Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Window on Eurasia: A Cry of Despair from Two of Russia’s Smallest and Most Oppressed Nations

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 12 – The Izhors and Vots, two of the smallest and most oppressed nations in the Russian Federation, have issued what may be their final cry of despair against Russian plans to develop a port and industrial center on places that have been their lands from time immemorial, a policy they fear could result in the final disappearance of their peoples.

            In a letter to a Finno-Ugric organization in Estonia, Anatoly Zaytsev, the chief of the Soikula Izhor Community, and Ekaterina Kuznetcova, the director of the Votic Society, say that the Russian authorities say they are committed to protecting the rights of minorities but that “unfortunately,” they are violating their own laws and threatening the existence of these groups.

            Their small communities, they say, have begun to recover from the depradations of the Soviet and tsarist past, thanks to the assistance of Estonian and Finnish activists, but now, despite Russian law and despite the protests of Finno-Ugric groups, the construction of a new port at Ust-Luga in Leningrad Oblast and businesses there could derail this process.

            The two groups have been fighting Russian plans for the business development of their region for seven years, but their appeal to the broader Finno-Ugric world of which they are a part suggests that they truly feel desperate. (For those who would like a copy of the appeal, please email me at

            Few people know about either of these small ethnic communities or their complicated histories, and perhaps few care about their assimilation into the ethnic Russian nation. But the disappearance of a nation just like the disappearance of a species diminishes everyone. At the very least, these peoples deserve attention and their passing more than simple regret.

            The Izhors, the larger of the two, numbered several tens of thousands in the 19th century and were in fact increasing in number until the 1920s. Also known as Ingrians or Karelians, there were 26,000 of them recorded in the 1926 Soviet census, but their numbers have plunged since then, the result of war, deportations, and official policies. Now, there are only a few hundred, and many do not speak their native Finno-Ugric tongue.

            There were Izhor rural Soviets and Izhor language schools in the USSR from the 1920s to 1937, but in the latter year, the soviets were disbanded and the schools closed. During the war, some Izhors went to Finland, but after 1945, Moscow demanded their return and deported them into the Russian interior. Moreover, Russian officials actively discouraged  Izhors to register as Russians and declare Russian as their native language (

            The Vots or Vods have always been an even smaller group. There were only 705 of them counted in the 1926 census, 62 in 1989, and there are only a few dozen now, many of whom do not speak their native language.  They did not get the support that the Soviet initially provided to the Izhors but they wer subject to all the oppression that the other group has suffered ( and

            As the note of desperation in the joint appeal suggests, many of the surviving members of this community fear that business development will be able to complete what the Soviet state was never able to – the complete extinction of their peoples after more than a millennium of history of national existence.

            But despite that, some activists from the two groups, even if they do not themselves know their national languages, believe they can help their peoples survive by promoting a knowledge of their nations via the Internet and attracting the interest of Finno-Ugric peoples and others to their cause ( and

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