Moscow’s Plans to ‘Save’ Mordvins Could Destroy that Finno-Ugric Nation

Moscow-backed plans to combine the two literary languages of Mordvinia into one, have speakers of both declare themselves “Mordvins” in the census, and celebrate the millennium of their “union” with the peoples of Russia could kill off that Finno-Ugric nation, one already subject to a very high rate of assimilation in the Russian Federation.

And that danger, one that some other non-Russian groups face as well, lends particular urgency to a Tatarstan government appeal to the Russian State Duma to ratify the European Charter on Minority Languages, an accord that Moscow had hoped to exploit to promote Russian within the EU but now fears might be cited against the center by groups at home.

Last month, officials and scholars met in Mordvinia to discuss the possibility of creating on the foundation of two separate languages, Erzya and Moksha, a single Mordvin literary language, an ethno-linguistic project Soviet officials took up and then discarded in the face of local opposition more than 70 years ago.

Nikolay Merkushkin, the Moscow loyalist head of Mordvinia, announced the creation of a special commission for the formation of a single Mordvinian literary language in place of the two that now exist, a step that drew the enthusiastic support of the carefully packed meeting he had assembled.

Given the size of the two language communities – combined, they total less than a million speakers – many might see this as an utterly reasonable step, but as commentator Anton Churikov pointed out, such attitudes miss two important aspects of the situation (

On the one hand, he suggests, to understand what such an effort would mean, one need only imagine what would happen if “the leadership of the Union of Russia and Belarus were to decide to create a single East-Slavic language,” that would have elements drawn from each but that would in fact be different from both.

Such a step, Churikov suggests, would lead either to the complete disappearance of the smaller nationality or to linguistic chaos in the educational system and media or both, with disastrous consequences for all concerned, not to mention the ways in which such change could cut both communities off from their history and literature.

And on the other, the commentator continues, such a step ignores the fact that both groups of Finno-Ugric speakers exist within a Russian-language world, one to which they are assimilating more rapidly than any other major nationality in the Russian Federation and to which they would certainly shift even more rapidly if this project goes forward.

Between the 1989 and 2002 censuses, the number of people in the Mordvin nation – which includes the speakers of both languages – declined more than 30 percent to just over 800,000, the result of assimilation to Russian especially in rural areas where, Churikov says, “people do not see reasons to consider themselves Mordvins.”

Most of them now speak Russian, “while considering themselves Mokshas or Erzyas, as well as Mordvins.” Were they to go through the trauma of shifting to a new and inevitably artificial language, many almost certainly would be likely to re-identify as ethnic Russians, something Moscow would like but that would destroy one more of the peoples of Eurasia.

If Moscow is hoping for more assimilation in the future, then some in the Moksha-dominated Mordvin political leadership appear to be hoping for a short-term boost by getting members of both language groups to declare they are Mordvins, something that could move the combined nation into “millionaire” status after the next census.

According to the Erzyan Forum, which represents that part of the nation, officials have been coming around to diaspora groups and directing them to call themselves Mordvins in the 2010 census, something that has generated a great amount of ill-feeling among them and may even be counter-productive.

Another move that may be having a very different effect than officials hope for is the plan to celebrate in 2012 the millennium of the Mordvin people in “union with the peoples of Russia” and not just being “included” as other nations have been in 2012. There are serious problems with the historiography of this, and they are agitating Mordvin nationalists.

The efforts of Moscow and pro-Moscow officials to take these steps are just one of the reasons why ever more non-Russian activists and leaders are concerned about the future. Among the most outspoken have been the Kazan Tatars, who are especially concerned about the fate of their language and nationality.

Angered by Moscow’s plans to reduce the amount of Tatar-language education – the number of Tatar-language schools in the republic has fallen from 712 in 2004 to only 490 now – the Tatars have been seeking to mobilize other non-Russians to support the restoration of the national and regional components of the educational system.

Now, the Tatars are trying a new tact: The republic’s State Council has adopted an appeal to the Russian Duma to pass the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, something Moscow had been eager to do as it pressed the EU for official status for Russia but now may be reluctant because of these issues (

Paul Goble

Source: Window on Eurasia


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