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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Siberia's dying Mansi people
Vasily consults Auntie Shura for tips on Mansi marriage
There are only about 200 Mansi left

It is not easy to find the Mansi people of the Urals.

From the nearest small town, it is a six-hour, 150-kilometre, bone-shaking drive through mud, swamps and woods - not to mention a few rickety wooden bridges across rivers, one of them considered sacred.

Map of the region
And that is only if you can find the petrol for the truck and avoid the bears and wolves.

What makes things even harder is that the Urals Mansi are a dying breed. The last census said there were only 194 left, spread out over isolated villages in the woods.

In the village of Yurta Anyamova, the biggest settlement, we found 32 of the Mansi. They told us we were the first truck to get through to them this year.

One of 45 indigenous peoples living in Russia, the Ural Mansi speak a Finno-Ugric language. The name "mansi" means "forest-dweller".

After years of state support under the Soviet system, they are now experiencing extreme difficulty in keeping their nation alive - literally.

Wife shortage

Added to the hardship of severe winters, which leave them cut off for months on end and reliant only on their traditional hunting skills, is a demographic crisis threatening to wipe them out.


I'd like to get married, to have a family, a house... you come home and everything's ready, it's warm

Prokopy Bakhtyarov

We met Prokopy Bakhtyarov, 31, outside his wooden house in the centre of the village.

"Here in the village everyone's related, it's hard to find a wife. I'd like to get married, to have a family, a house... you come home and everything's ready, it's warm," he says.

"But I don't know where I can find a wife. Everyone's trying to marry Russians and to leave the village."

What that means is that the number of pure Urals Mansi is declining rapidly, now hovering around 150 in total.

It was not always like that. In Tsarist Russia and then the USSR, the Mansi flourished as a people, herding their reindeer in the woods of northern Russia, untroubled by what others called "civilisation".

Mansi villagers
The number of pure Mansi is rapidly declining

Traditions ran deep and the Mansi had there own rites of passage to secure a healthy future for their people.

Hunched over a wooden table, Nina Anyamova is mincing a batch of moose meat for today's meal. She remembers how things used to be.

"Before, if a man liked a woman, his parents would buy her. They'd give them, say, 50 reindeer, or sable skins, if they had it.

"Then the brides' parents visited the bridegroom's parents, then the other way round... That's how they used to do it. Sometimes the men would steal their brides."

Match-making festival

It has been a long time since anyone paid any attention to the plight of the Mansi, but things are slowly changing.

Viktor Vakhrushev, a representative of the regional government, has come to Yurta Anyamova to do his bit for the reproduction of the nation.

His bosses have cooked up a plan to marry off as many of the Urals Mansi as possible to partners in the neighbouring region of Khanty-Mansiisk, home to a separate, but related, Mansi group.


For almost 17 years, their hasn't been a wedding here - the Mansi numbers are going down

Viktor Vakhrushev
Regional government

"For almost 17 years, their hasn't been a wedding here - the Mansi numbers are going down. There are potential brides and grooms, but there aren't many to match them with," he says.

The Mansi need new blood - and the way to do it is by putting the southern Urals Mansi together with other Mansi living in the north."

So Viktor and his colleagues have been photographing and interviewing the potential brides and grooms in both areas. They hope to bring them together in a match-making festival later this year.

Success story

With seven slain bears to his name, Vasily Anyamov, 42, is reckoned to be the best hunter in the village.

He is seen as one of the potential success stories in the campaign to save the Mansi.

Roman Anyamov
At 50, Roman Anyamov is the oldest in the village

He has already fixed himself up with a northern Mansi bride - she is called Raya, but so far she is still a helicopter ride away in the neighbouring region.

When we visited him, he was consulting his Auntie Shura for tips on Mansi marriage traditions.

"I want our tribe to multiply - there are so few left," he says. "I think mixed marriages are not good. It's best to marry within our own people. It's important to continue the nation, the traditions."

While campaigns to protect indigenous groups have been high profile in some areas of the world, Russia's native peoples have attracted little attention.

There used to be a whole ministry in Soviet times which, at least on the surface, defended their interests.

The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples (RAIPON) is doing its best to raise the issue of peoples like the Mansi at an international level.

Mansi village
Severe winters can leave Mansi villages cut off for months

According to the association's Rodion Sulyanziga, it is vital to do everything possible to help Russia's indigenous peoples.

"It will be a tragedy for human society if a group such as the Mansi die out. Today indigenous people are like a last barrier between industrial development and the environment health," says Rodion.

Living in the past

But for some of the residents of Yurta Anyamova, it is already too late.

With life expectancy a mere 42 for Mansi men, Roman Anyamov is facing a bleak future.

He is 50 and now the oldest villager, after his two elder cousins died - one killed by a bear in the forest and the other dying of tuberculosis.

He says his father told him of the northern Mansi girls - but for him the prospect of paying for a helicopter ride to find a bride is out of the question.

He spends his days recording the traditions of his people - for him there is only history left.

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08 Aug 02 | Europe
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