Finno-Ugric peoples

The Eastern Finnic Peoples in World History

Geocurrents has focused for a week on the Finnic-speaking* peoples of Russia, and will continue to do so for two additional postings. This prolonged gaze is prompted by two things: my intrinsic interest in peoples who have maintained their languages and cultural practices despite hundreds of years of intense pressure to acculturate; and my conviction that the eastern “Finns” have been unduly ignored by both historians and students of contemporary Russia. Scanning the indices of scholarly works on Russian history, I find scant entries; delving through historical atlases, I find little** beyond an undifferentiated “Finnic Peoples” splashed across northern European Russia. When noticed at all, these groups are usually portrayed as peoples without history, insignificant pawns of larger powers. As evidence of their historical insignificance, some note the fact that no Finnic-speaking sovereign state existed until Finland and Estonia gained independence with the collapse of the Russian Empire near the end of World War I.

Certain groups, however, do pay close attention to the eastern Finnic peoples, which is itself a matter of considerable interest. At the forefront are Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian scholars interested in the common history of the Finno-Ugric community and concerned about the current plight of their “distant relatives” in Russia. A few human rights activists have also taken up the cause, especially Geraldine Fagan, Moscow correspondentof Forum 18 News Service, whose reporting provides invaluable information on animists and other religious outsiders. European neo-pagans are also intrigued by Mari mysticism and nature worship, if often in a romantic rather than scholarly key. Distressingly, neo-Nazis can also be keen on the topic, discussing at some length whether eastern Finno-Ugrians, and sometimes western ones as well, are truly “White” (I will not link to Stormfront, but its discussion-boards on the subject are easily found). More surprisingly, a group of historical gamers has discovered the eastern Finns, generating an impressively knowledgeable discussion of the medieval Mordvin military on the Fanaticus webpage. (Professional historians may vastly under-appreciate the role of game-playing in generating interest in the past.)

I am convinced that the eastern Finnic-speaking peoples deserve far more historical consideration than they have been given. To begin with, they are not nearly as peripherally located as is commonly imagined. Historical maps of Europe show their homeland as beyond the pale of civilization. But if one changes the frame of reference, a different picture emerges. As the map above indicates, eastern Finnic territory lay astride the vitally important Volga trade route (highlighted in red on the map), an artery that connected Central Asia and the Middle East with the Baltic Sea region. The Volga trade route flourished in the 700s and 800s CE, when the powerful, Jewish-led Khazars held the southern terminus, while the Volga Bulgars (ancestors of the Volga Tatars) held the central junction with the Kama River, the Finnic peoples held upper Volga, and the Varangians (Swedish Vikings) held the Baltic terminus.

Just as furs were the coveted export product of the Finnic peoples of the north, honey and wax were the specialties of those living in the middle-Volga. Bee-keeping has been easy to overlook since the coming of sugar and paraffin, but its historical importance was great; sweeteners were rare, mead was beloved, and beeswax candles much desired. When the Russians conquered the eastern Finns, they did not reduce them to serfdom; instead they demanded tribute duties in the form of honey and wax (see Taagepera 1999). The hives of the Mari and Moksha (Mordvins) depended on the nectar- and pollen-producing trees of the Russian deciduous forest, especially Tilia (lime, linden, or basswood in common parlance). The advance of Slavic-speaking peoples was associated with the partial retreat of the linden forests, harming the Finnic economy. The Finns depended on the forests both for their apiaries and for swidden (“slash and burn”) agriculture.

In ancient and medieval times, the Finnic peoples were at roughly the same technological level as the Slavs, the Vikings, and the Volga Turks. They generally grew the same crops, raised the same livestock, and worked the same metals. According to Taagepera (p 63), the villages of the eastern Finns were often more prosperous than Russian-speaking ones even in the 1600s, in part because Russian serfs were more thoroughly exploited that Finnic tribute payers. Intriguingly, the Mokshan Mordvins had their own indigenous system of numerals, still used by bee-keepers and others into the 20th century. The Chuvash, a local Turkic-speaking people whose ancestors were probably Volga Finns, also had their own numerals. The development of complex numerical notation indicates heavy involvement in trading circuits dating back many centuries.

Considering all of this, why did the Finns never develop their own states? Actually, they did. The little-known Great Perm of the Komi people, which was closely linked to the fabled Bjarmaland of the Norse Sagas, functioned as a state until conquered by Moscow in 1472. Unlike other Finnic polities, Perm adopted Christianity on its own terms, and even used its own writing system, the Old Permic script. The extinct Merya of the Middle Volga may also have run something like a state from their fortified center ofSarskoye Gorodishche, near the Russian city of old Rostov. But in general, the Finns did not build large-scale political structures, which in the end doomed their struggle with the Russians. Some have suggested that their societies were not sufficiently hierarchical to support extensive unification. The fierce hierarchy of the Russian state proved highly advantageous in these struggles of the past; whether it is advantageous for Russia today is another question.

* I am using “Finnic” in the larger sense of the term, referring to all peoples speaking languages in the Finno-Permic division of the Finno-Ugric linguistic family.

** One exception is the Euratlas map posted yesterday, which shows Sarskoye as a state.

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Threats to Mari Animism

As we saw yesterday, the traditional animism of the Mari people of Russia’s Middle Volga region was historically tolerated by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire. In Mari El today, animism is officially regarded as one of the republic’s three traditional faiths, along with Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Such has not always been the case, however. Under the early Soviet regime, all forms of religion were repressed. One Mari practitioner recalled “creep[ing] into the forest with [my] grandmother to perform sacrificial rites by night. The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come. They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away.” During World War II, Stalin relented in the assault on religion, and reportedly even tried to “co-opt the karts’ [pagan priests] spiritual powers when pushing back the Nazi invasion of 1941.” Relatively relaxed attitudes seem to have revived in the post-war era; after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government insisted that “ancient paganism” was worthy of respect. Even the local Orthodox bishop argued in 1993 that traditional beliefs should be respected, as Protestantism posed a greater threat to the republic than paganism.

But such accommodating attitudes have declined in recent years. The autonomy of the Russian republics was significantly reduced after Vladimir Putin took office; regional leaders came to be appointed by Moscow rather than selected locally. As the animist establishment in Mari El turned against the republic’s administration, the Russian government came to see the faith as a potentially dangerous vehicle for Mari nationalism. By the early 2000s, Mari traditionalists were complaining that their sacred groves, numbering some 520, were being vandalized and in some instances cut down. The plight of the Mari began to reach the attention of the wider world. In May 2005, the European Parliament criticized Russia for “violating the cultural and political rights of the Mari, … cit[ing] the difficulties the Mari people face in being educated in their first language, [and the] political interference by the local administration in Mari cultural institutions …”

2006 saw an intensification of religious and ethnic strife in the republic. In that year, Mari leader Vitaly Tanakov was found guilty of spreading “religious and ethnic hatred” for his pamphlet entitled “A Priest Speaks.” As Geraldine Fagan, the main English-language reporter on the Mari, explains:

Peoples influenced by the Bible and Koran “have lost harmony between the individual and the people,” argues Tanakov, in what is actually one of only a few references to other faiths in his leaflet. “Morality has gone to seed, there is no pity, charity, mutual aid; everyone and everything are infected by falsehood.” By contrast, he boasts, the Mari traditional faith will be “in demand by the whole world for many millennia.”

In 2009, the Mari El Supreme Court confirmed the condemnation, ruling that Tanakov’s pamphlet spread religious and other forms of “extremism.” The booklet is currently banned throughout Russia. Meanwhile, other minor assaults on the faith continue to occur. Mari traditionalists, for example, have been barred from advertising their festivals in state newspapers.

Mari animist leaders have responded to such attacks through a media outreach program and by stressing the environmentalist credentials of their religion. The main Mari website English-language website, MariUver, however, focuses not on Mari traditional beliefs but rather on the common concerns of all of the Finno-Ugric minority groups of Russia. Recently postings have emphasized linguistic threats much more than religious ones, as well be explored later in Geocurrents.

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