Peoples Assimilated By Russians Now Recovering Their Earlier Identities

March 6, 2015
A Kamasin family, 1925. Kamasins were a tribe of Samoyedic peoples who lived in Southern Siberia. They had assimilated with Russians by the early 20th century | A. Ya. Tugarinov /

Staunton, March 6 – The disappearance of non-Russian cultures as a result of Moscow’s assimilationist policies continue to attract attention, but there is another trend which may prove to be equally or even more important: the revival of groups Russians had only incompletely assimilated and their reconstitution as separate peoples.

One of these, says Neyola Kulomzin, who identifies himself as a Moscow-based specialist on local histories, is the Merya people which was Russified about 300 years ago but whose members now recognize themselves as different from Russians on the basis of toponomy, onomastics, and even anthropology.

This should not disturb anyone because “the contemporary Russia people is a super-ethnos composed of the parts of peoples and cultures who have disappeared,” he says; but it frightens many because it suggests that assimilation is not a one-way street and that a nation which has assimilated others in the past may be assimilated by others or dissolve in the future.

Most of the time, Kulomzin says, “the organizers of such cultural movements are from the well-educated intellectual elite which recognizes that without a national culture no region or the people who live on it will have a future.”

And consequently, the actions of “these young patriots” should be welcomed for their contribution to “a good future” for the entire country.

But he continues, “there exist other movements which have under them reliable historical-cultural potential such as the Chuds (Vologda and Arkhangelsk Russians), the Polovtsian-Kipchaks (Belarusian Russians), and the Baltic Slavic historical lands of the Vyatichis and Krivichis (Western Russians).’

And while Kulomzin does not mention it, the fact that some of these identities cross what are now international borders means that some in the Russian government may view them as a potential resource if Moscow seeks to project power into those countries. Indeed, it could mean that some of these groups enjoy official sponsorship at least covertly at the present time.

Focusing on local traditions enriches the understanding of the Motherland, he says, and prevents it from becoming simply an abstraction offered on television.

And it is part of a more general effort to protect the human as well as the natural environment from despoliation, a combination that may explain part of its attraction for many.

“In our days,” Kulomzin argues, “the return of people to their local roots is becoming ever more clearly marked,” and that trend in turn is allowing them to “again acquire a Motherland which is really worth protecting and defending from those things which destroy it,” a view based on an understanding of the country and nation as things distinct from the state.