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ETHNONYMS: As-iakh, Hante, Ostyak; local names include Beriozov, Irtysh Khanty, Lariak, Obdorsk, and Vasiugan.


Identification. The Khanty were called Ostyak" by Russians until the 1930s, when their name was changed officially to reflect their self-designation. They are closely related, culturally and politically, to their nearest neighbors, the Mansi, historically called "Voguls," with whom they share the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District (okrug ) in western Siberia. The district was called a "national" area until the 1970s. An area of intense energy development, the Khanty homeland, once larger than its current boundaries, has been inundated by temporary workers, most of them Slavs. Other native minorities in the district include the Nenets and Selkup (Samoyed groups) and the Komi (historically, Zyrian). Khanty also live outside their district, mostly in nearby regions of western Siberia. They are one of twenty-six "Peoples of the North," designated as a special legal category.

Location. The Khanty-Mansiisk District of the Tiumen Oblast is bordered by the Yamalo-Nenets District and the Komi Autonomous Republic to the northwest and the Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Tomsk, and Krasnoyarsk regions to the southwest and east. It stretches from 58° to 62° N and 60° to 85° E. Khanty live as far north as the Arctic Circle and the Gulf of Ob, and as far south as the Irtysh-Tavda confluence, although they are concentrated in the Samarovsk, Surgut, Lariak, Beriozovo, Vasiugan, and Kondinsk areas of the greater Ob River Basin. Their territory, inside and outside the Khanty-Mansiisk District, includes tundra and taiga, with foothills of the Ural Mountains and lowlands of the Ob River. Forests of cedar, pine, and larch abound along its multiple rivers. When the thick snow cover melts each summer, extensive flooding occurs, turning the lowlands into swamps of moss, peat, and marsh pine. The extreme continental climate is characterized by temperatures as low as 50° C and as high as +20° C.

Demography. The 1989 Soviet census recorded a population of 147,386,000 for the Russian Republic, 187,083 for the Peoples of the North, and 22,500 for the Khanty. The Khanty-Mansiisk District had a population of 1,282,396 in 1989. Thus, the Khanty are a tiny minority within their district and within western Siberia. Their numbers have increased only slightly from the 20,934 recorded in 1979 and the 17,800 recorded in 1926. Although industrialization and urbanization have escalated around them in the last twenty years, most Khanty have remained in collectives away from large towns. Their infant mortality rates are high, and their life expectancy rates, especially for males, are low. The average northern native 1980s life expectancy was 45 for men and 55 for women. Interethnic marriage is common with other Siberian minorities, and, to a lesser extent, with Russians.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Khanty speak an Ob-Ugrian language of the Finno-Ugric Family of Uralic. The Khanty, Mansi, and Hungarian languages comprise the Ugrian linguistic category. Khanty linguists divide the language into four dialects, roughly corresponding to the cardinal directions, with emphasis on northwestern and eastern distinctions. These reflect cultural and linguistic differences that developed among the Shurikarsk (or Obdorsk), Kazym, Irtysh, Surgut, and Vakh Khanty. In the nineteenth century Russian Orthodox missionaries made a few attempts to create a written Khanty language, but a standardized form was difficult to derive from the dialects. In the 1930s a Latin script was introduced, and then quickly changed to a modified Cyrillic system by 1940. Russian has become the dominant language in most Khanty schools.

History and Cultural Relations

The first documents to refer to the Khanty indicate they had relations with Novgorodian traders in the eleventh century. Linguistic, archaeological, and folkloric evidence indicate that nomadic ancestors of the Ob Ugrians, possibly fleeing Christianization, had come north by the ninth century from steppes farther south. Crossing the Urals, they mixed and fought with indigenous populations and may have developed their dual phratry (or moiety) social system at that time. Conflicts with ancestors of the Mansi, Komi, and Nenets resulted in captives, who were made wives, slaves, or sacrificial victims. The Khanty paid tribute to the Tatar Khanate of Sibir from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries.

In 1582 some Khanty decided to side with the famous Cossack Ermak against the Tatar Khan Kuchum. To the Cossack's joy, a delegation of Khanty elders bearing furs and wearing jewels and silk arrived in the Cossack camp. Ermak assumed that these elders were princes with greater authority than they actually had, but the alliance lasted long enough to defeat Kuchum. Both before and after, trade relations proceeded with mutual benefit and, sometimes, misunderstandings. Khanty paid what Muscovites and Novgorodians considered a fur tax, iasak, in return for gifts and trinkets that the Slavic traders saw as insignificant. Colonization followed Kuchum's defeat, although a few Khanty uprisings persisted into the seventeenth century. Some rebellions against Moscovite rule involved coalitions of Tatars, Samoyeds, and Ob Ugrians. In 1604 the Khanty attacked Berezovo, a Cossack outpost built where a Khanty sacred grove had stood. They were led by disillusioned members of the elite Alachev family, earlier favored by Moscow and even christened before the czar. Christian proselytizing took place soon after conquest; Khanty children taken hostage were among the first to be converted. Tax incentives were offered for Khanty to become Orthodox, and sacred ancestor images were burned.

Russian settlers at first focused on the southern parts of Khanty territory, displacing some Khanty northward. By the nineteenth century Russians had moved to riverside villages throughout the region and a few had intermarried with the Khanty. Concern for Siberian natives was reflected in the liberal reforms of 1822 initiated by Count Speranskii and in periodic campaigns to curtail the sale of alcohol to natives by unscrupulous traders. Some Khanty joined a native revolt led by the Nenets Vauli Piettomin in the 1840s. By the twentieth century officials were alarmed at reports of disease, poverty, and population decline, especially among Khanty living in more southern areas.

In the north the Soviet era began as a rumor. Stories reached the Khanty of a Russian war, the czar's death, and "Lenin's new road." Most Khanty were not directly involved in the wave of destruction that swept Siberia during the civil war, as Red (Bolshevik) forces fought the Whites of Kolchak. The Khanty were worried, however, about village burnings on the Irtysh and supply shortages. A few Khanty revolutionaries, such as Ernov and Druzhinin, exposed traditional Komi enemies as Whites and eventually helped organize Soviet collectives. Native councils were formed with the guidance of the Moscow-based Committee of the North in 1924. The Ostyak-Vogul District, established in 1931, became the Khanty-Mansiisk District in the 1940s.

Collectivization involved a process of settlement, sometimes forced, of Khanty nomadic reindeer breeders, hunters, and fishers. Culture bases, kul'tbazy, established at Kazym and Lariak, were model collective centers, with schools, medical points, and stores. But the Khanty identified kul' with a word for "evil spirit." A 1933 revolt in Kazym resulted in Khanty taking Russian officials hostage, fleeing to the tundra, and eventually being arrested. Collectivization was not consolidated until the 1950s, when many people were again moved into larger villages.


By the twentieth century the Khanty lived in various camps and villages, as well as on the outskirts of a few towns. Seminomadic Khanty lived in a transhumant pattern with summer and winter camps, moving with their reindeer to the same family territories each season. Their winter homes were small semisubterranean yurts, with only a few (three to ten) grouped together. In 1914 at the peak fall-winter season, population density along the Kazym River, for example, was only 3.2 per square mile. In the summer families were even more dispersed, with members living in skin tents (Russian: chum ) that were sturdy yet easily portable. In the northeastern parts of Khanty territory, Khanty outnumbered Russian settlers until the 1930s, but near the towns of Obdorsk (Soviet Salekhard), Berezovo, Surgut, and Tobolsk, Russians predominated. Separate Khanty villages of shacks and cabins grew near Russian villages along the main rivers, where Khanty sometimes lived in relatively settled, Russified style. On the Irtysh, a few villages mixed Khanty and Russian styles, with log cabins lining dirt streets that fanned out from a riverbank.

With collectivization came the decline of nomadic reindeer breeding, so that by the 1950s reindeer breeders' families often lived in Russian-style villages while the men herded the animals on long shifts. A few women lived with their husbands as part of work brigades, but each family had a permanent log home or barrack apartment in a village. Collectives centered on fishing, hunting, and fur farming grew much larger than traditional settlements, averaging 1,000 or more people. Ethnic enclaves of Russians and Khanty were typical of such collectives in the 1970s. The capital of the district, Khanty-Mansiisk, has a diverse ethnic population in enclaves; it had fewer than 100,000 inhabitants in the 1980s. Towns with increasing numbers of Khanty residents include Surgut, Beriozovo, and Salekhard.


The Khanty traditionally supplemented seminomadic reindeer breeding with hunting and fishing. Reindeer herds ranged from several hundred animals for a rich breeder to fewer than ten for a poor one. The richest breeders had assistants, often impoverished members of their extended families but sometimes nonkin. Members of extended families usually included reindeer breeders and fishers, enabling mixed economic options to buffer dependence on local conditions. Fishers were sometimes those who had lost their reindeer or who had herds small enough to be merged with those of a brother in the summer. Families using nets or weirs on rivers were expected to take only as many sturgeon, salmon, pike, and trout as needed. Fish traps and weirs were made by the Khanty for local use, as were boats and sleds. Hunting was both for subsistence and the fur tradefurs were the medium of exchange during most of the pre-Soviet period. When valued furs such as sable and mink were depleted, Khanty turned to beaver, hare, muskrat, and squirrel. Wild reindeer, elks, bears, and foxes were hunted for their pelts, meat, and sinews and innards that could be turned into bags.

Winter trade fairs were annual events in the pastoral calendar, when families or their representatives traveled to towns such as Obdorsk or Surgut to pay the czarist fur tax and stock up on iron, cloth, flour, and other staples. Trade with Russians allowed firearms to replace bows and arrows. Khanty also hunted with self-triggering traps and, rarely, in groups that drove animals toward fences or pits. They used dogs, reindeer sleds, and horses during some hunts and to haul game home.

In the 1980s hunters used snowmobiles and motorboats to reach remote hunting territories and then tracked their animals in silence on foot. Workers receive small salaries or separate ruble payments for meeting fur and fish delivery quotas. Village workers also herd cows and horses and tend "fur farms" of caged silver foxes. The number of young Khanty choosing the strenuous life of reindeer breeding is declining, in part because it is hard to be a reindeer breeder with a family.

Division of Labor. Gender divisions were strict in the traditional Khanty household, with men obtaining furs for women to soften, men fishing as women processed previous catches, men killing animals in ritual sacrifices, and women gathering berries and tubers. Since women were believed "impure," they needed to observe many taboos, including not stepping over weapons and not preparing food during menstruation. At other times they prepared food, tended children and domestic animals, set up tents, and organized the family for travel. Men were often away on long hunting, fishing, and trading trips during which women had to be self-reliant.

Soviet economic life thrust a few women into hunting and fishing; others became fish canners, milkmaids, fur-farm attendants, nurses, accountants, librarians, and schoolteachers. Many still work at home or spend long hours standing in line at local stores. Men remain hunters, fishers, and reindeer breeders. They also work in lumbering and in the unstable energy industry, where high salaries sweeten barracks living and dangerous conditions. Some Khanty have careers in government; others are academics or writers.


Khanty kinship is based on a patrilineal descent system, with aspects of cognatic (nonunilineal) descent pragmatically recognized and reflected in kin terms. Each person traditionally had a tribe, through kinship and regional affiliation, although sources vary on its definition. Tribes were centered around the Kazym, Vasiugan, Vakh, Irtysh, and northern Ob river systems. Ob peoples were Asiakh, from which "Ostyak" may have derived. Exogamous patrilineages (puch or poch ) had totemic identities and traced descent to a founding male ancestor. Larger social categories, syr, also provided a basis for identifying marriage partners. These exogamous phratries, sometimes termed moieties, crosscut Khanty, Mansi, and even Selkup divisions. Two main groups, Por and Mos, dominated the Ob River Basin. Most Khanty still know these identities, and some follow marriage rules associated with them.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Principles of patriarchy and patrilocality guided traditional marriages. Flexible households also allowed matrilocality, bride-service, and even bride-capture. Wealthy non-Orthodox Khanty could in principle have multiple wives (sisters were preferred), but in practice polygamy was rare. Despite widespread poverty, gifts to a bride's family of reindeer, furs, meat, crafts, and, by the twentieth century, rubles, were common, as were dowries. Traditional Khanty wives considered both the gifts and dowry insurance against mistreatment in their husband's families, for if they ran home, payments had to be returned. This attitude was not shared by Soviet Khanty, who claimed that the payments and arranged marriages made women slaves. As late as the 1930s weddings featured bloody sheets displayed and torn to pieces by the bride's mother, after which the new bride sat behind a curtain in her husband's family home while others caroused nearby. She emerged to work but was forbidden to show her face to her male in-laws.

Inheritance. Patrilineages traditionally regulated territory usufruct and male inheritance of animals. They controlled dowry size and allowed female inheritance of animals only when there was no logical male heir. Sale of land was rare, but when it occurred an entire lineage shared the proceeds. Collectivization made lineage territories obsolete.

Socialization. Participating in male hunting and fishing trips, young boys were trained in survival skills. They tended reindeer and, at puberty, were initiated into kin-group lore, rituals, and responsibilities. Girls were brought up reserved, obedient, and constantly working. They left home as brides as young as 12 years old. Soviet boarding schools changed these traditions, without fully instilling values of "young pioneer" Socialist training.

Sociopolitical Organization

Patrilineage elders formed the core of traditional community control. They enforced the return of poached spoils from lineage lands, guided blood revenge, and decided issues of war and peace. Their consensus-based authority was undermined but not destroyed by czarist officials, who designated some elder "princes" tax collectors and native judges. A few women from wealthy families were called "princesses": one, christened "Anna," helped lead an early Khanty revolt against Russians.

Soviet rule deposed most "noble" families; since they were often the richest reindeer breeders, they were punished as class enemies. Native councils, tuzriki, were established in the 1920s, but their leaders sometimes personalized their power, claiming "I am the tuzrik." With education, increased literacy, and politicization during World War II, new Khanty leaders became more effective spokesmen for Soviet rule. Soviet affirmative-action laws gave natives special rights in schooling, medical care, and taxation. The laws were unevenly enforced, however, and leaders were powerless when Communist central authorities decided to consolidate villages and collectives, causing hardship for those who wanted to stay in traditional territories.

Radically different politics developed in the 1980s, with Khanty leaders protesting governmental paternalism, economic exploitation, ecological destruction by the energy industry, and invasion of their region by uncaring, prejudiced outsiders. In a rallying cry for northern native unity and greater control over local resources, Khanty writer E. Aipin described widespread destitution and alcoholism. Popular responses to such cries resulted in the halting of a development project in Yamal and in proposals to make part of western Siberia an ecological preserve for native use. Two Khanty were elected to the country's Supreme Soviet. In 1990 Khanty joined other Siberian natives in the first Congress of Northern Peoples held in sixty years. Other forums for political action include the Association of Northern Minorities and the Association for the Salvation of the Ungrians.

Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs. The ecology movement illustrates ideological changes for new generations of Khanty struggling to reconcile or adapt ancient beliefs without entirely rejecting their traditions as "primitive." Khanty religion traditionally included reverence for spirit masters of animals, forests, and rivers. The chief intermediaries with such spirits, and with an elaborate hierarchy of gods, were shamans, religious and medical practitioners who often served as sensitive community leaders. Other Khanty could also communicate with the spirits by making appropriate reindeer or horse sacrifices. Sacrifices were performed in sacred groves that served as ecological preserves where no animals could be hunted. Kin groups, whose identities were linked with specific trees, presided over these groves. The groves featured ancestral male and female spirit images, called "idols" by Russians who held them in contempt. One of these grove-based groups was disbanded in the 1960s by Communist party leaders (who had previously thought such groups extinct).

The cosmology of the spirit world was multilayered, including eastern sky gods, earth spirits, and an underworld sometimes associated with the North. Some of the earth spirits were believed to be deceased ancestors, especially shamans. Kin identity was mirrored in spirit organization: each lineage and phratry had "totemic" animal associations. Thus the Por people, linked with the sacred bear, were forbidden to hunt or eat bear except at Por ceremonies. Most people held hares sacred. The binding of kinship with ancestors meant that spirits as well as elders became enforcers of morality and taboos. This idea, plus a belief in reincarnation, is maintained by some Khanty. Aspects of Russian Orthodoxy (Christ as the main sky god, Numi-Torm) are also merged with ancient Turkic concepts (eastern sky gods).

Ceremonies. The translation of beliefs into action became problematic in the Soviet period, when the major ritual leadersshamanswere persecuted and all religion was discouraged as superstition; a "last" bear ceremony to serve as an initiation was recorded in the 1930s. Secularization of traditional bear ceremonies was reflected in rituals filmed in the 1970s, although many Khanty still consider the bear sacred, with all-seeing powers. In addition to the feasting and dancing that accompany appeals to the bear spirit, there were satirical plays and buffoonery, sometimes mocking Russians. Bear festivals can therefore be seen as "rituals of reversal," and are enjoying a dramatic revival. Sacrificial rituals are performed in sacred groves, but more common are small tokens of respect for spirits, such as coins, flowers, and cloth, left in the groves. Some of the groves are sites for women's worship of female fire and fertility deities. Rituals for major events in the life cycle, such as births and weddings, have declined and sometimes have been supplanted by secular rituals. Yet divination to discover a child's identity as a reincarnated ancestor is still performed very frequently. A major Ob River holiday is the midsummer Day of Fisherman, a time for drinking and carousing.

Arts, Historically, the greatest performances were part of phratry ceremonies, including dramatic masked dancers emerging from the forest and transvestite men imitating bride-capture. Shamanic séances held participants enthralled with drumming, zither playing, dancing, ventriloquism, and sleight-of-hand stunts. Folktale and legend chanting took up many winter nights; some elders still know the chants. Owned lineage songs include geographical and kinship lore that were once part of the education of young men. Women's crafts include intricate appliqué fur designs symbolizing animals and kin affiliations, on clothing and bags. Men's wood and ivory carving is both commercial and religious.

Medicine. Various shamans ministered to ill Khanty, depending on the nature of the illness and the shaman's reputation. Powerful shamans believed capable of trance during séances (elta ) to recover lost souls were isyl'ta-ku (men) or isyl'ta-ni (women). Shamans specializing in dream interpretation to diagnose illness, ulom-verta-ni, were often women, whereas "legend-singers," arekhta-ku, were men. Séances featured journeys by shamans or helper spirits to upper and lower cosmological worlds. Helpers ranged from mosquitoes to sacred bears or even Saint Nicholas. Once intense group-oriented cathartic performances of astonishing virtuosity, shamanic séances became private and covert. Western medicine, administered in clinics and hospitals, is chosen for many illness and births. A few shamans are revered and feared by those who believe in the dangers of soul loss and offending ancestral spirits.

Death and Afterlife. Belief in multiple souls (as many as four for women and five for men) means that special precautions must be taken for their well-being during burials and memorial feasts. Whereas one of the souls, lil, can reside in ancestral images and eventually be reincarnated, others may travel skyward or become birds and evil soul-stealing spirits. The Khanty concept of heaven, adapted from Russian Orthodoxy, envisions Khanty spirits living a normal reindeer-breeding existence in one area, with Russians living in another.


Aipin, Eremei (1989). "Ne neftiu edinoi" (No oil around). Moskovskie Novosti 2 (8 January).

Chernetsov, Valerie Nikolaevich, and Wanda Moszynska (1969). Prehistory of West Siberia. Translated by David Kraus. Edited by Henry Michael. Anthropology of the North, 9. Toronto: Arctic Institute.

Karjalainen, K. (1921-1927). Die Religion der Jugra-Volker (The religion of the Ugric peoples). 3 vols. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Sciences.

Kulemzin, V. M., and N. V. Lukina (1977). Vasiugansko-vakhovskie Khanty v kontse XlX-nachale XXvv: Etnograficheskii ocherki (Ethnographic studies of the Khanty in the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century). Tomsk: University Press.

Lukina, N. V. (1985). Istoricheskie formy i preemstvennost' v traditsionnoi kul'ture vostochnykh khantov (Historical forms and the traditional culture of the Eastern Khanty). Moscow: University Press.

Novitskii, Grigory (1715). Kratkoe opisanie o narode Ostiakom (A short description of the Ostyak people). Reprint. 1884. St. Petersburg: Maikov.

Prokof'yeva, E. E., V. N. Chernetsov, and N. V. Prytkova (1964). "The Khants and Mansi." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 511-546. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Sokolova, Zoia Petrovna (1983). Sotsial'naia organizatsiia Khantov i Mansi v XVlll-XlVvv, Problemy fratrii i roda (Social Organization of the Khanty and the Mansi in the 18th and 19th centuries: Issues of phratry and family). Moscow: Nauka.



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The Khanty people live in western Siberia from the Arctic Circle in the north to the conflux of the Irtysh and Tavda rivers in the south. The Khanty are mainly concentrated in the Khanty-Mansiysk autonomous okrug, with the administrative center Khanty-Mansiysk (population 34,300 in 1995). The Khanty also live in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous okrug and in Tomsk oblast. According to the Soviet 1989 census, the total population of the Khanty numbered 22,521.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Khanty were baptized by Russian Orthodox missionaries. However, Khanty have followed their native religion until the present time. According to Khanty cosmology, there exist several layers of Heaven and Underworld and seven main gods, the most powerful of whom is Numi Torum. Shamans are mediators between gods and humans.

The Khanty language belongs to the Ob-Ugrian branch of the Finno-Ugric language family of Uralic language stock. Standardized written language based on the Latin alphabet was introduced in the 1930s. In 1940 it was transferred into the Cyrillic system. According to the All-Union census data as of 1989, the knowledge of native language among the Khanty was 60.5 percent.

Traditionally, the Khanty were divided between two phratries and several clans. Political leaders of the Khanty were clan elders and princes who collected taxes for Tsarist authorities and were responsible for native administration and court. During the Soviet period this native political structure was abolished.

The Khanty are seminomadic hunters, fishers, and reindeer breeders. During the Soviet period, animal husbandry, fur farming, and agriculture were introduced as small-scale enterprises.

From the eleventh century, the Khanty traded and had armed conflicts with Russians from Novgorod. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Khanty payed tribute to the Siberian Khanate. At the end of the sixteenth century the Khanty were conquered by Russia. The most serious change in Khanty recent history was the collectivization campaign in the 1930s. Between 1933 and 1934, the Khanty rebelled against the Soviets in what is known as the Kazym War. After the 1980s the native political movement expanded, mainly concentrating around the Association for the Salvation of the Ugra (founded in 1989).

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; northern peoples; siberia


Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam. (1999). The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Prokof'yeva, E. D.; Chernetsov, V. N.; and Prytkova, N. E. (1964). "The Khants and Mansi." In The Peoples of Siberia, ed. M. G. Levin, L. P. Potapov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taagepera, Rein. (1999). The Finno-Ugric Republics and the Russian State. London: Hurst.

Art Leete