Vienna, September 3 – A group of Finnish intellectuals is seeking signatures on an international petition urging Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to drop plans to raise the water level behind a Volga hydroelectric dam lest it flood the lands of a Finno-Ugric people and lead to the destruction that group’s language and culture.
Although various ethnic and ecological groups have spoken out against RusHydro’s plans to raise the water level behind the Cheboksary Hydroelectric Dam by three meters in order to increase power production, the recent accident at the Sayano-Shushen dam has made it more likely that RusHydro will proceed and given new urgency to the appeals against it.
Ethnic activists from Mari El, Chuvashia, and Nizhny Novgorod have protested against the plan which would flood 165,000 hectares of land, as have Russian ecological groups and the local eparachate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the latter because one of its monasteries would be flooded.
Now, the Kiil Organization of Finnish writers and artists has prepared an open letter to Medvedev and isasking all those concerned about the consequences of raising the water level at the Cheboksary dam to sign. (Both the text – in Finnish – and a form to sign this appeal electronically are available at www.adressit.com/marin_kansan_puolesta.)
The letter warns that the flooding that raising the water levels would cause would result in “a social, ecological and economic catastrophe” and that among its most serious consequences would be “the loss of cultural values” among a part of the Mari nation thatwould be forced to move (www.mariuver.wordpress.com/2009/08/30/finny-cheboksar-ges/#more-10828).
When the Cheboksary Dam was completed in 1980, the appeal continues, a third of the territory on which the Mountain Mari had lived was flooded. When they were forced to resettle elsewhere, not only did they lose touch with their traditional culture, but many of them lost their native language. If more are forced to move, they will face extinction as a people.
The Mountain Mari have been under immense assimilatory pressure for decades, the appeal notes. “Not in a single school in the region is the Mountain Mari language taught,” even though it is officially “one of the three state languages of Mari El,” a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga approximately 800 kilometers east of Moscow.
Indeed, this appeal, like an earlier one circulated by the Finns four years ago, points out that “Mari El has become well-known as a result of the discrimination” by officials against the indigenous titular nationality. Under Putin appointee Governor Leonid Markelov, the situation has become especially dire.
“The sphere of influence of Mari culture has been reduced and instruction in the Mari language has been reduced. Small Mari-language schools are being closed, and in large schools, the Mari language is being taught insufficiently.” Very few Mari language books are published, and if the dam project is realized, that may push the Maris beyond the point of no return.
In arguing why the international community should be concerned about Moscow’s plans to raise the water level behind the Cheboksary dam by three meters, something that would seem on its face to be a small matter, the Finnish authors of the appeal point to the experience of the Kurds in southeastern Turkey and the provisions of the UN Anti-Genocide convention of 1948.
In Turkey, the Finnish writers say, “the construction of giant hydro-stations is leading to the destruction of villages and cities and to the evacuation of thousands of people which can be seen as a form of the passive genocide of a people” by cutting it off “from its roots and traditional way of life.”
The UN Convention, as the authors point out, “strictly prohibits ‘the intentional worsening of the way of life of any group (people) which can lead to its partial or complete physical disappearance.” That is what now threatens the Mari if Moscow goes ahead, and that is why people of good will everywhere should add their names to the Finnish appeal.