The history of any folk craft is closely connected to the history of the people. The period from the 1920s to the turn of the 21st century was difficult for the Komi and its craft – colorwork knitting. This is the fifth post about the distinct tradition of the Komi, the ethnic minority of the Russian North.
Otto von Bismarck said approximately the following: “The romantics think up revolutions, the fanatics execute revolutions and the bastards are the only beneficiaries of revolutions.” In summary, the losers are the people.
The revolution in Russia in 1917 known as October Revolution did little for the Komi people and their cultural heritage, knitting included. With land so rich in forests, oil, gas, coal, minerals, the Komi would fared as splendidly as their cousins, the Finns. (Finland is a former poor province of the Russian Empire. The Komi and the Finns are both of Finno-Ugric language group). Finland miraculously gained independence from the Soviet Russia in 1919. Never looked back to the days when they were a part of the Empire.
The Bolshevik government, always long on Marxist-Leninist ideology and always short on sound management, started with massive forceful expropriations of “surplus” grain from the peasants. The resisting peasants were severely punished.
In the 1920s the struggling Soviet state levvied exorbitant taxes on peasants.
In the land of the Komi, the farming was always a game of chance. Now it was a bad business. The Komi peasants started reducing plantings and cattle herds. It is better to have no “surplus” than to give away the products of difficult labor to the outsiders whose language many of them did not even understand.
In the late 1920s the Soviet state came up with yet another brilliant idea to suck every drop of wealth from the countryside: collectivization. In a nutshell, it was a state-run serfdom which lasted until 1974, when the peasants could obtain internal identification documents and move away.
The collectivization proceeded like this: brigades of brainwashed city youth accompanied by the foot soldiers of the internal security forces went to villages and forcefully organized the peasants into collective farms (kolkhoz). All private farm land became a kolkhoz property along with tools, cattle, planting material and, sometimes, personal belongings. The kolkhozniks could not move anywhere. The better-off peasants, so called kulaks (tight fists), were treated with unimaginable cruelty: all of their property was confiscated in favor of kolhoz. The kulak‘s daughter remembers the 1920s-early 1930s*:
… in 1929 the authorities ordered my father to turn in all the grain. He turned it in. What did they do in the spring? In the spring of 1930 they came and ordered him to plant several acres. But he did not have any seed to plant. He gave up all of it in the fall. He refused to plant. They sentenced him to 2 years in Solikamsk prison. He served the whole sentence.
After the father was imprisoned in May of 1930, the internal security people came to our house and evicted us from our own home. No other shelter was offered. They took our home. Our tools and cattle became the property of the kolkhoz. As we were told later, all our personal belongings and household items were laid out in front of the house. Some was sold to benefit the kolkhoz, the rest was given away to whoever wanted it.
The mother had nowhere to go, she was illiterate [in those years many rural Komis were illiterate and did not speak Russian – E. ]. She had three children: my sister was born in 1927, I was born in 1928 and another baby girl was born in 1930. Three kids, ages 3, 2 and 1 and no home. She wandered from village to village and begged for handouts. She was forbidden to leave the area.
The villagers gave her shelter and food in exchange for some work.
Here she knitted mittens and socks, there she helped to pile logs or to dig potatoes or to gather hay.
That’s how we lived until the father returned from the prison.
That’s some story with knitting in it. Not a cozy kind.
The collectivization produced meager results in Komi. The hunger started in mid-30s. To add an insult to injury, the late 30s the Komi ASSR became the home for numerous GULAG labor camps. The impoverished kolkhoz peasants, men and women alike, frequently found a slightly better pay working in logging, construction and mining, sometimes – alongside the prisoners.
Some collective farms that specialized in logging setup knitting groups, but the production was stifled by wool and dye shortages. A woman produced only 15 or so pairs of mittens a year. Compare it with 1,500 pairs that the merchants purchased for resale from the women of just one small cluster of the Komi villages in the late 19th century.
Later the ethnographic researchers wrote that the Komi knitted items from the 1930s-40s were rather unimaginative affairs made of poor quality yarn with addition of cotton wool. There were many re-knits from the older, worn-out pieces. The artifacts of the tragic history, not of the folk art.
When the war started in 1941, the able-bodied Komi men were drafted into the Army. The weight of men’s work fell onto women’s shoulders. The overworked, underfed Komi women knit mittens with two fingers for soldiers. But the output was small. It was not a good time and place for fancy diagonal patterns, really.
After the war more of the same: shortage of men, poor pay for hard work in kolkhoz. The alcoholism, predominantly among the rural Komi men, was rampant during the Soviet era. The men died young.
But something different was afoot for the children of these long-suffering women: double-sided effect of Russification. The schooling was in Russian. All the official business was in Russian. The Russian dominance suffocated the traditional culture of the Komis. But the Komi youth that came of age in 1950s-60s, being fluent in Russian, started to slip out into cities as college students, nannies and industrial laborers in the cities. The girls left in larger numbers: there were few places in the USSR that could be more desperate for a young woman from a Northern Russian village than her own home. A The girls wanted to leave all of it behind, funny colorful socks and mittens including. The ethnic socks would make them to stand out in the city, when they wanted to blend in, to be the Russians.
The tradition of Komi knitting was dying.
Two Komi ethnographers, Lyubov’ Gribova and Galina Klimova, documented the textile and knitting heritage of their people in the 1960-70s. It was a race against the indifference and oblivion. Not a single book on Komi stranded knitting for general audience was published during the Soviet era.
Ms. Klimova summarized the words of the elderly master-knitters how the things were in her 1978 thesis**:
The elderly people said that before, 50 or so years ago, almost every woman knew stranded color work knitting, then the times came when they forgot about it. Now quite a few started doing it again. Long ago the women knitted in a similar artistic style, when now the young and the old knit differently. The elderly women knit the squiggles their mothers and grandmothers taught them, but the younger ones frequently knit the patterns borrowed elsewhere.
The “borrowed pattern” in question is famous Selbu star. It is likely that the Komi knitters gleaned it from the knitting instructions and books published in Latvia and Estonia. Two Baltic countries, occupied by the USSR during the WWII, stubbornly published more quality books on knitting than the whole of the Soviet Russia. Many books had mandatory Russian editions as a part of the Russification campaign in the Baltic states. Hence the Russification had another, very unintended consequence: the traditional Baltic and Nordic patterns traveled into knitting of the ethnic minorities of the Russian North.
Ms. Klimova’s essay on Komi color work knitting, written in a language as dry as a biscuit, had a wistful concluding paragraph. She worried that the lively and useful craft will become nothing but a bunch of artifacts in the local museum.
The unique knitting tradition of Komi was dying in the USSR, but, as it turned out, it outlived the empire and came back. The story of its rebirth is in the next post.
All the materials for this post came from the publications in Russian.
*The kulak’s daughter’s story is a translation of Ms. Pikuleva’s childhood memories from the article Collectivization in Kama region: violence without restraint by M. A. Ivanova (Иванова М. А. КОЛЛЕКТИВИЗАЦИЯ В ПРИКАМЬЕ: насилие без границ) on website Мемориал, dedicated the victims of the repressions and collectivization. Very instructive reading for those Russians who are missing the old good Soviet times.
Some information about the 20th century history of the Komis came from Y. Shabayev’s article The Land of Abu or Permyak the Salty Ears. ( Ю.П. Шабаев, ЗЕМЛЯ «АБУ» И «ПЕРМЯК СОЛЕНЫ УШИ»)
**The ethnographic works by Lyubov’ Gribova and Galina Klimova are mentioned in Reference to the previous post.