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Traditions of folk shipbuilding in Russia: research and preservation perspectives

Folk shipbuilding is part of culture related to manufacture of water vessels based on technologies, knowledge and experience passed down through the generations.

Folk shipbuilding is a variety of water vessels produced by this or that ethnic group in the process of century-long practical activity in certain climatic and social conditions which was passed down traditionally by observing and listening. The term “folk shipbuilding” is a derivative, a part of such phenomenon as “folk crafts”. Along with folk architecture, folklore, medicine, dance, song, embroidery and so on it is a part of folk material culture which defines it.

Folk shipbuilding, which is an important part of folk life and embodies experience accumulated through the centuries, appears to have great appeal to the history of shipbuilding and navigation and to ethnography, sociology, philosophy as well.

The main features of folk shipbuilding are:

Collectivity of experience. A ship comes into life as the result of gradual selection of these or those of its characteristics in the process of long creation and operational activity by previous generations. As compared to an engineered vessel, which has a certain designer, various types of folk vessels are not usually designed by a specific person. Craftsmen rely on knowledge and experience of their ancestors; thus, it is the folk who create these or those ships. A few existing exceptions, when certain ships were engineered by shipbuilders and then became genuinely folk (an example is “phophan” boat by A.P. Van-der-Flit), only prove the rule.

Conventionalism of technologies. Craftsmen rely on domestic shipbuilding tradition, being a certain system of replicas, rules, techniques, and so on, which they follow and reproduce but they can introduce their innovations, thus, adding dynamics to the tradition.

Knowledge was usually acquired through observing and listening. The main way to pass down technology was to observe how the ship was being build, to take part in its building and to learn the secrets of craftsmanship by word of mouth. All of it helped to reproduce vessels specific for this area.

By constantly repeating and gradually accumulating changes and updates, they created steady, accomplished ships which were most suitable to the local conditions. That way, folk shipbuilding is, on the one hand, a precious source of ideas and shapes especially for the manufacture of standard ships in specific domestic conditions. On the other hand, it is an important ethnographic source which gives vivid picture of domestic culture, at the same time it shows how this or that tradition was spreading.

Russia has a significant experience in shipbuilding and navigation dating back as far as preliterate history. As it is situated on the borderline of the Baltic, Black, Azov, Caspian seas and Arctic and Pacific oceans, run through by the greatest water systems of Eurasia, Russia was the territory where various shipbuilding traditions adjoined, interpenetrated and merged with each other. All of it created a wide variety of vessel types. Small fleet of Russia had a great variety of traditional ships and domestic boats. During Soviet Union, the standardization process of small fishing fleet began to cut down expenses on building, repairing and operational activity of vessels. For this purpose “Giprorybflot” (State design fishing fleet institute) carried out major study throughout almost all territory of Russia and introduced  a range of standard vessels: a river boat “oak”, a “kayuk”, a “kungas”, a “rybnitsa” and so on, which started being used.

In the second half of the XX century there was a dramatic drop in folk vessels due to industrialization and urbanization processes. We must admit that at present state folk shipbuilding is a vanishing part of culture. Every year number of folk ships is declining being ousted by modern vessels made of metal and polymers. Knowledge is no longer passed down through the generations. It sometimes seems as if a tradition of folk shipbuilding is dying out even at places where those who can carry this tradition on are still alive. However, folk shipbuilding still exists. You can come across domestically produced boats practically at every river or lake. They still build wooden “baikalkas”, “kungases”, “karbases”, “kizhankas”, “budarkas” and a whole range of dugouts. An interesting fact is that there built ships where traditional body lines are combined with the application of modern materials, metal, and plastic.

At some places technologies of folk shipbuilding are coming back into life; some boat types such as chukchi canoe, which seemed to have disappeared, come into use. A big role in this process belongs to museums, which draw attention to these facts and even order such boats to be constructed for exhibitions and cultural events. “Kizhi” nature reserve- museum has a remarkably interesting experience. As a result of annually held “Kizhi-regatta” (since 1999), awarding of meaningful prizes to craftsman boat builders from villages in Karelia and public attention, building of traditional water vessels in the region has significantly increased (it is especially true for such a boat as “kizhanka”).  Building of folk boats is no longer a disappearing tradition but an existing fact. Thus, a museum-reserve has successfully served as not only the center for preservation of traditions but also as the center supporting and spreading traditions to a wider region just as normal reserves spread biodiversity to larger territories.

Folk shipbuilding, as an important part of existing folk culture, requires not only detailed study but also development of approaches to its preservation and its actualization in modern life. This phenomenon is quite likely to become a basis for carrying out a complex project “Folk shipbuilding in Russia. Research and preservation of existing tradition”.

Thus, folk shipbuilding has a significant not yet discovered cultural and educational potential which must be accumulated. We need to draw authorities’ attention to this cultural phenomenon and   actively promote it.

P.A. Filin,
Cand. Sci. (History), deputy director of Museum and Exhibition center for technical and technological development of the Arctic

11There is a separate article on the topic: P.A.Filin O formirovanii mezhmuzejnogo kataloga “Kollekcii lodok v muzeyah Rossii” (About the development of intermuseum catalogue “Boat collections in museums of Russia”)// Sohranenie morskogo naslediya v muzeyah Rossii. Materialy VI mezhdunarodnoj prakticheskoj konferencii (Preservation of maritime heritage in museums of Russia. Materials of VI international scientific-practical conference) (Kaliningrad, 8-12 of October 2012) Kaliningrad. Terra-Baltica. 2012. P.182-185.