Traditions and crafts

Learn about the traditions of the Komi people
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Traditions of the Komi, like those of any other people, are rich and diverse

Some of them are familiar to many people, at least in Russia, while others may seem quite exotic. Residents of rural areas know them better than city dwellers. In any village there are people who will be happy to tell tourists about how cabbage is boiled in huge yard vats on Chomör, also known as Cabbage day, or that you should not be offended if a stranger pushes you into a snowbank after Epiphany, as this is a custom.

An urban dweller will be surprised to learn that, according to an old tradition, on the fortieth day after the death of a villager, a real person plays their role and takes home funeral gifts from their family members and friends.

In some places people still go caroling, in others they practice christmastime divinations.

In the Prokopyevka village, the Christmas games are arranged; in Izhma and Ust-Tsilma, bride fairs are organized; on Udora, religious processions with icons are performed; the locals of the Chernysh village play chipsan flutes.

From time immemorial, the Komi people have been fed by the forest and the river

It is not surprising that there are so many hunters and fishermen among descendants of the ancient Zyrians. Although tools have changed, the passion remained the same. The people that try their luck in the pursuit of nature’s gifts in the forest and on the river can be divided into two categories: those who do what they do out of necessity and tradition, and those who cannot live without a fishing rod or a hunting rifle. The modern law, however, applies both. Moreover, in the outback, there are also covenants of ancestors that are passed down from one generation to another.

Hunting traditions

Since the beginning of time, Komi people did not separate themselves from nature, considering a human equal to every living being, and did not take more than needed, respecting traditions and other hunters.

Everyone had their own putik (a forest trail attractive for wild game) and their hunting grounds extending tens of kilometers.

Frost and blizzards were nothing terrible for Komi people: at national holidays, the descendants of hunters still demonstrate their ability to light a one-match fire and build an improvised shelter from the weather. Even today, it is customary not to lock the huts scattered through the forests of the region, anyone can stay overnight in any of them and use everything the owners brought. However, there is also a tradition to maintain order in a temporary shelter and stock it with firewood or supplies before leaving.

A Komi hunter was the kind of professional who would never kill a nursing female or a future mother. It is believed that he even used some kind of a hunting calendar. The artifact that might be it was found in 1975 in Kortkerossky district. There is a theory that each of the nine sectors of the tool corresponds to one period of the year and one animal prohibited for hunting.

The whole ritual preceded going out hunting for a bear; the owner of the forest was never called by the real name, only by euphemisms.

On the eve before bear hunting, a man could not drink alcohol or have intimacy with his wife, and after killing his prey, he asked for forgiveness from it, as well as from a tree cut down for urgent needs.

Komi hunters were famous for their agility and accuracy: they killed squirrels and other small fur-bearing animals on the spot by shooting them in the eye so as not to ruin the skin or cause unnecessary pain. A hunter's prey served him and his family as food, clothing, and medicine. His arsenal of tools used for hunting included not only rifles and spears, but also traps, snares, loops, and other devices, which are still popular in Komi villages.

Fishing traditions

Using the traditional fishing gear that includes baskets, vetels, spears, and natural nets may be classified as poaching today, but back then it was the most eco-friendly option. In a Komi village, fishing involved everyone: men, women, and children. Kids, however, often managed with primitive poles or even caught “Komi anchovy”, so-called yos, using their scarves. Before fishing, it was customary to appease the water spirit Vasa, also known as Vakul, by throwing pieces of bread into a river or a lake. The first perch caught was also given to him.

Fishing on the Pechora river has been known as a great attraction from a long time ago, when salmon, which is delicacy today, was caught by tons.

Burbot, ide, perch, pike, roach, which are regarded as good fish today, used to be considered “rubbish”: whitefish, nelma, sterlet, grayling, and vendace were what Komi called a really lucky catch.

Folk traditions of the Komi Republic have been preserved to this day

As we know, the intangible heritage of a people is kept alive when it is preserved within families and reflected in holidays and customs. One of the places in the Komi Republic where local traditions are collected and studied is the regional Center for Folk Art and Professional Development. Today the intangible heritage register it has as one of its structures includes more than 30 holidays and customs, and new ones are added annually. Some of the events of the Komi Republic, like the Lud of Izhma, the Gorka of Ust-Tsilma, the Pyzha Gazh of Kerchomya, reindeer sleigh races of the far-northern districts, are known to many. But the others are hidden from view. They do not gather spectators, they cannot be watched from big city squares.

If not for scientists and ethnographers and their work, they could be lost, and we would never know about tribal signs known as pases, folk medicine, fishing traditions, the sheg game, Pizhma storytellers, Letka embroidery, fur application, unique painting on wood and so on.

In the times when even the term “globalization” had not existed yet, and the era of industrialization was just beginning, each Komi was an artist, craftsman and manufacturer in one person. He could build a house, construct a boat, weave a basket, paint a spinning wheel, burn a pot, sew a shirt and decorate it whimsically using clothes made by other members of his family. Boys and girls were taught crafts from five years old. In the old days, there were many skillful artisans and genuine artists. The fruits of their labor can be seen in vintage photographs and in museums. However, Komi that are fed by their unique skills are not rare even today. The craftsmen of the Komi Republic are united in the trade union with the same name. It has more than 50 recognized masters as its members, and although that is a lot, the number of those who preserve the traditions of hand-making in the region by creating unique things and passing on their skills to descendants is immeasurably greater.

There are crafts common to the entire komi republic, and there are ones less wide-spread.

For example, the so-called “with-a-twig” knitting technique that involves making rims over elastics of mittens or socks is practiced in the Sysolsky district, and the art of fur applique, as well as pimy sewing and deerskin lasso woving, is mastered by Izhma reindeer herders. As for patterned knitting, it is impossible to confuse the Ust-Tsilmian style with the Upper-Vychegdan one or any other. The traditions of household painting also differ from area to area.

Komi crafts today

The crafts that are most popular with modern artists are traditional pottery and ceramics preserved by the honored master Valery Toropov, carving and painting on wood, weaving from bark and root, knitting and patchwork sewing, embroidery and doll making.

A kind of craft fest is held annually in Syktyvkar. The name of this major exhibition is Master of the Year; it involves dozens of the best craftsmen selected throughout the region.

In 2021, the Komi Republic got its first catalog presenting traditional handicrafts integrated in the modern world. The authors of the project that was called “Kerka: the Art of Living in the North” moved unique objects from museums to houses and apartments, thereby having allowed them to serve as decorations in 21st century interiors.