KOMI

The Dolgans People of the Arctic

The Komi people are the native inhabitants of the Komi Republic and the neighbouring areas The Republic, which in its current form was established in 1992, covers an area of about 415,900 square kilometres that is about twice the size of Britain. It is situated to the west of the Ural Mountains on the East European Plain. About 70% of its area is covered by forest and 15% of it is swamp. There are around 345,000 Komi making them one of the larger groups of native people in the Russian north.

Language

The Komi language belongs to the Ural family of languages which has two branches: Finno-Ugrian and Samoyedic. Nowadays three branches of Ural family are known: Finno-Permic, Ugrian and Samoyedic. The Komi language belongs to the Uralic sub-group of the Finno-Ugric language family and is divided up into ten different dialects. Most Komi people also speak Russian which they are taught in school.

Daily Life

Dolgan with Reindeer
The traditional economy of the Komi was based on hunting, fishing and trapping for fur as well as some cattle breeding and other agriculture. This lifestyle was maintained in most of the Republic without significant change until the beginning of the 20 th Century. The exception was the Northern Kom (Komi-Izhma), who began nomadic reindeer herding in the 17 th Century. They borrowed their reindeer herding methods from the Nenets, but introduced some modifications, and by the end of the 19 th Century they were the largest reindeer herders in the European North. An average herd consisted of about 2,000 reindeer.

Hunting was widespread especially in the Upper Vychegda, Pechora, and Udira Komis. Meat from these hunts provided a considerable part of the Komi diet. Hunting was divided into two periods, autumn and spring-winter. In autumn hunters went out in solo expeditions and in winter they hunted in artels, cooperative groups. Every hunting ground had a dwelling and was family property. They also fished in large rivers and the catch was salted in large quantities to preserve it. The main Komi settlements were villages located along the river banks with homes of a raised wooden framed construction.

Food

The Komi have access to a variety of meat from the domesticated animals they raised, with reindeer being the most commonly eaten by the Komi-Izhma in the north. They also eat fish, game and migratory water fowl. Gathering is also an important part of the Komi economy. Every family would gather berries such as mountain cranberry, bilberry, cloudberry, rowan-berry and wild strawberry. These would be either eaten fresh or preserved for winter as jams etc. In the Pechora area families also gathered cedar (Siberian pine) nuts

Transport

Due to the numerous lakes and rivers, waterways were the main routes of transportation and communication. The Komi people used boats as their main means of transportation. They had a variety of different types of boat made from wood and birch bark. Today, most Komi have access to a whole variety of modern transport. It is only in the very north of their territory that Komi herders still use reindeer for transport.

Religion

Originally Komi spiritual beliefs were based on animism and they had a constant interaction with the spirit world. Komi hunters were associated with forest spirits, while fisherman, were allied with water spirits. These traditional beliefs are now a thing of the past. Nowadays most Komi belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, although some of them are Old Believers. They were converted to Christianity at the end of the 14 th Century by a missionary called Stefan of Perm.

Clothing

The everyday clothes of a Komi man consisted of underwear, a smock and trousers tailored from an ordinary fabric. On special occasions they would wear a silk or sateen shirt, cloth trousers and store-bought cloth caftan. In winter they wore leather or felt boots and sheepskin coats. In the north, the Izhma Komi adopted Nenets reindeer skin clothing wearing malitsas (reindeer skin hooded parka) and thigh length boots. The traditional costume of Komi women was a shirt and sarafan (long dress) but their dress varied depending on whether they were single, married, or widowed, the main differences being the shape of the headwear, the colour of outer garments, and even the type of fabric.


Text © B & C Alexander