Friday, August 28, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Finno-Ugric Peoples Challenge Soviet-Imposed Identities

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 28 -- The Erzya and Moksha, two Finno-Ugric peoples more commonly known collectively, as a result of Soviet-era ethnic engineering, as the Mordvinians, are now seeking the reassert their separate identities, yet another indication, along with the actions of the Circassians, that these nations want to be identified on their own terms.
And while that may seem a small thing, it could prove explosive not only because it represents a challenge to ethnic and territorial divisions imposed by the Soviets and continued by Russia but also because President Dmitry Medvedev has called for the celebration of the millennium of “the union of the Mordvinian people with the peoples of Russia in 2012.
Such a commemoration, intended to highlight inter-ethnic accord, could in fact, given the divisions between the Erzya and Moksha and the difficulties Moscow already has with language and cultural policies as a result, make these two Middle Volga peoples yet another challenge to existing arrangements in the Russian Federation.
The Erzya and Moksha, when counted together as Mordvinians in the 2002 census, number more than 800,000, but as Andrey Chepelyev points out in yesterday’s Saint Petersburg “Vedomosti,” ever more of them consider themselves “neither Mordvinians nor Mordva” (
Instead, he reports, they insist that “their real names are Erzya and Moksha” and that they be identified as such. And while it frequently happens that groups call themselves something other than what others call them, the situation in this case is very different because despite the assumptions of many “a Mordvinian people with [two] sub-ethnoses does not exist as such.”
A clear indication of this, the St. Petersburg journalist suggests, is the lack of a single Mordvinian language. Indeed, he says, “an Erzyan will never understand a Mokshan” because the difference between [their] languages is approximately the same as between those of Russians and Poles.”
The history of the two groups, Chepelyev, extends back to antiquity. The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned them. The Erzya founded the city of Obran osh, “on the site of which Nizhny Novgorod now stands.” (Although the journalist does not mention it, many Russian writers and officials vehemently reject that idea.)
Subjected to various assimilatory pressures from Turkic, Germanic, Iranian peoples and later from Slavs and Tatars, the Eryza and Moksha peoples retained their separate identities and even separate statehood, and their kinds “for a long time fought among themselves,” often with one making an alliance with outsiders to defeat the other.
For example, Chepelyev says, “Moksha Prince Puresh in alliance with Murom Prince Yuri defeated the Erzya leader Purgas,” one of the intra-Finno Ugric conflicts that weakened these groups and opened the way to their conquest by Ivan the Terrible in the 1540s. After that, most of the Erzya and Moksha nobility accepted Orthodoxy, and many learned Russian.
In tsarist Russia, officials and scholars carefully described the two groups as the Erzya Mordva and the Moksha Mordva, but after the Bolshevik revolution and the formation of a Mordvinian district in 1928, officials began to call them Mordvinians, and Erzya and Moksha “as a result of ignorance” identified themselves as members of that “non-existent nationality.”
While these two communities have contributed many important people to Russia, including Patriarch Nikon in the past and more recently writer Vasily Shukshin and, as Chepelyev notes, “scandalously well-known businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin,” they suffer from many of the problems that affect “the majority of indigenous peoples.”
Ever fewer of the members of these two communities speak their native language or “remember their roots,” not only because of Moscow’s russification policies within the Mordvinian Republic but also because a majority of each of these two groups lives beyond its borders and thus lacks regular access to native-language institutions.
But thanks to the Internet, ever more of them are learning both. Erzyan activist Petryan Andyu, who lives in St. Petersburg, not only serves as the chief editor of an Erzyan website but is in charge of the Erzyan version of Wikipedia, a project that is supported by an American enthusiast living in Finland and by members of other Finno-Ugric peoples as well.
“Unfortunately,” Chepelyev says, “Erzya and Moksha researchers are sometimes accused of nationalism,” accusations that discourage some others from taking part in a national revival. “In fact,” he says, “there is not a gram of politics in their activities.” They simply want, in the words of Andyu, to “save their native culture from complete assimilation.”

No comments: