By Paul Goble
Mordvinia, a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga seldom gets much attention except when people recall Soviet and more recently Russian prison camps there and when Moscow leaders make the mistake of talking about a place they clearly know almost nothing about.
An example of the former is Ukrainian activist Valentyn Moroz’ classic 1974 memoir about life in the Brezhnev-era camps in Mordvinia, Report from the Beria Reserve; an example of the latter were Vladimir Putin’s incautious words in June 2021 about languages and ethnic identities in that republic.
The Kremlin leader at that time said that Erzya and Moksha were like Russians and Ukrainians in that they speak somewhat different languages but in fact are one people, the Mordvins, an observation that immediately drew a sharp rebuke from the leader of the Erzya people.
Syres Bolayev, the chief Erza elder who now lives in Ukraine, pointed out that there is no such thing as a Mordvin ethnic group. Instead, there are two “independent” nations, the Erzya and the Moksha, who do not identify as Mordvins or speak mutually intelligible languages (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/07/putins-incautious-words-about-mordvins.html
Putin was wrong then both with regard to the situation in Mordvinia and also with regard to his comparison of that case with the Russian and Ukrainian one. But since then, two developments have come to a head that have highlighted just how wrong his comments about Mordvinia were.
On the one hand, because of Russian flight and the growth in the number of Erzyas and Mokshas, the share of the population of the republic occupied by the latter has become a plurality fundamentally changing Moscow’s calculation on how to handle the ethnic scene there (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/03/as-mordvins-approach-majority-status-in.html).
As long as the Erzya and Moksha constituted a distinct minority, Moscow’s policy was to promote a Mordvin identity to make it easier for the Russian authorities to manage the situation. But now that the two are on the way to becoming a majority, Moscow is being forced to shift to its customary divide and rule approach to ensure that neither threatens Russian control.
And on the other hand, Moscow’s oppression of the Erzya and Moksha has intensified to the point that many of their leaders have fled abroad where they now constitute sizeable émigré centers and are using the Internet to promote the idea of independence for both nations (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/12/mordovias-erzya-and-moksha-look-to.html).
The activities of these two groups have attracted attention to the existence of the Erzya and the Moksha, and now Erzya activist Itsyal Kudyay has addressed the issue of where Moscow got the term “Mordvin” given that neither of these two nations has ever called themselves that (idel-ural.org/archives/otkuda-vzyalos-slovo-mordva-i-kakie-posledstviya-mozhet-imet-ego-upotreblenie/#more-16276).
According to him, Russian mapmakers used the word “Mord” which means human being in Erzya and Moksha to designate the region and Russians then applied the regional name back to the people who lived there. And some say that that word came from another word in the two languages that meant “cannibal.”
Kudyay’s account is entirely credible. Many of the numerically small peoples that the Russians came to rule did not have a self-designator beyond saying that they were human beings, and the word in their own languages for man thus became the name the Russians imposed on the group as the national signifier.
Moreover, when groups wanted to talk about other groups that they considered more primitive because of their isolation – and the peoples in Mordvinia are among those – they sometimes suggested that there were cannibals, a designation that did not necessarily mean they practiced that but rather a way of suggesting they were very primitive indeed.
But the word “Mordvin” is an insult, Kudyay says, “an instrument of the empire.” And as long as some Erzya and Moksha identify with it, that will make their struggles against the Muscovites empire even more lengthy and difficult.