned with the historical and sociocultural facets and political change as a result of foreign colonisation and occupation of Komiland over the ages.

Christianity in this part of Europe naturally meant Byzantine Orthodox doctrine and its introduction to Komiland was the mission of St.Stephan of Perm being commemorated at this very conference. The achievement of the Apostle of the Komi has been recognised over the centuries and across continents: as late as in 1968, a leading American academic1 extolled St.Stephan's work and described him as a rather unique figure in a long line of missionaries. Luckily for the Komi, Stephan apparently was unique in many ways and his approach to evangelisation differed very significantly from the crucifix-or-sword formula of, say, Charlemagne and many others before him and, say, the Holy Inquisition and the Christianisation of Mexico or Peru after him. The picture of St.Stephan I can reconstruct for myself2 shows signs of human qualities singularly appropriate for an evangelist (and yet, in hindsight, so often so sadly unpossessed by so many missionaries elsewhere in the world): a good deal of understanding, empathy and tolerance in dealing with his clients; a remarkable cultural sensitivity that led him to recognise and accept the ethnic identity of the Komi people; readiness to preserve and cultivate Komi identity through the use of the native language; advancing Komi culture through the introduction of literacy in the mother tongue, etc. Over and above, he must have had a pleasing personal charm and a charismatic psychological make-up, an uncanny ability to attract and persuade people, and of course a good deal of straightforward courage. Charles A.Ferguson, just mentioned above, had this to say about him:

Stefan's attitude toward the Komi form of paganism was uncompromising: he fought the resistance movement led by Pam, the chief shaman, and he steadily replaced the local shrines and their pagan decorations by Christian churches with images of saints. On the other hand, he sympathized with the Komi in their opposition to the Russians: he made extensive use of the Komi language and he often took the side of the Komi in controversies with the Russians. He invented an alphabet for the Komi language and translated major parts of the liturgy into Komi, thus giving Komi the oldest literary monuments of any Uralic language except Hungarian, and he introduced the use of Komi in public worship and in the schools he established.

So far so good: it was a very promising start indeed for both the Komi people and the Christian Church in Komiland. But, alas, it came to be a short honeymoon only and with St.Stephan's death 600 years ago the history of Komiland took a rather different course. Let us quote Ferguson once again:

With the death of Stefan the Komi people began their history of five centuries of loyalty to the Orthodox Church, love and reverence for the name of St. Stefan, and pride in the early possession of a literary language of their own. Stefan's successors, however, were not of his caliber, and neither Russians nor Komi carried his Linguistic work further. The. history of Old Permian literature is mostly the copying and recopying of translations made by Stefan himself or made shortly after his time. The next burst of literary activity did not occur until the nineteenth century, when Komi nationalist stirrings gave rise to some new works; because of the czarist prohibition of any written use of the Komi language for all but religious purposes, the existing works are all devotional materials, new translations from the Gospels, and the like. A knowledge of the script remained alive for three centuries, perhaps more among Moscow copyists of manuscripts than among the Komi people themselves. Gradually, however, the script was abandoned and the language was transliterated in Old Church Slavonic characters. Then the use of the language in written form or even for the celebration of the liturgy also disappeared and the church became Russified. The Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of the success of St.Stefan's work and the use of national languages elsewhere in Eastern Orthodoxy, apparently did not again try the use of local languages until the nineteenth century, when, with missionary work of such men as Makary Glucharev, Innokenty Veniaminov, and Nikolai Kasatkin, the liturgy was translated into Tatar, Chuvash, Finnish, Japanese, Chinese, Aleut, and other languages4.

That much about the progressive experiment of St.Stephan and the subsequent fate of his initiative. Yet we must not forget for a moment that the introduction of Christianity to Komiland was not just a pious endeavour unrelated to the historical reality of the day. Indeed it was part and parcel of an historical process that we might label as Russian colonial expansion. How much aware St.Stephan himself was of the political role he actually fulfilled, hard to say. Did he indeed realize that his holy mission to the Komi also paved the way of unholy intensions in princeiy courts to conquer, to subjugate and to exploit in the guise of Christian civilisation?

Was he a naive idealist, was he a shrewd manipulator, did he act consciously as an agent of Muscovy or was he led solely by high principles as a messenger of God? Good questions to answer for independent-minded historians in present and future, and without the ideological straight jacket of the last 70-75 years.

However, with any degree of historical objectivity, it is impossible not to see that Christianisation in Komiland did represent an ideological thrust inseparable from Russian economic activity and military operations in the North. It has been the historical destiny of Eastern Slavs to unite and organise themselves into a huge empire stretching, not so very long ago, from Berlin in the west to Vladivostok in the east. The colonial expansion of Rus' began, by and large, a thousand years ago and only stopped late in the 20th century (has it really stopped or perhaps just suffered a temporary setback?). As to Komiland and its surroundings, Russian penetration into this area had begun well before St.Stephen's time. In the Nestor Chronicle, Perm is already listed as taxpayer to the Russians (that is, as early as the 11th century or possibly before) and thereafter a relentless expansion and deeper and deeper penetration by Slavs into formcly non-Slav territories can be gauged from a range of Russian historical records and documents5. Up North the city-state of Novgorod was probably the first to make its presence felt but in fierce competition with the wealthy merchant-republic, there too came others to take keen interest in the riches of the North and one Russian principality joined the race after the other until, in the 1470's, Muscovy gained the upper hand and took over for good and all6. What the Russians, from Novgorod to Rostov and Muscovy, found up in the northern belt was an almost uninterrupted, broad continuum of Uralic peoples, relatively small in numbers, speaking quite a variety of (actually related) languages all incomprehensible to the Slavs, and living in low-density pockets over vast stretches of land criss-crossed with numerous waterways. It was a land of plenty from Karelia across to the Urals, and the Russians first traded with the natives, then turned up as settlers themselves, then they put the screws on the aborigines and the newcomers gradually became the masters. The process of takeover, also known as colonisation, was occasionally facilitated, reinforced and maintained by military operations, visits by government officials (yes, of course, the taxman) and last but not least, the arrival of a vanguard preaching of a new spiritual culture with a new set of moral values, a new ideology to match the new order already established or being introduced: enter the missionary, the churchman. The secular forces of the military and some civil administration are more often than not inseparable from the new clergy: all three have their own areas of operation but they make a combined effort to impose a new-system of rules and a new body of beliefs. In the process of takeover, the original inhabitants become a minority, inorodtsy7 in their own homeland (or what used to be theirs). If they are not exterminated, they have a chance to die from introduced diseases, alcohol or drugs; if they don't die, they might assimilate and then disappear, ethnically, culturally and quietly; if they are so obstinate as to survive linguistically and culturally, they are degraded and abused, at its best paternalised, and lowered in esteem and status and income and opportunities. In brief: they now are civilised. To be colonised is the same.

This process in Komiland had begun well before St.Stephan and then continued after him8. The term colonisation can best be applied to the period up to the 1470's when, with the final fall of Novgorod and the henceforward unchallenged hegemony of Muscovy, a new era begins in Komi history: the centuries of irreversible Russian rule. Perm Vychegodskaja as well as Perm Velikaja are, once and for all, incoqwrated and integrated into the Russian Empire and ruled with an iron fist from Moscow. The monopoly of secular power is extended to the religious sphere, too, and rights and privileges are granted to the Church that now has almost unchalleged powers over the souls. Apart from schism and sectarianism within, the Orthodox Church never had to face a serious challenge like the Roman Catholic Church vis-avis the Reformation -in Europe, conveniently far from Russia and, regrettably, very far from Komiland. Regrettably, because the Reformation in Europe acted as a powerful cultural stimulant and promoted literacy, public education and the use of native languages in worship and beyond. Hopelessly isolated from the rest of Europe, Komiland was doomed to remain a remote backwater of the Russian empire. The first, natural and inescapable, result of Russian dominance was, of course, strong and continuous Russification noticeable in the Komi language and culture. As a rule, the confrontation of a majority and a minority culture facilitates strong one-way acculturation. On the one hand, it is a spontaneous process and precious little can be done about it; on the other hand, however, it was also a policy strongly encouraged by government and church alike and pursued by both for centuries, and not without some very negative consequences. For one thing, it persistently hindered the socioeconomic progress of the Komi people inasmuch as it remained a fragmented rural society scattered over a vast countryside with no urbanisation and no real capacity to move ahead, towards developing a nationhood of its own. This haridicap becomes quite evident in the hist century with the slowish emergence of a Komi middle class and Komi intelligentsia gradually waking up to their responsibilities and possibilities to lead their people on to a road that might someday elevate Komi society to Komi nation. How tsarist government and the Orthodox Church reacted to such initiatives, is yet another intriguing research topic. It is strikingly interesting, however, that following the earthquake of 1917, in the 1920's a whole generation of young Komi intellectuals steps forward instantly, able and willing to do their very best in the interests of what can only be seen as a markedly national revival (socialist or not, it's another question).

And here we are: 1917 and what it brought to the Komi (and other ethnic minorities in Russia). It would take very long even to just briefly analyse this period, so vital and so controversial, so full of promises and hopes and reversals and lies and blood. It will take up a lot of time of Komi historians to review the ins and outs of the last almost eight decades and come up with a balanced conclusion. And the predicament of the Orthodox Church during this period should be very much part of such an historical analysis. But my time is up, or very nearly so.

Before I step down: I promised you to say something about the Komi experience in an international perspective. So if you can still bear with me for a few more minutes, let us touch upon this issue.

Point one: to my limited knowledge, any colonial conquest involves trickery, dispossession, agression and violence. Shall we compare Russian colonial rule - well, what with? Remember the Spanish conquest of the New World with Pizarro and Cortes and other conquistadors plus of course their retinue of clergy, preaching the love of Jesus Christ through systematic genocide? Shall we look at Portuguese, Dutch, English or French colonisation and the role that their clergymen, Roman Catholic or Protestant, played in it? Or recall the fate of indigenous peoples of North America meted out by white settlers, governments, missionaries and, finally, the US cavalry in the last century? In any such comparison, St.Stephan of Perm stands out as a saintly figure indeed, and, by the same token, Russian colonisation could be viewed as a controlled exercise in territorial expansion. It could have been much worse, after all. Perhaps. But it was, actually and ultimately, bad enough, and this is not a joking matter. And I also categorically refuse the old and oft-repeated Soviet reasoning that Russian colonisation could be justified in retrospect because (in Marxist terms, they said) it opened up roads to higher levels of social evolution for ethnic minorities. This is utter nonsense, of course, and exactly the same cynical hypocrisy as Western colonial powers claiming to have civilised their victims, the poor ignorant savages in one invaded land or another. Colonisation is always oppression, dispossession, exploitation and inequity, in one word, injustice: and no injustice perpetrated by man to man can ever be justified in past, present or future. It is not only a crime: it is also a sin.

Well now, let us leave the past and return to the present. On the eve of the 21st century, we live in a rapidly changing world in which old political systems, old social orders, old conventions and old imperatives have come crumbling down and continue to do so. One central issue often heard worldwide in the 1990's is a demand for human rights in all parts of this old globe. It calls for equal rights and equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, nationality, gender, faith or social status. It is no more Proletarians of the world unite! but much rather People of the world unite! And there is a big difference here. The call for universal human rights rejects force and political or ideological straightjackets in any form. It accommodates pluralism in principle and in practice (in the USSR pluralism was anathema yet Andrej Sakharov and other brave sons of Russia did advocate it publicly). The ideal of human unity can be achieved through diversity and tolerance for diversity. In this context, the rights of ethnic minorities are part and parcel of universal human rights, and they must be granted and safeguarded in any civilized society. It is gratifying to see that throughout the world quite a number of ethnic minorities, silenced until recently, can now stand up for themselves and receive strong support from international organisations and recognition with affirmative action from their governments. I hail the cultural revival and political activation of indigenous peoples in North and South America; I am pleased to see that the Lapps in Scandinavia are better off than before; I am glad to have seen recent movies from Wales and Ireland speaking Welsh and Irish, not English; and it is a great step in the right direction that in Australia and Canada multiculturalism? (i.e. recognition and active support of ethnic minorities) is enacted government policy (with an ongoing financial backing of millions of dollars).

In this part of the world, we have also seen dramatic changes never previously expected. The fallout of change is often disheartening, and I very sincerely commiserate with the millions of Komi and Russians and all the rest for the extraordinary hardships they have to endure day in, day out. Yet, on the other hand, there are bright signs of change for the better (as this conference proves it eloquently). The Russian Federation is in a turmoil economically, politically and socially, and we can only hope and pray for a peaceful and bloodless disentanglement from the agonies of today. How the Komi and scores of other ethnic minorities and minor nations in Russia will benefit from a new confederacy, also remains to be seen. But the winds of new times are already blowing and they can be felt. I cherish my memories of Syktyvkar in the 1950-60's and yet I am overjoyed to see that since then this city has not only grown (it has!) but also come of age and opened up to become a part of Europe. Back in those days, I heard rumours about clandestine meetings of Christians behind closed doors; now we have the desecrated churches reopened with bells ringing. Being an incorrigible optimist, I trust that a real autonomy for the Komi Republic will guarantee lull civil rights for all ethnic groups here that Finland gives to her 2% Swedish minority and some 4000 Lapps; that Russian citizens enjoy in newly independent Estonia; or, to look a bit further afield, that each and every canton has in the truly democratic confederation of Switzerland. I trust that the Komi government will be able to support economic growth and social cohesion, and boost a cultural renaissance that the imagination and effort of this greatly talented nation can create. I trust that the Komi government will be able to care for the cultural needs of all the Komi outside the boundaries of the Republic: Komi on the Kola Peninsula and Kanin, the Great Tundra and beyond the Urals in Siberia and elsewhere. I also hope that, if national self-determination is more than just lip-service, then one day our Komi sisters and brothers of the Permjak District will be united with us here in the Republic. Common sense, a shared ethnocultural identity and political fairness ail call for this.

And I cannot think of a future without the Church taking a place that it deserves in a new society which is freed from old shackles but also deeply hurt and demoralized. The successor-states of the old USSR are all in a psychological, moral and spiritual crisis; millions of people feel misguided, desperate, disillusioned, cynical, depressed, you name it; organised crime and unbridled corruption go unchallenged; and the unpredictability of the near future makes things much worse. What is urgently needed is a long-term rehabilitation process which is unthinkable without godly guidance from the Church: if ever, now we could do with a new St.Slephan of Perm, may he guide and guard us in heavens. If he does, Komiland will be a free country where justice prevails and the people - Komi, Russian, Nenets and all - live happily together in peace and prosperity. May we all see it come true.

NOTES AND COMMENTARY (Russian Cyrillic items hereunder are transliterated following English conventions)

1. C.A. Ferguson, St. Stefan of Perm and Applied Linguistics. In: J.A.Fishman-C.A.Ferguson-J.D.Gupta, Language Problems of Developing Nations. John Wiley 6 Sons, Inc., New York, 1968, pp. 253-265.

2. Mainly from the reports by St.Stephan's faithful disciple, Epiphan the Wise in his Zhitie (see Abbreviations below); also see G.S.Lytkin (1889).

3. C.A.Ferguson, op.cit. p.254.

4. C.A. Ferguson, op.cit. pp. 254-255.

5. Two editions of the so-called Nestor Chronicle are referred to, viz. PVL. (1950) and NestorChr. (1948). Some other important Russian documents are as follows: Vologodsko-Permskaja Letopis1, PSRL. Vol. 26; Patriarshaja ili Nikonovskaja Letopis', PSRL. Vol. 11-12; Ustjuzhskij Letopisnyj Svod, Moskva-Leningrad 1950; Vychegodsko-Vymskaja (Misailo-Evtikhievskaja) Letopis', published by P. Doronin in IFS." Vol. 4, pp. 257-271 (Syktyvkar 1958).

6. IFS. Vol. 4, pp. 243-247, 258; GramNovg. p.9; Kanivee (1964). p.7; Akty (1964) pp.31, 34, 308-311,614.

7. Pre-1917, now obsolete Russian word with pejorative connotation meaning, roughly, alien, stranger, non-Russian ethnic.

8. See references above in Note No. 6.


Akty (1964): Akty sotsiarno-ekonomicheskoj istorii sevepo-vostoehnoj Rusi, Tom 111. Moskva 1964.

GramNovg.: Gramoty Velikogo Novgoroda i Pskova. Moskva-Leningrad 1949.

G.S.Lytkin (1889): Syrjanskijkrajprijepiskopakti "pemiskikh i zyrjanskij jazyk". Sanktpeterburg" 1889.

IFS: Istoriko-Filologieheskij Sbornik Komi Filiala AN SSSR (Syktyvkar).

Kanivee (1964): Kaninskaja peshehenr. Moskva 1964.

NestorChr. (1948): Die Altrussisehe Nestorehronik. Herausgegeben von R.Trautmann. Leipzig 1948.

PSRL: Polnoe Sobranie Russkikh Letopisej.

PVL (1950): Povcst1 vremennykh let I-II. Moskva-Leningrad 1950.

Zhitie: Zhitie svjatago Stefana jepiskopa permskogo, napisannoe Jepifaniem "Premudrym". Sanktpeterburg" 1897.

Google ads: