views updated May 17 2018


ETHNONYMS: Self-designations: Mar, Mari; Cheremis


Identification. Within the Russian Federation, the Maris have had a titular autonomous republic (the Mari ASSR after 1936, today the Republic of Mari) which now forms a part of the Volga-Vyatka macroeconomic region. The Maris belong to the Volgaic branch of the Finno-Ugrian peoples. "Mari" and "Mar" are self-designations meaning "man." An older name used by other peoples is "Cheremis." In Soviet usage, "Cheremis" has been replaced by "Mari." This name has increasingly won acceptance in other countries as well.

Location. The formation of ancient Mari tribes took place in the Middle Volga region, between the Volga and Vyatka. The first Slavic settlers to these tracts came in the late Middle Ages, and the inflow greatly intensified after the Muscovite conquest of the Volga Valley in the sixteenth century. As a consequence, large numbers of Maris began to move eastward; the Mari homeland lost much of its coherence and the areal center of the nationality shifted to the east. At the present time the Maris are scattered over a vast territory in the Volga-Urals region. The westernmost settlements are in the neighborhood of the Volga-Sura confluence (about 170 kilometers down along the Volga from the city of Gorki), whereas in the east, groups of Mari villages exist on the foothills of the Urals in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. The basic area of the nationality is the Republic of Mari, the bulk of which lies on the left bank of the Volga. The southwestern corner of the republic extends also to the right side of the river. Geographically, most of the republic can best be characterized as rolling plain; the highest places of the Vyatka ridge in the east rise to about 273 meters, whereas the swampy lowlands in the west, north of the Volga, are just 45 to 100 meters above sea level. Over half of the territory of 22,500 square kilometers is covered with forests, consisting mainly of coniferous trees. The main agricultural areas are located in the northeast and in the southwest (i.e., on the hilly bank of the Volga). The climate is continental; the average temperatures range from -13° C in January to +18° C in July. The mean rainfall is 50 centimeters per year. The period of vegetation begins at the end of April and runs until the first days of October.

Demography. The number of the Maris totaled 670,300 in 1989. Nearly half of them324,000 persons or 48.3 percent of the totallived in the Mari ASSR. In the Bashkir ASSR there were 105,800 Maris. Other notable areas of inhabitationwith the number of Maris ranging approximately from 10,000 to 50,000were the Tatar and Udmurt republics and the Kirov and Sverdlovsk oblasts. In 1989 the Mari ASSR population was 749,300; the largest group was the Russians with a 47.5 percent share of the total population. The Maris constituted 43.2 percent, and the rest was made up mainly of Tatars and Chuvash. According to the 1979 data, the Maris were the largest nationality in the countryside, making up 68.7 percent of the ASSR's rural inhabitants, whereas in the urban areas the Maris did not comprise more than 21.6 percent of the population. Urbanization has begun only relatively recently: as late as 1970 over 85 percent of the Maris in such important areas of habitation as the Mari and Bashkir ASSRs and the Kirov Oblast were rural residents. Until the 1960s the Maris maintained a fairly high fertility level. Since then a gradual decline has taken place, but the Maris still compare favorably with the Russians in terms of birthrates. So far this surplus fertility has been enough to keep the Maris population growing, even under conditions of serious assimilation losses. The growth rates, however, have slackened. Although the number of Maris in the 1959-1969 period grew on average by 1.6 percent annually and the total Soviet population by 1.3 percent, the ensuing decades show growth rates below 0.8 percent per year for the Maris; moreover, the Mari rates fall short of general Soviet population growth.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mari and Mordvin languages form the Volgaic Branch of the Finno-Ugrian Language Family. Two languages are spoken by Maris, Meadow Mari (Olyk Mari) and Hill Mari (Kuryk Mari), each consisting of several dialects and each having a written form of its own. Initiatives to create a single written language have not had practical results. The differences between the two languages are mainly lexical and phonetic. Meadow Mari is based on the Morki-Sernur dialect. The unwritten Eastern dialect (Ervel Mart or Üpö Mari) spoken by the Maris living east of the Republic of Mari, a significant subgroup of Meadow Mari, is often called Meadow-Eastern Mari. The Kozmodemyansk dialect forms the basis of Hill Mari: less than 20 percent of Maris belong to this group. Among the Finno-Ugrian languages, the Mari language has experienced the strongest Turkic (Chuvash and Tatar) influences. Turkic elements were adopted long ago and involve both grammar and vocabulary, whereas borrowing from Russian is a relatively new development, which has intensified since the nineteenth century. More or less regular publishing in Mari was initiated in the late nineteenth century by the Kazan-based missionary movement. Both of the written Mari languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. At the time of the 1989 census, 81 percent of all Maris regarded Mari as their native tongue; in the Mari Republic the figure was 88 percent. The fact that the number of Maris considering Mari as their native language stopped growing after the 1970 census is suggestive of increased linguistic assimilation. Surveys concerning actual language use have shown that among the younger generation, especially in urban settings, lingual Russification is strongly underway. In the mid-1980s Mari was used as a medium of instruction at the lower grades of a number of rural schools in the Mari and Bashkir ASSRs.

History and Cultural Relations

The shaping of the ethnic community of the Maris was completed around the turn of the first and second millennia AD. Intense contacts with Turkic peoples constitute the prominent feature of medieval Mari history: from the tenth until the mid-thirteenth century the Maris were subjects of the Volga Bolgar Kingdom and then, until the middle of the sixteenth century, they were in a kind of vassalage to the Kazan Tatars. The bulk of Maris remained loyal to the Tatars until the collapse of Kazan in 1552.

Submission to Russian rule took place painfully: a series of violent uprisings erupted, known as the Cheremis wars. By the onset of the seventeenth centuryonly after the Russians had erected a set of forts in the Mari areasthe struggles gradually ended. Later, the Maris were quick to join peasant uprisings but these were more ventures to relieve economic burdens than attempts to win back independence. Conversions to Russian Orthodoxy began on a large scale in the second half of the seventeenth century, and missionary pursuits further intensified in the following century. Results were poor, however: adoption of Christianity remained mostly superficial, and large numbers of Maris chose to escape to the Bashkir lands. The outcome of this move was the formation of the group of Eastern Maris; among this group paganism prevailed until the present century. In the tiny circles of Mari intellectuals, the beginnings of ethnic awakening became apparent around 1900. A number of Mari territories that earlier were divided among several provinces were united in 1920 into a single administrative entity, the Mari Autonomous Area. In the 1930s the Mari intelligentsia fell victim to Stalinist purges even as Mari autonomy was formally elevated to the ASSR level.


Prior to Russian domination, the arrangement of buildings in Mari villages was irregular. Later on, a street plan was gradually adopted. In the 1920s the average size of a settlement varied from about thirty households in the northern areas to fifty-five households in the southern areas (i.e., approximately 160 to 300 inhabitants respectively). A traditional Mari house (pört ) was built of logs with a peaked roof and window frames decorated with carvings. The house and outbuildings formed a closed four-cornered yard. The summer kitchen (kudo )a place of prayer and sacrifice as wellwas constructed of logs and had no ceiling, no window openings, and no chimney. The fireplace was located at the center of the dirt floor. Today, rural houses are also built of bricks or manufactured elements. The yard has become more compact and the surrounding buildings are joined together. The entrance into the yard is through a wooden gate the height of a person. In recent decades, as a result of the concentration of agricultural production, a large number of villages have died out. Though increasing, the Mari portion of the population in urban centers remains relatively small. For instance, over 50,000 Maris live in the capital of the republic, Yoshkar-Ola, but they constitute less than a quarter of the population of the city.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. At the close of the nineteenth century practically all Maris were engaged in agriculture. The main cereals cultivated were rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, and millet. Horses and cattle were kept but, as a whole, animal domestication did not play any prominent role in the traditional economy. Beekeeping had been an important activity for a long time, and hunting was also pursuedin particular, in the backwoods and swamps of the left side of the Volga. Honey, furs, tar, and wood coal served as market goods. Today agriculture is carried on in large unitscollective and state farms. Wheat, potatoes, and flax have grown in importance as cultivated plants. The expansion of the area cultivated for fodder speaks of increased livestock rearing and dairy farming. During the Soviet era, industrial output grew manyfold. The metal industry is now in a leading position, and paper manufacturing, woodworking, and light industries are also well developed.

Industrial Arts. In the past a girl's abilities were, to a high degree, judged by her weaving and embroidery. Despite being officially replaced in the 1930s, the woman's folk dress continues to be an important means of ethnic identification and a sustainer of handicrafts. Currently, however, most of the aprons, smocks, caftans, head scarves, imitation silver coin embellishments, and boots needed for weddings and other special occasions are made in state-owned workshops. Traditional basket weaving persists, as does the making of various folk-art wooden articles.

Land Tenure. In feudal Russia, the Hill Maris were privately owned serfs, whereas the Meadow Maris were state owned. Village communities practiced a three-field system of agriculture. After emancipation, the separation of the peasants from their communities involved many difficulties; the process accelerated somewhat only after the Stolypin reforms of 1906, but the reforms also added to the economic polarization in the countryside. The Soviet regime collectivized agriculture by 1937; the peasants' privately run plots were limited to subsidiary smallholdings.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Past Mari settlements were made up of "corners," or neighborhoods, each inhabited by families belonging to the same patronymic group. Awareness of a common forefather was the main basis of kinship communities of a higher order as wellon the levels of lineage cluster, village, group of villages, and so on. Ancestor worship and joint rites during sacrificial ceremonies helped maintain a shared consciousness within kinship communities.

Marriage. Traditionally, marriages were arranged, often without the consent of the couple being wedded. It was a common habit to marry off sons at the age of 14 to 16 years but to postpone the marriage of the daughters.

Mari marriage involved transfers of property in two directions. The bridegroom's parents paid for the bride, usually with money; the payment was made during the wedding, at the latest. The bride's family paid a dowryusually consisting of cattle to a large extentwhich typically were not delivered until after the wedding, sometimes a year or more later. Compared to what the bridegroom's parents paid, the dowry used to be worth more. Traces of this custom have now disappeared, and the parents' word is no longer final in matters of marriage and divorce. In pre-Revolutionary times, the portion of marriages contracted across ethnic lines was quite small. After World War II intermarriages greatly increased. Russians are, overwhelmingly, the partners with whom the Maris intermarry.

Domestic Unit. Patriarchal extended family households continued in some places until the outset of the twentieth century. Families of this kind consisted of three to four generations of close relatives, and the maximum number of members in them was around 40. By 1900, however, smaller families with 3 to 12 members had already become predominant. Since then nuclearization has proceeded further: according to the 1979 data, 84 percent of Mari families in the titular ASSR consisted of 2 to 5 members, and two-generational families were by far the prevalent type. The average number of members per family was 4.4 in rural areas, and 3.4 in urban ones.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Maris are strongly attached to the peasant way of life; their involvement in industry and education still remains relatively slight. Immobility and firm ties with the soil explain to a considerable extent why the Mari participation in the Bolshevik Revolution was negligible. Later, too, the percentage of Maris who were members of the ASSR's Communist party organization generally lagged somewhat behind the titular nationality's proportion of the population. Like other Republics in the Russian Federation, the Republic of Mari has certain symbols of statehood but administratively it ranks as a province (oblast). It is divided into fourteen districts; in about half of them Maris are a nominal majority of the inhabitants. The districts, in turn, are broken down into rural councils, which are the basic units in the countryside. Each administers around ten villages on the average.

The first manifestations of Mari nationalism became apparent in the late nineteenth century: sects striving to protect old religious habits expressed the idea, "To undo our faith is equal to undoing us." A formally organized national movement got its start after the February Revolution of 1917, but in the course of the 1920s the possibilities for spontaneous ethnic organization again diminished; soon the policy of indigenization (korenizatsiya ) of administration and culture was also ended. Those supporting ethnic freedom were brought under strict party control. Moreover, the national intelligentsia was harshly persecuted. Collectivization obviously caused some ethnic tension as well For decades all this dampened popular initiative and hindered the formation of genuine ethnic self-consciousness. Only after the political atmosphere changed with perestroika were there again some signs of emerging ethnic organization among the Maris. The reclassification of the Mari ASSR as the Republic of Mari is one outcome of this change.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Indicative of the Maris' superficial adoption of Russian Orthodox Christianity is the persistence of elements of older beliefs: more than one-half of present-day Mari believers either link togetherin varying combinationstraditional customs and Christianity or adhere exclusively to the traditional Mari faith. Typically, Maris practicing syncretism put the matter as follows: "We pray to two Gods: the one of the church and the one of the forest." The presence of non-Christian elements increases from west to east: almost nonexistent among the Hill Maris, these elements are strongest among the Eastern Maris. The Meadow-Eastern group has also experienced Islamic influences. Certainly, religion has lost most of its previous strength over the course of the twentieth century. Compared with the local Russians, however, the Maris have, to a somewhat greater degree, kept their religious habits. One reason for this may be that religious rituals provide them with a channel for maintaining their identity. The similarities one can find in religious procedureseven in the minute detailsall over the geographically scattered Mari habitats bear witness to an ancient and highly developed religious culture. The traditional shamanist-animist religion of the Maris included a host of divinities, ancestor spirits, and supernatural beings personified in celestial bodies, clouds, rivers, earth, trees, and forests. The supreme god, Jumo, represented all heavens and weather together. The core of the site of sacrificial ceremonies and prayer meetings was a fenced section of untouched grove; there were separate sacred groves depending on whether they were for the prayer of the whole community, the clan, or the kin group. All domestic animals except pigs and hens were suitable for sacrifice. The participants in the ceremonysometimes thousands of peoplewere dressed in white.

An ethnoconfessional movement, Kuga Sorta (Big Candle) gained a large circle of supporters in the second half of the nineteenth century. Attempting to reconstruct the traditional religion to meet the challenges of the new times, the sect acknowledged aspects of both the traditional Mari faith and Christianity. Ascetic rules were followed in regard to clothing and drinking; further, the members of the sect renounced some ancient divinities of lower rank, various genies and gnomes, for instance.

Arts. Characteristic of the rich Mari folklore is the muro, a lyric song often built on repetition, parallels, contrasts, and comparisons, and combining happiness and sorrow. The rhythm of the verse and the pentatonic melody of the songs point to a Turkic influence.

Typical of the traditional texts of the songs is that the focal image is often taken from human life, whereas the supplementary images represent phenomena in nature or objects in the domestic sphere. Frequently, the lyrics of the songs can be understood properly only in the context of the accompanying music, and particularly its rhythm, since many seemingly meaningless nonmorpheme sound sequences are added to the text to make it correspond to the music in length. A stringed instrument widespread among the Maris is the gusli (kusle ), a zitherlike stringed instrument held on the knees and played with both hands. It was used to create atmosphere during sacrificial ceremonies and later as an accompaniment to dancing. The reed pipe, the bagpipe, the birch-bark horn, and the drum are other important Mari musical instruments.

Medicine. Trachoma, goiter, and tuberculosisthe main sicknesses from which the Maris suffered in the pasthave been brought under control through advances in medicine. In folk medicine, drugs were based on herbs, tar, honey, formic acid, the fat of wild animals, and so on. In case of serious illness, people sought advice through sorcery, and the sauna was considered a remedy for many evils.

Death and Afterlife. The invisible part of a human being was called ort. Even when the person was alive, the ort would at times move aboutleave the body for a whilebut at death its departure was irreversible. The ört would linger somewhere near the dead body, however; it might also become embodied in the form of a butterfly. At the funeral, it was the custom to put into the coffin some food, money, tobacco, and other necesseties for the life beyond the grave. In addition to the funeral prayers, prayers were said for the deceased on the third, seventh, and fortieth days after death. The repast on the fortieth day was very ceremonious, and it was dedicated to other dead relatives as well. As a symbol of the participation of the late kin at the occasion, one close friend played the part of the deceased by dressing in his clothes. It was also traditional for a portion of food to be put on the table for the deceased each morning during the first forty days.


Hajdú, Péter (1975). Finno-Ugrian Languages and Peoples. London: André Deutsch.

Holmberg, Uno (1914). Tsheremissien uskonto (in Finnish). Porvoo: WSOY.

Narody Evropeiskoi chasti SSSR (European people's portions of the USSR) (1964). Moscow: Nauka.

Narody Povolzh'ya i Priural'ya (Peoples of Povolzh'ya and the Pre-Urals) (1985). Moscow: Nauka.

Suomen suku [in Finnish] (1928). II osa. Helsinki: Otava.



views updated May 29 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Cheremis (former)
LOCATION: Mari El Republic Volga-Ural region of Russia)
LANGUAGE: Mari; Russian; Tatar
RELIGION: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Mari Native Religion


The Maris, formerly known as the Cheremis, are a Finno-Ugric people who inhabit the Middle Volga region of the Russian Federation. They are divided into three groups—Highland, Lowland, and Eastern Maris. The origins of the Maris are disputed, but there is little doubt that they migrated to their current homeland from the west. In Jordanes' 6th-century chronicle, he mentions the "Sremniscans" as subjects of the Ostrogoths, and this is probably a reference to the Maris (i.e. Cheremis). In any case, the Maris are more positively identified in the Russian Primary Chronicle (a 12th-century collection of history). In the medieval period, the Maris were subjects to the Muslim Volga Bulgarians, and later they were subjects of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. During the time of Russia's conflicts with the Kazan Khanate, to which they were in close proximity, the Maris were divided in their loyalties. The Maris on the western bank of the Volga—the Highland Maris—provided troops to the Russians, while the Lowland Maris, in closer proximity to Kazan, supported the Tatars. Lowland Maris not only helped defend Kazan in 1552, but they were also involved in a series of revolts against Russian rule in the second half of the 16th century.

In response to the Russian policy of Christianization, many Maris fled their homeland, and in the 17th and 18th centuries migrated to the Ural Mountains and the trans-Kama lands in what is today northern Bashkortostan. These communities eventually came to be known as the Eastern Maris. In addition to migration, Maris would occasionally resist Russian policies more forcefully, and they were actively involved in the major Cossack and peasant revolts of the 18th century, most notably the Pugachev rebellion of the 1770s. During the late 19th century, the Maris were especially afflicted by poverty, and 98% of Maris were rural dwellers.

With the advent of the 1917 Revolution, a small Mari national movement emerged among the Eastern Maris, but it was soon crushed by the Bolsheviks. In the 1920s, however, the Soviets authorized the creation of a Mari autonomous region, which soon after became the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), a constituent part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). However, this republic included only the Highland and Lowland Maris; the Eastern Maris were left in other jurisdictions.

During the Soviet era, Mari autonomy was in political terms a fiction, and it was not until the era of perestroika (1985-91) that the Mari republic began to test its autonomy. At this time, Mari intellectuals became especially active in calling for measures from the government to better protect Mari culture especially concerning the Mari language. Meanwhile, the name of the Mari ASSR was officially changed to Mari El, meaning the Mari land. However, no serious independence movement emerged among the Maris as among some of their neighbors such as the Tatars.


According to recent population estimates there are about 660,000 Maris in the Russian Federation about half of whom live in the Mari El proper. The largest concentration of Maris outside the Mari El are the Eastern Maris, who inhabit northern Bashkortostan as well as the districts of Perm and Ekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) in the Ural Mountains area. In addition, large communities of Maris are also found in jurisdictions adjacent to the Mari Republic, especially Vyatka (formerly Kirov) district, Nizhnii Novgorod (formerly Gorki) district, Tatarstan, and Udmurtia.

The Mari Republic is divided by the Volga River. The "highland" side, corresponding to the western bank, possesses the best agricultural land, and the population there is relatively dense. The opposite bank of the Volga, the "lowland" side, constitutes the lion's share of the republic's territory, but this area is covered by very dense evergreen and birch forest, and much of the land is swampy. The settlements there are much sparser, the land is poorer, and much of the traditional economy depended on hunting, trapping, and gathering forest products. The Mari republic itself consists of 23,200 square kilometers (about 8,960 square miles), and its capital is Ioshkar-Ola (previously known as Krasnokokshaisk, and in tsarist times, Tsarevokokshaisk), located on the Kokshaga River. The climate is a cool continental one, with an average January temperature of -13°c (4°f) and an average July temperature of 19°c (68°f).


The Mari language is part of the Volga Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric language family. It is most closely related to the Mordvin languages, but Mari and Mordvin are not at all mutually intelligible; Mari is more distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. Mari is further divided into two separate literary languages, Highland Mari (kuryk Mari) and Lowland Mari (olyk Mari), and it would be more precise to speak of Mari languages, as these two languages are generally not mutually intelligible. Lowland Mari speakers account for approximately 90% of Mari speakers, while Highland Mari speakers, numbering only 66,000, account for about 10%. The Eastern Maris speak a form of the Lowland dialect, but their own dialect is distinguished by a large number of Tatar loan-words. According to the 1989 Soviet census, 80.9% of Maris considered themselves fluent in their native language. Nearly all Maris are fluent in Russian, often at the expense of Mari. Among the Eastern Maris, nearly all are very fluent in Tatar as well as Russian.

Mari names are rather varied, and they include native Mari names as well as Russian and Tatar names. In fact, native Mari names are relatively rare. Native Mari male names include Kugerge (meaning elder son) and Shumbat (Saturday), and female names include Iziudir (younger daughter) and Unay.


During the first half of the 18th century, most Maris became Eastern Orthodox Christians, although large communities of Maris, especially Eastern Maris, have never become Christians and have remained adherents of Mari native religion. As a result, native religious features remain important elements in Mari folklore, even among Christian Maris. The Maris have retained numerous myths, especially concerning tutelary spirits such as Sultan Keremet, Akpatyr, and Kugu Jeng. Maris venerate shrines connected with these heroes, who are said to have been past leaders of the Mari people who protected them from foreign conquerors. Mari mythology, which in some cases displays strong Christian influences and in others strong Muslim influences, includes not only native figures, such as Jumo, the supreme God, but also figures such as Shaytan (the Devil) and biblical and Koranic prophets. In addition, the Maris have retained a rich tradition of songs, historical legends, and other oral traditions.


Of all the peoples of the Middle Volga region, and arguably in all of Russia, the Maris have been the most successful at retaining their native religion while at the same time resisting the pressures of Islamization. Not only has the adherence to native religious traditions deeply influenced Mari folklore and cultural life in general, but it has also remained an important factor in Mari history and, in the current period, in Mari politics as well.

In any case, most Maris were converted to Eastern Orthodoxy during the first half of the 18th century, and today roughly two-thirds of religious Maris are Orthodox Christians. Christianity took especially deep roots among the Hill Mari, who were all Christians by the beginning of the 19th century. Similarly, the vast majority of Lowland Mari were also Christian by the beginning of the 19th century, although manycommunities both formally and informally retained their native religion, which they termed chi marla vera (the genuine Mari faith), as opposed to the rushla vera (Russian faith) of the Christianized Maris. Finally, the vast majority of Eastern Maris, both in Bashkortostan and the Urals region, have remained staunch adherents of the chi marla vera. As a result of their long contact with Tatars, many Mari communities, especially Lowland Maris, became Muslim, but these groups became assimilated into Tatar society, and their descendants came to consider themselves Muslims and Tatars, rather than Maris.

Native Mari religion has been in a process of transformation since it was first described by European travelers in the 18th century. Nevertheless, certain fundamental features endure. The focus of Mari religion is the community, and the rituals and offerings characteristic of Mari religion are intended to preserve the health and prosperity of the community. As a result, rituals are closely bound with the agricultural calendar, especially since the majority of Maris today remain rural dwellers. Rituals include sacrifices of livestock at sacred groves to ensure that the spirits protect the community. In addition, special attention is devoted to ancestral spirits, who are considered among the most important supernatural guardians of the community.

In recent times, native Mari religion has become a political force through the creation of a political organization for the adherents of the chi marla vera. This organization, called Osh Mari Chi Mari, seeks to legitimize Mari native religion and, against the protests of the Russian Orthodox Church, revitalize it.


Among Christian Maris, the most important holidays are Kugeche (Easter), and Shoryk Yol (Christmas), which involve church services, prayers, and feasting. Many Maris also observe Aga Pairem , a festival usually held in June after the spring planting and celebrated with offerings to the field spirits as well as feasting, dancing, and sports, especially horse racing. Despite the religious origins of this festival, many Maris celebrate it simply as a national or ethnic festival. Among the Eastern Mari, the most important festival is Küsoto Payrem. This usually involves the gathering of a number of villages over a two- or three-day period, and each day a specific number of animals is offered to the spirits for the protection of the community. Maris, especially those in urban areas, also celebrate the secular holidays of the Russian state, including New Year's Day (January 1), May Day (May1 ) and Victory Day (May 9).


The main life-cycle rituals are closely connected with native Mari religious traditions. Among Christian Maris, baptism is naturally an important moment in the life of a child, as it inaugurates the child into the Mari and Christian community. Traditional Mari weddings were typically complex affairs, and each community had its own traditions and its own variants in the rituals. Often the groom or his family would pay a bride-price to the bride's family, and the bride would move in with her husband or in-laws. Despite the difficulties for the bride of leaving her home, weddings were usually festive occasions and involved much feasting and drinking. Today, traditional weddings have become scarce, in favor of simpler Soviet-style civil weddings.

Burial rituals and memorial feasts are perhaps the rites of passage that changed the least over the Soviet period, because they are so closely connected with the veneration of ancestors so central to Mari religious life. Traditionally, Mari burial ceremonies included the placing of grave goods (such as food, household goods, tools, and so forth) in the grave. This practice is rarely encountered among Christian Maris, but it is still encountered among non-Christian Maris. In addition to the burial ceremony, funeral repasts are commonly held for the dead, especially on the 3rd, 7th, and especially the 40th day after death. The 40th-day repast is called nylle in Mari. Eastern Maris believe that, on the 3rd day, the soul of the deceased goes from the house to the cemetery. On the 40th day, they lead the soul back to the house, offering it vodka, pancakes, and eggs, and the family offers prayers that the deceased should be released to the land of the ancestors. Among the Christian Highland Maris, the nylle is observed by the family reading prayers, lighting candles, and holding a feast for the soul of the deceased.


Maris typically greet one another with the words "salam lijzhe," and they commonly shake hands or embrace. Guests, especially those from far away, are generally respected and honored. Hospitality is considered an important obligation among Maris.

In traditional Mari life, young people socialized during specific festivals, and there was no dating in the modern sense of the term; rather, matches were usually arranged through matchmakers or parents. In modern times, these customs have been largely eroded, especially in urban areas.


Traditionally, Mari standards of living were low. Mari communities were remote and often afflicted with poverty as well as periodic famines and epidemics, including throughout much of the Soviet period. Currently, Mari rural poverty continues to be a problem, and living conditions in rural areas are generally not good, while in urban areas they are somewhat better. In rural areas, Mari houses tend to be built out of wood, moss, and clay. The houses generally have two or three rooms, and around the house there are usually various outbuildings such as barns, storage sheds, and bath houses. Such Mari houses usually have electricity, but almost never running water. Water is usually obtained from wells, communal pumps, or nearby streams. Houses are heated with wood, and in the center of every house there is a large brick or clay stove that functions as a furnace, stove, and oven. Maris in rural areas usually have their own fowl, livestock, and gardens, and much of their food is derived from these sources. In urban areas Maris usually live in small apartments that have running water and electricity, but, as throughout the former Soviet Union, the shortage of apartments is a serious problem.

In urban areas, health care is usually available, although the quality can be extremely variable. In rural areas, especially in remote areas, health care can be difficult to access, if not lacking outright. In both rural and urban areas, Maris still make use of herbal medicine and traditional healers, and Mari folk medicine can at times be both effective and sophisticated.


Traditional Mari families were large and organized into extended families. There was no formal clan or tribal system as such, as there was among the Maris' neighbors, the Udmurts and the Bashkirs. However, the Maris did form groups of extended families descended from common ancestors. These "clans" and extended families maintained small shrines for their ancestral spirits where family members would go and pray either individually or collectively. Today Mari families are small and typically include only one or two children.

In traditional Mari society, much of the agricultural work fell on the shoulders of women, in addition to their child-rearing and domestic duties. Marriages were usually arranged by matchmakers acting as intermediaries for the parents, and the groom or his parents were obligated to pay a bride-price to the bride's family. After the wedding, the bride would move in with her husband, thus being forced to leave her family and village.


Maris traditionally wove their own cloth and made their own clothing. Mari clothing, especially in summer, was made of linen and was usually white. In winter, the Maris would wear garments made of wool and reversed sheep-skin. In the past, the Eastern Maris often dressed in the Tatar fashion, with longish buttoned gowns and Muslim skull-caps. Women's traditional clothing was elaborate, usually made of white linen with extensive embroideries. Traditional clothing is still worn to some degree, especially in the villages of the Eastern Maris, where women can still be seem wearing the traditional Mari headgear. Today, however, most Maris dress in clothes typical of modern Russian society as a whole.


The traditional Mari diet consisted of cereals and vegetables supplemented by meat (especially poultry and pork), fish, and forest products such as berries and honey. The main staples of the Maris diet are rye bread, groats, and milk. More recently, an important staple crop is potatoes, which are grown both in rural areas and in the suburban gardens of city dwellers. Beverages include tea and vodka, as well as home-made alcoholic beverages such as beer.

Mari cooking was traditionally done in iron pots on the large brick stove located in the middle of the house. Eating utensils (especially spoons, cups, and plates) were carved out of wood. There are usually three meals a day, with the main meal in the early afternoon.


Today, literacy among Maris is very high and nearly universal. Before World War II, and especially in pre-Soviet times, illiteracy among the Maris was high, especially among the Lowland and Eastern Maris and among Mari women in general. This high rate of illiteracy was the result of several factors, including the remoteness and isolation of many Mari settlements and the fact that a Mari literary language had only been marginally developed. The schools that did exist in pre-Soviet times were primarily administered by Russian Orthodox missionaries and were most numerous among the Highland Maris. The Eastern Maris, among whom the Russian missionary presence was very low, had only limited access to the Islamic education offered by their Tatar neighbors, and in these areas it was not uncommon for Maris to make use of Tatar as a literary language.

During the Soviet period, and especially after World War II, education became more widely available among the Maris, although much of this education used Russian as the language of instruction, thereby accelerating the assimilation of the Maris into Russian society and Russian culture. At this time, higher education also became available to Maris, leading to the development of a small Mari intelligentsia.


Before 1917, there was virtually no written Mari literature, with the exception of bible translations and other religious literature translated from Russian. The formal creation of a Soviet Mari intelligentsia led to the creation of Mari literature, which included both journalistic prose and fiction, as well as poetry and, to a limited extent, drama. Since the advent of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mari writers have been able to openly discuss national and social issues.


In traditional Mari life, labor was organized to some degree along the lines of the clan and extended family. However, with the violent collectivization of the Mari peasantry in the 1930s, this kinship-based labor structure was replaced with a government-organized collective system, which essentially remains in place today.


In the past, Mari religious festivals included sporting events such as horse racing and wrestling, and to some extent this remains the case today. In addition to these traditional sports, hockey and soccer are the main recreational sports among young people and are the main spectator sports among the population in general.


Religious festivals, weddings, and other gatherings were important sources for entertainment and recreation in traditional Mari life. Today, television and movies are important sources of entertainment.


Since the Maris inhabit a densely forested region, they are especially skilled in woodworking, especially wood carving. A popular hobby in rural areas is beekeeping, which is also an important supplementary economic activity.


One of the most serious social problems facing the Maris today is alcoholism, which is rampant, especially in rural areas, where recreational opportunities are few. Alcoholism is common among both men and women. Alcohol is readily available in shops and also prepared in homes. Mari society is also adversely affected by the unemployment and low wages characteristic of Russia's current overall economic crisis during the 1990's. Since 2000 economic conditions have improved to some degree, although rural poverty remains a significant problem.


In traditional Mari society, particularly up until World War II, women and men had sharply divided social, economic and religious roles. Women were mainly responsible for child-rearing, domestic duties, and a portion of agricultural production. Before the 1940's Mari women had only the most limited access to education, and as a result literacy was extremely rare among Mari women. World War II brought large numbers of Mari women into the industrial and urban workforce, and into the Soviet educational system, after which they largely remained in the workforce, while retaining their traditional roles in child-rearing and domestic duties. Their limited access to education also made Mari women particularly culturally conservative, especially in terms of native language use and religious activities. Certain religious ceremonies excluded either men or women, but more generally it was women who retained religious ceremonies and practices, despite official anti-religious pressure from the authorities during the Soviet era. Since 1991 Mari women have largely maintained their access to education.


Frank, Allen. "Traditional Religion in the Volga-Ural Region: 1960-1987." Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher 63 (1991): 167–184.

––– "Mari Language Sources on Mari Religious Practices in the Soviet Period." Eurasian Studies Yearbook 66 (1994): 77–87.

Lallukka, Seppo. East Finnic Minorities in the Soviet Union: An Appraisal of the Erosive Trends. Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia, 1990.

–––. From Fugitive Peasants to Diaspora: The Eastern Mari in Tsarist and Federal Russia. Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia, 2003.

Sanukov, K. N. Problemy istorii i vozrozhdeniia finno-ugorskikh narodov Rossii. Ioshkar-Ola, 1994.

Toidybekova, Lidiia, Mariiskaia izycheskaia vera i etnicheskoe samosoznanie. Joensuu, 1997.

Vuorela, Toivo. "The Cheremis." In: The Finno-Ugric Peoples. Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series, No. 39 Bloomington, IN, 1964, 237–264.

Werth, Paul. "Big Candles and 'Internal Conversion': The Mari Animist Reformation and its Russian Appropriations." Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001, 144-172.

— by A. J. Frank