Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ethnic Divisions among Those Moscow Counts as Mordvins Withstand Divide-and-Rule Policies, Unity Drives and Repression

Paul Goble  

            Staunton, October 22 – Russian and Mordvin officials have been unable to create a single Mordvin nation with a single Mordvin language even with a combination of divide-and-rule policies, unity drives and open repression. Instead, their actions have proved counterproductive and intensified these divisions, testimony to the power of these primordial ties.

            Mordvinia, a Finn-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga, seldom attracts much attention except as the site of some of the most horrific GULAG camps in the 1970s and earlier and the republic with “the highest concentration of correctional institutions” in Russia today (

            But now, demographic developments may mean that this is about to change. The share of the titular nationality as defined by the regime has risen from 31 percent in 2002 to 40 percent in 2010 and may top 50 percent in 2020, while the share of Russians, long steady at about 60 percent, fell to a bare majority of 53 percent in the last census and could be a minority next time.   

            On the one hand, this prospect has energized Mordvinian officials to promote a single national and linguistic identity, a policy that Moscow appears to be supporting out of the belief that such an identity, inherently artificial to some extent, will make it easier for Moscow to assimilate such Mordvins to the ethnic Russian nation.

            And on the other hand, groups classified by the regime as sub-ethnoses of the Mordvin nation are becoming more active in response, challenging the narrative of the regime in Saransk. Up to now, Moscow backs the republic government; but that could change if its Mordvins become a majority in the republic and thus threaten Russian control.

            At the very least, that possibility and the rise of advocates of the linguistic and ethnic subgroups may soon transform Mordvinia from a quiet backwater among non-Russian republics into something else entirely.

            In an article entitled “The Mordvinian Melting Pot,” IdelReal journalist Ramazan Alpaut discusses some of the complexities of the linguistic and ethnic scene in that republic by talking with both academic experts and activists about it (мордовский-плавильный-котел/30211342.html).

            He begins by noting that a committee of the Council of Europe has expressed concern about official efforts to combine into the single category of “Mordvin speakers of the Moksha and Erzyan languages [two dialects, Russian officials say; two languages, their speakers insist), a move freighted with ethnic consequences (,

            Between the 2002 and 2010 censuses, Alpaut says, the linguistic and ethnic face of Mordvinia changed dramatically.  In 2002, 843,000 residents of the Russian Federation identified themselves as Mordvins, with 614,000 identifying Mordvin, Moksha or Erzyan as their native languages. In 2010, eight years later, only 744,000 identified as Mordvin, of which only 430,000 listed one of the three languages as their native ones.

            Vladimir Abramov, a linguistics specialist at Moscow State University, says that Moksha and Erzya are dialects of Mordvin and that “there are no scientific bases to consider them as separate peoples.” Indeed, he suggests the regime’s “divide-and-rule” approach against the national movement there in the 1980s and early 1990s deepened these divisions.

            That happened, the Moscow scholar says, because “as a result f the national movement, the Moksha Merkushkin came to power in Mordvinia, who assembled his command primarily from Moksha with all the ensuing consequences.” In 2002, the Russian census allowed people to declare Moksha and Erzya as well as Mordvin; and that has made things worse.

            According to Abramov, “the splitters now play on this statistic, and their readers cannot always make sense of reality” as a result.” It is not just a few marginal figures who feel that way, the FINUGOR group does as well (

But among those Abramov would count as “a splitter” is Syres Bolyen, a Ukrainian citizen who lives in Kyiv but was recently elected the chief elder of the Erzya nation. According to him, “the authorities are seeking to create a single Mordvin language and a single Mordvin nation, “stillborn” inventions that will make it easier for Russians to assimilate them.

            In an interview Bolyen gave to Vadim Shtepa of Region.Expert for Tallinn’s Eesti Paevaleht, he expands on his ideas and provides background on himself and his efforts to block efforts to suppress the Erzya people (; in Russian at

            Positioning himself as the continuer of the Erzya movement which emerged in the 1980s, Bolyen says that he remains in emigration because only there can be speak what others in his homeland are thinking.  He also remains there because Russian officials have banned his re-entry given his activism. 

But this ban on his entry, he continues, “is a public signal by the Russian authorities to the Erzya – do not cross the limits of the permissible.” You can have ethnic festivals but don’t demand ethnic rights – and still worse, the message is this: “’You want a future? Then become ethnic Russians.’”

“Any signs of life the Erzya show,” he says, “are viewed by Moscow and its Mordvinian officials as a threat to Russia.” At present, Moscow has the power, prompting the question: “Does the Erzya peple have a future? In an imperial state, no. Either Russia will cease to exist as an empire or the Erzya people will disappear forever.”

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