Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Mari Republic Centenary Calling Attention to Chaos, Confusion and Conflict 100 Years Ago

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 3 – Anniversary celebrations are supposed to unite people, but the anniversaries of the creation of non-Russian republics now are having the opposite effect, not only highlighting tensions between non-Russian and Moscow officials but also between different subgroups of the titular nationalities.

            Nowhere have these problems been thrown in higher relief than in the Mari Republic, a federal subject that includes as the result of decisions long ago some but not all of the members of the Mari nationality in the Russian Federation and whose titular nation remains divided between the Meadow Mari and the Hill or Mountain Mari.

            (Two other distinctive groups of this Finno-Ugric nation, the Northwestern and the Eastern Mari, live outside the Mari Republic, with the former represented primarily in Kirov and Nizhny Novogorod oblasts and the latter in Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Perm Kray, and Sverdlovsk Oblast.) 

            Dmitry Lyubimov discusses the way in which the Mari republic came into existence and how politics in Moscow and in the region played a role in determining what its borders were like and even what its capital city would be, demonstrating thereby that what happened wasn’t the application of some well-thought-out plan but far more random (

            There were two small towns that competed to be the center of the new ethnic region and people in them and in Moscow had to try to draw borders defined by the presence of Maris after neighboring republics were already formed. As a result, again and again, Lyubimov says, personalities and attachments to subgroups in the Mari population played the decisive role.

            Lyubimov provides details of this process which are so far down in the weeds as far as all-Russian developments are concerned that they are likely to be of interest only to Mari today and to specialists on the Middle Volga. But his article makes three points that need to be remembered when ethnic republics are discussed.

            First, all too often, borders were drawn and capitals selected not on the basis of any careful consideration of nationality but as a result of the struggle of powerful local figures who were able to make their case in Moscow before others perhaps equally well-suited were. The capital, now known as Yoshkar-Ola (“Red Town” in Mari), was chosen in that way when one official got Lenin to sign a document before others could. 

            Second, the creation of the non-Russian republics in 1920-1922 occurred at a critical juncture in Soviet history, when the Bolshevik dominance of the decision-making process was just coming into public view. Party officials often acting out of ignorance but full of ambition made decisions that benefitted them but not the people they were supposed to.

            And third, the decisions of a century ago continue to echo because they left many issues unresolved or worse embedded controversies of the time in structures that the winning side then still tries to use and the losing side to reverse, yet another way this chaotic past inevitably appears again whenever controls loosen and some think they can change things.  

           What is especially important about Lyubimov's account is that it shows anyone who does not know about these long-ago events as few in Moscow do can't possibly address the problems they continue to generate without doing what intervening leaders have done -- making the old problems even worse.  

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