The Khanty and Mansi people of Yugra were pagans throughout almost all of their history. The traditional religions of the Khanty and the Mansi are based on the triple division of the world: the upper (the sky), the middle (the earth), and the lower (subterranean). According to the Mansi beliefs, all the worlds are populated by spirits, each of whom has a special function to fulfill. The equilibrium between the human world and the world of gods has been maintained by means of sacrifices. The traditional religions are also characterized by shamanism, and a set of totemic figures: the bear being the most deeply respected. In honor of this animal, bear festivals were conducted regularly until they and the associated worship of idols and sacred groves were formally banned by the Soviets in 1933. This was the result of widespread resistance to collectivisation policies which culminated in the Kazym rebellion.
"But beyond Wisu by the Sea of Darkness there lies a land known by the name of Yura. In summers the days are very long there, so that the Sun does not set for forty days, as the merchants say; but in winters the nights are equally long. The merchants report that Darkness is not far (from them), and that the people of Yura go there and enter it with torches, and find a huge tree there which is like a big village. But on top of the tree there sits a large creature, they say it is a bird. And they bring merchandise along, and each merchant sets down his goods apart from those of the others; and he makes a mark on them and leaves, but when he comes back, he finds commodities there, necessary for his own country…" (Al Garnati:32)
The great tree he refers to bears obvious similarities with the "Tree of Life" or Irminsul of many north European pagan traditions. In addition to the "Tree of Life" tradition there was a pantheon of gods and goddesses. The story below is about the creation of the world and the establishing of the present world order; the hero appearing under the name of Tari-pes'-nimala-s'av is the most popular deity of the Yugrians, the World Surveyor Man, born of the sky god Numi-Torum and the goddess Kaltesh.
"As you depart, look down; there will be seven tents of broadcloth there, and sheep and pigs teeming around them. You descend to the tents. One-eyed people will come out of the tents; one eye of each has run out, but the other one is whole. You ask them: "Whose sheep and pigs are you herding?" They will answer: "We are herding the sheep and pigs of Paryparseg." Then say: "Don't speak like that; better say: "We are herding the sheep and pigs of Tari-pes'-nimala-s'av." After me, the Lord of Fire will come, and if you tell him you are herding the sheep and pigs of Paryparseg he will burn you with his fire, but if you say: "We are herding the sheep and pigs of Tari-pes'-nimala-s'av," you will fare well." After that heal their eyes… Then continue your way, you will come up to seven tents of broadcloth, the place will be alive with cows. Go down again; people with only one arm will come out of the tents. You ask them: "Whose cattle are you herding?"… Go on again, you will find seven tents of broadcloth in yet another place. There you will see only horses all around. As you go up to them, one-legged people will hobble out of the tents. You ask them: "Whose horses are you herding?"…" (Shestalova-Fidorovich 1992:8-9).
Another place or thing of worship by the Yugrans is called the Golden Lady of the Obians The first reports of the Golden Lady are found in the 14th-century Novgorod Chronicles, with reference to Saint Stephan of Perm. Next, the golden idol is mentioned in the 16th century by the subjects of the Grand Duke of Moscow, commissioned to describe the trade and military routes of the expanding Russia. The first non-Russian we know of to comment on the golden lady is Mathias from Miechov, Professor of Krakow University. In connection with Yermak's campaign, the Siberian Chronicle also tells us about the golden woman: a hetman of Yermak's, by the name of Ivan Bryazga, invaded the Belogorye region in 1582 and fought the Ob-Ugrians there, who were defending their holiest object - the golden woman. (See Karjalainen 1918:243-245, Shestalov 1987:347.) And Grigori Novitski's statement that in earlier days there used to be in one shrine in Belogorye together with the copper goose "the greatest real idol", and that the superstitious people "preserved that idol and took it to Konda now that idol-worshipping is being rooted up", has also been regarded as relating to the golden woman (Novitski:61). Actually, no European has ever seen that idol and most probably it never existed in the described form (as a full-length woman made of gold).
Of the "Copper Goose" a Russian traveller named Novitsky wrote the following:
"The goose idol very much worshipped by them is cast of copper in the shape of a goose, its atrocious abode is in the Belogorye village on the great river of Ob. According to their superstition they worship the god of waterfowls - swans, geese and other birds swimming on water… His throne in the temple is made of different kinds of broadcloth, canvas and hide, built like a nest; in it sits the monster who is always highly revered, most of all at the times of catching waterfowls in nests… This idol is so notorious that people come from distant villages to perform atrocious sacrifice to it - offering cattle, mainly horses; and they are certain that it (the idol) is the bearer of many goods, mainly ensuring the richness of waterfowls…"
Comparisons of different Yugran traditions indicate that the goose was one of the shapes or appearances of the most popular god of the "World Surveyor Man", and that Belogorye is still sometimes referred to as his home. Novitsky also describes a site for worshipping this "World Surveyor" or "Ob Master":
"The home of the Ob Master was presumably near the stronghold Samarovo in the mouth of the river Irtysh. According to their heathen belief he was the god of the fish, depicted in a most impudent manner: a board of wood, nose like a tin tube, eyes of glass, little horns on top of the head, covered with rags, attired in a (gilt breasted) purple robe. Arms - bows, arrows, spears, armour, etc - were laid beside him. According to their heathen belief they say about the collected arms that he often has to fight in the water and conquer other vassals. The frenzy ones thought that the atrocious monster is especially horrifying in the darkness and in the large waters, that he comes through all the depths where he watches over all fish and aquatic animals and gives everyone as much as he pleases." (Novitsky: 59).
The christening of the Mansi en masse started at the beginning of the 18th century - in his book Novitsky describes the christening of the Pelym Mansi in 1714 and the Konda Mansi in 1715. The words of the village elder and the caretaker of the sanctuary Nahratch Yeplayev have been recorded:
"We all know why you have come here -- you want to pervert us from our ancient beliefs with your smooth-tongued flattery and damage and destroy our revered helper, but it is all in vain for you may take our heads but this we will not let you do." (Novitsky: 92-93)
Novitsky describes the above mentioned idol as follows:
"The idol was carved of wood, attired in green clothes, the evil looking face was covered with white iron, a black fox skin was placed on its head; the whole sanctuary, especially his site which was higher than anywhere else, was decorated with purple broadcloth. Other smaller idols nearby which where placed lower were called the servants of the real idol. I think there were many other things in front of him - caftans, squirrel skins, etc…" (Ibid.: 93)
It seems that a compromise was reached whereby the idols would be saved - for now at least - and at last Nahratsh who had consulted the elders of the village proposesd a compromise:
"We will now obey the ruler's regulations and ukase. So we will not discard your teaching, we only beg you not to reject the idol so revered by our fathers and grandfathers, and if you wish to christen us, honour also our idol, christen it in a more honourable manner - with a golden cross. Then we will decorate and build a church with all the icons ourselves, as a custom goes, and we will place ours also among these." (Ibid.: 94-95)
This arrangement seems to have lasted for a while, but later it is recorded that this agreement was broken and the totems and idols so sacred to the Mansi and Khanty were burned by Russian Christian zealots. Many of these totems were not destroyed, but were hidden, their locations kept secret over the generations. Even during repression in the 1930s many of these sacred sites remained undiscovered by the authorities and some can be found today.
There are three or four known proto-states of the Yugran inhabitants, both Khanty and Mansi. The Principality of Pelym (largely Khanty) was located in the basin of the Konda river and stretched from the mouth of the Sosva River near Tavda up to Tabary. The stronghold of the Pelym princes was also a significant religious centre; a sacred Siberian larch grew in its surroundings and even in the 18th century people used to hang the skins of sacrificed horses on its branches. Near the sacred tree was a worship storehouse with five idols of human figure, and smaller storehouses with high pillars and human-faced peaks around it for storing sacrificial instruments. The bones of sacrificial animals were stored in a separate building (Novitski: 81). The Principality of Konda (mainly Mansi) formed a large semi autonomous part of the Pelym principality, according to the tax registers from 1628/29 it was inhabited by 257 tax-paying Mansi. The treasures of Prince Agai of Konda who was imprisoned by the Russians in 1594 gives us a good picture of the wealth of the Yugran nobles of this period. Namely, the Russians confiscated two silver crowns, a silver spoon, a silver beaker, a silver spiral bracelet, "precious drapery" and numerous pelts and precious furs (Bahrushin 1955,2: 146). The third part of the Pelym principality was the region of Tabary, in which inhabited 102 adults in 1628/29. Preceding the coming of the Russians the Mansi of this region were farmers and according to the tradition Yermak collected tribute in the form of grain (Bahrushin 1955,2: 147).
It is believed that the Yugran people or Ob-Ugrians had made trade with many countries far and wide since the earliest times. This trade was described in journals attributed to Abu Hamid al-Gharnati the Arab traveller during the 12th century:
"And from Bolghar merchants travel to the land of heathens, called Wisu; marvellous beaver skins come from there, and they take there wedge-shaped unpolished swords made in Azerbaijan in their turn… But the inhabitants of Visu take these swords to the land that lies near the Darkness (Yugra) by the Black Sea (now known as the White Sea), and they trade the swords for sable skins. And these people take the swords and cast them into the Black Sea; but Allah the Almighty sends them a fish which size is like a mountain (a whale); and they sail out to the fish in their ships and carve its flesh for months on end." (ibid:58-59)
According to some sources, Novgorod launched military campaigns against the Yugrans "living with the Samoyeds in the Land of Midnight" already at the end of the first millennium (Bahrushin 1955,1:86). At that time, the Russians probably came into contact with the Mansi who were still living in Europe, along the upper course of the river Pechora, in the neighbourhood of the ancient Komi realm of Great Perm. The Novgorod Chronicle tells of a military campaign under the leadership of Yadrei of Novgorod in 1193, which ended in the destruction of the Novgorod forces. The defeat was blamed on some Novgorodans who had reportedly "been in contact with the Yugrans" (Bahrushin 1955,1:75). In the 13th to 15th centuries, Yugra was supposed to pay tribute to Novgorod. But taxes could be collected only by means of armed forces. The chronicles describe several campaigns, mentioning the strong resistance of Yugran princes who took shelter in their strongholds. After the annexation of Ustyug by Moscow in the 14th century, Muscovite campaigns began instead of the Novgorodan ones.
In the 15th century, the most important Russian stronghold in Permland and the starting point for all expeditions going to the East was the diocese established on the Vym River by Stephan of Perm. In 1455 the Mansi of Pelym launched a campaign under the command of Prince Asyka. Moscow reciprocated by forming an alliance with Prince Vasily of Great Perm who together with the warriors of Vym who took part in the 1465 expedition to Yugra (Bahrushin 1955,1:76). It is recorded in the Russian Chronicles that in 1465 as a result of this raid that two minor "Yugrian" princes named Kalpik and Chepik were compelled to submit to the Russians and pay tribute. They were soon deposed. In a second campaign during 1467 Prince Asyka himself was captured and brought to Vyatka (Bahrushin 1955,2:113). In 1483 Moscow sent forth another expedition against the princes of Yugra and Konda where the "grand duke" Moldan was captured (Ibid). In 1499 Moscow dispatched a great force against "Yugra" (Pelym) (led by Prince Semyon Kurbski), Konda or Koda (led by Prince Pyotr Ushatyi and the "Gogulichi" (the free Voguls or Mansi), The 4000 strong army, using dog and reindeer teams, reached the Lyapin stronghold of the Khanty, located on the river of the same name (Bahrushin 1955,1:76-77). In the source it is told that 40 strongholds were taken and 58 Khanty and Mansi princes captured in the expedition. Even though already at the end of the 15th century the Grand Duke of Moscow assumed the honorary title of Prince of Yugra by the 16th century several Yugran princes were paying tribute to the Siberia Khanate and participated in their military ventures against Russian settlers protected by Cossacks and Komi auxiliaries who were chasing the Yugran natives from their homes.
In response the Khanty and Mansi of Pelym continually sent forth counter-campaigns to the lands of Great Perm. Thus, the year 1581 went into history as the year of the raiding of Kaigorod and Cherdyn. According to Russian estimates, the army of the Mansi and their allies, the Tartars, stood 700 strong (Bahrushin 1955,1:99; 2:144). Continuing resistance to border conflagration led to the launching of a campaign in 1582–1584 arranged and financed by the Stroganovs and led by the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich, which began with the destruction of a Mansi war band that had invaded the Russian settlers territory and ended as a punitive expedition against the Pelym Mansi and their ally the Siberian Khan. In some sources, Alach, Prince of Koda figures as an important ally of the Siberian Khan Kuchum Khan and is said to have been awarded one of the Yermak mail-coats taken from the enemy (Bahrushin 1955, 1:114). In 1592, another Russian campaign against the Mansi of Pelym was launched. It ended in 1593 when the stronghold of Prince Ablegirim of Pelym was taken, the prince and his family captured and a Russian fortress erected in the heart of the stronghold. Although in the following year the Pelym principality suffered the loss of its lands lying on the Konda River, the Mansi did not give up resistance. In 1599, they once again brought "war, theft and treachery" to the banks of the Chusovaya River and Kurya River and plundered the Russian settlements there (Bahrushin,2:143-144).
The close connections between the Yugrans and the Turkic Tartars are also demonstrated by the fact that even in the 1660s, the idea of restoring the Kuchum Khanate was still popular with the Khanty of Beryozovo (Ibid). It was only in the middle of the 17th century that Moscow succeeded in subduing Yugria.
In the 18th century the successors of the Principality of Pelym and Principality of Konda - princes Vassili and Fyodor - lived in Pelym. They became Russianized and performed various duties for the Tsarist government. The Mansi, however, considered them still as their rulers. The fact that the ancient family of princes ruled on in Konda is also proved by a tsar letter from 1624:
"He, prince Vassili and prince Fyodor have close brothers in Big Konda - our tax-paying murzas, and our simple Voguls are ruled by them in Big Konda, the brothers of prince Vasily, the murzas." (Bahrushin 1955,2: 148)Prince Kyntsha of Konda received a deed of gift from Tsar in 1680 which confirmed his noble position. Even in the 18th century the Konda princes were known for their relative independence. It is assumed that even in 1715 Prince Satyga of Konda and his 600 armed men made an attempt to impede the christianisation of the Konda Mansi (Novitski: 98). During 1732–1747 Konda was ruled by Satyga's son Prince Osip Grigoryev, followed by his own son Prince Vlas Ossipov. According to recent research by Aado Lintrop one of the great-grandchildren of Satyga, the teacher of the Turinsky community school, Aleksander Satygin claimed the title "Prince of Konda" as late as 1842.
Yugra is also considered to be the place of origin of the Hungarians (the Magyar Oshaza). It is thought that the name Hungary is a variety of the name Yugra. (The Hungarians also were known in several languages under the name of Ugri, and are still known under this name in Ukrainian). The Hungarian language is also the closest linguistic relative of Khanty and Mansi. It is considered that Hungarians moved from Yugra to the west, first settling on the western side of the Urals, in the region known as Magna Hungaria. Then they moved further to the west, to the region of Levedia (present-day east Ukraine),then to the region of Etelköz (present-day west Ukraine), finally reaching the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century.