Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Will Moscow’s Mistakes and an Ancient Prophecy Lead Mordvinia’s Erzyans to Spark a New ‘Parade of Sovereignties’?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 6 –A nationality few in Moscow or the West have ever heard of -- the Erzyans of Mordvinia – appear set to trigger a new “parade of sovereignties” in the Russian Federation, the result of the coming together of Moscow’s clumsy approach to the Finno-Ugric peoples of that republic and an ancient prophecy the Erzyans remember, Igor Shro says.

            A major reason few have heard about the Erzyans, the Kyiv commentator says, is that they have long been subsumed under “the official term, ‘Mordvin’” which subsumes them and another Finno-Ugric people, the Moksha, with whom the Erzyans have a long and competitive relationship (

            Both Russian Imperial and Soviet officials treated these two communities as one nation, justifying that by pointing to the similarity of the two languages but in fact exploiting the division as part of a broader policy of divide and rule against non-Russian groups, especially those like the Erzyans who had long resisted Russian power.

            But scholars have always carefully distinguished 260,000 Erzyan speakers (2010) from the 130,000 Moksha speakers (same year), because, in their view, the Erzyan language is best described as “the Finno-Ugric Sanscrit,” that is, the Ur language of the entire Finno-Ugric nations of the world.

            Both the importance of this language and an indication of Erzyan resistance to Russian power are to be found in the discovery by scholars that some of the supposedly “secret words” used by Stepan Razin during his uprising against the Russian Empire in the 18th century were in fact quite ordinary Erzyan ones.

            Erzyan identity is also far more specific and closely held than its Moksha counterpart.   Many descendants of Erzyans, Mokshas, and, according to Shro, “possibly other Finno-Ugric peoples” self-identify as Mordvins, the result of Russian imperial policy and something Erzyan activists both at the end of tsarist times and again in recent decades have been struggling against.

            The Erzyans have also been affected by the waves of conquest that have mixed the nationalities of the Middle Volga and Urals area for more than a millennium. Indeed, Shro writes, “there are many villages [there] where seven or eight different peoples live together,” some of whom – Erzyans, Moksha, Udmurts, Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs – are autochthonian and others – Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Estonians and Jews – come from elsewhere.

            Despite Moscow’s efforts to maintain tight control over Mordvinia, the Erzyans have pushed for the revival of their national identity since Gorbachev’s times by promoting their language and culture and creating “interest circles” and even units of ethnic “self-defense” at the village level.

            Indeed, the Kyiv commentator says, the Erzyans in sharp contrast to the ethnic Russians “in recent years have created the very same model of society which historically was characteristic of Ukraine and which allowed for the victory of the Maidan.”

            Shro’s interest in the Erzyan was sparked by his contact with a leader of the Erzyan national movement, Bolyan Syres, who is also known as Aleksandr Bolkin because of his service in the Soviet and most recently in the Ukrainian army and because he participated and actively supported the Maidan.

            Syres’ form of nationalism is totally without radicalism, Shro continues. It calls for the gradual rebirth of the Erzyan – and that may be one of the reasons for its relative success: Moscow often does not take notice of groups that operate below its radar screen and focuses instead on those who make open and radical demands.

            But for all their gradualism, the Erzyans may be approaching a key date as far as their national revival is concerned. Later this week, they will meet to mark a holiday of national prayer that they have been holding since 1239 when after three years of resistance to the Mongols, they accepted defeat with an eye to winning  in the future.

            At that time, there was a prophecy that the recovery of Erzyan independence would occur in 777 years, that is, in 2016.  In general, Shro says, there are “objective” reasons for thinking this will be possible but only under two conditions: Tatarstan must take the lead in pursuing independence, and the peoples of the Middle Volga must work together rather than separately.

            The Erzyans, he says, are showing the way; and their cautious below-the-radar-screen work may finally be about to bear fruit.

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