Baku, February 1 – A Russian firm has updated Stalin’s dictum that when there is no person, there is no problem. It argues that it need not respect the existence of a small people its construction project will disperse because the group is not listed on a government register of protected peoples and thus does not exist de jure.
But in a post-Soviet twist perhaps reflecting the concerns of some that such attitudes could hurt its brand, the firm apparently has taken this statement off a major website (not available at: http://www.newprojects.ru/ru/news/nedvizh.html?id=750) and promised to build new culturally-themed housing for the group’s members.
A week ago, the Regrus.ru news portal reported that the construction of the Ust-Luga port in Leningrad oblast will ultimately destroy the only two villages where the Vod, a small Finno-Ugric people, live and lead to the loss of their language and the destruction of that ancient nationality (http://www.regrus.info/anounces/3/226.html).
Although only 30 people now speak the Vod language, down from 700 before World War II, they have been trying to revive their national culture in the villages of Krakol’ye and Luzhitsy by organizing folklore festivals and teaching the language in local schools.
Speaking on Radio Kultura on January 29, Tatyana Agranat, a specialist on folk art, pointed out that the Vod had been a self-sustaining community through the middle of the 20th century. But the proposed construction, she said, will destroy the group and its language “instantly” (http://www.cultradio.ru/doc.html?id=161632&cid=46).
Because the Vod and their language represent a kind of living museum, scholars at the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences have been studying them intensely. And the director of that institute, Viktor Vinogradov, has appealed to the economic development ministry and the Leningrad oblast leaders to stop construction.
In his letters, which Regrus.ru reproduces, Vinogradov notes that the Vod are included in the list of numerically small indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation and thus are protected both by the Russian Constitution and “generally recognized principles and norms of international law.”
That prompted Nikolai Iyevlev, the head of the Ust-Luga Company to reply, and his statement, which is no longer available on the Newprojects.ru site can be found on the Estonia-based website devoted to the numerous small Finno-Ugric peoples in the Russian Federation (http://www.mari.ee/rus/news/soc/2008/01/24.html ).
Iyevlev said that complains about the impact of his company’s project were “neither new nor problematic.” On the one hand, he said, his firm has no obligation to protect the Vod because, he argued, “at present,” they are “not included in the register of small peoples of the Russian Federation.”
That means, he said, that “de jure, there is no such small people,” whatever its members or the scholars who study them say.
And on the other, he said his firm would not be destroying their villages – at least not in the first stage – and that it support the construction of ethnically-themed houses for those who will be displaced and support the development of the language and culture of a group he suggests does not really exist.
In other comments, Iyevlev lashed out at the scholars of the Institute of Linguistics for failing to get in touch with the company directly and the government agencies that are supervising its work and instead writing directly to the most senior Leningrad oblast and a Moscow minister.
But to date, these senior officials do not appear to have taken any action to save the Vod. And the threat to their existence from Iyevlev’s project has gained attention only because of the efforts of ethnic rights activists in Estonia, one of the three independent countries whose people speak a Finno-Ugric language related to that of the Vod.