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Section: Ethnography
G.F. Müller: On Peoples’ Spiritual Qualities

G.F. Müller: On Peoples’ Spiritual Qualities

A noticeable event in the cultural and academic life of the year 2009 was the first edition in the Russian language of the fundamental ethnographic work "The Description of Siberian peoples" by G. F. Müller, an outstanding explorer of the 18th century Siberia, a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition (he was 27 when he set off).

Müller's Siberian heritage counts scores of monographs and papers on local history and geography, maps, historical and geographical descriptions of the uezds, travel notes, etc. It should be stated, however, that on the whole, Müller's archives have been studied much less than the works of other prominent historians of the past. The situation with the scholar's ethnographic works and materials is the worst.

So, the manuscript of his fundamental work "The Description of Siberian peoples" was discovered, after a long search, in The Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts only in 1939. This most significant of Müller's works on Siberian ethnography was first published in the Russian translation in 2009 thanks to the joint effort of the Institute of History, SB RAS (Novosibirsk) and Franke Fund, Halle (Germany). Today, we offer to our readers excerpts from the chapter dealing with personal relations, gender roles, attitude to ownership, and other "spiritual qualities" of the Siberian indigenous nationalities

The personality of the outstanding Russian historian and famous explorer of Siberia Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705—1783) can hardly be considered deprived of attention either on the part of his contemporaries or the subsequent generations of scholars. Up to now, he remains one of the most often quoted authors: virtually, no serious investigation on the history of 16th—18th century Russia; the ethnography and languages of its indigenous population; and the history of archaeological, geographical and cartographic works can do without reference to the papers by “the father of Siberian historiography.”

A most important landmark in Müller’s academic career was his journey across Siberia as a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition. He was 27 when he set off, and, by common consent, it was during the Expedition that he matured into a prominent scholar who rose to European fame. Müller’s travel in Siberia lasted almost ten years, and he was the only member of the Expedition to visit all Ural and Siberian “uezds” (regions) and all more or less important settlements of the Urals and Siberia, with the only exception of the Port of Okhotka.

Müller’s Siberian heritage counts scores of monographs and papers on local history and geography, maps, historical and geographical descriptions of the uezds, travel notes, a 2,500 page field journal, and ethnographic works. It should be stated, however, that on the whole, Müller’s archives have been studied much less than the works of other prominent historians of the past. The situation with the scholar’s ethnographic works and materials is the worst: until recently, Müller as an ethnographer was assessed basing solely on the data included in the published chapters of “The History of Siberia.”

The plan of Siberian ethnographic studies prepared by Müller in 1740 is a unique document which even now, two and a half centuries later, has no rival in national science in terms of the scope of the issues examined. Also, Müller was much ahead of his time in his views on ethnography given in the prefaces to his uncompleted fundamental work “The Description of Siberian peoples,” whose manuscript was discovered, after a long search, in The Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts, as recently as in 1939. This most significant of Müller’s works on Siberian ethnography is a bold attempt to draw up a comprehensive comparative description of all Siberian peoples and make a first step towards compiling a universal description of all the peoples of the world – an idea the scholar entertained.

The ethnography essays constituting “The Description…” convey invaluable data on the history of the Siberian indigenous peoples, their ethnic composition, material and spiritual culture, languages and aboriginal toponymy. The scholar obtained most historical data from his archival studies. His examination of the archives of Siberian towns and “ostrogs” (wooden fortresses on a Russian frontier) and copying of the documents kept in them is regarded as a heroic deed of a scholar who has preserved for the descendants a huge number of precious sources.

And yet, the principal and most valuable ethnographic materials were obtained directly from the local residents. Despite the heavy workload in the towns, Müller managed to pay visits to “yasak volost’s” (areas obliged to pay “yasak”, or tribute). As a rule, these trips were agreed beforehand with the representatives of aboriginal nobility or shamans. Having won the trust of these people, Müller got invitations to weddings, religious rituals and festivals, and fishing trips, to name just a few. His gentle manners, gifts, and respectful attitude he demonstrated towards the customs and religion of his interlocutors helped him to win their sympathies and induce to be frank with him very different people, from common peasants to representatives of noble aboriginal clans, and from shamans to highly educated Muslim and Buddhist priests.

Müller’s famous work was first published in the Russian translation only in 2009 thanks to the joint effort of the Institute of History, SB RAS (Novosibirsk) and Franke Fund, Halle (Germany). The German translation of this work has been prepared; it is going to be published in Germany in 2011.

Doctor of History A. Ch. Elert
(Institute of History, SB RAS, Novosibirsk)

Generally speaking, it can be said about all pagan Siberian peoples that their mental culture is higher or lower depending on how civilized they are as a consequence of communicating with other peoples.

For example, the Chukchi living in the extreme north-east [of Asia], who have always avoided contact with the Russian subjects, have certain manners that clearly demonstrate the complete ignorance of their reason.

People who happened to be among the Chukchi and communicate with them gave me the following picture. The Chukchi live in their yurts, men and women, old and young, completely naked, without any shame, both among themselves and with strangers. If somebody comes to them ‹…›, either a man they know or a complete stranger, the husband offers his wife to him and makes the guest cohabit with her. If a husband is not in, the women themselves are so shameless that they invite the newcomer to cohabit with them. If the Russian does not wish to observe this custom, it is taken as an insult and a sign that he has designs on them. Also, the Chukchi can encourage the Russians by saying that the latter have arrived in an alien country and should dispel the boredom with women.

‹…› As soon as a girl is mature for cohabitation, she is not spared. The women do not restrain themselves even during their cycle, and after giving birth control themselves only until they are cleaned. Two men sometimes agree to share their wives – they believe that in this way they develop a most intimate blood friendship. They are especially happy if their wives have intercourse with the Russians because they think that through this they will resemble them. They assured me that for the same reason Kalmyk kontaishiny (a title of the rulers of Zunghar Khanate and other Mongolian dominions) contracted Russian prisoners to cohabit with their wives.

‹…› If in the past, when the Russians would often send parties against the Chukchi from the Anadyr ostrog (a wooden fortress on a Russian frontier), a Russian took a Chukotka girl or woman as a slave, she was said to be useless if her master did not fraternize with her. When in 1730 Captain Pavlutskiy was on a military campaign against the Chukchi and took a lot of prisoners of both sexes but strictly banned his team from cohabiting with the pagan women slaves, the latter reportedly jeered at the Russians and asked them through the interpreter if, perchance, the part of the body that made a man a man was missing from them. The Koriak and Kamchadal women slaves, whom the Russians used to have plenty, are said to have the same nature. On Kamchatka, the man who said nay to a woman and so prevented her from fulfilling what was believed to be her duty couldn’t get any work from her. The women slaves would flee from their masters as soon as they saw the latter were not willing or not able to cohabit with them.

On Kamchatka, there are some people of the male gender who, in contrast to nature, lend themselves to other men for lewd acts from behind. ‹…› They are hated by all the manhood, and everybody fights shy of communicating with them. They live among women, do all women’s jobs, and dress like women. The same is true of some American peoples. However, we have not heard other Siberian peoples commit such deadly Sodom sins.

A Pole named Arsin Krupetskiy, who was taken prisoner by the Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich during the Polish War and died not so long ago, in an old age, in Yakutsk, in the position of syn boyarski (the lowest rank of Russian nobility), allegedly molested boys and always took a boy along with him for this purpose when sent to Yakut settlements to collect tribute. When, one night, the Yakuts reportedly were on the look-out for him and noticed something wrong, they were said to have stealthily spread this news as of something extremely disgraceful to spite the Russians; the rumor was reported to reach the northern Yukagirs and Koriaks. Nevertheless, the Yakuts, Buryats and Mongols have alleged sexual intercourse with cattle, and the women are said to indulge in the shameful forbidden lust between each other ‹…›, even though it is considered to be a great sin.

Generally speaking, debauchery between unmarried people is not common for Siberian peoples. The reasons for this are as follows: firstly, they have their children marry early and get them betrothed even earlier; secondly, most peoples allow legal cohabitation to the betrothed; thirdly, in the case of debauchery, both the man and the woman can be in danger, as it will be remarked below. Much more widespread is one-side or mutual adultery. A rare step-mother does not sin with her step sons, and the older brother’s wife, with his younger brothers. Both of these transgressions are practically ignored as after the father’s or older brother’s death, the step-mother and the older brother’s widow would go over to the step sons and younger brothers.

During our stay in Ilimsk, a 70- or 80-year-old-old Tungus from the upper reaches of the River Ilim came to the town governor with the complaint that he had caught his son with his young wife, and they both beat him up; so he asked to bring them in and to punish them. They were brought in. The son was from 30 to 40 years old, and the woman was less than 30. They confessed their crime; the son laughed, and the woman was a little embarrassed. We asked them whether they had been doing this for a long time, and the son answered in the affirmative and added that the father had known about it for some time, but now that he caught them at the moment of the crime, he wanted to give them a beating, so they had to protect their lives. ‹…› The punishment was that the son was lashed with sticks at his father’s request and the woman got no punishment at all, because the old man objected to it saying that he loved her too much to allow the lashing. The young couple promised to the old man to behave better, after which all the three went their own way.

Sometimes, when the father is too jealous, the son can kidnap his step mother. Something like this happened to the kniazets (head of an indigenous community in Siberia) of the Baturusski ulus (region), who crossed together with his step-mother the River Zeya falling into the Amur and, having lived two years among the local Tungus, went back. His body turned skewbald during his escape, this is why he is often called the Skewbald kniazets.

‹…› No nationality is as sensitive and jealous in this respect as the Tungus. They can spare the sons but if they catch the wife with an alien, they will pursue him until he is killed; and even if there is only a suspicion, the man accused should justify himself with an oath, or he will be exposed to a deadly danger. The Yakuts are a bit peculiar in this issue, namely, they think that adultery with a Russian is much more disgraceful than with a Yakut. In this case, the husband would most probably drive the wife away.

With all the Siberian people, bashfulness concerns only the intimate parts. The women are not ashamed of being topless in front of male strangers. Unmarried girls, however, never expose their breasts. This is true of most peoples. The women of Muslim Tatars and those who are in contact with the Russians are ashamed of their breasts as well. And the fact that all the Chukchi people, on the opposite, are an exception follows from what was said above.

The name of the Samoyed (eating themselves) nationality suggests that these people are especially savage. However, this is not observed. I had an idea that, maybe, if hunters get deep into the forest and starve because of a poor take, they might, in an emergency, kill their companions and eat them. Both the Russians and the Samoyeds unanimously assured me though that they had never heard of any such cases. When I told different Samoyeds that such things happened even with most civilized people and that need exculpates them, their answer was as follows: for other people it may be so, but the Samoyeds would rather starve to death than commit a sin against the law of humanity to the extent of killing and eating people. Moreover, they would not even eat dead bodies in case of desperate need.

‹…› The Yarak Samoyeds are absolutely savage and engage in robbery: they attack not only the Russians and rob them, but also fight other Samoyeds, both from Tavga and Khantaisk. They frequently make wars between themselves as well. It is a good thing though that, as a rule, they avoid to kill a Russian, only bind his feet and hands and let him lie. Among themselves, the Samoyeds are very compassionate. If one of them is in need, all his kinfolk will help him, they will even pay the bride-money if he wants to marry but does not have enough means to pay for the fiancée.

No nationality has as strong principles of inner decency as the Tungus. Theft, fraud and other intended insults are unheard of. They are hospitable and generous. I saw it more than once with the Nerchinsk Tungus : when I presented to the highest placed among them Chinese tobacco, fire beads or other things he liked, he would share the gift with all his people present, and not for fear or under compulsion but only because of the community spirit.

In contrast with this, it is known about the Kirgiz Cossacks, the so-called Cossack Horde, that when a present was sent to the khan from the Russian side (often from Tobolsk), which was, for instance, a cut of German canvas or of English red cloth, it always had to be given to the khan by stealth, or else he would have to divide it among everybody present. The reason for this involuntary sharing was that people showed little respect to the khan and would often despoil and plunder him. When one time a Russian messenger, ignorant of these practices, openly brought a gift to the khan intending to pass it over to him with all due ceremonies, the crowd that had gathered around was reported to rush to him and cut the roll of cloth into as many small pieces as there were people present, and the khan’s share was not bigger than that of each common man.

Some want to compromise the reputation of Siberian peoples as being lazy because they do not stock more than is necessary to sustain life, and if in the summer they have made provisions for the winter, they will then use them without any further effort. In my opinion, this rather suggests moderation, which deserves to be praised.

Concerning the Tungus’ good qualities, the Tatars and Mongols are close to them. The Buryats are thievish, and, while we were there, some of them were even caught on the road between Selenginsk and Kiahta robbing Russian merchants.

The most thievish and liable to deception of all peoples are the Yakuts. They are not in the least ashamed to do injustice towards one another whenever they can. The kniazets’s mercilessly victimize their subjects. Murders used to be quite common, too. Even though it still occasionally happens, it should be said that under the Russians’ supervision they have become better to a certain extent, which they themselves recognize.

As beneficial the high Emperor’s decree is for some nationalities, who execute laws among themselves, as useless it is, for the reasons stated above, for the Yakuts, because it only provides more opportunities for the kniazets’s to do injustice towards their people. ‹…› The commonality are also used to stealing cattle from each other, which they slaughter and dig into the ground. For this purpose, they allegedly have secret cellars under their dwellings or next to them, which others cannot see.

‹…› If a few Yakuts are given one present, for instance, tobacco, or they should be paid money, you cannot give all the tobacco or the whole sum of money to one of them for him to divide it between all but should rather distribute it yourself, to avoid violent quarrels and deception. Besides, the Yakuts are haughty and boastful. Glib talkers are considered to be the most capable men. Therefore, they shout very loudly when talking to each other, and the Russians sent to them to collect tribute try to win their respect through loud cries and fluent talk. All Siberian peoples have the oriental custom of receiving and making presents. Since this is also true for the Yakuts, in the recent years, when investigations against Russian tribute collectors were held with a view to finding out whether they had overburdened the people putting pressure on them, the Yakuts, when indirectly questioned about it, unfairly referred to the aforesaid burden all the gifts they had made on their own free will.

At the beginning of taking the country, some peoples showed more willfulness and obstinacy than the others. The Muslim Tatars living on the Irtysh River and in other areas, as people not completely uncivilized even back at that time, could only be handled by weapon. The pagan Tatars, on the contrary, mostly submitted voluntarily. The Buryats were also reported to be extremely obstinate, and as late as in our time, the Buryats around Irkutsk and Verkholensk were proved to have conspired against the Russians. Similarly, the Yakuts could only be made to obey through great strictness, as they would often kill the Russians sent to them to collect tribute, or those who were hunting. The most obstinate of all peoples, however, were the Koriaks. Sometimes, they would even kill or burn themselves together with their wives and children in order not to fall into the hands of the Russians.

‹…› The Kurils on Kamchatka also caused a lot of concern at first. The Kamchadals, on the contrary, submitted much more willingly, though a few years ago they organized a big mutiny – not out of their natural inclinations, however, but because of merciless oppression on the part of their chiefs.

‹…› Even though some Chukchi were taken as hostages, the others were rarely concerned about it or made steps to pay tribute to buy them out. Such a hostage was regarded lost; and despite the attempts made by Yakut Cossacks in Anadyrsk to hang the hostages for whom no tribute was paid in front of some Chukchi, this did not amount to anything.

‹…› The Ostiaks, who are a collection of different peoples, specific pagan nationalities in the Krasnoyarsk uyezd (region), and the good-sized Tungus people were the easiest to subjugate. From the latter, however, the ones living around Okhotsk and on the upper Angara had stirred up more than one mutiny and would often kill the Russians. The reasons for this, again, were, partly, the cruel treatment of Russian chiefs; partly, frequent robberies by civil servants and industry people; and partly their unwillingness to let the Russians hunt on their native land.

The Ostiaks are said to have frequent skirmishes between themselves, such as between the Yenisei and the Surgut Ostiaks for their hunting rights, as well as between the Surgut Ostiaks and the Yuraks. This happens, predominantly, because of beaver hunting, since beavers have permanent holds. About ten years ago, The Yenisei Ostiaks regularly hunted for beavers on the rivers of the Surgut Ostiaks, and the latter would catch the Yenisei beavers. At first, there were fights, but then they became more tolerant, and since the Yenisei Ostiaks were not as numerous as the Surgut ones, the former were forced to give over half of their bag and a lot of their belongings to make peace.

‹…› If a nationality has submitted voluntarily, it is not necessarily attributed to their shyness. On the contrary, the Tungus are as courageous and valiant as people can only be. The reason for their submissiveness must be the following. The nationalities who roam in the forests usually live in separate families, so it was easy to seize one or a few people as hostages; they used to be kept in all towns and in ostrogs. And then the natural kindness and sincerity of the people who did not want to leave their hostages to the mercy of fate was the true reason for their submission. In contrast to them, it was not easy to take hostages from the peoples raising cattle and living close to each other in steppes or in settlements: they made a stand to protect their men, which often led to bloodshed.

In this way, the obstinacy of the Nerchinsk Tungus and submissiveness of the forest Tungus have the same root. The Chukchi, on the contrary, are so merciless towards their own kin that when some of them were occasionally caught and taken hostages, it would not urge them to submissiveness; they would always leave their people to the mercy of fate and the Russians, even if these were their parents, children, or brothers. They were often warned that the hostages would be killed if they did not agree to pay tribute, but it was all in vain. ‹…› It even occurred sometimes that the hostages kept in ostrogs and winter camps killed the Russians. About 30 or 40 years ago, the Tungus hostages did this at the Maiski winter camp. However, we should not conclude from this case that the Tungus have bad natural qualities. It is well known how harsh the conditions for hostages at the winter camps are, so they can easily despair.

‹…› Injustice with which the pagan peoples are treated in Siberia is the reason for their extreme shyness. ‹…› Timidity prevents them from settling down close to roads or along the banks of large navigable rivers so as not to fall victim to the usual offense on the part of the passers-by.

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