At around the same time as Europeans were colonising the Americas and decimating the native populations there, Russians were pushing eastward. Siberia was colonised during the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible, 1530-84) and, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Mansi had been pushed from ‘European Russia’ to the other side of the Urals. Incidentally, the word ‘Ural’ itself comes from Mansi: ur (mountain) + ala (roof).
While the Mansi religion is polytheistic and shamanistic, images of worldly deities (tsars, Lenin) were gradually added to sacred places in Mansi dwellings over the centuries. Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev’s 1931 film Одна (Alone), for which Shostakovich wrote the score, was filmed in the Altai mountains. Although shamans were to be liquidated together with the kulaks under collectivisation, the film includes footage of a surviving shaman, and the entire crew were reportedly terrified of him. Their awe is almost tangible, if not contagious, in the scene in which he dances and sings by a fire.
A few notes on borrowed words in the northern (Sygva) dialect of Mansi we’ve been studying. Some words for ‘modern’ things come from Russian: ārkeri (архиереи, bishop), aťēl (отдел, carriage), xōsax (казак, Cossack), konkrēs (конгресс, congress), rūt (род, kin), sāprańi (собрание, meeting), tēsis (тезис, thesis), and also pil(i), the word for car, which comes from автомобиль.
Others come from Komi (also known as Zyrian), another Uralic language, but one spoken on the western side of the Urals: nēpak (nipik – paper, letter, book, writing), and tujt (tūjt – horsedrawn sledge). The Sygva Mansi words for Russian, cross (as in crucifix), and bread (as in naan bread) also come from Komi. We can see how Russian, and other more western-ly items are imported via other Uralic languages that exist in closer proximity to Russian(s).
Oddly enough, however, the Sygva word for silk (japak), comes from Tatar, which means that it must have travelled a great distance. The word for cow, too, comes from the south, where livelihoods depend on herds, rather than on reindeer and fish.
Mansi is, as one would expect, particularly rich in river vocabulary. So far, we’ve come across words for the flat piece of land next to the riverbank (pōx), downriver (lui), and the part of a river between two bends (wōľ). There’s also reindeer vocabulary, such as kot, the skin on a reindeer’s leg; mańśək, a reindeer’s tail; and xār-ōjka, a reindeer bull, where xār is reindeer, and ōjka is the same as the Hungarian bácsi, uncle or older man.