Pomors, the brave pioneers of the Arctic

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“The sea is our field” is a popular old saying among a group of northern Russians who became known as Pomors. This saying captures the identity expressed in this far northern extreme of Russian settlement. Russian identity is traditionally linked to cereal agriculture and to steppe landscapes. The term Pomors, by contrast, derives from the Russian words po mori͡u, meaning “by sea.” It indirectly points the fact that the people living along the White and Barents Seas have traditionally thrived on fishing and hunting of sea mammals, a survival strategy which would grow to have significant importance for Pomor identity movements in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Pomor identity has proven to be a challenge for both imperial and Soviet scholars. Pomors have been cited as the “most authentic Russians,” as an ambiguous sub-group of Great Russians and an indigenous minority. This ambiguity and uncertainty regarding Pomor identity seems to have its origins in Pomors’ unique settlement at the borders of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as well as their historical portrayal as explorers and pioneers and their unique ways of livelihood. While folklorists considered the territory of Pomor as an isolated region, its history shows its importance in both geopolitical and ethnographic conversation. In political and historical narratives, Pomor was regarded as the “window to Europe” due to the importance of Pomor seafaring and trading relations. At the same time, Pomors’ historical connections to the Novgorod Republic facilitated the idea of Pomors as “authentic Russian people.” Pomors’ ability to travel the sea and rivers gave them a special role in the expansion of the Slavic population not only along the White Sea coast but also across Siberia. Pomors’ movement to the east was the first wave of Russian colonization and resulted in the formation of mixed settler communities along the Arctic Sea cost such as tundra peasant settlements in Taymyr, a Creole community in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic and others.

The Pomors made their living from traditional trades. In the course of centuries, the Pomors developed economic and cultural relations with the neighbouring peoples. The Pomors went fishing not only in the White and Barents Seas. Northern seafarers possessed secrets of passage of many sea routes in the Kara, Norwegian and Greenland seas. At the end of the 15th century, the Pomors went to the northern shores of Scandinavia. In the Pomor navigation practice, this path was called “Turn to the German end.” It passed along the eastern coast of the White Sea and the northern coast of the Kola Peninsula with portage through the Rybachiy Peninsula. In the 16th– 17th centuries, the area of fishing and trading activities became even more extensive. The fishermen and sailors reached the mouth of the Yenisei River went to Novaya Zemlya, to Spitsbergen and the coastal islands of the Barents and Kara Seas. This is how the main sea lanes of the 16th century were called: “Mangazeysky sea course”. They mostly interacted with Norwegians and the best proof of that is Russenorsk, a pidgin, or simplified language that developed as a means of communication between two ethnic groups.

Pomors were also known all over the world as skilled shipbuilders. In the 12th century, Pomorie became the center of Russian shipbuilding – this is facilitated by the development of sea and river crafts. There were built the most perfect at the time of the court, designed for ice navigation. These were ships of distinct types: sea and ordinary boats, early rests, shnyaki, karbas. The ice boat was one of the most versatile boats created by Pomors for walking on rivers, lakes and especially the Arctic seas and also for fishing in harsh winter conditions and ice. The ice-boat performed several different functions, it was used as a means of swimming, and if necessary it could be pulled out to land, ice and dragging as a land vehicle. It transported all the equipment necessary for fishing and everything that was needed for human life. The development of sea and river fisheries demanded from the coast authorities the creation of lifting and stable vessels adapted to local navigation conditions. Thus was born the idea of a new fishing vessel – Koch. According to historians, Kochi appeared in the 18th century.

Koch (in different dialects – kocha, kochmor, kochmara) is a vessel adapted both for sailing on broken ice and for portage. Scientists believe that the name of the vessel comes from the word “Kotsa” – ice skin, ice coat. This was the name of the second hull shell protecting the main skin from ice damage, it was made of solid oak or hardwood boards in the place of a variable waterline. Another feature of the Koch was the hull, shaped like a nut shell. This design protects the ship from destruction in a collision with large ice floes. When the Koch stuck in the ice, it did not squeeze, but simply squeezed to the surface, and the ship could drift along with the ice. Koch had the original ship detail, which had no analogues either in Old Russian or in Western European shipbuilding of the 16th – 18th centuries. The smooth deck was also a feature of the Koch design, the storm wave surging freely flowed overboard. And on European ships, the boards of the deck ended with a stepping stone. The width of the Koch reached the 6,4 meter.

A small ratio of width and length – one to three or to four – made the ship yawing, which was eliminated due to the increased rudder area. Depending on the conditions of navigation, the design and dimensions of the moles slightly changed. For the maritime near-coast, river and portage areas, Kochi was built with a payload of 500-1600 pounds (small Kochi), and for sea and river routes that did not require passage through dry portions, up to 2500 pounds (large Kochi). By the beginning of the 17th century, the large Koch was the main vessel in the Siberian sea and river navigation. The primary outlined the contours of the vessel with a stick in the sand. The construction of the Koch began from the bottom: it suffered most of all from contact with ice, so it was made particularly strong. The keel of a large kocha was about 21,6 meters long and consisted of several parts. If it collapsed, they fixed the new one – the repair took a little time. This invention of Pomorians was subsequently borrowed by foreign masters; it has been applied throughout stories wooden shipbuilding.

The fact that the Pomors lived near the seas and their skill to cope with its character, left its immense mark on their life and traditions. Clothing, calendar, buildings, work, industry, customs, ceremonies, speech – all had their own characteristics. Many travelers and researchers noted the courage, creativity of thinking, enterprise, and freedom of love of Pomors. Pomors even today have not disappeared. The stereotype of behavior, self-name, ethnic identity, and a sense of specialty have survived. The Pomeranian spirit and Pomeranian character – these are the values that their ancestors have forged for centuries, waging a struggle for self-survival and the existence in the harsh conditions of the North and the development of the Arctic. It is these values that continue to determine the essence of modern Pomors. Among the great historical figures, Pomors were M. Lomonosov (scientist), F. Shubin (sculptor), Khabarov, Ermak, A.A. Baranov (the permanent ruler of Alaska), Atlasov, Stadukhin, Dezhnev and many other explorers who, many years before the Cossacks, traveled the entire Urals and mastered the Siberian lands that were not seen by anyone, and a little later the Far East and Alaska.

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