Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/October 1893/The Ural Cossacks and their Fisheries

1217850Popular Science Monthly Volume 43 October 1893 — The Ural Cossacks and their Fisheries1893Nikolay Borodin




THE Ural Cossacks, who live on the boundary between European Russia and Asia, along the middle and lower part of the Ural River, have been known in Russia for a long time, not only as brave soldiers in war time, but also as peaceful fishermen, carrying on the fishing industry on a very large scale and in quite a peculiar manner.

More than three hundred years ago the first band of the so-called "free people"—Cossacks—appeared on the Yaik River, the original name of the Ural River.[1]

Who were this people? They were pioneers of liberty, people tired of cruel serfdom and discontented with subordinate life in Russian czardom, who tried to organize their life on a basis of absolute freedom and after their own ideas in the vast steppes of southeastern Russia.

The free colony grew rapidly, thanks to large additions of discontented people from all neighboring provinces of Russia and from foreign countries. A careful examination of an early census of the Ural Cossacks made by order of Peter the Great (1723) shows us that among the immigrants were Poles, Hungarians, numbers of peasants from different parts of Russia, many dissenters from the Russian Orthodox Church, prosecuted by government, a great number of Don Cossacks, etc. Differing in nationality as well as in language, one thing was common to all, the ardent longing for freedom and independent life. Is it not a counterpart of the earliest period of immigration to this country, when those who were persecuted in Europe sought freedom elsewhere? An old Cossack, when asked once about the origin of the Ural Cossacks by a well-known folklorist, answered, "The bee gathers from every flower its best, and what is the result?"

"Honey," replied the astonished man.

"Well," said the Cossack, "in such a manner grew our community: from everywhere came the best and brightest men and organized our society."

Do not you think that this simple and witty simile well illustrates the history of early colonization in this country as well as the origin of the small community of which I speak?

Fig. 1.—A Street in Uralsk

In 1580, we read in a historical document, came to the lower part of Yaik River a band of Cossacks and expelled from the country the remainder of a once famous and strong Gold-Horda of Tartars. They ruined Saraitchik, the chief residence of the Tartars, and sailing up the river, founded a fortress near the place where is now situated Uralsk, the chief city of the Ural Cossacks.

At first these warlike bands lived by a rather peculiar industry—marauding of hostile neighbors (Tartars) and sometimes commercial ships on the Caspian Sea en route from Khiva and Persia.

"Ah, formerly we Cossack fellows
Sailed pretty well on thy waves,
In light boats looking for prey,
For the prey from Khiva and Persia,"

says one Cossack song about this old time.

It is difficult to say when the Ural Cossacks changed this industry for the more peaceful one of fishing. Probably this was

Married woman.Old woman.Girl.
Fig. 2.—Types of Ural Cossack Women.

very soon after the conclusion with the Muscovite Czar of a kind of protectorate (1613), which is commemorated by a peculiar old custom of presenting fish and caviar from the community to the imperial court. This custom, sanctified by more than three centuries, exists yet, and was doubtless a token of loyalty and hospitality similar to the custom of the Russian agricultural population of presenting bread and salt on like occasions. As the Russian peasant poetizes his hard agricultural labor and surrounds it with an aureole, so the Ural Cossacks poetize their fisheries and everything in connection with them. In almost every popular song of this country is mentioned, under all kinds of poetical names, the Ural River with "its golden bottom" and its "silver banks," and one of the most favorite local songs is an ode or hymn in honor of the Yaik River (the historical name remains in poetry), the foster father of the population. The economical importance

Fig. 3.—Railing across the River.

of the fisheries for this people is so immense that it influences their whole life, not excepting the military service. The right of fishing in communal waters does not belong to any but members of the community, who, on the other hand, are compelled to undertake military service. The Ural Cossacks have ready for the service every year about three thousand cavalry, and in case of war every adult may be called on to serve as a soldier. The entire population is about one hundred and ten thousand souls.

Thus, when one part of the men is engaged in military service, the other part, which remains at home, is forced to procure money to pay the expenses of equipment for the outgoing soldiers, and also to make their own living.

Only by bearing this heavy double burden have the Ural Cossacks succeeded in acquiring exclusive rights to the land and river colonized by them, and to preserve until the present time some independence in their home affairs with a peculiar economic organization of the community as an entire body. Much struggling and fighting was done in the early existence of this small community in order to gain this measure of independence from the Muscovite Government, which has always had a strong tendency to centralize different parts of Russian territory under one absolute power. From its early existence until 1723 the community was entirely independent in its interior home affairs. It was a purely democratic republic, with an elected chief, or ataman, representing the executive power. All governmental affairs were transacted in a communal "circle" or general meeting of the members of the entire community. In 1723 the Russian Government first laid its hand on the independence of the community, and since that time the election of the chief must be approved by the Government in order that the appointment may be legal. In 1775 the communal "circle" was abolished and the community entirely lost the right of electing its ataman, who since that time has been appointed by imperial order. The only thing still remaining is the economic organization, where the independence is very characteristic.

To return to the fisheries and their importance in the life of the Ural Cossacks. I should mention that the Ural River is the

Fig. 4.—Fall Fishing on the Ural River. Carting Boudaras.

only large river that is entirely given over to the fishing industry, all sorts of commercial navigation being absolutely forbidden from Uralsk to the Caspian Sea (three hundred and thirty miles); and more than that, in some places of the river, where sturgeons collect for their winter sojourn, no one is permitted to run a boat, to make any noise, build a fire on the shore, etc. By the laws of the community summer fishing is almost entirely prohibited, for the purpose of protecting the spawning, also for the reason that fish caught in summer will not bring a good price. They let fish enter the river from the sea and settle there quietly for the winter sojourn. All possible means are used to secure for the fish an unrestricted passage to the upper parts of the river, but not beyond Uralsk, where a railing is constructed across the river to prevent the larger fish going farther up. Owing to this arrangement the lower part of the river from this railing to the mouth forms a large natural fish pond (three hundred and thirty miles in length) where the fish are carefully watched by a great many fishwardens until the regular time for

Fig. 5.—Fall Fishing on the Ural River. Waiting for the Cannon-shot Signal.

fishing, which is fixed by general consent of the community. It is easy to understand what a thorough organization is necessary to conduct successfully this complicated plan for the distance of three hundred and thirty miles, and which has to deal with more than ten thousand fishermen. It is indeed a complete organization. The central administration, residing in Uralsk, controls all this business, assisted by numbers of local agents through the whole country. A steam cruiser, steam launch, and a number of sailboats constantly watch the mouth of the river and the neighboring banks and protect them from poachers. It should be mentioned that the river, with its fishing grounds and part of the Caspian Sea, belong to this entire community, consisting of a hundred and ten thousand people. There is no private property belonging to individuals or villages adjacent to the river, and an elaborate and detailed general plan must exist to regulate all this immense business in such a manner that the interest and rights of every member of the community shall be properly protected.

Fig. 6.—Fall Fishing on the Ural River. Seining on the Fishing Grounds.

The community does not believe that these interests may be protected by free competition, as is the case elsewhere.

As a rule, one part of the river (the lower) is intended to be fished out in the fall, the other (upper) portion in winter. The fall fishing begins about the 17th of September. On a certain day the "fishing army," as it is called, moves to the fishing places, which are sometimes very far from home. The Cossack carts contain not only nets and provisions, but also the boat used in this fishing. These boats, known by the name of boudara, are so light that two of them may be carried on one cart.

When the "fishing army" comes to the proper place, the boudaras are taken from the carts, and early in the morning appointed for commencing fishing they are placed at the edge of the water, right along the river for a distance hardly compassed by the eye. No less than three thousand boats, each containing two men, meet here. To maintain discipline, a chief, or "fishing ataman," is appointed, and several representatives of 'the fishermen are elected to assist tire chief. The ataman gives a signal to commence fishing by a cannon shot, and then the crowd rush to the boats, and in less time than you can realize what has happened all the fishermen are in their boats and a peculiar kind of boat racing commences. They put forth their utmost strength and ability to outrun each other, and to be first at the place where the fish have gathered in shoals, these places being known by the reports from the fish wardens. Once here, they throw out their small seines and haul them from two boats. Various kinds of sturgeon (from thirty to six hundred pounds weight), sander, carp, bream, and silurus are the principal fish caught at this fishing. The seines differ, of course, in the size of their meshes, according to the fish for which they are intended; but no one has the right to use any but the regular size, large seines being admitted only behind the "fishing army." Hence, as in a noble fight, the chances of all combatants are as nearly equalized as possible by the regulations above mentioned, fixed place and time, regulated tools, etc. Success depends only on the ability and strength of the fishermen.

The total catch during the fall seining is from fifty-four million to seventy-two million pounds, which includes two hundred and sixteen thousand pounds sturgeon and about twenty-one thousand six hundred pounds caviar.

When fishing, the fishing army always goes down the river, covering from twelve to twenty-four miles a day, and in this way moves after a time to the mouth of the river, which is reached, as a rule, at the end of October. At this time the ice begins to accumulate in the river and closes the fishing season.

Another army of equal magnitude, consisting of fish dealers with a large number of carts, accompanies the fishing army. These carts are contracted to carry the catch to the city markets (there is no railroad in this steppe). No less than ten thousand carts are used here, and if you add ten thousand more carts belonging to fishermen, you may imagine how imposing must be the sight of the peaceful armies.

The fishing in the upper part of the Ural River, as I mentioned before, is carried on in winter, under the ice, and that is Fig. 7.—Ural Fisherman Ready for Through-Ice Fishing, called Bagrenie. the most peculiar of all fisheries. It is called bagrenie, which means "hooking," because the fishing is accomplished by a peculiar kind of hook. When the ice in the river becomes firm enough to support the weight of the fishing-army, which generally takes place in December, an order is given by the communal administration for the army to meet at Uralsk, from which point the fishing is begun. On a fixed day, thousands of people, old and young, hasten to the appointed place.

Let us now see how the fishermen dress for this winter fishing. One of them ready for work is represented in the picture. Light and comfortable garments, waterproof mittens and boots; in one hand a chisel, in the other two haft-hooks—the long one (with a haft of seven or more fathoms) is used for catching fish, lying (as a rule) in deep places on the bottom; the short one is destined to hold the fish when it is brought to the surface of the ice.

At about 9 a. m. the banks of the river, near the place where the shoals of fish have gathered, are crowded with thousands of horses and sledges, so that it becomes difficult to reach the river. Fishermen go down to the ice and stand on it in endless lines on both banks of the river, anxiously waiting for the signal—a cannon shot.

The ataman has gone out in midstream; every one is looking for him impatiently. The signal having been given, two living waves of people rush forward to the middle of the river, and the

Fig. 8.—Winter Fishing on the Ural River, called Bagrenie.

arduous work begins, every one trying to be the first to make a hole in the ice with a chisel. In a few minutes an entire forest of long hafts grows up over the river, as though some magic power had been at work. The fisherman moves the haft up and down, and listens intently that he may know when the fish touch the hook. Once this has happened, he hooks the fish by an alert movement, then hauls it immediately up to the surface of the ice, calling in the mean time for help from his fellow fishermen. They fish here, usually, in groups of from six to twenty men, for it is not easy work to pull up a huge sturgeon of several hundred

Fig. 9.—Fall Fishing on the Ural River. Dressing Fish by Natives.

pounds weight. In a very short time the surface becomes marked with blood and covered with big fish.

The most important fish caught in winter are different kinds of sturgeon, viz., the large sturgeon (Acipenser huso), Russian sturgeon (A. Guldenstädtii), star sturgeon (A. stellatus) and A. Shypa. Each decidedly differs from the other and from species caught in America. For the flesh and particularly the roe (caviare) very high prices are obtained in the winter season; one single big female of the "large sturgeon" is sold for 100 to 200 rubles ($64.50 to $129).

Of course, not every one succeeds in catching such a valuable fish; on the contrary, many, in spite of great efforts, do not catch any, not even the smallest sturgeon. Nevertheless, this fishing being an alluring lottery with winnings, everybody hopes to be a lucky one, and this is the reason why so many of the Ural Cossacks attend this favorite winter fishing. Not less than ten thousand people participate in it; about a million and eighty thousand pounds of sturgeon and the same amount of other fish (sander and silurus) are caught and fifty-four thousand pounds of caviare prepared. The average price for sturgeon is 13·8 cents a pound, and for caviare about a dollar and a half a pound.

In addition to the fisheries described above, the Ural Cossacks carry on important fishing in the Caspian Sea in spring and also in winter; the methods not being of an unusual character, I omit a description.

The total amount of the local fishery business can be expressed in the following figures for 1891: 5,817,464 pounds of

Fig. 10.—Fall Fishing on the Ural River. Making Caviare.

sturgeon, 73,960,824 pounds of other fish, 1,076,076 pounds fish roe, 173,348 pounds dried sturgeon steak (balik), and 6,084 pounds isinglass were exported from the territory of the Ural Cossacks. The total amount of fish landed must have been larger than these figures, owing to the local consumption, though in comparison with that exported it is quite insignificant. Thanks to the duty for every pound of fish exported from the Ural Cossacks' land, local fish trade statistics are excellent, and we are in possession of very valuable figures, similar to the above, for more than half a century, which gives an exact idea of the direction, increase, and decrease of this important industry in a very large and definite region.[2]

The revenue from the exported fish is used for different public expenses, and among others for the improvement of local industries in general and the fisheries in particular. Thus, during the last three or four years, a very fine agricultural school, with a model farm, has been erected at a cost of more than one hundred thousand dollars. They have several scholarships in the leading universities of the empire, and maintain a very large high school. For the purpose of making improvements in local fisheries a person of suitable education and familiar with home fishery affairs is sent to foreign countries to study the different branches of fishing industry, including pisciculture. I have the honor of being charged with this task. Two years are spent in these studies in all places of fishing importance in the different countries of Europe and North America, and now I have completed them by getting information at the World's Fair.

The Ural Cossacks' community is represented, although not largely, at the World's Fair, in the Russian department in the Fishery Building, and I should be much pleased if the foregoing could call the attention of visitors to the peculiar fisheries of my fellow Cossacks.

At the same time I would like to give some idea of the home life of this strange race, who are known in foreign countries only as a semi-barbarous, warlike people on horseback with formidable lances, etc. The foregoing, I hope, will add something new to their characteristics.

  1. The names of Yaik River and Yaik Cossacks were changed to Ural River and Ural Cossacks by imperial order in 1775 after Pugacheff's rebellion, in which the Yaik Cossacks took a very active part, the order stating that the old name should be abolished and entirely forgotten.
  2. The diagram is to be seen in the Russian Department of the Fishery Building at the World's fair.