Mari El and the Mari

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The Mari, or Cheremis, are an indigenous people of the European Russian interior; their language and that of the Mordvins compose the Volgaic branch of the Finno-Ugric language family.

As subjects of the Volga Bolgars and Kazan Tatars, medieval Mari tribes experienced cultural and linguistic influences mainly from their Turkic neighbors. Later on, Slavic contacts became prominent, and the Russian language became the principal source of lexical and syntactic borrowing. The early twentieth-century initiatives to create a single literary language did not come to fruition. Consequently, there are two written standards of Mari: Hill and Meadow. The speakers of various western, or Hill Mari, dialects constitute hardly more than 10 percent of the Mari as a whole.

In the basin of the Middle Volga, the medieval Mari distribution area stretched from the Volga-Oka confluence to the mouth of the Kazanka River. Under Tatar rule, the Mari were active participants in Kazan's war efforts. Apparently due to their loyalty and peripheral location, Mari tribal communities were granted home rule. However, the final struggle between the Kazan Khanate and Moscow brought an intraethnic cleavage: the Hill Mari sided with the Russians, whereas the Meadow Mari remained with the Tatars until the fall of Kazan in 1552.

The submission to Moscow was painful: The second half of the sixteenth century saw a series of uprisings, known as the Cheremis Wars, which decimated the Meadow Mari in particular. The Russian invasions triggered population movements that also reshaped the Mari settlement area: a part of the Meadow Mari migrated to the Bashkir lands and towards the Urals. For about two hundred years, the resettlement was sustained by land seizures, fugitive peasant migrations, and Christianization policies. The outcome of all this was the formation of the Eastern Mari. In terms of religion, these Mari have largely kept their traditional "paganism," whereas their Middle Volga coethnics are mostly Orthodox, or in a synchretic way combine animism with Christianity.

The Mari ethnic awakening took its first steps with the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions. In 1920 the Bolsheviks established the Mari autonomous province. It was elevated to the status of an autonomous republic in 1936the year of the Stalinist purges of the entire ethnic intelligentsia. Since 1992, the republic has been known as the Republic of Mari El.

At the time of the 1989 census, 324,000 Mari out of a total of 671,000 were residents of their titular republic. There the Mari constituted 43.2 percent of the inhabitants, whereas Russians made up 47.5 percent. Outside Mari El, the largest Mari populations were found in Bashkortostan (106,000) as well as in Kirov and Sverdlovsk provinces (44,000 and 31,000 respectively). Indicative of linguistic assimilation, 17 percent of the Mari considered Russian their native language during the 1994 microcensus.

In 2000 Mari El was a home for 759,000 people. Within Russia, it is an agricultural region, poor in natural resources and heavily dependent on federal subsides. Within the republic's political elite, the Mari have mainly performed secondary roles, and this situation has deteriorated further since the mid-1990s. Because Russians outnumber the Mari, and because the Mari still lag behind in terms of urbanity, education, and ethnic consciousness, Russians dominate the republic's political life.

See also: finns and karelians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist.


Fryer, Paul, and Lallukka, Seppo. (2002). "The Eastern Mari." <>.

Lallukka, Seppo. (1990). The East Finnic Minorities in the Soviet Union: An Appraisal of the Erosive Trends. (Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, Ser. B, vol.252). Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Taagepera, Rein. (1999). The Finno-Ugric Republics and the Russian State. London: Hurst.

Seppo Lallukka

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Mari El and the Mari

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