Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug

'Gold-boiling' Mangazeya

Arctic Eldorado of Russian pioneers

04.10.2022 // Gold comes in many forms. Since Kievan Rus, one of the main objects of trade with Europe and the East has been precious furs, sometimes valued on a par with emeralds, diamonds and rubies. They were given as tribute and gifts to emperors and kings, as well as were the target of expeditions to the ends of the earth. When Russia turned its gaze to the East and began to advance towards the Urals and then Siberia, the extraction of fur became one of the main incentives to travel dangerously deep into unfamiliar territory. Along the way, Cossacks and 'hunting people' founded stockaded towns and settlements, one of which was the 'Gold-boiling Mangazeya,' a real polar Eldorado.

For romantics, the Russian transpolar town of Mangazeya is akin to ancient Troy: a legendary ghost city. Once home to the affluent, a merchant haven, 'boiling with gold' – and now gone. However, it indeed existed, and its short, eventful history can be traced quite accurately.

The settlement on the site of the future town on the high right bank of the Taz River, at the confluence of the Mangazeyka, dates back to the 16th century. The Pomors used to stop here during their expeditions to the Gulf of Ob. This may have been the site of the first warehouses where hunters kept their prey, as well as the first shops where they traded grain to the locals for pelts.

In 1600, Czar Boris Godunov decreed that a hundred streltsy and Cossacks be sent from Tobolsk to found a fortress there. It was needed as a stronghold for collecting yasak (tax in furs) from the indigenous peoples – the Nenets (then known as Samoyeds), Selkups, Evenks, and Kets. Within a year, the new settlement and the fortress were ready. The settlement’s name may have originated from the name of some indigenous tribe, as a mention of a 'Molgonzey' people can be found in the chronicles of the 15th–16th centuries. Mangazeya was the first Russian town beyond the Arctic Circle. Of course, its nickname, 'boiling with gold', stemmed not from actual gold, but rather from the furs. The area was rife with sables, and the indigenous peoples of the North had little use for their pelts. Up to 30,000 sables were exported from Mangazeya each year. Successful trade with the locals and the high demand for furs in Moscow quickly made the town very rich. It had a wellplanned layout with four streets and about 200 houses. The fortress was separated from the residential part, the latter itself being divided into commercial and craft sections. A boardwalk lined the ground, with churches, taverns, bathhouses, and barns rising around.

The archaeological finds here are extremely rich. They show that things were really humming here: on top of expected mundane items like crockery, candlesticks, knives and locks, things like musical instruments, leather-bound books, chess pieces, and dice were found.

The kremlin fortress, standing on the riverbank, sported five towers; the voivode’s court with outbuildings and a barnyard was inside it. Only about 800 people are thought to have been the town’s permanent inhabitants. However, the population would double during the trading season. Merchants would stop at the Gostiny Dvor, pay a tax on their goods, and receive a special stamp of sealing wax on their travelling certificate. Thousands of wooden cases for such certificates have been dug up. One would think that the town was destined to flourish, but its existence ended after 70 years. In 1619, a big fire happened, delivering a tough blow. Other factors also had an impact. The foremost one was, of course, the dwindling number of animals in the surrounding forests. All-out hunting took its toll, and the natural reserves of furs had become scarce. Then, a Czar’s decree was issued, banning merchants from sailing from Mangazeya to Arkhangelsk by sea rather than by river, punishable by death.

Mangazeya burg is located on within the Krasnoselkupsky district, 160 km down the Taz River from the set- tlement of Krasnoselkup. At the moment, no travel company is capable to offer a ready-made tour for connoisseurs of antiquities, but it is always possible to book a personalised trip. Caution should be exercised when visiting the hill fort—it is an archaeological site that should not be disturbed. It is the preservation of the entire complex of finds intact that gives scientists the most information, and any item taken 'out of the ground' loses almost all of its value.

The cause was likely the difficulty to control merchant ships at sea, out of which the treasury missed out on tolls. On top of that, Mangazeya had begun trading with Dutch and English merchants, causing a fear in Moscow that the town would be subjected to too much foreign influence. These fears were reinforced in every possible way by the Tobolsk voivodes, unhappy about a strong rival. In the early 1630s, a feud between two voivodes began within the town, and armed confrontations flared up, badly hitting the trade. Finally, in 1642, a second fire happened, and Mangazeya was burned to the ground. There were attempts to restore it, but in 1672, Czar Alexei Mikhaylovich signed a decree abolishing the town. It was replaced by the New Mangazeya on the banks of the Yenisei. This settlement later became known as Turukhansk, and, after 1917, Staroturukhansk.

Historians began to investigate the case of the perished town as early as the 19th century. Serious attempts, however, had to wait until the 20th. During the 1927 and 1946 expeditions, the first plan of the town was drawn up. In the summer of 1968, full-scale research began. The permafrost helped fabrics, wood, and paint stay undamaged. As no other settlements had ever existed on the site, the cultural layer was intact, and thousands of invaluable finds telling about the everyday life of people in the 17th century were made.

Today, the artefacts found during excavations of Mangazeya in the 21st century can be seen in the Krasnoselkup Museum of Local Lore. The earlier finds are displayed in the Arctic and Antarctic Museum in St. Petersburg.

If you like this article, consider subscribing to our newsletter. We will send you the most interesting stories.

Read also
Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Two trekking routes in Chukotka: Mount Dionisia and Cape Navarin

Over hills and valleys

Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Authentic Chukotka: Journey to the settlement of marine hunters

Whale meat, ethnographic relics and an inaccessible lake

Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Heading to Ugolnye Kopi: a journey to non-tourist Chukotka

Settlement with dinosaurs and military personnel