Mordvinians a Doomed Soviet Nationality

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  • 8/2/2019 Mordvinians a Doomed Soviet Nationality


    Isabelle T. Kreindler

    The Mordvinians : A doomed Soviet nationality ?In: Cahiers du monde russe et sovitique. Vol. 26 N1. Janvier-Mars 1985. pp. 43-62.


    Isabelle Kreindler, Les Mordves. Une nationalit sovitique condamne ?

    Bien qu'il ne soit nouveau plus de mise de parler des dportations massives de huit nationalits sovitiques l'poque de la

    guerre, les effets s'en font encore sentir tant sur les cinq nationalits qui ont recouvr leur patrie que sur les trois autres, toujours

    en exil. Cet article retrace rapidement l'historique des Mordves et les principaux jalons de leur tragique exprience, tout en tant

    centr sur les prolongements actuels de ces dportations sur le peuple mordve et sur la politique sovitique des nationalits en



    Isabelle Kreindler, The Mordvinians. A doomed Soviet nationality?

    Although the Soviet war-time deportations of eight entire nationalities have again become a non-event of history, the effects, both

    among the five nationalities who have been restored in their homelands and especially among the three who are still in exile, are

    still very much felt. This article summarizes the background of the deported nationalities and of the basic events of their tragic

    experience, while focusing on the continuing ramifications of the deportations on the nationalities involved and on Soviet

    nationality policy in general.

    Citer ce document / Cite this document :

    Kreindler Isabelle T. The Mordvinians : A doomed Soviet nationality ?. In: Cahiers du monde russe et sovitique. Vol. 26 N1.

    Janvier-Mars 1985. pp. 43-62.

    doi : 10.3406/cmr.1985.2030
  • 8/2/2019 Mordvinians a Doomed Soviet Nationality




    The 1979 census recorded only 1,191,765 Mordvinians inthe Soviet Union, a further decrease of 70,905 since the 1970census.* This ancient Finnic people, indigenous to the Volgaarea, is still the largest of Soviet Finno-Ugrian nationalities.However, if their numbers continue to drop as they havebeen during the past forty years, not only are they certainto lose this primacy before the end of the century (seetable), but their very survival is in question.Major Finno-Ugrian nationalities in the USSR (in thousands)

    1926 1939 1959 1970 1979MordviniansEstoniansUdmurtsMarisKomiKare HansFinnsSource: V.I.



    Kozlov, Natsional nosti



    SSSR (Moscow, 1982):


    285-287.In absolute numbers, 259, 86 Mordvinians have vanishedsince 1939. The actual loss, if expected natural increaseis taken into account, is of course much greater. Yet, duringthis period there were no special Mordvinian disasters notshared by other Soviet peoples. Furthermore, unlike their

    * Parts of this paper were presented at seminars of the Centerfor Russian and East European Studies, Stanford Universityand of the Russian and East European Research Centre of TheHebrew University, Jerusalem. I wish to thank the participantsfor their stimulating comments.

    Cahiers du Monde russe et sovitique, XXVI (i), Janv.-Mars 1985, pp. 43-62.
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    44 ISABELLE T. KREINDLERBaltic relatives, the Estonians, the Mordvinians have oneof the lowest urbanization rates and, predictably, enjoy afairly high fertility rate.(l) Nor have they been affected byemigration or transfer of population due to border adjustmentsas have their other Baltic relatives, the Karelians and theFinns. The shrinking Mordvinian population is thus clearlya case of assimilation, or as Barbara Anderson terms it,"national reidentification . " ( 2 )The Mordvinians are generally dismissed as a non-viablenationality. Writing even before their first dramatic dropin numbers was revealed by the 1959 census, Walter Kolarzsaw them "in a far more hopeless position than even someof the smallest nationalities in the Soviet Union. "(3) GlynLewis, in a 1972 work on Soviet multilingualism, judged theirfuture as "dubious," while Bernard Comrie, in a recent workon Soviet languages, constantly points to the Mordviniansas an example of th e so-called "natural process of assimilation... in its last phase." Alexandre Bennigsen sees theirassimilation, as well as that of other "non-historic nations"as inevitable. (4) Soviet scholars also constantly picture theMordvinians as assimilating, a development which they considerto be both "natural and progressive. "(5)But predictions of the impending Mordvinian disappearancehave been sounded many times in the past and yet in thevery last decades of the twentieth century over a millionpeople have still declared themselves Mordvinians. It is thepurpose of this paper to analyze the historical developmentof the Mordvinian nationality focusing on the factors thathave contributed to both its apparently imminent disappearances well as to its survival, however tenuous. Such aninquiry, it is hoped, will be of intrinsic interest in itselfsince the Mordvinians have been virtually ignored in Westernstudies, and at the same time may also cast some light onthe viability of other nationalities, whose prospects for anational future are often deemed not much brighter.Mordvinian early history

    The ancestors of the Mordvinians originated more than3.000 years ago in the area between the Volga, Oka andSura rivers. They first appear under the name Mordens inthe writings of the sixth-century Gothic historian Jordanes.Later, they are intimately linked with both the Khazar andthe Volga Bulgar states. (6)Of the surviving Volga nationalities, the Mordvinianswere one of the first to come into contact with the Russiansand, as differing Soviet interpretations have it, were alsothe first to "tie their historical fates in friendship" or,were the first to be "raped," "robbed," "conquered. "(7) TheRussian Chronicles, which record the first Russian-Mordvinianencounter in 1103 (though toponymie evidence suggests thatRussians began to acquire Mordvinian lands much earlier),present a uniformly dreary picture of ambushes, burningsand killings on both sides. (8)
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    THE MORDVINIANS 45In the encounter with the Russians, the Mordvinians hadseveral disadvantages. Perhaps most serious was their division into two distinct groups, the Erzia Mordvinians andthe Moksha Mordvinians. For some time in the sixth century,

    and possibly even earlier, a mysterious event, probably anintrusion of a since vanished people, had split the Mordviniansinto two separate branches, the Erzia in the northeast andthe Moksha in the southwest. (9) Gradually major differencesdeveloped in customs, language and even physical appearance until their conversion to Christianity the Erzia andMoksha did not intermarry and even today intermarriage israre.) (10) The two subdivisions of Mordvinians share nofolk heroes in common - their old folksongs sing only oflocal heroes. Neither language has a common term to designateeither themselves or their language. When a speaker wishesto refer to Mordvinians as a whole, he must use the term"Erzia and Moksha. "(11)Another serious problem was their geographic locationin close proximity to powerful neighbors while lacking anynatural barriers. After the demise of the Khazar kaganatein the early eleventh century, the Mordvinians were caughtin the struggle between the Russian princes and the VolgaBulgars. This struggle was largely fought on Mordviniansoil with the Mordvinians often forced into the unhappy roleof supporting the opposing sides. Though organized undertheir own petty princes, the Mordvinians had failed to formanything resembling a state by the time of the onslaughtof the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Later, as theRussians began to free themselves from the Mongols and slowlyadvance eastward, the Mordvinians found themselves partitioned between the Russians on the west, and the GoldenHorde and its successor state the Kazan1 khanate, on theeast. Any chance for independent existence was thus finallyforeclosed. With the conquest of Kazan' in 1552, all Mordviniansere united under Moscow. (12)Even before the final conquest, under the pressure ofthe Russian advance the Mordvinians began to flee theirethnic territory. After the fall of Kazan', with the Mordvinianlands located directly in the path of the Russian colonizationmovement, outmigration increased and was to be furtheraugmented during the periodic conversion campaigns, especially those of the eighteenth century. Whole Mordvinianvillages would be abandoned leaving behind empty housesand fields "without their plowmen" as the folksongs lament. (13)They fled in order to preserve their faith and their wayof life, but having broken with their roots they became morevulnerable to conversion and russification in their newplaces of settlement, where it was only a matter of timebefore they were engulfed by the Russians once more. Bythe seventeenth century the Mordvinian homeland had becomecentral Russian territory and the Mordvinians there a minority. Many Mordvinians had also joined the Russians andUkrainians in colonizing the new lands in search of economicopportunities. To this day they have remained one of the mostmobile nationalities in the Soviet Union.