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Freemen on Bukhtarma on Altai.

Traveling to Altai in Kazakhstan.

“May the heart be constant,
like the ocean
Remaining himself
Amid the eternal changes of the surf”

Frost Robert.

Drive to Bukhtarma valley.

The Bukhtarma Territory - a tiny corner on the map of the land, lost in the mountains, a dead end where the railway ends and where a peculiar Russian ethnic group has formed - has a very interesting and not so distant history.
In the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, the words “masons” and “Altai stone people” were used in Russia. They came from the word “Stone”, as the local people called the mountains lying behind Bukhtarma, and, therefore, the masons are people living in the “Stone”.
Russians in Siberia appeared since the XVIIth century. Those who were traveling who found it difficult and crowded in the European part of Russia rode away, left to get rid of serfdom, criminals fled from hard labor and prisons, and fur traders went for an expensive sable, hoping for a rich booty of "soft junk."
Here freed exiles were found, those who were persecuted for their faith and dissent, and other "walking people" who were looking for a place to live easier, sought here. Schismatics escaped here, persecuted by the authorities for refusing to obey the church innovations of Patriarch Nikon.
Siberian freedom, immense taiga, full-flowing rivers, land - our land, as much as you like - everything amazed, attracted and attracted. The glories of the abundance of the region beyond the Stone Belt reached the Russian provinces.
This is how the legendary tales of Belovodye emerged, where they live freely and there are no authorities and landlords and "the beauty of the drevly piety reigns in everything." Perhaps the most fertile place with a rich mountain nature was Altai, and in it the most coveted corner of the Bukhtarma valley.
Tales of the beauty of mountain valleys with clear rivers and forests full of game could not leave indifferent even the most callous person. The Bukhtarma Territory at that time was not part of the Russian Empire, but it was precisely this - the absence of persecution for faith, oppression and forced labor, soldiers, the rare native population and the almost uninhabited territory - that led to the appearance of Russian settlers here. The first, most likely, could be the Old Believers.
When this happened, literary sources do not give an exact answer, but most likely in the first half of the eighteenth century. Soon, the fugitive Bergals (miners) began to join the Old Believers, who were assigned (the same as serfs) to Altai plants and mines, the working conditions of which did not differ from the hard labor.
The number of fugitives grew, and gradually a secret settlement of several hundred people formed here. A variety of people gathered: a team of desperate and experienced people, ready to withstand any troubles.
World history knows many examples of freemen. The Bukhtarma freemen can be compared with the Zaporizhzhya Sich, but unlike the Cossacks, the Bukhtarma masons were not a paramilitary organization. They preferred to hide from the persecution, for which they settled separately, building dugouts or huts in the taiga, sometimes uniting in 3 - 5 houses.
However, in case of need, this Siberian Sich could even stand up for itself, successfully repelling the attacks of the Chinese, Kalmyks, and even Cossack punitive detachments. At first, the main sources of livelihood of masons were hunting and fishing.
The skins and furs of animals were traded for bread. For salt, at the risk of being caught, they secretly made their way to the salt lakes in the Kulundinskaya steppe, 40 km from Lokty, at a time bringing 2 - 3 pounds in baggage bags.
On the wanted list, the masons traded mainly with Chinese soldiers and officers standing at the border, selling them fur and antlers; sometimes appeared in Russian villages, but secretly. Gradually, livestock and agriculture became increasingly important.
Until 1792, they were of secondary importance, however, individual masonry families grew rich and flourished. Women remained a problem, they had to be abducted or secretly negotiated with residents of border villages. Often they married Kyrgyz women, Kalmyks (Altays), converting them to Christianity.
Living apart, the masons could not survive without communicating with each other. Existing without power, they had either to undergo rampant revelry, engage in robberies and robberies, or establish their own order, come up with their own laws.
They resolved some issues, for example, protection collectively at gatherings, for which, if necessary, they gathered in certain places. At the gatherings, the masons committed courts and sentenced criminals from their midst.
Of course, the authorities of the Altai factories were concerned about the flight of their service people. The point is not only that the workers so needed in the mines and factories were leaving, the fugitives set a bad example for the rest.
Almost every year, the mining administration in Barnaul sent commands to destroy the "poisonous nest" and capture the rebellious. But this, as a rule, did not give the desired result. The fugitives were accustomed to all hardships, knew hunting techniques and skillfully evaded pursuit.
At the same time, life outside the law could not suit the inhabitants of the Bukhtarma Valley themselves, and they also began to make attempts to change their situation. Fear that they will be found, strife among themselves, fear of robbers more than once forced the “stone hermits” to think about entering under powerful state protection.
The question was wisely judged by the Russian Empress Catherine II, at the prompt of the Siberian governor Jacobia, deciding that there was no point in persecuting the "walking people", but it was much more profitable to persuade them to take over, taking the Russian Empire as a subject.
So Russia secured the vast Bukhtarminsky Territory, and new subjects, exploring free lands and farming, could benefit the state, all the more so since the Zyryanovsky mine was opened nearby in 1791 and it required workers.
In the summer of 1792, the forgiveness of the fugitives came. The tsarist government made concessions, giving the masons great privileges and replacing all types of duties (registration for factories, dues, army service) with yasak, equating them to foreigners.
It was a tax to the royal treasury in the form of sable skins of 1 - 3 pieces per year per person. Since that time, masons began to be called yasachniks or Bukhtarma yasash foreigners, and the area where they lived was Yasak.
Two foreign councils were formed - Bukhtarminskaya and Uimonskaya, located not far from the mountains (now in Russia). From the hermitages, from the taiga huts scattered in the gorges, the masons began to descend into the valleys, more convenient for tillage, deer breeding and bee breeding.
Thus, villages were formed in the wide valley of the lower reaches of Bukhtarma, which exist today.

Naturalist writer, photo artist, local historian Alexander Lukhtanov.

Lydia Poltoratskaya