Who are the Mordvin People of Russia?

  • May 26, 2019      Friendly Borders Staff

What lies in the middle of the Volga River basin?

Saransk – This may sound like a strange question at first, but when tourists try to answer that question and feast their eyes on this place, they encounter wonders that are just waiting to be discovered. The answer, after all, is the Republic of Mordoviya (also called Mordovia or Mordvinia).

Mordoviya is a federal subject of Russia on a rolling plain crossed in the east by the Sura River, one of the many tributaries of the Volga River, and bordered in the west by the swampy valley of the Moksha River. This stunning land is also the home of one of the large indigenous peoples of Russia, namely, the Mordvins or Mordvinians. This group is divided into two ethnic groups, namely, the erz´a (Erzya) and mokša (Moksha).

Language differences

Although they are both Mordvins, the Erzya and Moksha have their separate ethnic identities. A significant difference they have is in their respective languages.

The Erzya Mordvins speak their own Erzya language, while the Moksha Mordvins have their own Moksha language. As a result, the two groups cannot easily understand each other when using their respective native languages. They tend to resort to using Russian as a common medium for communication, as all of them are seemingly fluent in Russian due to the more common use of that language over their native tongue.

Moreover, there are smaller subgroups within the communities, that include the Shoksha or Tengushev, Teryukhans, and Qaratays. These three groups are considered Mordvins who were Turkified and Russified in the 19th and 20th centuries. Aside from this, many of the Mordvins do not just live in the capital of Saransk but in the provinces of Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg, Penza, Samara, and Ulyanovsk.

Modern Day Mordvins

Even with the distinction and division of the Mordvins within the republic, they are scattered in various regions and even countries. There are Mordvin groups living in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Chuvashia, Far East, Kazakhstan, Siberia, and even as far as the United States. In fact, less than one-third of the Mordvins still live in Saransk; the remaining two-thirds are scattered in various oblasts, regions, and countries.

Historically, the isolation of the Mordvin as an ethnic group helped in preserving their language and traditions. However, as more of the Mordvins are going out into the world, the number of Mordvins in Russia is steadily declining, which may lead to the loss of their language and cultural practices as they become more acquainted and exposed to Russian language, culture, and practices, instead of them learning and passing on their native cultural identities. Nonetheless, a glimmer of hope remains, as the Mordvin’s practices and beliefs can still be observed in their folk dances and literary heritage. Incorporating these elements in the younger ones’ education can help them learn and preserve these customs. It is up to the community to work on keeping their indigenous language, culture, beliefs, and traditions alive.

Image from Alina Ivanova, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/449163762829147304/