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LOCATION: Russia (Chuvash Republic in Middle Volga River region)
POPULATION: approximately 1.8 million
RELIGION: Christianity; some pagan rituals survive


The Chuvash are Turkic-speaking people who have lived in the Middle Volga region of the Russian Federation for centuries. They are considered to be descendants of the ancient Bulgars, who maintained a state in the Middle Volga River valley from the 10th to 13th centuries. As an ethnic group, the Chuvash were formed chiefly on the basis of the Turkic-speaking Bulgars who came in large masses in the 7th century from the Caucasus region. The Bulgars and the subdued and partially assimilated indigenous Finno-Ugric tribes settled down on both sides of the Middle Volga and formed the Bulgar state. Great Bulgaria occupied a sizeable territory, in which the Samara and Ulyanovsk oblasts (regions), the Tatarstan, Chuvash, Mari, and Udmurt republics, as well as western regions of Bashkortostan are now situated. In the first half of the 13th century, further development of the Bulgar civilization through the ethnic integration of Turkic-speaking and Finnish-Ugric tribes was interrupted by the defeat of the Bulgar state in 1236 by hordes of the Mongol Tatars. The Bulgar state became an ulus (region) of the Golden Horde. The disintegration of the Golden Horde and the formation of the Kazan khanate gave rise to the formation of Chuvash, Tatar, and Bashkir groups.

There is no common opinion about the origin of the name Chuvash. This term is not found in written documents until early in the 16th century. It is believed that the names Savir, Suvar, and Suvaz, used by some classical and medieval writers, actually refer to Chuvash ancestors. These names belonged to tribes that were a part of the Bulgar tribal confederation during the latter part of the first millennium ad. It was the Suvars who moved along the left bank of the Volga and then crossed the river in the 13th century when fleeing the Mongol-Tatar invasion. Later, the Suvars mixed with indigenous inhabitants of the region, resulting in the formation of one of the Chuvash subgroups, the Anatri. The Chuvash had been under the sway of the Kazan khanate between 1445 and 1551. In the Kazan khanate, the term Chuvash meant mainly villagers (yasak) professing paganism. However, the urban Muslim population, chiefly people in service (sluzhilye lyudi) were called "Tatars" in official documents. Beginning in the 16th century, a small proportion of them—those living east of the Volga—were Islamized, adopted the Tatar language, and became integrated into the Tatar culture. Beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Chuvash people came under the growing influence of the Russian people and their culture. In 1551 the majority of the Chuvash were subjugated by the Russian state. Chuvash villages were built in secluded places and away from roads to make it difficult for the czar's tax collectors to find them.

The Chuvash consist of three main ethnic subgroups: the Upper Chuvash, or Viryal, in north and northwestern Chuvashia; the Lower Chuvash, or Anatri, in south and southeastern Chuvashia; and an intermediate group, the Anat Enchi. The Lower Chuvash preserved the ethnic features of the Bulgar Chuvash; in the culture of the Upper Chuvash, Mari elements are recognizable. The Chuvash have a number of stable ethnographic and linguistic parallels with Turkic peoples of the Altay and southern Siberia. This becomes apparent in common characteristics of their dwellings, utensils, food, clothing, ornaments, embroidery, as well as pagan religious beliefs, mythology, folklore, and the pentatonic basis of folk music. The physical appearance of the Chuvash indicates the complexity of their ethnogeny: 10.3% of the Chuvash have Mongol features, 21.1% have European features, and 68.6% have mixed Mongol-European features.

After the revolution of 1917, the Chuvash asserted a right to political autonomy, and in 1920 they were rewarded with the establishment of a Chuvash Autonomous Region, which was transformed into an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925. The Chuvash ASSR became the Chuvash Soviet Socialist Republic at the end of the Soviet era in 1990 and was renamed the Chuvash Republic in 1992. Chuvashia is a presidential republic. It has its own constitution, national anthem, emblem, and flag.


The territory occupied by the Chuvash people was first named "Chuvashia" in the first quarter of the 16th century by a traveler named S. Gerberstein. The Chuvash inhabit mainly the right bank of the Volga and areas along some of its tributaries including the Sviyaga and Tsivil Rivers.

Up until 1920 (before the formation of the Chuvash Autonomous Region), the basic area of inhabitance of the Chuvash people was not officially localized. The pre-revolutionary period, the territory that makes up present-day Chuvashia, was divided among two or three provinces.

The Chuvash Republic established during the Soviet period contains 18,300 square kilometers (7,066 square miles). The territory consists of three vegetation zones: a forest zone in the north and forest-steppe and steppe zones in the south. Forests occupy 30% of the territory with pine, oak, fir, and birch, predominant. The republic is crossed by the Volga, Sura and Tsivil rivers and contains 400 lakes. Bears, wolves, foxes, lynxes, elks, muskrats, squirrels, and martens are widely distributed. The climate is temperate to continental with cold winters and warm summers. The average temperature in January is –13°c (9° f) and in July is 19°c (67°f). The Chuvash rank fourth among the peoples of the Russian Federation (after Russians, Ukrainians, and Tatars). According to the 1989 census, the Chuvash population in Russia was 1,773,645, including 906,992 people (49.2%) in the Chuvash Republic. In 1989, more than 50% of the Chuvash lived elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The largest pockets of settlement were in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and certain regions in Siberia. In Russia, there are large groups of Chuvash in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Samara Oblast, Ulyanovsk Oblast, Moscow Oblast, Tyumen Oblast, Krasnoyarsk Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast and Orenburg Oblast. Until quite recently, the population of the republic was mostly rural and agricultural. In 1926, 1.6% of the Chuvash lived in urban areas; in 1989, the percentage of urban Chuvash increased to 46.5%. According to the 1989 census the population of Chuvashia was 1,338,023 people, including: Chuvash, 906,922 (67.78%); Russian, 357,120 (26.7%); Tatar, 35,689 (2.7%); Mordvin, 18,686 (1.4%); Ukrainian, 7,300 (0.5%); Mari, 3,800 (0.3%); Belaru-sian, 2,200 (0.2%); and 0.4% other. Thus, 98.6% of the population of the Chuvash Republic consists of people representing four nationalities: Chuvash, Russian, Tatar, and Mordvin. They comprise to a certain extent the indigenous population of the Chuvash region.

The towns of Chuvashia are among the oldest in the Middle Volga region. The most ancient is Cheboksary, the capital of the republic, the first written record of which dates to 1469.


The Chuvash speak Chuvash, one of the ancient languages of the Altai branch of the Turkic family. It has two dialects: upper (viryal) and lower (anatri). The Chuvash literary language has been formed on the basis of the lower dialect. The Chuvash language by virtue of a number of peculiarities differs more widely than others from the Turkic languages. There are many Chuvash words in Mari, Udmurt, Russian, and other languages. Likewise, the Chuvash language has borrowings from Arabic, Persian, Kypchak-Tatar, Finnish-Ugric, and Russian. In the early 20th century, the language of the tombstone epitaphs written by the ancient Bulgars was determined to be quite close to the Chuvash language, which was the most archaic in appearance among the Turkic languages. The epitaphs are evidence of an Old Chuvash writing system formed on the Arabic basis. In ancient times, the ancestors of the Chuvash used a runic written language. Elements in Chuvash embroidery and tribal signs that graphically correspond to the runes testify to this fact. Later, in the 11th through 13th centuries in Great Bulgaria, Arabic script was established officially. Relics of the Chuvash language proper (the Old Chuvash written language) include books and manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries: dictionaries, grammar books, translations from Russian, and original texts. In these books, Chuvash words are written in Latin or Russian letters, without any additional signs for designation of specific Chuvash sounds. The "new" Chuvash written language in use today originated in 1871. The first Chuvash alphabet considering the basic peculiarities of the language was created by the Chuvash enlightener I. Y. Yakovlev on the basis of the Russian alphabet. Some changes in the Chuvash alphabet were made in 1872, 1973, 1933, and 1938. The modern Chuvash alphabet consists of 37 letters. All 33 letters of the Russian alphabet plus four additional letters with diacritical marks that designate specific sounds of the Chuvash language: à, è,ç, and ÿ. The letters with superlinear diacritical marks convey vowels, and the letter ç with its underlinear diacritical sign conveys a consonant.

Among the Chuvash living in the republic, 15% don't speak their mother tongue, and old Chuvash names such as Elembi, Atner, Narspi, and Setner are no longer popular. However, there is an effort in recent years to revitalize the Chuvash language. It is being introduced into school curriculum in an effort to promote Chuvash culture.


A great variety of genres and richness of content are characteristic features of the Chuvash oral tradition, which includes historical songs, fairy tales, myths, legends, charms, proverbs, sayings, and riddles. The most developed genres are songs, fairy tales, and calendar poetry. The Chuvash have a rich and original mythology about the beginning and structure of the universe. The Chuvash mythological system of the universe has three main stages: (1) the self-generation of the cosmos from chaos; (2) the activity of creators in the form of animals; and (3) the activity of anthropomorphous creators. Chaos in the Chuvash mythology is usually manifested in the form of water elements—the primeval ocean talai—or in the form of a fight between fire elements and water elements. In one popular version, chaos is described as non-existence, absolute zero.

Anthropomorphous characters appear in later Chuvash myths: Tura, who in earlier myths personified heaven, was considered Supreme God, and Shuittan the embodiment of evil, was later considered a master of the lower world. Tura is a creator, and Shuittan performs the duties of his opponent, clumsily imitating the actions of Tura. Earth and Heaven are interpreted as feminine and masculine components of a sacred matrimonial couple in the beginning of cosmogonical process. God created a man and all the most sophisticated elements of the universe: the earth, cosmic supports, the world mountain (Amatu), the world tree (Ama yivashch), inland waters, useful plants, and domestic and wild animals, used for food. Shuittan created spirits, who were hostile to man: water-sprites (shyvri), wood-goblins (arshchuri), fiery dragons (vutli shchelen), spooks (vere shchelen), werewolves, and so on.

In Chuvash folk tales, three characters often unite and act as a single whole—a main hero and his helpmates, for example. Basic actions are repeated thrice, heroes fight with three-headed or three-eyed creatures, and so on. To Chuvash ancestors, certain numbers had symbolic meanings, connected with a mythical view of the universe. Numbers with symbolic or sacred meanings are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 12.


The majority of the Chuvash were forcibly Christianized in the middle of the 18th century, thus becoming the only large Christian Turkic population in Russia and later the Soviet Union. Because the Chuvash were converted to Russian Orthodoxy early in their history, they do not feel closely related to the Muslim Turks. Islamization took place mostly among the urban populations—aristocrats, traders, and craftsmen—while the rural inhabitants maintained their animistic practices. Animistic mortuary rites were practiced by the great majority of Bulgars as late as 1400 ad, and the Chuvash continued to observe these rites until they were Christianized. The Chuvash believe themselves to be the victims of oppression by the Tatars; they are even proud of the participation of their ancestors in the subjugation of the Kazan khanate by the Russians. Because of the adoption of Christianity, they became highly Russified.

The majority of Chuvash profess Christianity, but some remnants of paganism survive in their religious idea of the universe. Wedding and funeral rites, worship of kiremet (a sacred tree, an offering place), and agricultural festivals such as surkhuri (solstice), shchavarni (Shrovetide), shchumar chuk (praying for rain), and man chuk (great offering) are all indicative of the vitality of paganism.


During the last millennium, the Bulgars and later the Chuvash maintained close contact, economic cooperation, and cultural relations with many peoples who profoundly influenced the Chuvash calendar, festivals, and rites. Among these influences were Arab, Iranian, Mari, and Tatar. For more than four hundred years, the Chuvash have been governed by Russia, and this has affected the rites of the Chuvash. They adopted a number of Russian folk calendar holidays such as Shrovetide, shchavarni, semik shchemik, and others, although these holidays were enriched by traditional Chuvash rites and at times assumed quite a different form. After the conversion of the Chuvash to Christianity their ritual repertoire was considerably widened with such holidays as Christmas (rashtav), Palm Sunday (verpanni, kachaka prashchnike), Whitsuntide (truiski), and other Christian holidays. Chuvash traditional new year is called Surhuri. Previously celebrated around the fall and spring equinox, it is now celebrated on January 13, due to Russian influence as this is Orthodox new year. Surkhuri means sheep leg, as in the past on this day the legs and head of the sheep were offered. Today, it is celebrated in a fashion similar to Halloween, with children going from house to house to request nuts or pastry.

One of the most highly regarded holidays of the Chuvash calendar is akatui (aka means "plough," and tui means "holiday" or "wedding"), a spring festival dedicated to agriculture. Although this holiday combines a number of rites and ceremonial rituals it is much more a secular holiday than a religious one. For the rituals of the akatui, beer is brewed, food is prepared, and eggs are colored. The celebration of akatui on different days in different homes begins and lasts a week. On a certain day a person who is prepared to celebrate, invites his relatives and neighbors, and a rich table is laid. At the head of the table, an altar (a keg) of beer is placed, and in the middle of the table on a special embroidered towel, a dish with a round loaf of bread and cheese is placed. To complete the ritual part of the festival, all village people go out into the field, taking with them a round loaf of wheat bread, cheese, eggs, pies, beer, and a traditional dish called sharttan. Here songs, dances, and revelry begin. On the day of the akatui, a village becomes boisterous and busy. In the meadow on the outskirts of a village, various competitions take place: horse-races, running races, jumping, wrestling, archery, and so on. The most popular event is a type of wrestling in which a towel is used as a waistband. Each wrestler holds a towel in his hands and wraps it around the waist of his opponent. The undefeated wrestler is called pattar, the title given for the strongest hero, and he is usually rewarded with a ram. Another central event of the akatui contests is horse-racing. The winners are presented with embroidered towels, with the prizes usually tied to the horses' necks. Various amusing events, such as potato-sack races and three-legged races round out the festival. Strength and adroitness are demonstrated in such contests as weightlifting, fights with stuffed sacks on a balance beam (played like a pillow fight), and tug-of-war.


Active atheistic propaganda and the closing of churches in the Soviet period promoted the estrangement of the Chuvash population from religion, but the new civil rites (initiation as workers or growers, first salary day, full-age day, etc.) did not become popular. Traditional rites and rituals are most stable among rural families. In the country, one can see traditional wedding rites such as the bride on the day after the wedding going to the well to draw water. Funeral rites also combine elements of pagan, Orthodox, and modern civil rites.


Interpersonal relations of the Chuvash are shaped by traditions of hospitality and mutual aid. Nime (pronounced "ni´-me") is a type of collective assistance arranged by countrymen to carry out labor-intensive or troublesome tasks. This tradition has its roots in ancient times, when nime saved and guarded peoples. The life of a peasant included many moments that required collective efforts for the timely fulfillment of work. This custom is usually practiced when a villager wants to build a house or to gather in the harvest. The host invites one of the community's most respected individuals and appoints him nime pushche— the head of the team. The next morning, the nime pushche calls upon the villagers to volunteer to help their countryman. After the day's work, the host invites all participants of nime to share a meal. Before leaving, the guests seat the host at the head of the table, treat him to beer, sing a thanksgiving song, and go home saying " tavssi," which means "thank you for the meal."


Almost half of the Chuvash population lives in towns. Working at big factories or in service, the city mode of life affects the well-being, behavior, and spiritual interests of former villagers. Living in town dwellings with modern conveniences, wearing city clothes, consuming Russian food, and using manufactured utensils, urban Chuvash gradually deviate from Chuvash material culture. The majority of families can't afford a car, so they usually use public transportation, mainly buses and trolley buses. However, this is slowly changing, and the numbers who own cars are much higher than in 2000. Although the well-being of Chuvash villagers is improving, cultural and welfare facilities in the countryside are not as readily available as in town. Many villages experience difficulties on account of bad roads.

The primary type of Chuvash settlement is a village called a yal. The most common Chuvash dwelling is a complex type of cottage with a passage and a storeroom. Nearby is the out-house, a barn, a bathhouse called a muncha, and a cattle-shed or a sheep-cot called a vite. A shed called a sarai or karta serves as a storage place for tools and firewood, a summer cook-house, and a cellar. The houses are built from wood or bricks, and house fronts are decorated with a style of carving that was known as far back as Volga Bulgaria. Ancient ornamental motifs have survived in the Chuvash art tradition to the present. Chuvash engravers borrowed and remade many elements of Russian and Tatar art tradition. In the interior of the house, a very significant place is occupied by a Russian-style stove. Beds are covered with embroidered sheets and laces or colored bedspreads.

Industry in Chuvashia is well developed and includes engineering, production of heavy machinery, and chemical industries. Lumber and forestry are also important industries. Agriculture also plays an important role, and important crops include hops and potatoes. The banking and communication systems in the republic are well developed.


As a rule, Chuvash families are not large. In town, couples usually have one or two children, whereas in villages couples might have three or four. Men and women usually marry between the ages of 18 and 24. Very often newlyweds have to share an apartment or house with their parents as there is a shortage of affordable housing. Women as a rule work full-time and in addition have many household chores. It is not customary in Chuvash families for men to help their wives about the house. The divorce rate is much higher in towns than that in the countryside, but divorce rates have been declining. Favorite pets are cats and dogs.


Nowadays traditional Chuvash clothes are worn mainly by women in the country. Such clothing (a woman's shirt in particular) can be subdivided in accordance with ethnographic groups—turi, anat enchi, and anatri. Although the clothing is basically the same from group to group, there are a number of local peculiarities in cut, ornamentation, composition, manufacturing methods, color combination, and ways of wearing. The ornamentation of the traditional costume also varies depending on sex, age, and season. Each piece of clothing has its own tracery of a distinct composition form and color combination. The Chuvash woman's costume and its ornamentation have much in common with the clothes of the peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Some similarities can also be drawn with the clothing of the Finnish-Ugric peoples. Chuvash national clothing is closely connected with the agricultural tenor of life. The primary article of the traditional Chuvash costume is a shirt called a kepe, which is shaped like a tunic and belted with a girdle. A dress is worn with an apron or a pinafore called a chershchitti or a sappun, which is remarkable for its bright colors and abundance of ornament (embroidery and laces). Women also wear a head band (surpan), a forehead decoration (masmak), a head dress (khushpu), a cap decorated with coins and beads, or a turban. Until recently, the Chuvash wore stitched shoes. Now they usually wear high leather boots or shoes.


Vegetables are prevalent in the Chuvash diet. Bread grains include rye, barley, spelt, oat, millet, buckwheat, and wheat. Barley is used for brewing. Pulse products such as peas and lentils are also of great importance in the Chuvash diet. The major baked food is a rye bread, called khura shchukar, which women in the countryside sometimes still bake at home. Pies are common, and fillings include cabbage, carrots, beets, rutabagas, meat, potatoes, peas, cottage cheese, eggs, spring onions, berries, and apples. The most delicious, dainty, and festive dish is khuplu, a large round pie made of unleavened dough. The filling of khuplu is complex. The first layer is made of half-cooked porridge and finely chopped potatoes; the second layer is made of finely minced meat; and the third layer is made of a thin layer of fatty meat and fat.

Everyday soup is called yashka. Shurpe, a soup made from either meat or fish, is cooked mainly on high days and holidays. A particular soup gets its name from the seasoning used, such as veltren yashki (soup with stinging nettle) or shchamakh yashki (soup with a kind of dumplings). Other soup ingredients include flour, groats, fresh cabbage or sauerkraut, carrots, onions, and occasionally beets and wild herbs. Meat soups are cooked from mutton, beef, and pork. Of great importance in the Chuvash diet are different types of porridge: millet porridge, buckwheat porridge, and less often rice porridge.

Potatoes appeared in Chuvash cuisine in the 19th century, and the Chuvash prefer potatoes boiled in their jackets. These are served with vegetable oil and a relish of sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, spring onions, garlic, turnip, cabbage, carrot, cucumbers, or pumpkins. Black radish and horseradish are used as appetizers and for medicinal purposes. Apples, currants (red, white, and black), raspberries, cherries, ashberries, and bird-cherries are widely used. Wild strawberries, bilberries, raspberries, and different kinds of mushrooms are also gathered in the forest and preserved for the winter and used as filling in pies.

National meat dishes are of ancient origin, as meat played an important role in Chuvash rituals. Meat was traditionally eaten during offerings in honor of pagan gods and spirits during ceremonial rites. Sacrificed animals (horses, bulls, or rams) were slaughtered in observance of special rituals. Pork became a part of the Chuvash diet only in the 19th century. Poultry (hens, geese, and ducks) are widely used. Hens' eggs are used for preparing various dishes, including shchamarta ashalani (scrambled eggs), shchamarta khapartni (a milk omelet), and meserle shchamarta (eggs that are first hard-boiled and then cut in half and fried).

The most famous national meat dishes are sharttan, tultar-mash, sukta, shchurme, yun, and shurpe. The most prestigious dish is sharttan, which is prepared in both summer and winter after slaughtering a ram. The stomach of the slaughtered animal is thoroughly washed out and stuffed with boneless mutton. To avoid spoiling, the meat stuffing is salted down. The stuffed stomach is sewn up with a thick thread so that it resembles a round loaf of bread, then put on a frying pan and cooked in the oven for three or four days. The cooked sharttan is kept cool. Tultarmash is prepared from the insides of a slaughtered animal. The animals' guts are stuffed with fat or small pieces of fat meat and groats, the ends of the guts are tied up with thick threads, then the Tultarmash is boiled in a copper cauldron and broiled in the oven. Tultarmash is eaten hot, often with shurpe. Yun tultarmash is prepared just like tultarmash; its ingredients are fresh blood, fat, and groats.

Shurpe, a popular meat dish of the Chuvash, is prepared from the heads, legs, and internal organs of cattle. On St. Peter's Day it is customary to slaughter a ram and invite relatives and neighbors to taste shurpe. From sheep's, cow's, and pig's heads and legs, meat jelly with onions and garlic is prepared. Fish is mainly used for the soup called pula shurpe.

Milk dishes are very diverse. Turakh uirane (sour milk diluted with water) is used in the summer as a wonderful thirst-quenching drink, and many dishes are prepared from cottage cheese. A highly popular folk drink is a type of beer called sara. Strong beer is not made for everyday use, but for holidays it is thick and heady. Grain alcohol was introduced to the Chuvash at the end of the 19th century. The beer produced in Chuvashia today is known throughout Russia for its excellence, and visitors make sure to try it. Cheboksary is home to a beer museum, illustrating the importance of this beverage in the republic.

The Chuvash diet resembles the diet of peoples living in different geographical zones. One group of Chuvash dishes (including shchamakh, ash-kakai, shurpe, sharttan, and tultar-mash) has similarities to diet traditions of Turkic and Iranian-speaking peoples. Other dishes—starchy foods and porridges, pickled provisions, smoked foods, for example are the result of ethnocultural contacts with Finnish-Ugric peoples and Russians.


Chuvashia is a republic of total literacy. All citizens of the Chuvash Republic have equal opportunities for education, which is provided free of charge. Educational ties with foreign schools have become popular, and include a Turkish boarding school, several German schools and a French school. The learning of English is also considered important. In Cheboksary, there are four very competitive higher educational institutions, with some 20,000 students: a University (where foreign students study as well), a Pedagogical Institute, an Agricultural Institute, and a Cooperative Institute. There is also an Academy of Sciences. The university also has exchanges and connections with 20 foreign institutions. Education in Chuvash families is considered to be very prestigious, and parents try to provide a good education for their children. Since 1993, the numbers of those who chose to study higher education increased from 134 per 10,000 of the population to 186 per 10,000 of the population by 2008.


"My nation has preserved one hundred thousand words, one hundred thousand songs, one hundred thousand designs," said the enlightener of the Chuvash people, I. Y. Yakovlev, at the end of the 19th century. Chuvash folklore includes epic tales, everyday songs, fairy tales, and legends. The highest achievement of Chuvash poetry is the epic poem Narspi by Konstantin Ivanov, which is considered a masterpiece of world literature. Chuvashia is often called "Land of A Hundred Thousand Songs." The Chuvash folk song is one-voiced and there are several different genres: everyday songs (lullabies, lyrical, comic), ritual songs, labor songs, and historical songs. Chuvash music is pentatonic (played on a five-note scale) and played on various folk musical instruments: shakhlich (a pipe), shapar (bagpipes made from a bull's stomach), sarnai (bagpipes made of goatskin), kesle (a psaltery), and parappan (a drum). The cultural life of the Chuvash people now centers around professional literature, theater, cinema, and fine arts.


The Chuvash are a very hard-working agricultural people, and they consider those who cannot till the land lazy. Even though about 50% of the population lives in towns, they go down to the country to work in their vegetable gardens or in the fields almost every weekend. They grow vegetables (particularly potatoes) and fruits and berries to store for the winter. A relatively high percentage of people, about 22%, engage in agriculture full time to make a living. The level of unemployment, at 2.2% in 2008, while lower than 10 years prior, remains higher than the Russian average of 1.6%.


Chuvashia is home to 3,500 sports facilities, including stadiums, pools, sports halls, running tracks, ice skating facilities, and other winter sports facilities. Chuvash athletes have become Olympic champions in boxing, track and field events, cycling, weightlifting, wrestling, and fencing. However, most of the population is not involved in organized sports. The government of the republic, to remedy this, has since 2004 instituted programs to encourage sports and increased the numbers of hours spent on physical activities in schools. Both children and adults participate in soccer, volleyball, basketball, tennis, ice hockey, and field hockey. Swimming, track and field events, skiing, cycling, boxing, wrestling, weight lifting, and karate are among the most popular sports among youth, especially in big cities. Popular spectator games are soccer in the summer and ice hockey in the winter.


In towns, people are very fond of going to the movies or concert halls, and Cheboksary in particular offers opportunities for entertainment and recreation. People there can attend plays at the Chuvash Drama Theater (which is also very popular among villagers) or go to the National Opera and Ballet Theater to enjoy ballets, opera, and concerts. In the country side where there are not as many facilities and opportunities for recreation, people usually watch television or take part in amateur concerts. On winter evenings, farm people might get together, drink beer, dance, and sing Chuvash folk songs. Women sit by the fire spinning or knitting warm socks and sweaters, embroidering towels, shirts, napkins, etc.


Chuvash folk art is rich and various. Its main branches are embroidery, tracery weaving, sewing with beads and silver, wood-carving, ceramics, and wickerwork. The old Chuvash folk art has its own particular features, its specific national form. Its main characteristic distinction was unusual development of the geometric ornament and the absence of topical motifs. In such branches of folk art as woodcarving, ceramics, and wick-erwork there are no marked distinctions between the different Chuvash ethnographic groups, although there are striking differences in embroidery. Viryal embroidery, with its miniature elements is sewn with black, red, green, yellow, and blue threads, frequently on a colored ground; Anatri embroidery is large and decorative. The tracery of the Anat Yenchi is close to that of the Anatri. Embroidery has always been the most developed branch of Chuvash art. In the past, Chuvash clothing as well as the interiors of houses were decorated with embroidery that contained complex images presenting certain ideas and notions about the universe. The technical devices of making traceries vary, and embroiderers use more than thirty kinds of stitches. The decorative works of the factory Pakha Tere (Fine Embroidery) are widely known over the whole world. The masters borrow from the rich store of ancient folk art and apply it in creating modern works. There isn't a single settlement in the Republic that does not boast its own embroiderers. They embroider towels, curtains, bags, napkins, runners for tables and TV sets, bookmarks, and so on.

In the past, woodcarving reached a high level, and almost every Chuvash village had its own potters. The toy horses, whistles, and crockery they produced were well known for their delicate forms and lines. Wickerwork was also common and master weavers used with great skill the natural color of the birch bark, rod, and bass. Rod was used for the wickerwork of small baskets; bass for baskets, boxes, footwear, and toys; and birch bark for bags, plates, and dishes. In the modern period, crockery and wicker furniture are of particular interest. Cots, chairs, and rocking chairs are fine specimens of wick-erwork. Souvenirs (pencilholders, powdercases, dolls, figures of people, animals, etc.) are displayed at exhibitions around the world. Jugs, plates, tureens, milkpots, and beermugs are known for the refinement of their forms. All of these items are closely connected with the folk traditions, characteristics with crockery of the past century.


Social problems in Chuvashia are similar to those in other republics and regions of the Volga basin and Russia in general. The rural areas of the republic, which are populated mostly by Chuvash, have the highest population density among the rural regions of Central Russia—more than 50 persons per square kilometer (130 persons per square mile). This concentration of population in the countryside has lead to unemployment, and youth are forced to leave their villages and migrate to towns or other parts of Russia. Ecological problems threaten the plant, animal, and human populations of the republic. Children are especially vulnerable. Emissions from the Novocheboksarsk chemical plant, which is currently engaged in destroying chemical weapons, threaten all forms of life in the region. The Novocheboksarsk plant causes respiratory diseases that are far more prevalent in Chuvashia than elsewhere in the Russian Federation, as well as high infant mortality. Cultural and welfare facilities are much worse in the countryside than in town. The general commercialization and urbanization of life for the Chuvash have eroded many traditional values, such as diligence, hospitality, open-heartedness, chastity of women, strength of marriage bonds, and readiness to come to the aid of others. Crime, alcoholism (among both men and women), and drug abuse are on the rise. Domestic violence can be a problem. Families in which there is only one parent are particularly vulnerable to social problems.


Today, the situation of Chuvash women is similar to that of most other women in Russia. Chuvash women, as women of most ethnicities under the Soviet Union, were actively encouraged to join the workforce. Chuvash women are known to hold important positions within their community, obtaining success both in business and civil careers. Domestic violence is a social problem suffered by Chuvash women. Generally, women are responsible for household life with little assistance from men.


Bromlei, Y. V. Glavnyi redaktor. Narody mira. Istoriko-etnograficheskii spravochnik. Moscow: Sovetskaya Entsiklopedia, 1988.

Chuvashskoe narodnoe iskusstvo. Albom. Cheboksary: 1981. Degtyarev, G. A. Chuvashskii yazyk dlya nachinayushchikh.

Cheboksary: 1991.

Ivanov, V. P., G. B. Matveev, and N. I. Egorov. I d./sost. Skvortsov. Kultura Chuvashskogo kraya. Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe knizhnoe izdatelstvo, 1995.

NUPI Center for Russian Studies. "Ethnic Groups: Chuvash." http://www.nupino/cgi-win/Russland/etnisk_b.exe? Chuvashian (June 2008).

Official Site of the Government Organs of the Chuvash Republic. "Speech made by President Nikolai Fyodorv, 2004." (June 2008).

Russian American Chamber of Commerce. "The Chuvash Republic: Regional Profile." (June 2008).

Sergeev T. S., and Y. N. Zaitsev. Istoriia i kultura Chuvashii. Vazhneishie sobytiya, daty. Cheboksary: Izdatelstvo "Chuvashia," 1995.

Shnirelman, Victor A. "Who Gets the Past?" Competition for Ancestors among Non-Russian Intellectuals in Russia. Washington: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996.

—revised by M. Kerr

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ETHNONYM: Chavash (self-designation)


Identification. The Chuvash live in Russia, primarily in the Chuvash Republic but also in Tatarstan and Bashkirstan and in the Ulianov, Kuibyyshev, and Saratov areas, where they migrated in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. Some have also lived in Siberia and Central Asia since the nineteenth century. In the name "Chuvash," the first vowel is pronounced like the English u in "but." Its etymology is unknown. All attempts to link it to the tribal names "Suvaz," "Suvar," and "Sabir," mentioned by Arabic travelers in the tenth century, are phonetic dead ends.

Location. Chuvashia is bounded on the north by the Cheremis Republic, on the east by the Tatar Republic, on the south by Ulianov County, and on the west by the Mordvinian Republic and Gorki County. It is located at approximately 54°30 to 56°30 N and 46° to 48°40 E. The capital is Cheboksary. Geographically, Chuvashia is a lowland valley of the Volga, Sura, and Civil rivers. Ninety percent of it is less than 200 meters above sea level, 10 percent is between 200 and about 400 meters, and 30.5 percent of the territory is wooded. In 1987, 50 percent of the forests consisted of pine, 40 percent were oak, and the remainder were birch and poplar. The climate is moderately continental. The mean temperature in January is 12.6° C; in July it is 19° C. With a growing season lasting 180 days, the region receives an average annual precipitation of 46 to 51 centimeters.

Demography. The population of the Chuvash then Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1987 was 1,330,000. The capital of the Chuvash Republic had, at that time, 414,000 inhabitants (up from 104,000 in 1959 and 216,000 in 1970). Since 1970 about seventy-nine ethnic groups have lived in Chuvashia. In 1979, 68.4 percent of inhabitants described themselves as ethnically Chuvash, 26 percent as Russian, 2.9 percent as Tatar, 1.6 percent as Mordvinian, and 1.1 percent as members of other groups. In the other territories of the USSR, 844,000 individuals identified themselves as ethnically Chuvash in 1970. Population density in Chuvashia in 1979 was 72 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Chuvash people living in villages speak Chuvash, the only living language of the Bulgaro-Turkic Branch of the Turkic Group of the Altaic Family. Eighty-two percent of the Chuvash speak Chuvash as their mother tongue. The closest language is Volga-Bulgarian, which was extinct before the close of the fifteenth century. All Common Turkic languages are distant relatives of Chuvash. The majority of Chuvash people living in towns are bilingual in Chuvash and Russian; the younger generations prefer Russian. The Chuvash now use a modified variant of the Cyrillic alphabet created by I. Ya. Yakovlev in 1872. Its characteristic feature is the phonematic transcription of sounds. Chuvash texts written in Cyrillic without modifications existed 130 years before Yakovlev; the Arabic alphabet was used by Chuvash elders in the fourteenth century. Modern Chuvash has two dialects: the Virval in the north and the Anatri in the south of the republic, with Anatri the basis of the literary language. Chuvash has loanwords from ancient Samoyed, Persian, Arabic, Old and Modern Russian, Middle Mongolian, Volga Kipchak, Permian, and Volga Finnish.

History and Cultural Relations

The reconstruction of the early history of the Chuvash is incomplete. Because the "Chuvash" ethnonym does not appear in Russian historical sources until the sixteenth century, the relation of the Chuvash to the other Bulgaro-Turkic tribes is difficult to determine. The following is known about the Bulgaro-Turks.

The ancient Turkic Language Family split into Common Turkic and Bulgaro-Turkic at the beginning of our era. Bulgaro-Turkic tribes moved westward from their Inner Asian home. Byzantine sources from a.d. 465 mention the Ogur, Onogur, Saragur, Utigur, and Kutrigur tribes, and from 481 on the "Bolgar" ethnonym appears. In the fifth and sixth centuries these tribes settled on the lowland between the Dnieper and Don rivers. In 630 a group of these people moved to the lower Danube under the guidance of Asparuch. Between 670 and 680 the majority of the people were under the control of the Kazars, who founded their state on the Caspian Sea. According to recent studies, Kazars also spoke a Bulgaro-Turkic dialect. At the end of the ninth century some Bulgar tribes migrated north to the Volga, Kama, and Viatka rivers and founded the Volga Bulgar Empire. This state, named Magna Bulgaria (Great Bulgaria), existed for two and one-half centuries and was prosperous, according to Arabic sources. Its capital, Bolgari, was a major cultural and commercial center. In 1230 Mongols invaded Magna Bulgaria, gaining control in 1241. According to Volga-Bulgarian inscriptions, two groups remained from their population until the fifteenth century. Both of them spoke Bulgaro-Turkic dialects but they were not direct ancestors of the Chuvash. An inscription dated 1307 is unquestionably in the Chuvash language and can be regarded as the first written evidence of the Chuvash dialect differentiated from other Bulgaro-Turkic dialects.

In the fifteenth century the Golden Horde disintegrated. The Kazan Khanate was organized, and the Volga Bulgar population, who spoke two non-Chuvash dialects, was absorbed into the Kipchak population. The Chuvash population preserved its language but was much influenced by the Kipchaks.

In 1551 the Chuvash people joined forces with the Russians and helped them besiege Kazan. From 1552the taking of Kazanthe Chuvash have lived in the Kazan Province of the Russian Empire. After initial prosperity, living conditions deteriorated as Russian and Chuvash feudal oppression increased, and the burden of the agricultural population was increased by the tax paid to the Russian Orthodox church. The Chuvash participated in numerous peasant uprisings led by Stepan Razin (1670-1671) and Yemelian Pugachov (1773-1775). The life of the serfs of the Volga region in the eighteenth century was especially difficult, as landowners sent non-Russian villagers to the Russian imperial public works projects as unpaid workers. Thousands of Chuvash were impressed into the shipyards at Azov, Voronezh, and Olonec. Many worked in construction, in St. Petersburg to transform it into the imperial capital and in Kazan to erect an admiralty. In different parts of the country, Chuvash peasants had to work building fortresses, and later they were forced to haul barges transporting salt from Perm to Nizhni Novgorod. At this time, entire Chuvash villages migrated to more distant territories hoping to avoid forced labor. In the nineteenth century capitalism developed in Chuvashia, and in the 1890s, 10 percent of the peasantry were kulaks, 55 percent middle class, and 2 percent poor. The kulaks opened factories; by 1913 more than 400 factories were in operation in Chuvashia. After the 1917 Revolution, local soviets formed in Chuvashia. In 1920 the Chuvash Autonomous Region was established, and in 1925 it became the Chuvash Autonomous Republic. In the post-Soviet era, it is the Chuvash Republic.


The Chuvash traditionally lived in small villages. In village communities, farms consisted of kilkarti and ankarti. Kilkarti were quadrangles with a living house, summer house, Russian-type bathhouse, granary, toolhouse, barn for dry feed for animals, stable, cow house, and fowl house. All buildings were of wood. Behind the animal houses was the kitchen garden, and at its far end began the ankarti, the plowed field of the family. The last forty years saw a major shift of the population to urban centers. In the Chuvash Republic there are nine towns and eight cities. Today, more than one-fourth of the republic's inhabitants live in cities.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. After the formation of the Chuvash ASSR, small factories were put under government management and the peasant properties collectivized. The development of heavy industry on a large scale began in the Middle Volga region in 1941. There are no mineral resources in the Chuvash Republic, but there are important deposits of lime, shale, and peat. On the poor-quality fields, large-scale animal husbandry developed; where the soil was fertile, mechanized agriculture was practiced. The most important agricultural products are wheat, rye, potatoes, hemp, hops, dairy products, poultry, beef, and pork. Industrial investment attracted workers from elsewhere in the the former USSR.

Industrial Arts. For the workers in the republic, employment opportunities are provided by industrial facilities producing hydroelectric and thermal energy, electric surveying instruments, industrial tractors, metalworking machine tools, cement, chemicals, wood products, textiles, tricot goods, and clothing.

Trade. The majority of the products of agriculture and industry were bought by the Soviet state and sold in state stores. Market conditions existed only for the recently developed producers' cooperatives.

Division of Labor. Today, Chuvash men and women both take part in work at home and outside the home.

Land Tenure. Under the Soviet system, land was public property of the members of kolkhozy and sovkhozy, but every family had a household as part of it.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Neither tradition nor early written records corroborate the existence of extended Chuvash families. Although monogamy is traditional, sororal polygyny has occurred in rare cases. Brides were selected by the groom's parents, who paid the purchase price as the redemption of the dowry. Bride-theft was a common practice. There was no ethnic endogamy among the Chuvash. Today the basic family unit is the nuclear family (semye ), in which the parents (mother, anne ; father, atte ) and the children (daughter, xer, son ival ) live together. The other members of the consanguinal family are the elder brother (picce ), younger brother (sallara), elder sister (appa ), younger sister (yamak ), the grandmother (asanne ), the grandfather (asatte )their names are not different on the mother's side and the father's sidethe uncle (muci, tete ), and the aunt (manakka, inke ). Affinal relatives are the father-in-law (xun', xun'asa, pavata ), mother-in-law (xun'ama, pavana ), son-in-law (y'isna ), daughter-in-law (kin), sister-in-law (xer pultar, appa, xun'aka ), and brother-in-law (pultar, payaxam, eskev ). Traditional marriage practices have disappeared; only those related to fertility have survived into the twentieth century, but these were ended by the Orthodox church and replaced by Soviet ceremonies. Divorce traditionally did not occur, but it has been allowed since the beginning of the Soviet period.

Sociopolitical Organization

The constitution of the Chuvash ASSR was passed in 1937. Under the Soviet system, the general organ of the state power was the unicameral parliament (Supreme Council of the Chuvash ASSR) under the control of the Communist party. Each deputy represented 8,000 inhabitants. Eleven deputies represented the Chuvash Republic on the Council of the USSR. Social control was exercised by the trade unions, which depended on the ruling party.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. An inscription dated from 1307 shows that some Chuvash were converted to Islam, and religious terms occur in Chuvash in the form of Tatar loanwords; sources do not, however, specify Muslim religious practice among the Chuvash. Russian sources of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries mention the Chuvash as "people of different belief" (inorodci ), a term known to denote worshipers of images and spirits. The Russian Orthodox church tried to Christianize the Chuvash by force in the seventeenth century without success. In the eighteenth century it changed tactics; the Bible was translated into Chuvash and preachers began to use the Chuvash language. The Chuvash nominally accepted the Christian faith and traditional names were changed into Russian names, but traditions of Orthodox worship did not take hold. According to reports of travelers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chuvash peasants offered sacrifices in places deemed holy by them, believed in home spirits, and practiced idolatry. Nowadays, the traditional beliefs are disappearing and atheism is gaining ground.

Arts. In Chuvashia folk art developed from home industries. Its best-known branch is the carving of objects (drinking cups, jugs, mugs, spoons, dippers, etc.) from a single piece of wood. Important features of Chuvash culture include different forms of folklore (songs, tales, and legends), hand-embroidered articles of clothing, and goldsmiths' works. Folk ornaments also appear on modern personal belongings. In the fine arts of the Soviet era, a Socialist-Realist style prevailed.

Medicine. Medical care is now general, free, and provided by health institutions of the state. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, folk medicine was important. There was a male or female healer (yumsa ) in each village who "healed" either with medicinal plants, witchcraft, or psychomancy.


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Ezegodnik Bol'soj Sovetskoj enciklopedii (1988). Moscow.

Istorija Cuvasskoj ASSR (The history of the Chuvash ASSR) (1966-1967). Vols. 1-2. Ceboksary.

Ivanov V. P. (1988). Formirovanie cuvasskoj diaspory (The formation of the Chuvash diaspora). Ceboksary.

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Mészáros Gy. (1909). A csuvas ôsvallás emlékei (The monuments of ancient Chuvash religion). Budapest.

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Ròna-Tas, A. (1982). "The Periodization and Sources of Chuvash Linguistic History." In Chuvash Studies, pp. 113-170. Budapest.

Ròna-Tas A. (1986). "A Volga Bulgarian Inscription from 1307." AOH XXX 2: 153-186. Reprinted as "Language and History (Contributions to Comparative Altaics)." Studia Uralo-Altaica (Szeged) 25:89-121.

Zimonyi I. (1990). "The Origin of the Volga Bulghars." Studia Uralo-Altaica (Szeged) 32.


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The Chuvash (self-name chavash ) are an indigenous people of the middle Volga basin. According to the 1989 census there were 1.8 million Chuvash in the former Soviet Union. The greatest concentration (906,922) lived in the Chuvash Republic on the west bank of the Volga river between its tributaries the Sura and Sviaga, with most of the remainder living in adjacent republics and provinces. Chuvash made up 67.8 percent of the population of Chuvashia in 1989, with Russians accounting for 26.7 percent.

The ethnonym chavash first appears in Russian sources in 1508, so early Chuvash history is not entirely clear. Scholars agree that today's Chuvash are descendants of at least three groups: Turkic Bulgar tribes who arrived on the Volga in the seventh century from the Caucasus-Azov region; the closely-related Suvars (suvaz, perhaps the origin of chavash) who migrated from the Caucasus in the eighth century; and Finno-Ugric tribes who inhabited Chuvashia before the Turkic settlement. The Bulgar state dominated the region from the tenth century until conquest by the Mongols in 1236. Chuvash were ruled by the Golden Horde in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, then by the Kazan Khanate from the 1440s, and were finally incorporated in the Muscovite state in 1551.

The Chuvash speak a Turkic language that preserves many archaic elements of Old Bulgar and is largely incomprehensible to speakers of other Turkic dialects. Early Chuvash was written with Turkic runes, supplanted by the Arabic alphabet during the time of the Bulgar state. A new Chuvash script based on the Cyrillic alphabet emerged in the eighteenth century. The first Chuvash grammar, which used this script, was published in 1769. The Chuvash educator Ivan Yakovlev developed a new Chuvash alphabet in 1871. The first Chuvash newspaper, Khypar (News), appeared in 1906.

Early Chuvash animism was influenced by Zoroastrianism, Judaism (via the Khazars), and Islam. Chuvash honored fire, water, sun, and earth, and believed in a variety of good and evil spirits. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most Chuvash had converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity under the influence of Russian settlers and missionaries. However, some who lived among Tatar populations converted to Islam and assimilated to Tatar culture and language. Today's Chuvash are predominantly Orthodox Christians, though pagan beliefs survive in scattered settlements.

The second half of the nineteenth century brought significant economic changes, as Chuvash peasants left their villages for railway employment, lumbering and factory work in the Urals, mining in the Donbas, and migrant agricultural labor. Urbanization began in this period and accelerated in the twentieth century, although in 1989 less than half (49.8 percent) of the Chuvash in the Russian Federation lived in cities.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Chuvash leaders demonstrated interest in joining the Idel-Ural (Volga-Ural) state proposed by Tatar politicians as a counterbalance to Russian hegemony in the region, and later (March 1918) agreed to join the Tatar-Bashkir Soviet Republic. After this project fell victim to the conflicts of the civil war, the Soviet government formed a Chuvash Autonomous Region (1920), later upgraded to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (1925). Chuvash leaders declared their republic an SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic, or union republic) in 1990 and renamed it the Chuvash Republic in 1992. Important organizations active since the late Soviet years include the Chuvash Party of National Rebirth, the Chuvash National Congress, and the Chuvash Social-Cultural Center. The Chuvash Republic is a signatory to the March 31, 1992, treaty that created the Russian Federation.

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Aygi, Gennady, ed. (1991). An Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, tr. Peter France. London: Forest Books; [S.l.]: UNESCO.

Róna-Tas, András, ed. (1982). Chuvash Studies. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Shnirelman, Viktor A. (1996). Who Gets the Past? Competition for Ancestors Among Non-Russian Intellectuals in Russia. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Daniel E. Schafer