views updated Jun 27 2018




Identification. The Udmurt are an ethnic group who live primarily in the Udmurt Republic in Russia. The republic was formed in 1934 from the former Votyak Autonomous Territory (1920-1934). Udmurt means "meadowman."

Location. The Udmurt Republic is situated between the Vyatka and Kama rivers, to the east of Moscow. On the north and east it is bounded by Kirov Oblast, on the south by Tatarstan and on the southeast by Bashkirstan. Its area is 42,000 square kilometers. The climate is continental.

There is an abundance of rivers and streams (Cepca, Kilmez, Vala, Iz, Pozim) in the region, and 40 percent of the area is covered by forest, mainly by evergreens.

Demography. In the 1979 census, 713,000 people in the USSR listed themselves as Udmurt. According to official data, the Udmurt population, which was 421,000 in 1897, had increased to 514,000 by 1926, to 606,000 by 1939, and to 704,000 by 1969. In 1959 the population of the Udmurt Republic was 1,337,000, and 89 percent of the Udmurt people spoke their native language, whereas in 1979 the republic's population was 1,494,000 and only 76 percent of the above-mentioned 713,000 Udmurt spoke the Udmurt language.

Linguistic Affiliation. Udmurt belongs to the Permian Branch of the Finno-Ugric Language Family and is a typically agglutinative language with a considerable number of inflectional and derivational suffixes. The Uralic ancestor language broke into divisions around 4000 b.c. The forebearers of the so-called Permian tribes (Komi-Syryenians, Komi-Permians and Udmurt) had lived together for about 2,500 years and only separated around the eighth and ninth centuries a.d., retaining strong relations after separation. This explains the similarity of the Permian languages, which share about 70 percent of their original vocabulary. Since becoming a separate language, Udmurt was influenced by the languages of the Chuvash and Tatars in the south and the Russians in the north. Present-day Udmurt has several minor and three major (Southern, Middle, and Northern) dialects. The literary language, which is in the process of establishment, is based on the Middle dialect, spoken mainly around Ivzevsk.

Language and Literature

Udmurt is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. From the fifteenth century on, Udmurt words appeared sporadically in Russian texts, especially in annuals. The first text written in the Udmurt language, a poem praising the czarina, appeared in 1767, and in 1775 a carefully printed Udmurt grammar was published in Russian in Kazan. From then until 1917 the Udmurt language grew and the number of printed Udmurt texts (religious publications, course books, etc.) reached over 200. After 1917, especially in the 1920s, this endeavor gained strength and provided the basis for establishing Udmurt literacy.

The father of Udmurt literature was the ethnologist, folklorist, and linguist Grigorij Verevsvcagin (1851-1930), who published his lullaby poem "Blue, Blue Little Dove" as a piece of folk poetry in 1889. Kedra Mitrej (1892-1949) founded Udmurt drama, with his Evs Terek in 1915; he was also the first to write Udmurt prose. After the Revolution he published a great number of significant writings in his native language. Well-known Udmurt poets include Gerd Kuzebaj (1898-1937) and Asvalcvi Oki (1898-1973). From the exciting and flourishing period of Udmurt literature that ended in 1938 two of the more talented prose writers were Mihail Konovalov (1905-1938) and Grigorij Medvedev (1904-1938). Between 1938 and 1956 artistic values could be expressed only at great personal risk. Despite these circumstances, Filipp Kedrov (1909-1944) and Pjotr Blinov (1913-1942) wrote significant and popular works that remain in print. Mihail Petrov (1905-1955) was the father of the classic Udmurt novel. At the same time, an outstanding man of letters, Ignatij Gavrilov (1912-1973), appeared on the literary scene, excelling in all genres but especially in drama. Two notable lyrical poets were Stepan Svirobokov (1912-1983) and Nikolai Baiterjakov (b. 1923); Their verse has its roots in Udmurt folklore. After the twentieth congress of the Russian Communist party (1956), Udmurt literature flourished again. Two representative figures from this era are Gennadij Krasilnikov (1928-1975), the pioneer of modern Udmurt prose, and Flor Vasil'ev (1934-1978), who removed the pathetic overtones of lyric poetry and brought it closer to everyday life.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological data indicate that the Udmurt have lived in the area of their present-day home since the ninth century AD. Most of their settlements are on the banks of the rivers, and clans or families build their kar-s (castles, towns, nests) relatively far from one another. Udmurt society still bears the mark of the ancient clan organization, and most Udmurt feel that they belong to one of the approximately seventy clans that have been recorded by historians. The word "kar" has a common Permian root, as shown by the current names of the Komi-Syryenian town Syktyvkar and the Komi-Permyak capital, Kudymkar. For a short period in the early 1930s even the Udmurt capital, Ivzevsk, was called Ivzkar ("town by the river Iz'").

Until the middle of the thirteenth century the Udmurt were mainly occupied with fishing, hunting, beekeeping, limited trade and industry, livestock farming, and military campaigns to expand their territory. Their settlements were destroyed by the Mongolian-Tatar invasion. Some Udmurt shared the fate of other groups, becoming subjects of the conquerors, whereas others launched attacks on the tax and tribute collectors of the Tatar administration from their hiding places in remote parts of the forest.

In 1552 the Moscow-centered Russian Empire overthrew the Tatars by joining forces with the small ethnic groups in the Volga region and occupying Kazan. The above-mentioned ethnic groupsin the view of Russian historianssupported Moscow voluntarily and sought inclusion in the Russian Empire in 1558. This interpretation is incorrect in every detail except that the groups were included in the empire. It was this steadily expanding Russian imperial state, often referred to as "the prison of nations," that later became a part of the Soviet Union, including the Udmurt and their territory.

The Udmurt region, owing to its geographical advantages (navigable rivers) and natural resources (timber and mineral wealth), came under central administration, and only the Russian Orthodox church was permitted by the czar to establish cloisters and church estates. The industrialization of the region began relatively early, in the first half of the eighteenth century. Ironworks, shipyards, and sawmills were established in Votkinsk and Ivzevsk; the first workers were the local "state serfs," but increasing numbers of Russian serfs then settled in Udmurtsk. Most were people who had escaped from estates in neighboring provinces. At the same time, the proselytizing of the Orthodox church grew stronger and stronger and paralleled Russification efforts of the court administration. In spite of industrialization and centralized control, the standard of living remained low, even in the early twentieth century. The growing population of the local towns was almost totally Russian (with a small number of cultural institutions), and the Udmurt villages, most of them without schools, became more and more isolated. Agriculture was rather underdeveloped, and the Udmurt people, not aware of modernization possibilities, firmly preserved their traditions. They accepted Russian Orthodoxy only superficially; the majority of Udmurt remained unconverted even during Revolutionary times. It was this large unconverted population that afforded the czarist government a pretext to initiate one of the most infamous antiminority campaigns, the so-called Multan case of 1892-1896. Thanks to Korolenko's efficient interference, the attention of European countries was drawn to the plight of Udmurt peasants charged with ritual murder, and the accused were acquitted.

By the first two decades of the twentieth century, small groups of Udmurt intellectuals had appeared, primarily teachers, priests, village notaries, and clerks, who took a leading role in forming an ethnic consciousness. What was later to become the Udmurt ASSR took shape with some genuine ethnic variety during the following fifteen years, although the hopes of a better life were soon destroyed. It took the Stalin regime only a few decades to accomplish all that the czarist policy had failed to achieve for centuries. Collectivization and the establishment of kolkhozy swept away the old villages, the towns lost their unique features, and the transformation of the Udmurt people into Soviet citizens progressed in schools and in the military. There were several purges of the old intelligentsia and the younger generations of modern thinkers. The Communist party, the local soviet, the police, the Komsomol, and the Pioneer Organization made their presences felt even in the most private corners of everyday life. These intrusions were reinforced by the continual propaganda of the mass media, delivered both in Udmurt and Russian. As with other ethnic groups, retention of their native language helped the Udmurt to survive, to adhere to traditions, to establish their literature, and to preserve their ethnic identity.


The Udmurt traditionally were agriculturalists; in 1897, 98.4 percent were peasant famers. The three-field rotation system and other systems, such as the more primitive slash-and-burn method, were then used. Under the Soviet system, farming was collectivized and mechanized with the main crops being rye, oats, wheat, barley, and buckwheat. Cattle raising and beekeeping were important secondary activities, and in suitable regions hunting, trapping, and fishing supplemented agricultural activities.

The region of the Udmurt is rich in iron, slate, copper, peat, sand, and other mineral resources. Industry, largely developed in the Soviet era, is concentrated on the production of steel and goods for local consumption.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship and social organization in general revolve around the extensive clan system, the council of clan elders in each village called the kenesh, and a system of mutual assistance known as veme. Little is known of traditional Udmurt marriage and family life, although it is likely that the large, perhaps extended, farm families became smaller and nuclear in form under Soviet control.

Socialization. Teachers of Udmurt ethnicity have been trained since the second half of the nineteenth century in the Kazan Ethnic Teacher Training Institute. Several course books had been published in the Udmurt language before 1917, but the systematic study and evaluation of these is still to be accomplished. After 1917 an attempt was made in elementary education to increase use of the Udmurt language, even in the teaching of science, but, because there were not enough qualified teachers, bilingualism (Udmurt and Russian) became the typical policy in the newly established schools. Later the Udmurt language was gradually and purposefully pushed into the background and today is used only in the lower grades and in the teaching of Udmurt language and literature. In addition to an Udmurt Teacher's College founded in 1934, the Udmurt State University was established in 1970. Both provide schools with teachers of Udmurt.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Udmurt are often regarded as a people who strongly resisted both czarist and Communist rule, as indicated by political resistance in the villages and by the continued vitality of traditional religious beliefs and practices. Prior to Soviet rule, villages were governed by a village council called the kenesh, composed of the clan elders of the village. Even in the kohlkozy, the kenesh remained influential and a major source of resistance to Soviet control.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe and Practices. The Udmurt people's respect for their traditions is demonstrated by their long adherence to their ancient religion and mythology. In the villages, some information about their beliefs can still be collected, especially from elderly people. Their twofold, anthropomorphized mythology, which is based on nature, took its shape in Permian times; in later centuries it was enriched by only a few Muslim and Orthodox elements concerning certain persons, customs, and objects. Their supreme god is Inmar (corresponding to the Finnish Ilmarinen), and the personified evil is called Sajtan (which is a later loanword). Forests, waters, houses, and even barns have their own spirits, whose names include the word murt (man).

The most prominent person at feasts is the tuno (wise man) who, despite some slight differences, is much like a shaman. The secret locale for ritual sacrifices is a clearing in the forest, the keremet (or lud ). The clans and, later, the kindred families had their own lares and penates, a household sanctuary, and even an altar. Family and public holidays were regulated by strict rules in accord with the rhythm of everyday life activities and the seasons.

Arts. In Udmurt folklore, Turkish (especially Tatar) and then Slavic (primarily Russian) features were integrated into the original Finno-Ugrian (Permian) traditions. Two general types of folklore can be distinguished: the Southern quatrains with fixed rhythm, rhymes, and parallel structures, which bear the marks of Turkish influence, and the Northern songs, which are longer and freer in form and content. These, often improvised, have much in common with the music of other Finno-Ugrians. Folktales and legends are also popular, although the former have lost much of their Udmurt flavor and now differ only in minor ways from other typically European themes and motifs. The legends retain more references to both the Udmurt past and present. Classic historical legends recount wars between different clans and their leaders and between the Udmurt and neighboring ethnic groups (Cheremis and invading Tatars). There were also many legends about clashes with the Russians, but all traces of these were removed by the official cultural policy. There remain a great number of local legends, focusing on the past and the genesis of a settlement, a stream, a hill, or a rock. The tales and legends draw on Udmurt mythology, the vitality of which could not be blunted by Orthodoxy or the later Soviet regime. There are many individual motifs in the less well-known genres (proverbs, riddles, and dramatic customs).

The first Udmurt amateur theater companies were formed after the Revolution andespecially in villageswere essentially vehicles for popularizing new political ideas. The first permanent Udmurt theater with trained actors and directors was established in 1934.


Domokos, Péter (1975). Az Udmurt irodalom története (The history of Udmurt literature). Budapest.

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

Indiana University (1955). "The Votyak." Subcontractor's Monograph, prepared for the Human Relations Area Files. Typescript.

Kappeler, A. (1982). "Russlands erste Nationalitäten." In Das Zarenreich und die Völker der Mittlerer Wolga vom 16. bis 19. Jahrhundert. Cologne and Vienna: Böhlau.

Khristoliubova, L. S., ed. (1986). Sovremennoe gorodskoe naselenie Udmurtii: Obraz zhizni i etnicheskie protsessy sbornik statei (The contemporary urban Udmurt population: The form of lives and ethnic process in the collective state). Ustinov: Naucho-Issledovatelskii Institut pri Sovete Ministrov Udmurtskoi SSR.

Lallukka, S. (1982). Suomalais-ugrilaiset kansat Neuvostoliiton Uusimpien väestön-laskentojen valossa (Finno-Ugric peoples in the postwar Soviet censuses). Helsinki.

Munkácsi, B. (1896). A votják nyelv szótára (Lexikon Linguae Votiacorum ) (Votyak-language dictionary). Budapest.

Svirobokov, Ch. I. (1969). Udmurtskaja ASSR: Ekonomiko-geograficveskij ocverk (Udmurt ASSR: An econogeographic sketch). Izvevsk.

Vikáar, L., and G. Bereczki (1989). Votyak Folksongs. Budapest.

Wasiljev, J. (1902). Übersicht über die heidnischen Gebräuche Aberglauben und Religion der Wotjaken in den Gouvernements Wjatka und Kasan. (Survey of the health practices, superstitions, and religion of the Votyaks in the provinces of Vyatka and Kazan). Helsinki.



views updated May 29 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Votyaks (former)
POPULATION: 637,000 (2002)
LANGUAGE: Udmurt; Russian, Tatar
RELIGIONS: Eastern Orthodox Christianity; native Udmurt religion


The Udmurts are a Finno-Ugric people inhabiting the Russian Federation. In many sources, especially those dating from before 1917, the Udmurts are commonly referred to as Votyaks. The traditional homeland of the Udmurts is bordered to the south and east by the Kama River, a major tributary of the Volga River, and to the west by the Vyatka river, a tributary of the Kama. It is unclear when the ancestors of the Udmurts migrated into this area, but it appears that the Udmurts preceded not only Turkic and Slavic groups in the area, but even other Finno-Ugric groups such as the Maris.

The Udmurts have never lived within their own state, and throughout history they have been the subjects of numerous empires and other states. It is likely that the Udmurts became the subjects of the Volga Bulgarians, a Turkic group who in the early 8th century formed the first state in the Volga region to appear in historical sources. Udmurts first appear in historical sources only in the 12th century, in a travel account of the Arab traveler Abu Hamid al-Gharnati. With the conquest of Volga Bulgaria by the Mongols in the 1230s, the Udmurts found themselves subjects of the Mongol empire, and later the Golden Horde. After the collapse of the Golden Horde in the early 15th century, the Middle Volga region came under the domination of the Kazan Khanate, a Tatar and Muslim state. It was during the late 14th and early 15th centuries that groups of northern Udmurts came under Russian rule, first under the rule of Vyatka, and later under Muscovite rule. It was only in 1552, after the Russian conquest of Kazan, that the entire Udmurt ethnic territory came under Russian domination, and the Udmurts have remained under Russian rule to the present day. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet authorities, in keeping with the policy of granting at least the appearance of cultural and territorial autonomy to the national minorities of the former Russian empire, created the Udmurt Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (UdASSR), which was subordinate to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the former RSFSR as the newly independent Russian Federation, the former Udmurt ASSR remains dependent upon Russia but was renamed the Republic of Udmurtia.


According to the Russian census of 2002, there were 647,000 Udmurts in the Russian Federation, of whom 460,500 inhabited the Republic of Udmurtia. Some 120,000 Udmurts inhabit the neighboring regions of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, the Mari Republic, as well as the Russian oblasts of Kirov, Perm', and Sverdlovsk. In addition, smaller Udmurt communities are located in Siberia (Krasnoiarsk krai), Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and the Ukraine. In the Republic of Udmurtia, Udmurts actu-ally form a minority, numbering about 30% of the population. Russians account for about 60% of the population, and Tatars for 7%.

The Republic of Udmurtia covers a territory of 42,100 square kilometers (16,250 square miles). Before World War II, most of Udmurtia was covered in evergreen and deciduous forests. As a result of severe deforestation that took place in the later Soviet period, Udmurtia's forests have greatly diminished, yet they still cover much of the republic. The average temperature in January is –15º to –14ºc (0º to 2ºf) and the average July temperature is 17º to 18ºc (64º to 66ºf). Udmurtia can be categorized as having a cool continental climate.

The capital of Udmurtia is the city of Izhevsk, with a population of around 700,000. Izhevsk was and continues to be a predominantly Russian city and an important center for the Russian armaments industry.

The Udmurts' traditional economy consists of cereal agriculture, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering forest products. Cereal and other agriculture continue to be the mainstays of the economy in rural Udmurt communities, although manufacturing plays an important role in the overall economy of Udmurtia.


The Udmurt language belongs to the Permian subgroup of the Finno-Ugric language family. It is closely related to the Komi language spoken in the Russian Federation's Komi Republic and more distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. Udmurt is divided into northern, central, and southern dialect groupings, but all dialects are mutually comprehensible, with the exception of the so-called Besermian dialect spoken in northern Udmurtia by approximately 3,000 people as of 2002. This dialect, which some linguists consider a separate language, differs substantially from the other Udmurt dialects. The origins of the Besermians themselves, like their dialect, is also puzzling. They do not consider themselves Udmurts, and it appears that they are descended from Turkic Muslims who settled the region both before and after the Mongol conquests of the 13th century.

Most Udmurts are fluent in their native language, and nearly all are fluent in Russian as well, if not actually native speakers of Russian. Fluency in Tatar is also common in the Udmurt communities located in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

Udmurts typically have a first name, a patronymic (the father's first name), and a surname. Since the imposition of Christianity on the Udmurts in the 18th century, most Udmurts have Russian names such as Ivan, Grigorii and Sergei. However, especially among the southern Udmurts, who remain "unbaptized" to the present day, Muslim and Turkic surnames (such as Gabdulla, and Mukhammed) and given names are frequently encountered, as well as Udmurt "pagan" names.


The Udmurts have a rich folklore tradition consisting of heroic legends, folktales, and an especially rich body of songs. A significant part of Udmurt folklore consists of specifically religious genres such as incantations, spells, and prayers. Similarly, many Udmurt songs are associated with specific religious ceremonies as well as specific festivals and other events such as weddings and funerals.

Of particular interest is the cycle of legends surrounding the heroic figure Eshterek, who typically appears as an Udmurt hero who defends his people from the Tatars. An older layer of historical legends also describes the battles of Udmurt heroes against Mari invaders. Udmurt folklore has retained many mythological features, and many spirits and deities from Udmurt native religion appear in the folklore of both "unbaptized" and Christian Udmurts.


Today the majority of Udmurts professing religious belief are Eastern Orthodox Christians, although a significant minority of Udmurts, especially those inhabiting southern Udmurtia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, have retained their formal adherence to native Udmurt religion and commonly refer to themselves as "unbaptized" Udmurts. Over the centuries Udmurt native religion has by no means remained static, and in fact has proven itself to be rather dynamic. Nevertheless, certain fundamental features can be identified as permanent features of Udmurt native religion. Udmurt native religion had and continues to have a communal orientation, and many of the ritual prayers and sacrifices are held in conjunction with the gathering of the village. Furthermore, Udmurt beliefs and rights are closely connected with both agriculture and the agricultural calendar and the veneration of the spirits of the community's ancestors.

At the summit of the Udmurt pantheon is Inmar, the supreme god. Today, the Christian Udmurts use this term to refer to the Christian God as well. Traditionally, Inmar is conceived of as inhabiting the sky. Inmar's counterpart for the earth is Mu Kyldysyn. Similarly, there are a host of other spirits associated with numerous natural features and phenomena, such as wind, water, forests, and so forth.

Traditionally, Udmurt society itself was structured along religious lines. Udmurt society was divided into approximately 70 clans, and a clan was united not only by kinship but also by the veneration of tutelary spirits known as vorshuds. A vorshud was both a spirit and a shrine at which the members of the clan performed ceremonies and offered sacrifices.


Traditional Udmurt holidays were closely tied to the agricultural calendar and involved feasting, singing, and dancing, as well as prayers and offerings to the ancestors and other spirits. This characterization is equally valid for "unbaptized" Udmurts, and the Christianized ones, because the Eastern Orthodox holidays were themselves closely connected to the agricultural calendar; on that level, the transition from native to Christian holidays did not significantly alter their celebration by the Udmurts. Similarly, Udmurts in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan continue to celebrate the agricultural festivals of their Turkic and Muslim neighbors, such as the Tatar festival of Sabantuy. In Udmurtia, an especially important Udmurt festival is Gerber, the plow festival, which takes place in late June. Among "unbaptized" Udmurts, this festival, involves a sacrifice of a sheep to the field spirits, as well as feasting, dancing, and games, especially horse racing.

During the Soviet era, authorities discouraged the Udmurts' traditional religious holidays, both Christian and native, and the observation of the sanctioned Soviet holidays became widespread among the Udmurts. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Udmurts have continued to celebrate some of these holidays, especially New Year's Day (January 1) and Victory Day (May 9).


Udmurt rites of passage and life-cycle rituals were closely bound with native religious beliefs. These rituals and rites continue to be widely observed among both Christian and "un-baptized" Udmurts. In villages, childbirth usually took place in the family's bathhouse and was attended by a midwife. When the childbirth was successful for both mother and child, the midwife performed a prayer of thanks and gave the child a provisional name, which was changed as the child grew older. Udmurts typically used amulets to protect the child, which was believed especially prone to illnesses borne by harmful spirits.

The most elaborate of the Udmurt rites of passage is the wedding ceremony, which traditionally involved very complex rituals and extensive feasting and other festivities. Of all the native rites of passage, wedding rituals continue to be the most widely observed, especially in rural areas, although civil ceremonies of Soviet origin, especially in urban areas, are also widely observed. Traditional Udmurt wedding rituals varied considerably from region to region. Not only was there specific clothing and specific foods for the rituals, but also a rich repertoire of songs reserved specifically for weddings.

Udmurt burial rituals involved not only the burial of the deceased, but also a series of memorial feasts to ensure the secure transition of the deceased from the realm of the living to the realm of the ancestral spirits. Among "unbaptized" Udmurts, and to a lesser degree among Orthodox Udmurts, the deceased was buried with grave goods, such as food, drink, household articles, and tools.

In addition to these major life-cycle rituals, another important rite of passage for males were ceremonies relating to military conscription. These ceremonies involved prayers for the health and safety of the young man about to be inducted into the Russian or Soviet army, and they obviously took on special significance in wartime.


Udmurt interpersonal relations, including greetings, body language, and gestures, do not substantially differ from those of Russian society as a whole. Both in traditional Udmurt society and in modern times, Udmurts place a strong emphasis on showing hospitality to guests, and between Udmurt guests and hosts there was even a repertoire of songs to be sung.


Traditional Udmurt society was both isolated and relatively impoverished, and during both the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods, Udmurt communities were periodically affected by famine and epidemics. Northern Udmurt were traditionally poor and continue to be so today as a result of the shorter growing season and poor soil of northern Udmurtia. In urban areas, especially in Izhevsk, living standards approximate those of Russian society in general. Very few Udmurts own their own automobiles, and salaries remain low. In rural areas, the standard of living is especially low, and consumer items are both expensive and often inaccessible.

In Udmurt villages, the inhabitants typically live in oneor two-room wooden houses and to a large degree depend on their gardens and family livestock for food. Nearly all villages have electric power, but almost no houses have indoor plumbing. As a rule, water is obtained from wells or streams.

Because very few Udmurts possess their own automobiles, they depend on public transportation. Larger cities are served by an extensive rail and bus system, but in rural areas bus service is very erratic, and many small or remote villages are not served by any sort of public transportation. In these cases, villagers hitch rides with passing trucks or cars, ride horses or horse-drawn wagons, or simply walk from one village to another. All travel in rural areas is exceedingly difficult in winter.


Before World War II, family size was large. Although infant mortality was very high, a woman could frequently have six or more children survive into childhood. In rural areas, child-rearing was to a large degree a communal matter, and children usually found themselves in a large extended family. Beginning in the later Soviet period continuing to the present day, the birth rate among Udmurts has been relatively low, averaging less than two children per family. In modern society, marriage and divorce involve simple civil procedures, and both are easily obtainable. First marriages occur around the age of 20, but there is also a high divorce rate.

Traditionally, and in many rural areas today religious rites, including sacrificial rites, remain an important element in both family cohesion and religious tradition. Families in rural areas retain their own family shrines and ceremonies, which exist alongside larger communal and even regional shrines.


Traditional Udmurt clothing was functional and designed for both agricultural work and harsh winters. Summer clothes were usually made of linen, but wool garments were also worn year-round. In winter, woolen garments, as well as reversed sheepskin coats were worn. Udmurt folk costumes were worn on festive and ceremonial occasions, and these varied considerably from region to region. Typically, the folk costumes of the northern Udmurts were mostly white in color, and featured intricate embroidery. The southern Udmurts wore more colorful clothing and, in terms of fabric and design, their clothing was influenced to a degree by Tatar folk dress. One interesting feature of Udmurt folk costumes was the use of silver coins, which were fastened together as chest ornaments and on headgear, to display the wealth of a woman's family. Elements of traditional clothing are still occasionally worn, especially by older women in rural areas, but the clothing of most Udmurts today differs in no way from that of Russian society as a whole.


The main staples of the Udmurt diet were, and continue to be, cereals such as rye, oats, barley, and to a lesser extent, wheat, all of which were usually baked into bread. In addition, during the Soviet era, potatoes became an important feature of the Udmurt diet. Vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, and onions also played an important role in their diet. The most common types of meat are pork, chicken, mutton, and to a lesser extent, beef. Furthermore, the famous Russian dumpling dish, pelmeni, is said by Udmurts to be of Udmurt origin, coming from the Udmurt words pel' (ear) and nian' (bread). Among common beverages are tea, beer, vodka, and a home-made liquor called kumyshka, which is a necessary element in festive occasions.

Modern-day eating utensils differ in no way from those used in Russia as a whole. Traditional utensils were typically made of wood, and of special note were large spoons, or ladles, which were elaborately and artistically carved, and which were also used in religious libation rituals.

There are usually three meals a day, with the mid-day meal being the heaviest.


Before the Soviet era, the only kind of education afforded Udmurts was what was offered in Russian Orthodox religious institutions; there was no formal educational apparatus for "unbaptized" Udmurts, although there is evidence that some Islamized Udmurts in the 19th century were studying in madrasas of Bukhara. As a result, illiteracy was widespread in Udmurt communities. During the Soviet period, literacy increased substantially, and Udmurts were granted access to Soviet education institutions. Instruction in the Udmurt language, however, was limited to primary schools. In the later Soviet period, Udmurt was dropped as a medium of instruction in Udmurtia itself, and it came to be taught only as a separate subject in an otherwise Russian curriculum; however, Udmurt was retained as a medium of instruction in the Udmurt villages of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Most Udmurts have the equivalent of a high school education. As Russian citizens Udmurts study in the larger universities outside of the republic in Kazan, Ufa, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. More recently Udmurt scholars have been able to study in Finland and Estonia as well.


The richest element of the Udmurts' cultural heritage is their folk culture, which has an amazingly rich collection of music, songs, and other oral traditions. However, in keeping with Soviet nationality policies, after 1917 the Soviet government encouraged and funded the creation of a formal "cultural" apparatus, which included the creation of formal literature, including poetry, prose, and drama, as well as music and visual arts. Thus, in Izhevsk there is an Udmurt theater as well as substantial publishing in the Udmurt language.


In rural areas, the vast majority of Udmurts are engaged in agricultural work, which tends to be organized along the collective system. These collectives are known by the Soviet term kolkhoz. However, because of the limited access to consumer goods, much energy is expended on private plots, where families grow their own potatoes, fruits, and vegetables. Much of the summer is spent preserving fruits, vegetables, and meat for the winter. Urban Udmurts commonly have smaller plots located in the suburbs or in nearby rural communities and likewise expend considerable energy growing and preparing food for the winter and spring.


Traditionally, sports such as wrestling and horse racing took place during festivities. Today spectator sports such as soccer and hockey are popular among Udmurts.


In rural areas, religious festivals and weddings not only fulfilled religious requirements, but they were also important sources of entertainment and recreation. Winter sports such as skating and cross-country skiing are popular recreational activities today, and in urban areas movies, theater, and concerts are also popular forms of entertainment.


Udmurts are especially renowned for their skill in woodworking and in weaving. Although most examples of woodworking and weaving are of a functional nature, the artistic level evident in many works remains very high.


Many of the social problems that plague Russian society as a whole are especially severe in Udmurtia. One of the main social problems is alcoholism, which is endemic throughout Russia, but which is exacerbated in the rural areas of Udmurtia by poverty and the lack of recreational diversions. In addition, Udmurtia's suicide rate is one of the highest in the Russian Federation. Besides these social pathologies, the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union has affected Udmurts no less than the rest of Russian society, resulting in high unemployment and wages that are both low and erratically paid.

Another problem facing the Udmurts collectively is the issue of population decline; the population declined from 746,000 in 1989 to an estimate of 637,000 in 2002. While cultural assimilation is certainly a factor, it appears likely that collectively Udmurts are affected particularly severely by the same sorts of social and health problems causing population decline in the Russian population as a whole.


The role of women in Udmurt society differs in certain ways from the role of women in the neighboring Russian and Tatar communities. Udmurt clans are matrilineal, and therefore some observers of Udmurt family life have suggested that this in some way elevates the status of women. In any case, in both rural and in urban settings, Udmurt women bear the double burden of both agricultural or wage work and child-rearing and domestic duties. In this respect, the position of Udmurt women is equivalent to that of women in Russian society as a whole.

The role of women in Udmurt society changed most drastically after World War II when a large proportion of Udmurt women were mobilized into the industrial workforce. At the same time, Udmurt women began to gain better access to educational opportunities.


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—by A. J. Frank


views updated May 29 2018


Of the 747,000 Udmurts (1989 census), formerly called Votiaks, approximately 497,000 live in the Udmurt Republic, north of Tatarstan, but many live in Bashkortostan. Their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is mutually semiintelligible with Komi, further north. Most are Caucasian, with a remarkable number of redheads, but Asian features also occur.

Southern Udmurts were subjected to the Bolgar Empire from 1000 C.E. on, and later to the Kazan Khanate. After annexing the multinational Viatka Republic (1489), Moscow laid formal claim to all Udmurt lands but controlled only the north. The south was occupied after the destruction of Kazan (1552), yet massive uprisings continued up to 1615. Most Udmurts were forcibly baptized in the mid-1700s, but spectacular anti-animist trials flared as late as 18941896, and 7 percent of Udmurts declared themselves animist in the 1897 census. An Udmurt-language calendar started in 1904 and the first newspaper in 1913.

An Udmurt national congress convened in 1918. A Votiak Autonomous Oblast was formed in 1920 and upgraded to Udmurt Autonomous Republic in 1934. Native-language schooling developed rapidly, but as early as 1931 a trumped-up anti-Soviet "Finno-Ugric plot" decimated the elites. Udmurtia itself became the site of numerous slave labor camps. All Udmurt textbooks were ordered destroyed around 1970.

Udmurtia (population 1.6 million), on the borderline of forest and steppe, is dominated by its capital, Izhkar (Izhevsk in Russian; population 600,000), a major center of Soviet military industry. Russian immigration reduced the Udmurts from 52 percent of the Republic population in 1926 to 31 percent in 1989. Russian passersby chastised those few who dared to speak Udmurt in city streets.

Within the Republic 76 percent of Udmurts consider the ancestral language their main one. Liberalization enabled an Udmurt cultural society to form in 1989. Later called Demen (Together), it spawned an activist youth organization, Shundy (The sun). Udmurtia's Russian-dominated Supreme Soviet proclaimed Russian and Udmurt coequal state languages, but implementation has been limited. In 1991 an Udmurt National Congress established a permanent Udmurt Kenesh (Council). Udmurtlanguage schooling began to develop slowly.

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


Lallukka, Seppo. (1982). The East Finnic Minorities in the Soviet Union: An Appraisal of Erosive Trends. Helsinki: Annales Academiae Scientarum Fennicae.

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

Rein Taagepera