Sunday, August 23, 2020

Are Russian Officials Destroying an Ethnic Group in Order to Save It?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 18 – In the final decades of Soviet power, stories about small communities across the Russian Federation so cut off from the rest of the world that they did not know there had been a revolution in 1917 and asked their first visitors from the outside “who is tsar now?” became a staple of the Russian media.

            The number of such stories has dwindled over the last 30 years, but another kind has replaced them, the story of a small ethnic group under threat of disappearance both from the advance of modernity and from the sometimes well-meaning but far too often counter-productive efforts to save these groups.

            One such story appears today in Komsomolskaya pravda and involves the fate of the 137 members of the Finno-Ugric Mansi nationality in Sverdlovsk Oblast.  Entitled “A Disappearing People: How the Mansi Live Today in the Urals,” it asserts that “everything is being done to preserve” these small peoples (

                The story’s author, Yuliya Stalina, says that the Mansi have already changed a great deal in recent decades. They used to be reindeer herders but now subsist as hunters, fishermen, and gatherers of wild herbs. Most still live in small villages and want to stay there because when they go into cities they “become hopeless.”

            In the words of one of her interlocutors, the Mani are “modest, kind and naïve as children,” and their naivete is used by poachers, tourists and others to exploit them. One means is the introduction of alcohol, and the Mansi are now suffering from abnormally high rates of alcoholism. One reason: there is no local medical point any more to treat them.

            Stalina doesn’t say, but that is likely the result of Putin’s now infamous health care optimization campaign, which has closed thousands of medical offices in rural parts of the country in order to save money. 

            Local government officials are trying to help by integrating the Mansi more fully into the life of the ethnic Russian majority and local companies are doing so by providing job training, but the consequences of these programs have been to pull the young Mansi away from their parents and accelerate the demise of the nation.

            Some local officials want to convert the Mani district into a nature reserve and hire the Mani as guides and park rangers, but it is not clear that such efforts won’t also be counterproductive, attracting even more tourists into their area and pulling the Mani even further from their traditions.

            Saving numerically small peoples is never easy because many of the steps that officials and businesses are inclined to take accelerate their demise rather than slow them, but there is even less hope for the survival of these peoples in places where outsiders view the dominant community views these groups as “naïve” and backward.

            That is the case with this Finno-Ugric people and all too often many others in the case of Russians today, an attitude that allows them to convince themselves that they are saving a people by destroying  it. 

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