Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Small Non-Russian Group Restores Its Culture ‘By the Book’

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 4 – A small Finno-Ugric community in the Transbaikal is reviving its national culture by relying on the description of its culture in a book prepared by its co-ethnics in St. Petersburg, an indication of the continuing importance of ethnicity in the Russian Federation and of the unusual means groups have adopted to sustain it.
There are only a few hundred Vepsy in four villages of Irkutsk oblast, most of whom arrived there voluntarily or otherwise during the Soviet period from what had been their homeland in the northwestern portion of the USSR, “Vostochnaya Siberskiya Pravda” reported last week (
Because of their small numbers and isolated location, the Vepsy in the Transbaikal seldom received much notice or support from either academic experts or government officials, something that has contributed to the departure of most younger Vepsy to the cities and the russianization of their language and culture.
But now that may be beginning to change. On the one hand, the Vepsy in St. Petersburg have launched a website and publishing program that is providing their co-ethnics across the Russian Federation with information about the remarkable past of this small group (see
And on the other, Irkutsk officials have launched a program to develop what they are calling an “Ethnographic Ring” including not only the Vepsy villages but also Dutch and Belarusian sites in the oblast as well. These officials hope to gain both foreign investments and tourism money, something the region has been short of up to now.
For both of these reasons and perhaps because of the uncertainties of their lives since the collapse of the Soviet system, the Vepsy of Irkutsk have become more interested in their past, turning to the publications of the St. Petersburg Veps Cultural Society for information about it (http://www.etnosite/ru/obsh/96/11708).
Although they number only an estimated 13,000 in the Russian Federation today, the Vepsy have had fascinating if troubled history. They came to the attention of the tsars for their role in building St. Petersburg, and in the 1930s, the Soviet government provided them with a written language, native language schools and other institutions.
But at the end of the 1930s, Stalin closed the Veps schools, burned Veps language textbooks, imprisoned Veps teachers, and executed most Veps intellectuals. He also abolished the Veps national soviets and divided the community between the Karelian ASSR and Leningrad and Vologda oblasts.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, some Vepsy took advantage of the Winter War between the USSR and Finland and formed the so-called Kindred Battalion to fight on the side of the Finns. At the end of the war, Moscow demanded that all the surviving members of this unit be handed over to the Soviets. Apparently most were shot or put in the Gulag.
After World War II, neither Soviet officials nor ethnographers paid much attention to the Vepsy. Moscow did not restore Vepsy institutions; and while the Vepsy were enumerated in both the 1959 and 1970 all-union censuses, academics did not conduct any serious studies of this Finno-Ugric community until 1983.
In that year, a scholarly study found that these two censuses had significantly understated the number of Vepsy and that there were at that time almost 13,000 Vepsy in the USSR, most of whom lived in Karelia or the Leningrad region with smaller communities scattered in Vologda and Siberia.
Fewer than half of the Vepsy spoke their native language by that time, an indication of the power of ethnic identity rather than its weakness. (When ethnic identity is strong, the loss of native language has little effect on the group’s numbers; when ethnic identity is weak, the loss of language generally translates into the loss of identity as well.)
Under Gorbachev, the Vepsy began to revive, with the community in Russia’s northern capital forming a cultural society in 1989. After the collapse of Soviet power, that body became increasingly active receiving funds not only from St. Petersburg officials but also from George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
Now, in a place more than seven time zones removed from the northern Russian capital, that activity is promoting a kind of national rebirth, something that neither the Vepsy of St. Petersburg, their co-ethnics in the Transbaikal, or anyone else would have anticipated only a few years ago.

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