Sunday, July 4, 2021

Putin’s Incautious Words about Mordvins Offend the Erzya and Undermine Moscow’s Policies

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 30 – During his “Direct Line” broadcast, Vladimir Putin invoked the example of the Erzya and Moksha who speak different languages but who see themselves as one Mordvin nation as an example of what he claimed is the case with Russians and Ukrainians, that although they have different languages and statehood, they consider themselves “one people.”

            Putin’s words about Ukraine, in the context of his comments about Belarusians, are problematic enough. (On that, see But his statement about the Erzya and Moksha among the Mordvins simultaneously reflects fundamental ignorance and undermines Moscow’s own policies.

            Putin’s remarks brought a sharp rejoinder from Syres Bolyaen, the chief Erzya elder who now lives in emigration in Kyiv. He said that there is no such think as a Mordvin ethnic group. Instead, there are two “independent” Finno-Ugric nations, the Erzya and the Moksha, who speak languages so different as to be not mutually intelligible (

            Both the government of Mordvinia and Moscow have promoted the idea that there is a single Mordvin people, the former to boost the share of Mordvins in the republic and the latter to undercut the activism of the Erzya, who Bolyaen says, are among the most active nation among the Finno-Ugric peoples within the borders of the Russian Federation.

            Those are clearly the facts as Putin understood them and the policy of the Russian government up until recently. But the facts are much less in favor of Putin’s and Mordvinia’s interpretation ( And Moscow’s policy has shifted, although apparently Putin isn’t aware of that.

Putin’s apparent  ignorance on this point is striking given that Mordvinia provides one of the unique situations in which the basic ethnic conflict is less between the non-Russians and the Russians than between two non-Russian groups and one where demographic change has shifted Moscow’s view on how things should be handled.

            Mordvinia, a Finno-Ugric republic of some 800,000 people in the Middle Volga, currently features examples of both kinds of conflict, a situation in which those of one may very much affect the other, according to a report by the Free Ideal Ural movement (бюджетников-мордовии-предупредили-о/; cf.

            The Mordvins are roughly subdivided between the dominant Moksha who form two-thirds of the nation and the Erzya, who form about one third; but because the Moksha are in control of most institutions, the language imbalance in favor of the Moksha against the Erzya is far larger, perhaps ten to one.

            As long as the Mordvins as a whole were a distinct minority, however, Moscow and Saransk were united in seeking to eliminate these sub-ethnic divisions. But now the Mordvins as a whole have increased from 31 percent in 2002 to 40 percent in 2010 and may top 50 percent this year, while the share of ethnic Russians, long about 60 percent, may become a minority.

            Consequently, Moscow now appears to favor a divide-and-rule game while Saransk sees national unity as being in its interests ( Putin perhaps unwittingly has thus undercut the interests and emerging policy of Moscow.

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