ALTERNATE NAMES: Erzias; Mokshas
LOCATION: Russia (Moksha and Sura rivers region)
POPULATION: 1.15 million
LANGUAGE: Mordvin (Moksha and Erzia); Russian
There are many Finno-Ugric peoples living in Russia. These groups speak languages that are related to modern Finnish and/or Hungarian and include the Karelians, Komi, Maris, Mordvins, and Udmurts. These groups traditionally lived in the Middle Volga region of Russia and are culturally diverse. This article will focus on one of the largest Finno-Ugric groups, the Mordvins.
The modern Mordvins live in the Russian Federation. The Mordvins consider themselves to be two separate groups—the Erzias and the Mokshas. Before the Mongol conquest of the thirteenth century, the Mordvins were ruled by their own princes. After the withdrawal of the Mongols in the early fifteenth century, the Mordvins found themselves between the powerful Russian principality of Moscow and the Kazan khanate, a successor state of the Mongols. With the Russian defeat of Kazan in 1552, the Mordvin ethnic territory fell under Russia's control.
Under Russian rule, the Mordvins were gradually made into serfs (feudal peasants bound to a master's land) and became Christians. During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, many Mordvins left their traditional homeland. These migrations dispersed the Mordvin population, and they gradually became more like ethnic Russians. By 1917, the Mordvins had become one of the most Russian-like of all the minorities in Russia.
In 1936, Soviet authorities granted the Mordvins a self-governing region, which came to be known as the Mordvin Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), a part of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet period, the Mordvin ASSR was closed to foreigners, largely because there were many forced-labor camps located there.
The Mordvins are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Russia, with a population of over 1.15 million. The traditional homeland of the Mordvins are the Moksha and Sura river valleys and their tributaries. The climate is like much of Europe; in January temperatures average about 16 to 18° F (–12 to –11° C) and in July temperatures average about 70° F (20° C).
Most Mordvins live outside their homeland republic, usually in neighboring districts, areas farther to the east, or even in the more distant region of Siberia. Outside of the Russian Federation, there are Mordvin communities in Kazakstan and Armenia.
The Mordvin language actually consists of separate but closely related languages called Moksha and Erzia. Speakers of Moksha and Erzia do not easily understand one another, making Russian the language of communication. Virtually all Mordvins are fluent in Russian, often at the expense of their native language.
The Mordvins have retained a rich body of oral literature and music, much of which was recorded in the Soviet era. Many Mordvin historical songs (which are actually long narrative poems) may be the remnants of a now-lost Mordvin national epic. These songs include narratives of the Russian conquest of Kazan.
Mordvin communities as a whole were converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in the first half of the eighteenth century, although some had adopted the new religion even earlier. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Mordvins were one of the region's most Christianized minorities. As Russian Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christianity took hold in the Mordvin communities, the Mordvins retained many of their native religious traditions along with the Christian traditions. Their activities included group prayers and animal sacrifices for various spirits. This aspect of Mordvin religious life survived the Soviet period and is still evident today.
The major holidays of the Mordvins correspond to the Russian Orthodox calendar, with the chief religious holidays being Orthodox New Year (January 6, by the Gregorian calendar) and Easter (in March or April on the Gregorian calendar). Traditionally, however, Mordvins observed most other Christian holidays and festivals as coinciding with the agricultural calendar. Important nonreligious holidays introduced during the Soviet period include New Year's Day (January 1), May Day (May 1), and Victory Day (May 9).
Birth rituals were typically performed by a religious specialist, usually an old woman, and included rituals to protect the newborn from harmful spirits. Although baptism was discouraged during the Soviet period, many Mordvins saw it more as a national custom than a religious ritual. The Mordvins have retained the pre-Christian tradition of funeral feasts for the dead, as well as the practice of holding group prayers and making offerings at the tombs of ancestors.
Interpersonal relations among the Mordvins (such as greeting, body language, and gestures), do not differ substantially from those of Russians. In both Erzia and Moksha, the typical greeting upon seeing someone for the first time on a given day is Shumbrat.
Most Mordvins today live in villages, where houses tend to be made out of wood. Typically, the house forms part of a courtyard, to which is attached sheds, barns, and other outbuildings. In addition, nearly every house has its own sauna or bathhouse. Most villages have electric power, but very few houses have any indoor plumbing, and water is usually obtained from a well or a communal pump. Wages are usually very low, and there is little money available for consumer goods. Similarly, health care in rural areas is of poor quality and not always available. However, Mordvins often make use of herbal medicines and other traditional remedies.
Historically, women were more confined to the home and rarely traveled far from their village, so they were less likely to speak Russian or be exposed to Russian culture. As a result, Mordvin women played a large role in the preservation of the Mordvin languages, oral traditions, and customs. In traditional Mordvin society, when a girl married she would leave her home and move in with her husband's family. As a result, a Mordvin family had an interest in delaying a daughter's wedding as long as possible, so as not to lose her labor, and there was a corresponding interest in a son marrying as soon as possible so as to bring an extra worker (his wife) into the family. As a result, marriages sometimes involved eleven-or twelve-year-old Mordvin boys marrying twenty-five-year-old (or older) Mordvin women. During the Soviet period, this custom gradually disappeared, and today Mordvin marriage patterns are similar to those for Russia as a whole. A typical couple today will have only one or two children, whereas before World War II (1939–45), family sizes were much larger, and the infant mortality rate was also much higher.
Traditional Mordvin festive clothing was typically white and decorated with elaborate embroidery. By the nineteenth century, Mordvin men were dressing in the Russian manner. Summer clothes were often woven out of linen. In winter, woolens and reversed sheepskin coats were common. Currently, everyday clothing is identical to the clothing typical of Russian society as a whole.
The basis of the Mordvin economy was cereal agriculture, and the staples of the Mordvin diet were bread made from rye flour, as well as oats and barley. During the Soviet period, potatoes also came to form an important part of the Mordvins' diet. The main vegetables include cabbages, carrots, beets, and onions. The main types of meat are pork, chicken, and mutton. Beverages include tea, beer, and vodka.
The language of instruction during the Soviet years was often Russian. Few Mordvins were educated in their native language, especially in the later Soviet period. Typically, Mordvins achieve the equivalent of a high school education.
Beginning in the 1930s, the Soviet authorities created an official Mordvin national culture. A Mordvin national literature emerged in the Soviet style. Poetry, prose, and drama being produced and performed in the two Mordvin languages, and published both in magazines and as separate books. Similarly, Mordvin folk dance groups were created.
Mordvins have traditionally been farmers. During the Soviet period and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mordvin agriculture has been collectivized, with Mordvins either working as part of a group farm or collective (kolkhoz) or as paid employees on a state-owned farm (sovkhoz). During the Soviet period many Mordvins peasants moved into urban areas for industrial work.
Numerous sports and games are played at the religious festivals of the Mordvins, especially foot races and horse races, and other contests. The most popular sports are soccer and hockey, which are not only spectator sports but are played by children and young adults alike.
The lack of recreational outlets in rural areas has limited the recreational opportunities of rural Mordvins. In larger urban areas, however, common recreational activities include the theater, movies, sports events, and television.
Mordvins are skilled at woodcarving, and this forms an important element of their folk art. Another folk art that is especially well-developed is weaving. Beekeeping is a common money-making hobby.
Alcoholism is a severe problem among the Mordvins. The problem is especially severe in rural areas, where drinking alcohol is essentially the main form of recreation. In addition, the current economic crisis affecting all of the former Soviet Union is also a problem for Mordvins, who are suffering from low and erratic wages and a severely decreasing standard of living.
Another serious problem facing the Mordvins is Russification (legally forcing Russian language and culture in other ethnic groups). The isolation of the Mordvins and their lack of access to Russian education ensured the survival of the Mordvin language, at least before 1917. However, in the twentieth century, the integration of the Mordvins into Soviet society and the access to Russian education (combined with limited opportunities for Mordvin-language education) has resulted in a rapid absorption of Mordvins by Russian society. In fact, Russia's Mordvin population has gradually been declining.
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