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!


  1. 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

    What about them? Have they disappeared as a result of “fusions”? As far as I recall, very little is known about these peoples, except for the place-names they left behind. Chud’ and Muroma are mentioned in Lithuanian chronicles, but there’s not a lot of linguistic infor in there. If anybody has more information, please share!

  2. David Marjanović says

    Have they disappeared as a result of “fusions”?

    They “fused” into the Russians, not (just) with each other.

    For about half the total knowledge on all these languages, go here

  3. Meshchera (also known as Russian Meshchera , Meshchera, meshcheryaki) is a sub-ethnic group of Russians who inhabited the Meshchersky land (the left bank of the Oka, mainly the Pra river basin) in the Ryazan and Tambov provinces. Separate “islands” of the Meshcherian population were found in the Penza and Saratov provinces….

    According to the classification proposed in “Russian Sub-ethnic groups: the Problems of Isolation and Classification” by V.S. Buzin and S. B. Egorov, on the basis of origin factor, the Meshchera belongs to so-called groups of mixed origin, formed during colonization of new lands by the Slavs, in which the Russians were not isolated from the autochthonous population, but entered into close contacts with it, which also included inter-ethnic marriages. The result of such contacts was the mutual transfer of many cultural traits and the mixing of anthropological types — specific groups were formed (during Russian assimilation of the local population or metisation with it) with a certain share of the Russian component and forming of Russian self-consciousness.

    from Russian Wiki article on Meschera

  4. Dmitry Pruss says

    One of the theories about Meschera is that they’ve become Mishar Tatars, known in Russian as Mesheriaks. An old commenter juha here is of Mishar stock, as are my good Tatar friends in Moscow, so I guess we are the only two who ever touched upon this topic on LH. For example here (link gets swallowed I guess but search for Mishar or Khashoggi

  5. By some counts there are also two further “Mordvin” ethnicities: the Shoksha (often folded into Erzya) and the Karatay (Tatar-speaking but not Tatar-identifying).

    “Viess” (Весь, usually Latinized as Ves’) is normally considered cognate with Veps — but there’s very little evidence of the modern Finnic-speaking Vepsians to have ever been far enough south to be noticed by Arab geographers, or even in the areas near Lake Beloye where Russian chronicles place them. An interesting recent hypothesis goes that these earlier Veps were some non-Finnic group, and the name was transferred also to some of their northwestern vassals (among whom the name Ludes is likely more original: the “Ludian” language varieties are heterogeneous, and indeed also the speakers of “Northern Veps” call themselves Ludes).

  6. One of the theories about Meschera is that they’ve become Mishar Tatars, known in Russian as Mesheriaks.

    Something about the Meschera can be found here (in Russian):

  7. Dmitry Pruss says

    Yes, the volume on Meschera regional studies cied by juha even features a subsection on Meschersky Yurt, a historical administrative unit of the Mescheryaks, with Mishar Tatar research in it

  8. Mordvin languages in the field
    HELSINKI 2016

    Более 14 тысяч слов

  9. Dmitry Pruss at FB links to a study showing that the Moksha (mentioned above) are genetically a completely separate people from the Erzyans among whom they live.

  10. David Marjanović says

    In the top right corner there’s a cheat button that changes lang=ru to lang=en. From the conclusions:

    Remarkably, two ancestral components identified in the Mordovian gene pool can be traced in almost all populations within the studied geographic area, regardless of their linguistic affiliation, which allows us to suggest that genetic portrait of pre-Slavic population of the studied geographic area included two main “colors” preserved in the modern gene pool of Mordovia.

    Equally remarkably, the two names are nowhere mentioned in the text or the figures & tables; the components are called “Mordovian-1” and “Mordovian-2”.

  11. In the top right corner there’s a cheat button that changes lang=ru to lang=en.

    So there is! I didn’t even notice.

  12. Dmitry Pruss says

    I relied on the statement in the text that they tested 3 Mordovia populations, Erzya, Moksha and Shoksha, and on the three dots on the map designating sampled areas. My conclusion is that the genetically standalone population in the NW corner of the region is the Shoksha, while Moksha and Erzya are similar. A smaller group than the main two, the Shoksha are linguistically close to Erzya but live among the Moksha and share some cultural heritage with the latter.

  13. Yep — Shoksha is spoken in NW Mordovia, Moksha in the NE, mainline Erzya in the south and center.

    I suspect this is genetic drift case similar to Eastern Finns.

  14. Dmitry Pruss says

    genetic drift case similar to Eastern Finns.

    a reasonable idea … do you have any references to how these sorts of ADMIXTURE plots work in Finland’s regions?

  15. I seem to recall a novel where a Russian was racist towards a person he assumed to be Mordvin (or at least used Mordvin as an insult), and it was sci-fi, by I cant remember which one it was. That’s the first time I encountered Mordvin.

  16. You’re right, it was Generation «П»:

    Спрятав визитку в карман, он повернулся к потоку машин и поднял руку. Такси остановилось почти сразу.

    Таксист был толстощеким увальнем с выражением сосредоточенной обиды на лице. У Татарского мелькнула мысль, что он похож на переполненный водой презерватив, которого достаточно слегка коснуться чем-нибудь острым, чтобы он выплеснулся на окружающих одноразовым водопадом.

    — Скажите, — спросил Татарский неожиданно для себя, — вы случайно не знаете, что такое русская идея?

    — Ха, — сказал водитель, словно только и ждавший этого вопроса. — Я тебе сейчас расскажу. Я же сам мордвин наполовину. Так вот, когда я в армии служил, в первый год, в учебке, там один сержант был по фамилии Харлей. «Я, — говорил, — мордву и чурок ненавижу!» Посылал меня зубной щеткой очко драить. Два месяца, сука, надо мной издевался. А потом вдруг приходят к нам в учебку сразу три брата-мордвина — и все штангисты, ты себе можешь представить? Кто здесь, говорят, мордву не любит?

    Водитель счастливо засмеялся, и машина широко вильнула на дороге, чуть не выскочив на встречную полосу.

  17. LH: well, what can I say. Pelevin is weird and and also a good storyteller. I don’t really like him.

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