Imagine a map of European Russia (you’ll have to imagine it, or dig one up yourself, because I can’t find a good one online [well, here's a sort of decent one]). Fifty miles south of Moscow the Oka River flows toward the east, having risen in the Central Russian hills far to the south, flowed north through Orel, and turned sharply east at Kaluga. At Kolomna it is joined by the Moscow River and proceeds, thus reinforced, to the southeast, past the ancient city of Ryazan, until it makes another sharp turn to the northeast, picks up the mosquito-ridden Moksha River from the south, passes through the even more ancient city of Murom, and finally joins the Volga at Nizhnii Novgorod. The reference books tell you that Nizhnii Novgorod was founded by a Russian prince in 1221. It wasn’t. It was conquered by the armies of Murom, Ryazan, and other Russian towns from the Mordvins, a Finnic people whose main city it had been. The Mordvins, in fact, were the main power between Rus and the Volga Bulgars (both of which were shortly to be overwhelmed by the Mongols), ruling the region between the Oka and the Volga, only a small part of which is left to the truncated Republic of Mordovia after many centuries of Russian encroachment.
Except that there are no Mordvins. I had known that the Mordvin language included two main dialects, Erza (or Erzya; the z is palatal) and Moksha, that had little or no mutual comprehensibility, but I thought it was parallel to, say, Upper and Lower Sorbian. Turns out it’s more like Spanish and Portuguese, if everybody else ignored that distinction and called them both “Iberian.” The “Iberians” wouldn’t like it, and neither do the “Mordvins.” This was brought forcibly to my attention by an impassioned essay called “Erza We Are!” by Mariz Kemal. She will make you feel as bad as I do about referring to “Mordvins,” but I honestly don’t know what the alternative is, since absolutely nobody (except us, of course) has heard of Erza and Moksha. Anyway, hear her out:
Actually, neither Erzas nor Mokshas call themselves “Mordvinians”. Asked about his or her nationality, any Erza would say, “Mon Erza”. The only person to say “Mon Mordvin” is Prof. N. Mokshin who has nothing left to do, for he has defended his thesis on that subject. Yet Erza people, the true Erzas, consider the word “Mordvinian” to be a nickname. This is our common feeling. We do not like the word; indeed, who would be pleased to have been registered under a nickname for life? Once I was told by a school teacher from Orenburg District (the home to about 100 000 Erzans) that when young Erzan boys and girls obtain their passports, they prefer to be registered under virtually any nationality—most often Russian—but Mordvinian. If only they could have the “Erza” fixed in their passports, that would surely change the whole matter. I am used to people complaining of this situation. No one, however, has courage to question those who hold power: none dares to raise a voice of protest against being nicknamed throughout one’s life.
Archaeologists have traced the division between the two peoples—Erza and Moksha—back to the beginning of the new era and possibly to an even earlier period. The separation completed by the 7th century. By the 12th century Erza and Moksha were already two different nations with culture, languages and anthropological types distinctively of their own.
The best way to preserve for the future these two languages—and the two nations as well—is to reject the idea of mixing Moksha and Erza into a single Mordvinian nation. The Finno-Ugrian world has already suffered great losses as a result of such “fusions”. Let us recall the Meria, the Murom, the Viess, the Chud, the Meschera…
I am Erza and I declare: let my people never be mentioned in the list of those gone. My nation must survive and enter the 21st century bearing the name of Erza!