Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Being Finnic in Russia

The year-end issue of The Economist featured, among other articles, "The dying fish swims in water". This rather odd title derived from the efforts linguists to devise a comprehensible sentence in Proto-Uralic, the hypothesized ancestral language of Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarians; that sentence is the only one that Estonian philologist Mall Hellam could devise.\

Lately, Estonians and Finns have begun to involve themselves in supporting the Finnic minorities still living in the Russian Federation. This isn't because of desires to build a Greater Finland, nor is it necessarily related to the territory of Karelia on the Russian-Finnish frontier which, now mostly Russian, is becoming the main Nordic-Russian interface. If anything, as The Economist says, it's related to sympathy for ethnic kin.

The Finns themselves got away for good [from the Russian Empire in 1917]. Their ethnic kinsfolk—the Komi, Mari, Udmurts and the like—managed it only briefly. In 1917-18 there was a big country in the middle of Russia called Idel-Ural (literally, “Volga-Ural”) which united the Finno-Ugric (the “Ugric” because of distant cousinship with Hungary) and Turkic peoples in those areas. When it was crushed by the Bolsheviks in late 1918, its refugee foreign minister, Sadrí Maqsudí Arsal, got a warm welcome first in Finland and then Estonia.

[. . . T]he hard-pressed Finno-Ugric minorities in central Russian regions like Mari-El, Komi and Udmurtia are more concerned. To them, Estonia, with its regained statehood, is a miracle, and Finland an enviable superpower. For the minority Finno-Ugric languages of Russia are dying, spoken mainly by old people in the countryside and a handful of intellectuals. There are few books, newspapers, radio or TV programmes and little mother-tongue education. It is Russian that signifies culture and civilisation; the local lingo, for many, is useless peasant gobbledegook.

That would have been Estonia's fate too, had the Soviet Union not collapsed in 1991. Estonians were well on the way to becoming a minority in their own country thanks to the migration of Russian-speakers from elsewhere in the empire; the use of Russian in education was growing fast.


Miost of these Finnic peoples live in and around the Volga Federal District, in the east of European Russia. The middle stretches of the Volga were the heartland of the abortive Idel-Ural State founded immediately after the October Revolution by the Muslim Turkic Tatars and Bashkirs and the Christian Turkic Chuvash, soon joined by the so-called "Volga Finns," the linguistically Finnic and traditionally pagan Udmurts, Mari, and
Mordvin. These three peoples, together with the Komi peoples living to the north of Tatarstan, are the main but not exclusive focus of Finnish-Estonian attention. Ants Viires' 1993 The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire describes other smaller peoples, like the Votes and the Ingrians, who have lacked the nominal institutional support that the four large Finnic peoples enjoyed. None of these minorities is doing well, though, in the modern Russian Federation.

Worse, the Finno-Ugric minorities are not as robust as their Turkic counterparts, Mr Heinapuu says. “The Finno-Ugric character is different—we are used to running away”. Whereas the Turkic minorities' identity in places such as Tatarstan is bolstered by Islam, the Finno-Ugrics' tradition—and sometimes current practice—is pagan. Mari-El and Udmurtia are probably the only places in Europe where shamanism (nature-worship) is still an authentic, organised religion, with weddings celebrated in sacred groves.

So what to do? Barring a collapse of the Russian state, any idea of Estonian-style independence seems hopeless: in every one of the Finno-Ugric bits of Russia, the Indo-Europeans are a majority. In Mordovia, for example, the Erzyas and their ethnic cousins, the Mokshas, together make up less than a third of the population.

So the main task is survival. Mr Heinapuu and his colleagues try to bolster their kinsfolk's language and culture and highlight Russian chauvinism. The first is difficult. In the two-room world headquarters of the Finno-Ugric movement in Tallinn, Mr Heinapuu proudly shows a shelf of newly published poetry in Mari and other languages. It is a drop in the ocean. “What we really need is the ‘Da Vinci Code’ in Udmurt,” a colleague ruefully complains.

A more promising idea is to bring students from the Finno-Ugric bits of Russia to study in Estonia. That initiative, the Kindred Peoples' Programme, began in 1999. It was meant to create expertise, expose students to western society, and boost morale.

It hasn't worked out like that, though. Half the 100-odd students decided to stay. “These were the first towns they had ever lived in. They adapted too well, and those that went back had problems with Russian life,” says Mr Heinapuu. Now the focus has shifted to graduate education. And the money involved in the student programme is tiny: just 3m Estonian kroons ($230,000). Rich Finland gives only a bit more, Hungary almost nothing.


The problem facing these minorities lies in their pronounced weakness. Both the Finns and Estonians have large numbers, with languages which remain prestigious in their homeland and continue to attract new speakers, living in territories with well-defined frontiers, possessing economies capable of supporting the burdens of translation and the paraphrenalia of late modern mass culture from reality television to popular music. All of the Russian Federation's Finnic minorities lack these prerequisites for cultural vitality. The only thing that these aid programs aimed at supporting these minorities may do, in fact, is to attract immigrants to Finland and Estonia from these Finnic minority groups.

Certainly the Russian government is uninterested in promoting a Finnic renaissance in Russia and risking further the further disintegration of Russia's territory.

It is possible to reverse language decline. Norway, for example, has poured money into supporting the culture and language of its northern Sami peoples. There is no sign of that in Russia, where the authorities approach minority languages with neglect and suspicion. When Tatarstan, the core of the old Idel-Ural, tried to reintroduce the Latin alphabet in which the local Turkic language is most logically written, this was banned by the Kremlin.


The repression in Mari-El criticized by the European Parliament, striking Mari cultural and political activists fairly indiscriminately, might well be preferred by a Russian government that doesn't want to see the example of nearby Tatarstan replicated elsewhere. As I wrote this past September, a Tatarstani nation-state within the Russian Federation is being built by a canny political elite. One, two, three, many Tatarstans is nothing that a Russian government anxious to prevent the dissolution of a Russian state can be expected to want. And so, lacking either a strong basis for national renaissance or powerful patrons, Russia's Finnic minorities are doomed to assimilation.

Soviet nation-building
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