Thursday, July 2, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Ethno-Linguistic Group in the Middle Volga Seeks Republic Status

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 2 – Furious at what they see as threats to their language and culture, the Erzyans, a 300,000 plus-strong Finno-Ugric linguistic community that Moscow has long treated as part of the Mordvin nation, are demanding that Moscow agree to establish a separate and distinct Erzyan Autonomous Republic within the Russian Federation
The Congress of the Erzyan People (“Erzyan’ Inekuzho”) ten days ago declared that discrimination against their nation has become so severe and so violates the norms of international law and the Russian Constitution that it had no choice but to seek its own autonomous republic.
The congress, which was established by the Erzyan national movement in 2006, specifically complained about “the lack of a systematic program of instruction of children in their native language … and the absence of cultural institutions who conduct their activities in the Erzyan language in areas where the Erzyan people live in compact settlements.”
(For a report about the meeting, see For the text of the resolutions of the congress, see and
This new radicalization in a group whose leaders over the last 20 years have sought to achieve its recognition as a separate and distinct nation was prompted, the congress said, the announcement last month by some Mordvin officials that they would seek to promote a single Mordvin language in the coming years.
Indeed, the Erzyans declared, if they are not given that kind of support, they will disappear completely over the next generation, absorbed by the Moksha in some cases or by the ethnic Russians in others, neither outcome of which corresponds to the promises Moscow has made in the Russian Constitution or in its accession to a large number of international accords.
Because the Moksha dialect which most Mordvin leaders speak is very different from Erzyan, many Erzyan speakers view that as a threat to their survival as a distinctive community, whose members live both in Mordvinia but also in Chuvashia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan and in neighboring Russian regions (
Such an effort, of course, calls into question the current administrative-territorial division of the Russian Federation and flies in the face of efforts by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to promote the amalgamation of smaller non-Russian federation subjects with larger and predominantly ethnic Russian ones.
And as such, the Erzyan movement is unlikely to achieve its goals anytime soon. But that does not mean that its declarations are not having an important demonstration effect. The portal, in reporting this congress, invited its visitors to post their comments (
Among those who did was one who declared that all the Russian government’s promises to minorities notwithstanding, “it is well=known to every thinking person in Russia and not only in Russia that the Kremlin has NEVER RETREWTED FROM ITS POLICY OF RUSSIFYING THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES” [stress in the original] of the country.
“Everyone,” she wrote, citing the Erzyan declaration, “from Zhirinovsky to Putin repeats this. And only the fear of major conflicts forces [the center] to put up with the autonomous policy of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chechnya.” And only those people “proud” enough to resist, as some of the smaller peoples of the North Caucasus have proved to be, will survive.
And her post found support from another. Unless the Erzyan demonstrate the same courage, “Anna” said, “our generation may be offered a unique opportunity: to see the clinical death of a major European people,” something for which she wrote the non-Russians can only say “’Thank you’” to the Muscovites.
Meanwhile, another small Finno-Ugric group, the Wepsy who mostly live in Leningrad Oblast appealed to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to protect them against the depredations of the regional government which has closed their schools and thus threatened the survival of their community (
In their appeal, the Wepsy called Medvedev’s attention to the fact that he had said in April of this year that the Russian government “is doing everything necessary for the preservation of the traditional way of life of the small indigenous people and for the solution” of the problems they face.
But “unfortunately,” the appeal says, local officials are routinely ignoring this promise and undercutting the chances for these communities to flourish or even to survive. Now, the Wepsy say, they are threatened with extinction because of the closure of native-language schools, a step that will lead to the death of the villages in which their community exists.
And this community, which numbers only a few thousand in the region and only 8,000 in the Russian Federation as a whole, “respectfully” asked Medvedev to “intervene” in this situation and “help the local population defend their rights and lawful interests which are guaranteed by legislation concerning the rights of numerically small indigenous peoples.”

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