Identification. Within the Russian Federation, the Maris have had a titular autonomous republic (the Mari ASSR after 1936, today the Republic of Mari) which now forms a part of the Volga-Vyatka macroeconomic region. The Maris belong to the Volgaic branch of the Finno-Ugrian peoples. "Mari" and "Mar" are self-designations meaning "man." An older name used by other peoples is "Cheremis." In Soviet usage, "Cheremis" has been replaced by "Mari." This name has increasingly won acceptance in other countries as well.
Location. The formation of ancient Mari tribes took place in the Middle Volga region, between the Volga and Vyatka. The first Slavic settlers to these tracts came in the late Middle Ages, and the inflow greatly intensified after the Muscovite conquest of the Volga Valley in the sixteenth century. As a consequence, large numbers of Maris began to move eastward; the Mari homeland lost much of its coherence and the areal center of the nationality shifted to the east. At the present time the Maris are scattered over a vast territory in the Volga-Urals region. The westernmost settlements are in the neighborhood of the Volga-Sura confluence (about 170 kilometers down along the Volga from the city of Gorki), whereas in the east, groups of Mari villages exist on the foothills of the Urals in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. The basic area of the nationality is the Republic of Mari, the bulk of which lies on the left bank of the Volga. The southwestern corner of the republic extends also to the right side of the river. Geographically, most of the republic can best be characterized as rolling plain; the highest places of the Vyatka ridge in the east rise to about 273 meters, whereas the swampy lowlands in the west, north of the Volga, are just 45 to 100 meters above sea level. Over half of the territory of 22,500 square kilometers is covered with forests, consisting mainly of coniferous trees. The main agricultural areas are located in the northeast and in the southwest (i.e., on the hilly bank of the Volga). The climate is continental; the average temperatures range from -13° C in January to +18° C in July. The mean rainfall is 50 centimeters per year. The period of vegetation begins at the end of April and runs until the first days of October.
Demography. The number of the Maris totaled 670,300 in 1989. Nearly half of them—324,000 persons or 48.3 percent of the total—lived in the Mari ASSR. In the Bashkir ASSR there were 105,800 Maris. Other notable areas of inhabitation—with the number of Maris ranging approximately from 10,000 to 50,000—were the Tatar and Udmurt republics and the Kirov and Sverdlovsk oblasts. In 1989 the Mari ASSR population was 749,300; the largest group was the Russians with a 47.5 percent share of the total population. The Maris constituted 43.2 percent, and the rest was made up mainly of Tatars and Chuvash. According to the 1979 data, the Maris were the largest nationality in the countryside, making up 68.7 percent of the ASSR's rural inhabitants, whereas in the urban areas the Maris did not comprise more than 21.6 percent of the population. Urbanization has begun only relatively recently: as late as 1970 over 85 percent of the Maris in such important areas of habitation as the Mari and Bashkir ASSRs and the Kirov Oblast were rural residents. Until the 1960s the Maris maintained a fairly high fertility level. Since then a gradual decline has taken place, but the Maris still compare favorably with the Russians in terms of birthrates. So far this surplus fertility has been enough to keep the Maris population growing, even under conditions of serious assimilation losses. The growth rates, however, have slackened. Although the number of Maris in the 1959-1969 period grew on average by 1.6 percent annually and the total Soviet population by 1.3 percent, the ensuing decades show growth rates below 0.8 percent per year for the Maris; moreover, the Mari rates fall short of general Soviet population growth.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Mari and Mordvin languages form the Volgaic Branch of the Finno-Ugrian Language Family. Two languages are spoken by Maris, Meadow Mari (Olyk Mari) and Hill Mari (Kuryk Mari), each consisting of several dialects and each having a written form of its own. Initiatives to create a single written language have not had practical results. The differences between the two languages are mainly lexical and phonetic. Meadow Mari is based on the Morki-Sernur dialect. The unwritten Eastern dialect (Ervel Mart or Üpö Mari) spoken by the Maris living east of the Republic of Mari, a significant subgroup of Meadow Mari, is often called Meadow-Eastern Mari. The Kozmodemyansk dialect forms the basis of Hill Mari: less than 20 percent of Maris belong to this group. Among the Finno-Ugrian languages, the Mari language has experienced the strongest Turkic (Chuvash and Tatar) influences. Turkic elements were adopted long ago and involve both grammar and vocabulary, whereas borrowing from Russian is a relatively new development, which has intensified since the nineteenth century. More or less regular publishing in Mari was initiated in the late nineteenth century by the Kazan-based missionary movement. Both of the written Mari languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. At the time of the 1989 census, 81 percent of all Maris regarded Mari as their native tongue; in the Mari Republic the figure was 88 percent. The fact that the number of Maris considering Mari as their native language stopped growing after the 1970 census is suggestive of increased linguistic assimilation. Surveys concerning actual language use have shown that among the younger generation, especially in urban settings, lingual Russification is strongly underway. In the mid-1980s Mari was used as a medium of instruction at the lower grades of a number of rural schools in the Mari and Bashkir ASSRs.