Staunton, October 8 – Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia, October 9. In advance of his arrival, local officials linguistically “cleansed” the streets along which he passed, removing those which were in Chuvash and leaving only those in Russian.
This violation of both the Russian law on languages and the Chuvash constitution was undoubtedly undertaken by officials in Chuvashia who fear the recent push in that republic for signs in Chuvash has gone to the point that it might attract the unwelcome attention of the Kremlin leader.
Chuvashia, a 1.2 million strong Christian Turkic republic, gets relatively little attention compared to that given to the two Muslim republics of the Middle Volga region, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, and the three Finno-Ugric ones, Mordovia, Mari El, and Udmurtia, but like them, it has become increasingly politically active over the last year.
If Tatarstan has resumed its role as the chief advocate of real federalism in the Russian Federation and Chuvashia has become the leader in promoting its national language, most famously by giving stickers to businesses identifying them as places where Chuvash is spoken, much is going on in the other republics of a region known historically as Idel-Ural.
The situation among the Mordvins is particularly interesting now. In a commentary on NR2.com.ua last week, Oleg Shro says that Russian chauvinist attitudes are generating a backlash in Mordvinia, prompting some to adopt increasingly nationalistic positions.
In Soviet times, there were occasions when officials refused to enter “Mordvin” in the nationality line because they said “there is no such nation.” Now, Shro reports, officials are inclined to say to the Russian-speaking Mordvins: “You are an ethnic Russian with a knowledge of the Mordvin language.” It isn’t clear how much of an advance that is.
On the one hand, the Mordvins themselves are divided into two basic subgroups, the Erzya and Moksha, two closely related but not fully mutually intelligable linguistic communities. But on the other, the Mordvins are very conscious of their ties to other groups in the Middle Volga. A popular saying is “Mordvins-Chuvashes are our people.”
Shro says that even a superficial examination of the Mordvin nation should lead to two major conclusions: On the one hand, it is a nation with a long and proud history that has made a significant contribution to the Russian state. Consequently, its members “do not deserve” the sarcastic attitudes they often are subjected to by Russians.
And on the other, Russians should recognize at a time when the future of the Russian Federation is very much at question that groups like the Mordvins are their allies rather than their opponents. The Mordvins support an ethnic Russian republic as a way forward toward the formation of a multi-ethnic Volga Federation.
Such an entity could serve as a counterweight to an ethnic territory within a revamped Russian Federation or serve as a way station toward the independence of both.