The Mordvins (also Mordva, Mordvinians) are among the larger indigenous peoples of Russia. They speak languages of the Finno-Volgaic branch of the Uralic language family. They consist of two major subgroups, the Erzya and Moksha. The Mordvins have not consolidated as a nation. Both tribes have their ethnic identity, even though statistics never make a distinction between the two.
The Mordvins are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Russia, with a population of over 1.15 million. The traditional homeland of the Mordvins are the Moksha and Sura river valleys and their tributaries.
The Republic of Mordovia is located at the Volga-Oka river basin (26 200 sq. km., capital city Saransk) where only 27.2% of the Mordvins live. Most of the Mordvins are dwelled in groups in the provinces of Samara, Penza, Orenburg, Ulyanovsk and Nizhni-Novgorod, partly also in Central Asia and Siberia.
• the Erzya people or Erzyans, (Erzya: Эрзят/Erzyat), speakers of the Erzya language. Less than half of the Erzyans live in the autonomous republic of Mordovia, Russian Federation, Sura River and Volga River. The rest are scattered over the Russian oblasts of Samara, Penza, Orenburg, as well as Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Bashkortostan, Siberia, Far East, Armenia and USA.
• the Moksha people or Mokshans, (Moksha: Мокшет/Mokshet), speakers of the Moksha language. Less than half of the Moksha population live in the autonomous republic of Mordovia, Russian Federation, in the basin of the Volga River. The rest are scattered over the Russian oblasts of Samara, Penza, Orenburg, as well as Tatarstan, Siberia, Far East, Armenia, Estonia, Australia and USA.
The Mordvin language began to diverge into Moksha and Erzya over the course of the 1st millennium AD. Erzyans lived in the northern parts of the territory, close to where is Nizhny Novgorod nowadays. The Mokshans lived further south and west of present Mordovia, living closer to the neighboring Iranian, Bolgar and Turkic tribes became under their cultural influence.
Turning Points in Their History
The roots of the present situation go deep into their history. The Mordvins have been under the rule of foreigners since the 3rd century (Ostrogoths in the 3rd century, Bolgars in the 8th century, Mongols and Tatars in 1236, Russians since 1552). Thereafter the most significant periods in their history have been:
16th c – Russian colonisation and economic supremacy force the Mordvins to move east;
1671 – the uprising led by S. Razin is suppressed, 1/10 of Mordvins are killed; 2/3 of the Mordvins leave their settlements to escape the forced conversion to Orthodoxy. This was the beginning of their current dispersed settlement;
1743-45 – brutal crushing of Teryushevsky’s revolt; Nesmeyan Vasilyev, leader of the Erzyas, is burned at the stake;
1804 – another uprising against Russians fails, which puts an end to the active resistance of the Mordvins;
1920 – due to famine, local officials encourage Mordvins to migrate to Siberia; 1928 – the district of Mordovia is created in the Central Volga region; areas settled by Mordvins are brought under different administrative territories; 1930s – collectivisation and mass repressions, famine before and after the Second World War;
1950s – continued industrialisation and colonisation encourage assimilation and the destruction of ethnic culture (especially in cities).
The number of Mordvins and their knowledge of their mother tongue began to decrease in 1939. Their percentage of the total population in their ethnic Republic is also decreasing (38.5% in 1959, 34.2% in 1979 and 32.5% in 1989). After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Morvins, like other indigenous peoples of Russia, experienced a rise of national consciousness.
The Mordvins are the most dispersed of the Finno-Ugric peoples: in 1989 72.8% of them lived outside their Republic. They are a minority even in their own Republic (32.5% in 1989), especially small is their proportion in the cities (16.8% in 1970). Another serious problem facing the Mordvins is Russification (legally forcing Russian language and culture in other ethnic groups).