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The Khants

The KhantsNow Khants live mostly in Tyumenskaya Oblast (25 thousand people).

The self-designation is hant for the western Khants and kantхk for their eastern kin (meaning 'man'). The native term for the language is hant jasхng. It is generally believed that the name is associated with the River Konda. The earlier and more widespread Ostyaks (meaning the people of the River Ob) was used by the Komis, who were the one-time guides for the Russian troops in the region of the River Ob. The name Ostyak spread into other languages via Russian. The self-designation Khants was officially acknowledged at the beginning of the 1930s.

The Khant population has remained relatively stable but the consistent decline in the use of their mother tongue indicates a process of transition to the Russian language. The census figures are, however, a little misleading as they do not give any idea of the percentage the Khants formed of the total populations. In the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District the total number of inhabitants has increased eleven times during the last fifty years, while the percentage of the Khants among the population has constantly decreased (9.2% in the 1959 but only 1.8% in 1989). The resettlement caused by the developing oil and gas industries has scattered the Khants, and industrial activities and thriving migration have dangerously saturated and polluted both the physical and mental living space of the Khants.

Anthropologically, the Khants are representatives of the Uralic race. During the first millenium AD the ancestors of the Ob-Ugric people left the regions of the Rivers Pechora and Vychegda, crossed the Ural mountains and reached the banks of the lower Ob in northwest Siberia. Two phratries, the Mos and the Por, inhabited the northern territories. It has been suggested that the Por were an ancient local people that later became assimilated by the Mor (assembled Khant, Mansi and Hungarian tribes). It is assumed that the Khants and the Mansis separated during the 13th century when the Khants moved eastwards. The separation of the Ugric peoples and dissolution of their clan system was accelerated by the military interests of the Russians and Tatars in these territories and their natural resources. Records from the year 1265 show that jugra, the land of the Ugric peoples, was a tributary to Novgorod. Military expeditions by Novgorod (for example, those mentioned in the chronicls of 1323, 1329, 1364) and later by the Muscovites followed. A more severe expedition by the Russians took place in 1483 and their territorial influence expanded even further in 1499. Ivan III demanded the unconditioned recognition of Moscow's supremacy. Even though the Khants had retreated to the east without offering much resistance they were still not left alone. They had to pay taxes both to the Russians and to the Tatars, as the Tatar khan Kuchum declared himself the Emperor of Siberia, in 1563. The Khant tribes lived and fought under the leadership of their elders (though it must be said, preferring retreat to fighting). It is known that in the 16th century the territory in the middle reaches of the River Ob belonged to the Samar (hence the name of the settlement Samarovo, the present Khanty-Mansiysk), the lands of the lower Ob belonged to the Alach, and the Surgut region to the Partak and Halanok. When the Russians defeated the Tatars in 1582 they also started to strengthen their power over the Khants' lands. A succesion of fortress towns were built: Tyumen in 1585, Tobolsk in 1587, Surgut in 1593, Obdorsk (later Salechard) in 1595, and others. The Khant elders managed to retain their position and began to collect tribute from their subordinates. Gradual Christianization continued. The Khants have officially been regarded as Christians since the year 1715 after the extensive baptisms of monk Fyodor. Nevertheless, shamanism and animism have persisted, even to this day. The Khants were also economically subjugated. With the help of liquor the Khants were commercially exploited by traders eager for cheap furs. The predatory policy of Russian merchants and officials was so efficient that by the end of the 19th century the Khants, harassed by economic difficulties, were broken and close to ruin. The colonizers had seized their best lands as well as their incomes, and had brought along dangerous diseases and destructive habits (liquor being the biggest curse). It was commonly thought that the Khants would survive for no more than a couple of decades.

The arrival of Soviet power was accompanied by great promises and expectations for the Khants and other northern peoples. In 1925 a Northern Committee was founded in Tobolsk with the intention of leading the Khants, Mansis and Nenets along the road of progress. In 1930 the Ostyak-Vogul National District (renamed in 1940 the Khanty-Mansi National District) was formed. This new life was no less disturbing to the Khants, causing only fear and bewilderment. The establishment of collective farms followed accompanied by severe repressions. By attacking the traditions of the people the new ideology incited the persecution of shamans and the destruction of sacred groves and burial grounds. Khant children were forcibly removed to boarding schools. The largest outburst of resistance, led by the elders, became known as the Kazym rebellion. The opposition was ferociously suppressed by the army; Khant villages were burnt and much of that connected with the culture of the Khants was destroyed altogether. Cultural centres and 'red tents' were built to propagate the Soviet way of life and its accompanying customs. From then on, anyone who took part in the customary bear funeral rites could be subject to ten years' imprisonment. Bear hunting was also forbidden.

In the 1950s and 60s vast gas and oil reserves were discovered in western Siberia. The Khants, hardly recovered from the blows of Stalinism, now found themselves at the mercy of technocrats. The piratic economy has been ruthless and greedy. Oil has polluted pastures and waters once filled with fish, the gas and oil lines have blocked the paths of the reindeer, wildfires have destroyed forests. Still, every year 20,000-25,000 tons of oil pollutes the soil, spilled in technical failures (at least one accident every three days). 50% of the natural gas is simply consumed in senseless burning brands. Industrial pollution reduces the fishing grounds by about 10,000 hectares every year. In the district of Nizhnevartovsk alone a fire destroyed 260,000 hectares of forest in 1989. At the same time there has been an explosive increase in population (mainly due to urban migration). In 1969, 289,000 inhabitants lived in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District, by 1979 the number of inhabitants was already 596,000 and in 1989, 1,268,000 (a growth of one million in 20 years). The frailty of the northern biosphere and its resources has been totally ignored.

Economic, cultural and linguistic discrimination of the Khants has taken the form of public harassment. They are referred to as dogs, and derisive remarks are made about their dark skin. They are not allowed to work in the mines in case "they break something" or "earn too much". The rapid regression in the living conditions of the Khants is reflected in the decline of industry and in heavy drinking which has an all too common tendency to lead to suicide (Cf. the Mansis).

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