MARIS or Cheremisses

They call themselves mari. They live in three ethnic units: Hill Maris, Meadow Maris and Eastern Maris. The first two of them have also literary languages, Meadow Mari being also used by the Eastern Maris. Earlier official name for them is Cheremis(s).


The Republic of Mari (23,000 sq. km., capital city Yoshkar-Ola) is located at the middle course of the Volga river in the basins of the rivers Vyatka and Vetluga. 52% of the Maris live outside the Mari Republic: in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and in the provinces of Kirov and Yekaterinburg.


Year Population In the Mari Republic Percentage in the Mari Republic Knowledge of the native language Knowledge of the native language in the Mari Republic
1897 375,439        
1926 428,188 59.9% 51.5% 99.3%  
1939 481,600        
1959 504,205 55.4% 43.1% 95.1%  
1979 621,961 49.3% 43.5% 86.7% 93.7%
1989 670,868 48.3% 43.3% 80.9% 88.4%


The Maris are the only Finno-Ugric nation in Russia whose population has increased steadily, in spite of the slight decrease in the use of their native language. The Maris have retained their language better than any other Finno-Ugric nation. The percentage of Maris living in the Mari administrative territory and the proportion of the Maris in the population of the Mari Republic have remained relatively unchanging.


Some Turning Points in the History of the Maris

The past has not been kind to the Maris. They have lived under the subjection of foreign powers ever since the 6th century (551 Ostrogoths, 7th century Bolgars, 1236 Mongols-Tatars, 1552 Russians). Coming under the Russian sphere of influence has proved fatal.

2nd half of the 16th c – defensive battles of the Maris, in the Russian history known as “Cheremiss wars” (1552-1557, 1572-1574, 1581-1584) ended in defeat and, as a chronicler has said, “the marshes, lakes and rivers were filled with the bones of the Maris and the earth saturated with their blood.” Many Maris resettled in the eastward territories, Russian colonisation started;

18th c – the migration of Maris continues under the increased ideological pressure exercised by the Russians (extensive conversion to Orthodoxy). The Mari national territory is divided among the provinces of Kazan, Vyatka and Nizhni Novgorod;

1905-1907 – national awakening of the Maris;

1920 – formation of the Mari Autonomous Province;

1930s – collectivisation and mass repressions, most of the Mari intellectuals are exterminated;

1950s – the rise of a new wave of Russian industrialisation and colonisation;

1960s – rapid decline in the use of Mari language in the community use, Mari language becomes a mere “language of our own village”.

Danger Signs

The Maris are very dispersed (52% are living outside the Mari Republic), there are not many who would resettle in their Republic. The Maris are a minority even in the Mari Republic. Immigration has brought newcomers chiefly into the cities. The percentage of the ethnic Maris in the town population has slowly increased (1959 – 11.3%; 1970 – 15.6%; 1979 – 21.7%; 1989 – 26.1%). Nevertheless, for the Maris urbanisation means Russification. The Russian language is prestigious, because it is the language of government, official business and education. In information and advertisements it occupies the central and most visible position. Since Russian prevails in schools and nursery schools, there are important domains (such as flora and fauna, for example), where young Maris are unable to communicate in their native language. Russian has even penetrated into the family and home sphere (in 1979 13.4% of families spoke Russian at home; in 1985 33.4%) and even becomes the mother tongue (for 11.4% of Maris, 23.3% or urban Maris). Only 5% of Mari children borrow books in the Mari language from the libraries to read. According to a sociological inquiry of 1994, 62.7% of the Meadow Maris and 91.8% of the Hill Maris use only their native language to communicate with their parents, while only 23.3% and 60.9%, respectively, use the native language to communicate with their school-aged children. The Mari language and culture are chiefly upheld by the rural population.

There are obvious examples to demonstrate that the Maris are also ostracised socially. The immigrant Russians are privileged in employment, salaries and in obtaining suitable accommodation. Examples (1985):

Services in dwellings Russians Maris
plumbing 71.9% 38.7%
sewers 64.7% 31.7%
hot water 46.1% 21.3%
gas 75.6% 60.0%
telephone 21.3% 16.4%


Signs of Hope

The Maris have shown their initiative and spirit after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In 1989 the legal national political movement Mari Ushem (Mari Union) was (re-)established, as well as the political party Ushem; the Mari Congress and its elected Council represent the whole Mari nation. Since 1990 Mari schools have been restored, and congregations of their indigenous nature religion have been founded. That a nature religion gets governmental support is unique in the whole Europe.

ENDANGERED URALIC PEOPLES : Maris (Cheremis; Hill, Meadow and Eastern Maris) Maris