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A short life of Mangazeya. How «the city in the ice» lived 400 years ago

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The Far North conquers people of all ages. Since ancient times people have been looking for freedom above the Arctic circle. This year “ebullient with gold” Mangazeya is remembered in Yamal.

For 400 years this legendary city has been exciting minds of researchers and imaginations of chroniclers.

The first Russian city in the Arctic zone of Siberia.  On the very edge of inhabited lands Mangazeya flourished 400 years ago.  Permafrost has preserved items of medieval life of the first Russian “polar explorers”.  Trade was in full swing here.   Medieval entrepreneurs kept a strict record of their trade: measuring sticks, scales, tags, prints for seals, and finally, coins, on which, if you look closely, you can see the image of St. George the Victorious, almost the same as on Russian modern money. 

All these things are a vivid illustration of the fact that Mangazeya citizens lived quite well. They had ornamented leather bags, you can also see rouge, shaving brushes, hairpins, bone combs. This means that Mangazeya citizens were thinking not only about essentials, but also about items ensuring comfort, of course, to the extent possible for the 17th century.

The medieval town grew up to 3,000 hectares. In its heyday the population exceeded 1,000 people. There was an administrative power with military and punitive functions. There was its own chronicling. The entire population was almost totally employed in the town infrastructure providing residents of the district with services and goods of their own production. For example, they bred pigs, were engaged in blacksmith activity.

“Gambling was part of the town’s economy. Operation of a gambling establishment required paying a high tax, so gamblers had to pay too to play,” says Veronika Mogritskaya, senior researcher, Shemanovsky Museum.

But gambling was not the main thing.  Mangazeya was famous for the abundance of fur-bearing animals, especially the sable and the silver fox.   Long before Siberia’s accession to the Russian state, northern Russia coast-dwellers called pomors, industrialists and merchants got wind of that.  Free settling in that territory was against the state interests of Moscovia. Therefore, in 1600 the sovereign decreed to establish a city on a bank of the Taz river.

“The Russian state said, “No, guys. Here is an outpost to stop you. And there will be no Western European merchants sailing along the Northern Sea Route here,” says archaeologist Natalia Fedorova.

Military commanders called voivods had to ensure regular replenishment of the sovereign's treasury with “soft gold” by taxing indigenous population, as well as collecting a wide variety of tributes from the local population, hunters, industrialists and merchants. So Mangazeya became the capital of the fur region. In terms of fur tax collection, the district was ahead of all Siberian cities. In 1629 only 4,500 sable skins worth 5,000 roubles were sent to Moscow. Tithe tax collected from Mangazeya merchants and industrialists was two times higher. With 1 rouble at that time one could buy 10 poods (163.8 kg) of flour or 1 bull.

“Mangazeya for medieval Russia is like gas and oil production for modern Russia.  It used to be a supplier of internationally accepted currency - fur.  At that time Russia did not have its gold, or silver, or currency for international markets,” says archaeologist Sergei Parhimovich.

The distant land was reached in small wooden sailing ships called koches that were adapted for navigation along the Arctic coast. The famous Mangazeya sea passage went from the mouth of the Northern Dvina river to the Kara Sea, then crossed the Yamal Peninsula along the Zelenaya river, after which the travellers got into so-called Mangazeya Sea consisting of the Ob and the Taz bays. Every season caravans of koches sailed to Mangazeya with supplies and goods for the inhabitants of the polar city. They returned carrying precious fur skins.

 “The Northern Sea Route, which we actively talk about today, existed at that time too. Mangazeya citizens opened it up 400 years ago.  We used to say that the discovery of the Northern Sea Route was a privilege of Norway, but today’s archaeological excavations give us the right to claim something different,” notes Elena Dubkova, first deputy director, Yamal-Nenets Department of Culture.

The life of Mangazeya was short. The business centre above the Arctic circle, “the blessed royal estate”, existed for only 70 years.  Even though it was an important outpost of the Russian state’s development of Siberia. It was Mangazeya where those travelling to Taymyr, the northernmost peninsula of Asia, and to the great Lena river started their trips. However, all cities have their own destinies. Some, having arisen in immemorial antiquity, exist to this day. Others finish their lives within several centuries and only ruins remind of their past. And there are those which flash and burn out like a comet, leaving us with just a name enchanted by a mystery. That was the story of Mangazeya, the city in the ice.

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