Content warning: This blog reproduces an image of a dead animal; the vocabulary drawn from the original texts is now considered racist.
Thanks to the typo of British cartographers, Stephen and William Borough – who in the 16th century created several maps of Russia – a northern archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, Novaya Zemlya, became in the Western imagination a remote and romanticised land, Nova Zembla.
Nova Zembla is mentioned in Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books as the residence of ‘a malignant deity called Criticism,’ who ‘dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla’. We find a reference to Nova Zembla in Tristram Shandy, where ‘North Lapland’ is described as ‘those cold and dreary tracks of the globe […] where the whole province of a man’s concernments lies for near nine months together within the narrow compass of his cave […]— there the least quantity of judgment imaginable does the business — and of wit — there is a total and an absolute saving — for as not one spark is wanted — so not one spark is given’. The ‘[d]istant northern land’ of Zembla becomes the abandoned kingdom of the deposed King Charles (Kinbote), the character of Nabokov’s metafictional novel, Pale Fire.
William Borough's Map of Coasts of Norway and Russia, 1557. Nova Zembla is in the top right corner. Royal MS. 18. D.III f.124
Although inspired by the long history of Nova Zembla’s presence in world literature, this post explores the image of Novaya Zemlya, rather than of its literary double. It focuses on an episode from the history of its colonisation: the legacy of a Russian ethnographer, photographer, and writer, Konstantin Nosilov (1858¬–1923). The British Library holds a substantial collection of digitized glass plate negatives from Nosilov’s collection (EAP016/1 and EAP016/3) including his photographs of Novaya Zemlya as well as other parts of Northern and Southern Siberia, his family life, and European travels.
Nosilov besides a fireplace (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)
The BL also holds several collections of Nosilov’s short stories in which he shared reminiscences of his ethnographic expeditions, and which are illustrated with his photographs.
Various editions of Nosilov's short stories available at the BL
Nosilov was born to the family of a priest who lived near Shadrinsk in the Urals region. Nosilov did not finish his own theological studies and instead from 1879 he started to work as a geologist exploring the basins of the rivers Sosʹva, Lialia, and Lozʹva – prospecting them for gold. Having become a member of Imperial Russian Geographical Society, Nosilov undertook numerous ethnographic expeditions to Siberia, exploring the traditions and lifestyles of the Mansi (also known as Voguls), Khanty (Ostyaks), and Nenets (Samoyed). The collection includes numerous photographs taken by Nosilov during these expeditions.
The Mansi’s summer camp
The Nenets’ place of sacrifice
Novaya Zemlya occupies a very special place in Nosilov’s life and work. Being on the outskirts of the vast Russian Empire, the archipelago had been hardly explored by Russian ethnographers. Norwegian hunters and fishermen, on the other hand, frequently visited the waters around Novaya Zemlya and its shores. To reinforce the Russian Empire’s control of its territorial possession, it was regarded as crucial to establish permanent settlements on the island – Novaya Zemlya had been uninhabited due to its severe environment. Nosilov volunteered to organise a permanent settlement on the archipelago.
In 1887 a lifeboat station, Malye Karmakuly, was founded on the island of Iuzhnyi, and several Nenets families were relocated to the area. An ambitious colonialist, Nosilov was the first Russian explorer who, together with the Nenets, spent three winters on Novaya Zemlya 1887–1889 and 1890–1891. By his own example, Nosilov wanted to prove that the archipelago was suitable for year-round living.
Nosilov's house on Novaya Zemlya
Novaya Zemlya, Malye Karmakuly
Novaya Zemlya: view from the sea
Novaya Zemlya: cliffs and the sea
On Novaya Zemlya, Nosilov installed a meteorological station, that was essential to help the inhabitants prepare for severe weather conditions and regular storms, one of which is described in Nosilov’s story ‘Poliarnaia buria’ (‘Polar Storm’). Together with the Orthodox priest Father Iona, Nosilov revived an abandoned Orthodox chapel on the island, and they also started a school for the Nenets, – described in his story ‘Samoedskaia shkola’ (‘The Samoyed School’). Nosilov was especially proud of this, the most northern school in the world. In the story, he describes how both children and adults were keen on learning not only language but basic maths and other general subjects. Full of gentle humour, the story also tells how Father Iona was terrified by the ‘school inspectors’ – polar bears – who frequently visited.
Describing the Nenets settlement on Novaya Zemlya, Nosilov used many tropes that are now considered as typical for colonialist literature depicting colonisers’ interactions with indigenous peoples. The narrator in Nosilov’s stories shows a patronizing attitude toward the Siberians, who are treated like children, or, as he constantly calls them, ‘the children of nature’. Although Nosilov also frequently refers to the indigenous peoples in a way that now would be considered as racist, calling them ‘barbarians’ (‘dikari’), his attitude towards them is not derogatory, but rather sympathetic, especially when it comes to their studies of the Russian language and religion.
Some indigenous traditions which Nosilov witnessed, nevertheless terrified him. For instance, in one of his stories about the Mansi, ‘Iz zhizni vogulov’ (‘From the Life of the Voguls’), Nosilov describes the ceremonial slaughter and eating of a reindeer as bloodthirsty and barbaric: ‘looking at their passionate faces lit by the light of the fire, I saw the real barbarians, whom I had not yet suspected under the always modest and quiet figures of the Voguls’. However, most of his stories, especially those dedicated to the life of his colony on Novaya Zemlya, are full of admiration for the indigenous peoples, their skills and instincts.
In his story ‘Tainstvennoe iz zhizni samoedov’ (‘Mysterious in the Life of the Samoyeds’), for example, Nosilov describes an elderly Nenets woman with a gift of clairvoyance who not only predicted the fortune of hunters, but also once foretold the arrival of a Norwegian ship from Tromsø. Despite being a devout Christian – fulfilling, among other things, the duty of missionary work – Nosilov was keenly interested in indigenous spirituality and the native peoples’ special skills of forefeeling.
Novaya Zemlya, Matochkin Shar
Many of Nosilov’s stories are addressed to younger readers in central Russia. Nosilov tried to enlighten them about the life in the remote parts of the Russian Empire. Among such stories is the story of a Nenets girl, Tania Logai. The plot might be interesting for a Gender Studies analysis: Nosilov describes various episodes from Tania’s life showing how, instead of learning female domestic duties, she was much more interested in hunting. Tania even becomes a local celebrity for killing a polar bear that attacked her family hut whilst all the male hunters were away. Even when she reaches womanhood, Tania refuses to change. She does not want to get married and chooses to stay with her family and help her father hunt.
Novaya Zemlya. The female bear killed by Nosilov
Alongside being entertaining and enlightening, Nosilov’s stories also featured the acute social and economic problems experienced by the indigenous population of the north. These problems were primarily provoked by the invasion of European Russians who disturbed the traditional ways of living. Discussing the State’s response to the problems of the indigenous peoples, Yuri Slezkine notes:
[…] more and more travelers and more and more readers assumed that the administrators – local or otherwise – were generally incapable of enlightening anyone and that helping savages advance was the special mission of special people who were the sole legitimate representatives of the highest stage of intellectual development (the “intelligentsia”) (Slezkine, 1994, p. 112)
This sense of personal mission is notable in Nosilov’s stories. The final story in his collection Na Novoi Zemle, titled ‘Nashi liudoedy’ (‘Our Cannibals’) discusses the problems of the Nenets population living on the Taz Estuary. The story tells how the indigenous people, facing terrible poverty despite living in one of the richest fishing areas of Russia, hungered so badly that they had to resort to cannibalism. Nosilov regards this as the fault of the European Russians and urged measures to help indigenous populations. Nosilov also published numerous articles describing the problems of the North, including the increasing alcoholism among native peoples after vodka was introduced by Russians.
Nosilov’s texts sometimes reveal his personal doubt as to whether intrusion into the worlds of indigenous peoples was a truly good thing. This instance of the coloniser’s self-reflexivity is an interesting topic to consider: Nosilov’s rich cultural heritage requires a new critical reading framed with post-colonial theory. The story of Nosilov’s final years brings an additional dramatic element to it. Due to his deteriorating relationship with the State after the installation of Bolshevik rule in 1917, his family had to leave their estate, Nakhodka near Shadrinks (EAP016 includes numerous pictures of the estate) and moved to Georgia where Nosilov died in 1923.
Nosilov's estate 'Nakhodka'
Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’
References and further reading:
K. D. Nosilov, Tania Logaĭ: razskaz i zhizni sievernykh inorodtsev (Moscow, 1907). RB.23.a.32078.
K. D. Nosilov, U vogulov: ocherki i nabroski (St Peterburg: 1904). 10292.k.21
K. D. Nosilov, Na Novoi Zemle: Ocherki i nabroski (St Peterburg: 1903) (10292.k.20),
Konstantin Nosilov, Severnye rasskazy (Sverdlovsk, 1938). X.808/9359.
Johanna Nichols, ‘Stereotyping Interethnic Communication: The Siberian Native in Soviet Literature’ in Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, ed. by Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine (New York, 1993), pp. 185–214. YC.1993.a.3771
Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, 1994). YC.1994.b.5452
A. K. Omelʹchuk, K. Nosilov (Sverdlovsk, 1989).
N. B. Gramatchikova, ‘Tvorcheskii putʹ K. D. Nosilova: zhiznennyi putʹ i publitsistika’ in Deviatye Chupinskie kraevedcheskie chteniia: materialy konferentsii, ed. by E. N. Efremova (Ekaterinburg, 2018)