The Komi Republic

Ust-Tsilma Gorka: a celebration of Arctic round dances

Visiting Old Believers in the Komi Republic

04.04.2023 // For centuries the harsh disposition of the Polar Regions discouraged people from colonising the North—the long winters, impassable forests and distance from any means of communication scared rather than enticed. However, in the 17th century, after the Church split, the disadvantages of the northern regions were an advantage for Old Believers, who sought refuge from the 'world.' Thus, the first settlers appeared in what is now called the Ust-Tsilemsky District. Today, the heritage and unique culture of the Old Believer community have become a national treasure in Russia. You can get to know them during the Ust-Tsilma Gorka, an annual summer round dance festival.

Not far from Yamozero, the largest water body in Komi, is the settlement of Ust-Tsilma, known far beyond the borders of the Komi Republic as an original land whose inhabitants preserve ancient traditions, customs, songs, bylinas, rites and crafts, and maintain a special way of life: some 500 years ago, Ust-Tsilma was founded by Old Believers who fled oppression in this northern region. Outstanding archaeographer Vladimir Ivanovich Malyshev called Ust-Tsilma 'a very special cultural nest with its very own original peculiarities, as well as varied tastes and demands.'

These days, Ust-Tsilma attracts people who cherish Russian history and olden times. Numerous ethno events take place here, one of the foremost ones being the unique ceremonial holiday of summer round dances, the Gorka, dating all the way back to medieval Russia. In 2004, the Ust-Tsilma Gorka was granted the status of a republican holiday. To this day, all the old customs and rituals are carefully observed when it is held. The origins of this holiday lie in the worship of the sun, the deity Yarila.

In ancient times, people used to gather on a hill and praise the sun with round dances and songs. The Gorka was performed up to three times a day. The first Gorka, around 10 a. m., was done by teenagers and young adults. In the afternoon, they were joined by married women. And by evening, everyone in the village, no matter young or old, would go to the Gorka.

At the evening Gorka, all seven kinds of ritual round dances meant to attract Yarila's favour were performed. A different outfit was intended for each one. Dressing up, or putting on an outfit, was an important ritual in itself. A traditional costume for the Gorka is a work of art with many meanings.

Everything matters: the material used to make a sundress or apron, a belt is a must; the headdress—a khaz (headband) for girls and a headscarf for married women; special jewellery are large brooches, silver chains with a festive cross, metal cufflinks...

The traditional costumes, recreated in great detail, can still be seen today during the Ust-Tsilma Gorka celebrations. You can also hear ancient songs connected with the Gorka: 17 song themes, traditional for the Russian round dance, were and still are sung at the festivities. Of course, these days, it is hardly possible to dance a long round dance three times a day. Nowadays the Gorka, symbolizing the summit of the working year and at the same time the pinnacle of joy and fun, is celebrated on Saint John's Day, 7 July, and on Saint Peter's Day, 12 July.

You can get to the festivities either in a tour format or on your own. Tourist companies usually offer to come for a few days, which include guided tours, sporting events and workshops in traditional Old Believers' crafts. Accommodation and meals are also handled for guests, which is very convenient because Ust-Tsilma does not have a large number of hotels or hostels. Most often a house or flat is rented from locals for the duration of the holiday.

In 2022, the Ust-Tsilma Gorka holiday won 1st place in the National Tourist Award 'Route Built' in the 'Event of the Year' category. A total of 63 Russian regions took part in the competition in 15 categories, and around 2 mn people voted.

Those who decide to travel to Ust-Tsilma on their own should plan their route well in advance. The train will take you to Irajol station and then you can travel 225 km by bus. Altogether the journey can take almost two days—first about 30 hours by the Moscow–Vorkuta train from the capital, then by public transport. You can significantly reduce your travel time by catching a plane in Syktyvkar—it flies three times a week. Despite the relatively high cost of tickets, air travel is the most reliable way to reach the settlement. In spring and autumn, the Pechora River becomes impassable for the ferry due to ice drifts and freeze-up, respectively, and in summer, it can become very shallow. Locals, of course, will transport tourists by boat, but the car will either have to be left on shore or wait until the ferry service resumes.

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