Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russification Efforts in Mari El Disturb Hungarians

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 17 – Suggestions by some Russian officials that the name of the capital city of Mari El, a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga, should be Russianized, the latest example of Russification efforts in that Middle Volga republic, have outraged the Hungarians, members of one of the three Finno-Ugric countries abroad.
And their anger, reflected in an article that appeared on a Budapest website last week ( has now been translated into Russian by the agency ( and has now been disseminated to the Finno-Ugric world an Estonian site (
On the one hand, this report reflects the incredible heavy-handedness of Russian officials in Mari El. But on the other, it shows the ways in which the Finno-Ugric peoples inside the Russian Federation not only can count on encouragement and support from abroad but also can use the Internet to generate support for their efforts to resist Russification.
Russian pressure on the Mari has been so intense and for so long that members of that ethnic community have routinely appealed not only to international organizations like the Council of Europe but also to the three Finno-Ugric nations which are independent countries – Estonia, Finland and Hungary.
Several years ago, more than 10,000 people around the world signed an appeal on behalf of the Mari and other Finno-Ugric nationalities, but Russian pressure both by the government and by Russian nationalists in society have not let up. And once again, the Mari intelligentsia has now appealed to the Hungarians.
The appeal, which called on the Hungarians not to forget their fellow Finno-Ugrics who are now subject to methods intended to deprive them of their “national self-identification that Hungarians should appreciate because of what has happened to them in Slovakia and Transylvania, prompted the Hungarian response on the internet.
György Kádár notes that the proximate cause of the appeal is a new effort by Russian officials to rename the capital city of Mari El with the pre-1917 Russian name Tsarevokokshaysk instead of its current Ioshkar-Ola -- which in Mari means “red warrior and was imposed in Soviet times.
This notion was first advanced by Petr Zhuvalyev, a member of the extremist Russian National Unity organization and an organizer of the Russian March in Moscow, shortly before the All-Mari Congress in a way that many Mari believed at the time was simply a provocation
Russian “chauvinists” in Moscow up to now have relatively little impact on government decision making, the Mari appeal to the Hungarians continues, but in Ioshkar-Ola, a few hundred radicals have an impact. And now they appear to have convinced officials there to impose a Russian name in place of the Mari one.
The Mari are the indigenous people of this region, the appeal points out, with the Russians arriving only after the fall of Kazan in 1552. The Mari and their neighbors did not want to pay tribute to Ivan the Terrible, and to correct that, the Russian ruler set up a series of fortified posts, including one called Tsarevokokshaysk.
Initially, the tsarist authorities prohibited the Mari from even coming near that town lest they present a threat, and consequently, the appeal notes, “the return of this name will rekindle fears and misgivings among the Mari.” Indeed, it says, renaming their capital would mean that the Russians again believe that “the Mari people must disappear.”
Because the Mari live more than a thousand kilometers from Moscow, they seldom get the kind of attention that people living in the Russian capital do, and consequently, officials in that republic often act as if they can ignore not only Russian law but the principles of international agreements to which their country is a signatory.
But thanks to the internet and to the existence of Finno-Ugric communities abroad, the Mari are not without resources or allies, and consequently appeals like this one and the response that it has generated first in Hungary, then in Estonia and finally in other Finno-Ugric republics in the Middle Volga, mean that the Mari are unlikely to “disappear” as some Russians want.

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