Sunday, May 9, 2021

Some from Disbanded Navalny Staffs May Help National and Regional Movements

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 7 – The Navalny staffs set up in cities across the Russian Federation were almost exclusively focused on supporting Andrey Navalny and his all-Russian movement. But now that they have been banned by the government, some of their members appear to be moving toward becoming involved with regional and republic groups.

            Todar Baktemir of the IdelReal portal focuses on one such individual, Valentin Belyayev, who earlier worked in the Navalny staff in the Mari-El capital of Yoshkar-Ola. At that time, as the activist freely admits, he was “never interested in the status of the Maris in Russia.” But now things have changed (

            Belyayev, a native of Mari El but not a Mari speaker, became involved in politics because of his homosexuality. He wanted to ensure that everyone in Russia has the same rights that homosexuals have in other countries and especially in Scandinavia. He was attracted to the Navalny movement because of its positions and became actively involved in the Navalny staff in Yoshkar-Ola

            When Moscow banned those staffs and his was closed, Belyayev was arrested and held for five days. Since that time, he has been thinking about what to do next and has been exploring his Mari roots and the possibility that he can become part of a Mari national movement before it is too late to save that Finno-Ugric people of the Middle Volga.

            “At present,” he says, he “cannot call himself a Mari to the full extent because I haven’t mastered the Mari language; and for me, this is the key characteristic as far as the question of national identity is concerned,” although he says that he has passed a certain distance along “the path of Mari-ization,” something possible because of his own Mari roots.

            In the past, Belyayev says, he wasn’t all that interested in the Maris or the problems of national minorities in Russia. “The cultures of such small peoples as the Mari were for me something deeply archaic, agrarian, conservative and patriarchal. How could I be interested in them?”

            The trigger for his own change, he continues, was the trial of Komi activist Aleksey Ivanov who refused to participate without a Komi translator. He is someone of “completely progressive views” but nonetheless was speaking out in defense “of the national interests of one of the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia.”

            After news of his defiance spread, Belyayev says, he personally began to read up on national minorities online; and this prompted him to ask himself: “why can’t the Finno-Ugric nations of the Russian Federation live and flourish in exactly the same ways the Finns, the Estonians and the Hungarians are?”

            There is no ready-made Mari national movement, he suggests. “It is still in its infancy,” and the government controls many groups. As a result, there are only three possible scenarios for the future of the Mari people. First, things may continue as they are, something that satisfied neither the non-Russians nor the Russian nationalists.

            Second, Moscow may destroy the republics and Russify the non-Russians. In that event, the Maris will cease to exist as a nation. Or third, “the Mari people must rise from its knees and restore itself in all its beauty. According to Belyayev, that will happen only “if the Maris are able to form a modern Mari national urban culture.”

            “Russia long ago passed through the process of urbanization and the absolute majority of residents of Russia live in cities. But those Mari who identify as such as before live in villages” because “in the cities, they are massively Russified in the second or third generation.” If the Maris are to survive as a people, that must change.

            They need to follow the path of the Finns, the Estonians, and the Hungarians, Belyayev continues. But that will be “impossible” unless there is a democratic transition in Russia. Both the Maris and the Russians need that, and so there is a basis for cooperation now, cooperation that few on either side viewed as possible only months ago.

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