Mangazeya. The First Polar Town

The history of the vanished town that played one of the key roles in the exploration of the Russian North

19.04.2022 // The legendary Mangazeya, 'boiling with gold', only existed for a short time, but left a considerable mark on history. It was one of the first Russian outposts beyond the Arctic Circle and a major trading hub for its time, uniting Russia with Western Europe. Having disappeared from maps, it almost became a myth. It had been called Russia's Klondike and Kitezh of the Arctic. Archaeologists did not get there until the 20th century.

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 Foundation of the Town

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.

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. Mangazeya was the first Russian town beyond the Arctic Circle.

Photo from the website of the Library of Siberian Local History

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. 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.

Mangazeya's Decline

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.

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.

Artifacts Preserved by the Permafrost

Photo from the website of the Shemanovsky Museum-Exhibition Complex

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 century. 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 to 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, these artifacts are stored in many Russian museums.

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