Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Wilder Europe Mari

Mari – the language the Russians want to kill

By Edward Lucas

I like to think it was the only time in the history of journalism that
non-Estonians have used Estonian as a common language. I was in Yoshkar-Ola, the
capital (readers will instantly recall) of the republic of Mari-El, 800
kilometres east of Moscow.

“Used Estonian” should probably read “tried to use”. My active vocabulary
doesn’t go much beyond pleasantries and ordering meals in restaurants. But the
students I was with spoke it fluently. Their native Mari is part of the same,
Finno-Ugric, family of languages, and they had all spent time on scholarships in
Estonia. They did not want to talk Russian with me if they could help it: that,
they told me, was the “language of the occupiers”.
I thought they were joking. But they weren’t. They talked of Russian linguistic
and cultural chauvinism with the same resentment that I had heard from Estonians
and Latvians in the Baltic states a decade earlier.
Their hero was a local journalist and activist called Vladimir Kozlov. I liked
him a lot: he was clever, funny and sensible. There was no point, he argued, in
even talking about independence. The republic is landlocked, remote and the
600,000-odd ethnic Mari are outnumbered by Russians. But it was urgent, he
argued, to save the Mari language and culture from extinction. Television and
radio broadcasts, and Mari-language teaching, had been cut back very sharply. If
that wasn’t reversed, the language would be lost within a generation.
That was three years ago. Since then things have got worse, not better, for the
Mari. Many Mari-speakers have been sacked from jobs in officialdom. The governor
of Mari-El, an abrasive man called Leonid Markelov, used police to stop the main
Mari political movement holding a congress in December last year. In February,
my friend Mr Kozlov was beaten up — on the orders of the authorities, he says.
Recently, Mari activists have resorted to meeting in secret forest locations to
dodge the authorities. That’s highly symbolic: Mari is the last bit of Europe
where traditional pagan worship, largely centred on sacred groves, still
Now news of the Maris’ plight has spread. The Parliamentary Assembly of the
Council of Europe has investigated the issue—although thanks to pressure from
Russia, its report has not yet been published. In May the European Parliament
voted unanimously to deplore the Mari-El authorities’ ethnic policies. This is
thanks to lobbying from the Maris’ ethnic cousins: the Finns (who’ve been
quietly involved for years), the Estonians (much more noisily) and the
Hungarians. Last week the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Katalin Szili,
said that legislators from the three countries wanted to start formal
cooperation with elected representatives from the bits of Russia with
Finno-Ugric populations.
I doubt the dialogue will be very productive. The Kremlin thinks outsiders’
criticism is just a tit-for-tat tactic, aimed at distracting attention from
Estonia and Latvia’s “discrimination” against Russians on language and
citizenship issues. There may be something in that: it is certainly tempting (if
risky) for former captive nations like the Estonians to tweak Russia’s tail when
they can. But there is a real issue about the Maris’ rights, and it won’t go
And help, from an unlikely quarter, is at hand. This August, the “10th annual
International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies” will take place in Yoshkar-Ola.
Admittedly, philologists and literary critics are not everyone’s idea of a
revolutionary force. But the Mari are thrilled. The conference shows that far
from being useless peasant gobbledegook (as the authorities regard it), the Mari
language is something interesting and important. If only my Estonian was better,
I’d go myself.

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