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ETHNONYMS: Syrjäne, Ziryene, Zyrian, Zyryan


Identification. The Komi live west of the Ural Mountains in the northeastern half of the European portion of the Komi Republic and the Komi-Permyak Autonomous Area (AA). The inhabitants of the former administrative territory are today called "Komi-Ziryenes," those living in the latter territory "Komi-Permyaks." In addition, smaller groups of Komi can still be found on the Kola Peninsula and in western Siberia.

"Komi" is the ethnonym used by the Komi themselves. It is with this name that the autochthonous people of the Komi Republic and the Komi-Permyak AA designate themselves. The original meaning of "Komi" was probably "human being" and can possibly be connected with the following words of Uralic (Finno-Ugric) languages: Hungarian, hîm (male), Vogul, um (man, human being), or Samoyed Selkup, qum (human being). According to another explanation, the word is etymologically derived from kom, the Komi (-Ziryene) designation of the Kama River, or Kom-mu, "the Kama region" (mu, "land, country"). By outsiders, the Komi are called "Zyrian" or "Ziryene"; in English they are known as "Zyryan" and in German as "Syrjäne." These are derived from the Russian form, "Zirjan(in)," spread into the languages of the world via scholarly literature. The Russian word is itself an Ob-Ugric loanword (Vogul, saran; Ostyak, sarăn ) which in turn is possibly of Iranian origin (from Ancient Iranian, zraya, to Old Iranian, *zraya, "sea" + an, adjectival derivational suffix). The original meaning of the word *zrayan, formed in this way, probably meant "seacoast dweller."

Location and Demography. The territory of the Komi covers 415,900 square kilometers, the number of its inhabitants being 1,067,000 in 1979. Of these, 326,700 are Komi and the rest are Russians, Ukrainians, and others. In the northernmost tundra area live several thousand Yurak-Samoyeds, also speaking Uralic languages. The republic is bordered on the east by the northern Urals, on the north by the Yurak (Nyenyets) National Region, on the west by the Archangel Territory, and on the south by the Kirov and Perm Territories (including the Komi-Permyak AA). The capital of the Komi Republic is Syktyvkar (about 180,000 inhabitants). The second largest city of the territory is Vorkuta, an important industrial center with coal mines, natural gas, and oil wells. Other urban centers are Zeleznodorozny, Uchta, Pecora, and Inta. The northern portion of the Komi Republic lies within the tundra zone. There is an intermediary zone, the forest tundra, south of which lies the forest zone covering the greater part of the territory. The forest is largely coniferous with only a smaller percentage of deciduous trees (birch). The forests are traversed by large rivers usually surrounded by swamps (12 to 15 percent of the republic is covered by swampy areas). The climate is moderately continental. In summer the average temperature is 11.7 to 16.6° C; in January the temperature averages from 15.1° C to 20.4° C. The annual amount of precipitation is 60 to 70 centimeters. To the south of the Komi Republic lies the Komi-Permyak AA, covering 22,000 square kilometers with 250,000 inhabitants in 1979. Of these 150,000 are Komi, most of the rest being Russians. The capital of the region is Kudymkar.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Komi language is classified in the Finno-Permic Group of the Finno-Ugrian Branch of the Uralic Language Family. Together with their closest linguistic relations, the Udmurt, they form the Permian Subgroup of the Finno-Permian Group. Among speakers of related languages, are Finns, Estonians, Mordvinians, and Hungarians. Komi-Russian bilingualismabove all in the male populationis very widespread. In 1979, 83.7 percent of the Komi-Ziryenes and 76.5 percent of the Komi-Permyaks listed Komi as their mother tongue. The process of Russificationas a result of the gradual atrophy of secondary-school instruction in Komi as well as of the influence of the media (press, radio, television)has accelerated, especially in the cities and larger settlements. In both the Komi Republic and the Komi-Permyak AA Russian is the official language.

History and Cultural Relations

During the period of the Proto-Permian language (2000 b.c. to a.d. 900-1000) the ancestors of the Komi and the Udmurt lived in the valley of the Vjatka and lower Kama rivers near Iranian peoples. In the sixth to seventh centuries AD. they came into contact with the Volga Bulgarians pressing northeast. Reminders of these contacts are the Bulgarian words borrowed into Proto-Permian, as well as the latter words borrowed only into Udmurt from Chuvash (Bulgarian). As a result of the Bulgarian invasion the ancestors of the Komi separated from their closest kin, the Udmurt, in about the tenth century a.d. The Komi, who probably earlier formed the northern group of the Ancient Permians, gradually drifted to the north and occupied their modern area. The last territories to be populatedat the end of the seventeenth centurywere those in the north and the east, in the region of the Visera, Ižma, Pečora, and upper Vyčegda rivers. The specific ethnic characteristics of the Komi developed in the north in the region of the Mezeń-Vaška, Vyčegda, and Vym rivers (Komi-Ziryenes) and in the south in the upper Kama region (Komi-Permyaks). The northern Komi had trade connections with the Russians (Novgorod principality) as early as the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries.

In the fourteenth century the Komi region came under Russian rule. In the sixteenth century the power of the Novgorod principality was succeeded by that of Moscow. The conquest by the Russians was accompanied by the spread of Christianity to the Komi. The Komi conversion to the Christian faith was the work of Saint Stephen of Perm (Stepan Chrap). Stepan Chrap was either a full or half Komi. He was the first bishop of Ust'-Vym, founded in 1383 (the former name of which was Old Perm, Staraya Perm). In the fourteenth century, by modifying Cyrillic and Greek letters, Saint Stephen of Perm created a specific alphabet for the Komi and thereby Komi literacy. In the beginning, Komi was, therefore, the language of the church. Surviving written remnants of fourteenth-to sixteenth-century Komi are found as icon inscriptions, liturgical text fragments, and glossaries. The initiative of Saint Stephen of Perm was abandoned after the sixteenth century, and the language of the Orthodox church in the Komi areas became the Russian variant of Old Church Slavonic. The territory of the Komi-Permyaks, the region of the upper Kama, was presented in the sixteenth century by Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) to the aristocratic family of the Stroganovs. Thus, the Komi-Permyaks became the serfs of the Stroganov dynasty. After the Russian Revolution, the Komi Autonomous Territory was formed in 1921 and then in 1936 the Komi Republic. The Komi-Permyak NR came into being in 1925.

The ecclesiastical Komi literacy of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries disappeared in the following centuries. The first works of Komi literacy beginning in the eighteenth century and based on the Cyrillic alphabet were also of a religious nature. In the first half of the nineteenth century primarily grammars and glossaries were written. Great achievements in the creation of the Komi literary language were reached by G. S. Lytkin (1855-1906) and the first classic writer of Komi poetry, I. A. Kuratov (1839-1875). In 1918 Komi was made the language of school instruction. After the Revolution two literary languages were brought into being for the Komi: the Komi-Ziryene literary language, based on the dialect of the Syktvykar region, and the Komi-Permyak literary language, based on the dialect of the Kudymkar-Ińva region. In 1918 Cyrillic orthography became binding, replaced in 1934 by an orthography based on the Latin alphabet. In 1939 the Cyrillic alphabet was restored in the Komi Republic and the Komi-Permyak NRjust as in the other small republics of the USSRas a crowning point of the purges connected with Stalin. The Cyrillic alphabet is still used today in both Komi administrative regions. The system of education is of the Soviet type: in the Komi Republic about 500 seven-class general schools and 50 ten-class general and secondary schools are in operation. Starting in the 1950s instruction in the Komi language declined. Today instruction is given in Komi only in the lower school classes; in the upper classes the language of instruction is Russian and Komi is used only in the study of Komi language and literature. Certain signs point out, though, that beginning in 1988 to 1989 the Komi language has started to play a larger role. Since 1949 a branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences has operated in the republic; in addition, there is a teachers' college and a university, the latter founded in 1972. Komi radio and television also transmit several hours a day in the Komi language.


Komi villages, consisting for the most part of wooden houses, are usually situated on the banks of rivers; some of these are of a scattered nature, others have regular streets. In the north, the reindeer herders lead a nomadic way of life. The urban population is mostly Russian and Ukrainian. Today there are also a large number of Komi living in the cities, who, owing to altered living circumstances (industrial work) and the influence of the Russians, are slowly being assimilated by the latter.


The basis of economic life for the Komi-Ziryenes and the Komi-Permyaks is agriculture. Agriculture is also undertaken north of the Vyčegda, although hunting is of greater importance there. For hunting, traps and snares are used in addition to modern firearms. Fishing and forestry are important occupations in the entire area populated by the Komi. In the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries mercantile professions began to develop. In the course of the nineteenth century, itinerant merchants built up a far-reaching trade network (in western, southern, and central Siberia as far as Lake Baikal). This active mercantile life came to a complete stop after World War I.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

In contrast to their linguistic relatives, the Udmurt, the Komi did not preserve the traditional tribal society. Family and kin ties are reckoned patrilinearally, although traces of matrilineality can still be noted. Because of Orthodox Christian influence the Komi kinship system and marriage institutions are similar to those of the Russians.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Although the Komi accepted Christianity in the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, numerous traces of their ancient animistic religious beliefs remained as superstitions. One of the characteristic features of Komi mythology is the belief in the guardian spirits, the shadow souls; there is also belief in water spirits, forest spirits, etc. Memories of shamanism are preserved in words such as tun (soothsayers) and čikedis (evil magician). The Orthodox (Pravoslav) variant of Christianity was one that spread among the Komi. After the Russian Revolution, church activities were severely curtailed, the practice of religion being restricted to families. In the 1960s and 1970s the Baptist church gained importance in parts of the Komi territories.

Arts. Wood carving has had a great tradition in Komi folk art. In the south, the Komi-Permyaks have developed a specific church sculpture containing many pre-Christian motifs. Komi folk art has been subjected to a strong Russian influence. The most original Komi art genres are the bridal songs and mourning laments, epic songs, and children's verses. Komi folklore, likewise, has been much influenced by Russian folktales. As already mentioned, the work of I. A. Kuratov and G. S. Lytkin was of great merit in the creation of the Komi-Ziryene literary language. Some important figures of Komi-Ziryene literature are Michael Lebedev, poet (1877-1951) and Nyobdinsa Vittor, poet and dramatist (1898-1922). Ilja Vas (V. I. Lytkin), poet (1895-1981), also achieved world fame as a Fionno-Ugrian linguist. Of today's poets and writers the names of Albert Vaneyev, Ivan Toropov, and Gennady Yuškov can be mentioned. The most prominent representatives of the Komi-Permyak literature are Andrei Zubov (nom de plume Piťu önö, 1889-1945), Stepan Karavayev, and Valerian Batalov.


Hajdú, Péter (1975). Finno-Ugrian Languages and Peoples. London: André Deutsch.

Hajdú, Péter (1987). Die uralischen Sprachen und Literaturen. Budapest and Hamburg: Akademiai Kiado.

Rédei, Károlyn (1978). Svrjänische Chrestomathie. Vienna: Österreichs.



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The Komi are an indigenous Arctic people. Of the 497,000 Komi (1989 census), the majority (292,000) live in the Komi Republic, which extends to the Arctic Circle, and in the contiguous Permian Komi Autonomous okrug within the Perm oblast (Komi population 95,000). Their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is mutually semi-intelligible with Udmurt, farther south. In the 1300s the Komi were the merchants of the Far North and had a unique alphabet. Most Komis have Caucasian features. Distinguished U.S. sociologist Pitrim Sorokin (18891968) was a Komi cultural activist in his youth.

The northern Komi partly converted to Greek Orthodoxy in the late 1300s, prior to the Novgorod conquest, and maintained Komi-language liturgies up to 1700. The Permian Komi Duchy of Great Perm converted under duress just before Novgorod was seized (1472) by Moscow, which allowed the duke to stay as a vassal but dismissed his son. Cultural renaissance was strong by 1900.

Despite Komi pleas, Moscow excluded the Permian Komi from the Komi Autonomous oblast, formed in 1921 and upgraded to Autonomous Republic in 1936. The Permian Komi National okrug (district), formed in 1925, remains a "periphery of a periphery" within the Perm oblast. Two separate literary languages were developed. Numerous slave labor camps were located in Komi lands. Russian immigration has reduced the Komi from 92 percent of the population in 1926 to 23 percent in 1989. In the okrug the drop has been from 77 percent to 60 percent.

The huge and flat Komi Republic (population 1.3 million) produces 10 percent of Russia's paper, 7 percent of its coal, and also oil and gas. Indigenous Komi live mainly in the southern agricultural zone. Those who have shifted to Russian as their main language (25%) participate actively in the economic life. The Permian Komi okrug is a depressed area where the only resource, lumber, has been depleted.

In 1989 the First Komi National Congress established a Komi National Revival Committee, which succeeded in having Komi and Russian declared coequal state languages in the Republic. The impact has been real but limited, leading to the creation of a more activist organization, Doriam Asnõmös (Let's Defend Ourselves).

See also: finns and karelians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Lallukka, Seppo. (1995). "Territorial and Demographic Foundations of Komi-Permiak Nationality." Nationalities Papers 23:353371.

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

Rein Taagepera

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