In the Ural regions of Russia, Finland's linguistic roots live on

Ville Ropponen in the Kolyma, a region in the Russian Far East. Photo used with permission.

Russia's linguistic diversity is as expansive as the country itself.

One language grouping represented in Russia is the Uralic languages, whose name comes from the Ural mountains, located in Central Russia at the geographic border between Europe and Asia. They include 38 languages, most of them spoken in the eponymous region. There are around 25 million speakers of Uralic languages worldwide. However, there are vast differences in their status.

Three Uralic languages benefit from state protection as they are official and the predominant languages in their respective countries: Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian (the latter also enjoys official protection in Hungary's neighbouring countries). The remainder are spoken by much smaller communities living mostly in Russia, as well as Latvia, Norway and Sweden. While some Uralic languages, such as Mari or Udmurt, have between 500,000 to 300,000 speakers, others have about 30,000 speakers, such as the Sámi languages. Others, such as Nganasan, are now believed to be spoken by fewer than 100 people. In Russia, while Uralic languages are officially recognised in the constitution and in theory provided certain cultural rights, new laws have further threatened the passing of minority languages to the next generation of speakers.

The status of smaller Uralic languages is of great interest to Finns, Hungarians and Estonians. For them, the Mari, Udmurt, Komi and Erzya are distant cousins — and endangered ones. One such Finn is Ville Ropponen, a traveller, non-fiction writer, poet and literary critic. He has visited Russia's Uralic communities extensively over the years and in 2012 published Uralilainen ikkuna (“The Window of the Urals”), a collection of essays on language and travel.

Ropponen shared his thoughts about the past, present and uncertain future of the Uralic languages and their speakers. The interview was edited for brevity and style. Links and notes were added in quotes to provide more background.

Filip Noubel (FN): How did you get involved in this field as a Finn who speaks a Uralic language and decided to travel to Russia where most indigenous Uralic people live?

Ville Ropponen (VR): As I described in my book of essays ”The Window of the Ural”, I first got involved with Uralic languages and people from the Finno-Ugric territories of Russia when I studied in Estonia as an exchange student at the beginning of the 2000s. After that I made several trips to Finno-Ugric areas, the regions of Mari El, Udmurtia and Mordovia [in the Russian Federation], and in 2005 a longer journey which included areas in Siberia to gather information and material. I wanted to write more deeply about the Finno-Ugric languages, cultures and peoples in Russia today. Of course for a Finn, the Volga River and Ural mountains are half-mythological places, where you imagine your ancestors once lived before they decided to rush to the West.

In the 19th century many Finnish scholars travelled to Russia to research the languages and cultures of the Uralic peoples. It was also connected to the rise of Finnish cultural nationalism. Before and after Finnish independence [from Imperial Russia] of 1917, there were many connections between Finland and Russia, among cultural circles that sometimes included Udmurts and other Finno-Ugric nations. But Stalinist purges during the 1930s ended this and all connections between [us] were lost for decades. 

In my book of essays I also try to imagine what it is to be a representative of a small linguistic minority in the era of globalisation, global warming and ecological crises, and once again, rising nationalism and imperialism. Of course today the rights of indigenous and minority peoples are more widely discussed at the national and international level. 

FN: Is there a common Uralic identity? In your collection of essays, you use the terms of postcolonialism and ethno futurism to approach this question. Can you expand on this?

VR: At this moment, there is no common Uralic identity. Or if there is, it is only constructed and shared by the Finno-Ugric intelligentsia the way Benedict Anderson describes the notion of ”imagined community”.

Ethnofuturism is an artistic movement which began in Estonia 1989 as a form of postmodernist and nonconformist thinking and as a postcolonial movement. One of its goals is to combine local as well as national cultural tradition with international cultural influences, the world of internet and robotics, together with the world of rituals, myth and ancient customs. During the 1990s, ethnofuturism became widely popular in Finno-Ugric areas of Russia. That was understandable, because both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union were empires, based on the rule of Russian language, of Russian and Slavic people. During the 1990, the minorities of Russia succeeded to improve their cultural and linguistic rights. But unfortunately during the Putin era, thus since the year 2000, almost all of these rights and autonomy have been lost.

Decentralisation, the deconstruction of hierarchy and the dissolution of binary opposites are important factors in the philosophy of ethnofuturism. The idea is to move the cultural focus from the center of empires to the outskirts, the wilderness, liminal points between civilisations. Ethnofuturists want to learn from aboriginal cultures and thinking, while maintaining a connection to the postmodern world.

FN: What about the politics around Uralic languages? More recently Russia passed a law that makes the learning of minority languages no longer compulsory in schools of areas with significant speakers of minority languages. Why is this issue so sensitive in Russia given the extremely small number of speakers of Uralic languages?

VR: After the collapse of Soviet Union, there was much hope in Russia about democracy, multiculturalism and a pluralistic society. But especially since the 2010s ”thaw” ended, everything which is independent, even in the slightest form, and is not mainstream is considered a threat. As always, it is a question of money and power.

I have been denied a visa once, that was in 2005. The official reason of denial was that we didn't “register our visas properly”, which was of course a false reason. Russian security service officials interrogated us after a visit to the Mari El Republic, where we had interviewed cultural activists and people who had been politically oppressed. During that time the Mari El Republic was one of the first Russian regions to witness such state-sponsored harassment of ethnic minorities.

Unfortunately Russia is falling back to becoming an authoritarian empire, and today some scholars are even speaking about fascism. This is very sad. Russia and its people deserve better.

FN: What are your views on the survival and future of those languages? Is digitalisation happening for them and can it save them, or some of them? Or are other means more effective?

VR: I think they will survive. One hundred years ago, we asked the same questions: ”Will these small languages survive?”. They still do. But of course today there are more threats to minority languages, because the volume and power of big majority languages, which are sometimes called ”killer languages” is so huge. Digitalisation and the internet have helped some languages, for example Mordvian or Udmurt. There is a project to make Wikipedia pages in Mordovian languages (in both Erzya and Moksha). And in Udmurtia, there are many interesting linguistic projects, which try to improve the language's situation using the internet.

What is to to be done? That is a difficult question, because it is a political one. For example, these kind of laws you mentioned are very bad for minorities. Over the last 20 years, Russian law has been constantly changed to the detriment of minorities. But we have to hope for the better. Maybe there will be a change in Russia, who knows, maybe quite soon, and Russian politics will again take a more democratic and pluralistic direction.

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