Nenets Autonomous Okrug

Vaygach State Nature Reserve

Vaygach Island is located on the border of the Pechora and Kara seas. It is separated from the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the northwest by the Kara Strait, and from the mainland by the narrow Yugorsky Strait. Vaygach is an oval-shaped rocky island (100 km long and 40 km wide), overgrown with mosses, lichens and dwarf trees. On Vaygach, there are white polar foxes and reindeer, polar bears wander around here, and there are large walrus and seal rookeries on the shores. Nenets reindeer herders live in the only village of Varnek.

The word 'Vaygach' is considered a corruption of the Nenets word 'Vay Habts', which in translation sounds quite unsettling: the land of death, the island of death. This is not without reason: for centuries, Vaygach remained the sacred island of the gods, used for public rituals, as evidenced by the altars and the remains of religious buildings. Judging by the archaeological finds, the Nenets arrived here around the 10th century. However, there were no permanent settlements until the 1920s. For those of us who are not shamans, the island has been a forbidden land for centuries.

Address: Zapolyarny area, Nenets Autonomous District, Russia
Site on the map

Cape Bolvansky Nos on the northern tip of the island has been called the Cape of Idols since ancient times. The shrine on the promontory was dedicated to the male deity Vesako (Old Man). According to the Brockhaus and Efron dictionary, the wooden Vesako stood surrounded by '20 medium-sized idols, 400 smaller wooden ones, and 20 varied stone idols stood 50 'sazhens' from the main idol'. The wooden effigy of the Old Man had seven faces, and the idols of his retinue, according to the testimony of English sailors who sailed to the island in the 16th century, were smeared with the blood of sacrificial deer during rituals. In 1984–87, an archaeological expedition from Leningrad, led by L.P. Khlobystin, worked on Bolvansky Nos. Archaeologists thoroughly examined the entire cape and found many ritual and household items, from deer bones to weapons and jewellery from the 10th–13th centuries. All these items were sacrificed to the gods, to ask permission for hunting and fishing.

The main female deity is represented not by hand-made idols, but by a work of nature: an elongated stone at the top of a rock, in which the Nenets saw the figure of the mother of the gods, named Khadako (Old Woman). They sacrificed deer to her and asked for a successful hunt. The other deities of the Nenets pantheon are considered the children of the Old Man and the Old Woman. Orthodox missionaries who came here in the 1820s tried to destroy the idols, replacing them with a cross, but the idols soon reappeared.

Such a violation of the gods' peace leads to punishment, and credulous people see confirmation of this legend even in recent events. In the 2000s, members of a scientific expedition who studied the sanctuaries of Vaygach Island briefly took the seven-faced deity to Moscow. They say this caused a series of misfortunes reminiscent of the curse of Tutankhamun's tomb, and the island experienced very bad weather the entire time.

One way or another, the seven-faced idol was brought back, and the Nenets performed atonement rituals.

A state nature reserve was established on Vaygach in 2007. In addition to cultural and historical monuments, which include the island sanctuaries, its employees are engaged in the protection of unique nests of snow geese, walrus rookeries and concentrations of marine mammals in the coastal waters. For now, tourists can get to Vaygach with guides from travel agencies specialising in extreme Arctic travel.