They call themselves vepslaine, bepslaane, lüdinik, lüdilaine (pl. vepslaized, bepslaazed, lüdinikad, lüdilaized). The Russian sources have previously referred to the Vepses with the names Ves´ and Chud´. In colloquial Russian, Vepses are usually called Chukhar or Chukhna (usually disdainfully).
The original Vepsian territory comprises the area between three lakes, Ladoga, Onega and Beloye Ozero, where today they live in three separate groups in seven districts of three provinces: in the Republic of Karelia – 5954, in the Leningrad Province – 4273, Vologda Province – 728, St. Petersburg – 368 (1989). The borders between the administrative units divide the Vepsian territory, and so in all administrative units Vepses find themselves on the borderland. One of their writers, Anatoli Petukhov believes that the main reason for their assimilation is the lack of a common administrative territory. Very few Vepses actually know how many Vepses there are and where they live.
The census figures of 1970 and 1979 are not objective, but reflect the arbitrariness and discretionary opinions of the officials in registering the nationality. The ethnicity of the Vepses has been falsified in their personal identification documents and in the record books of the village councils. Incorrect information has also been presented by the Vepses themselves, as they are afraid to identify themselves in public as Vepses. An inquiry which was conducted by ethnologists in 1983 showed that there were up to 13,000 Vepses on the territory of the former Soviet Union, of whom 5,600 lived in Karelia, approximately 4,000 in the Leningrad Province and less than 1,000 in the Vologda Province.
Turning Points in the History of the Vepses
10th c – the Slavic invasion on the Vepsian territory begins;
1478 – the Vepsian territory is incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The continued pressure of the Russian settlement moving on to the North leaves only isolated islands of Vepses in their historical territory;
1930s – The violent policy of the Soviet Union against the small nations does not leave the Vepses untouched. The so-called “accelerated” assimilation of the Vepses begins. All national cultural activity is stopped: schools are closed down, textbooks burned, teachers imprisoned, many Vepsian intellectuals pay with their lives for their ethnicity;
1937 – the Vepsian national village councils are stripped of their rights;
1939 – the national districts in the Leningrad Province are eliminated and the territories are divided among the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Republic, Leningrad and Vologda provinces, so that they fall into the borderland areas.
World War II – Finns occupy the territory of the Vepses of Lake Onega. Many Vepses join the national battalion of the Finnish military as volunteers. The returning Soviet authorities punish them severely for their alleged collaboration with Finns.
After the War – young people begin to migrate to the cities, into the Russian language and cultural environment. The composition of the population in the Vepsian villages is disproportionate, there are very few young people. Most of the Vepses in the Leningrad and Vologda provinces who speak their native language are over 40 years of age.
Since the 1930s there has been organised effort to direct immigrants to the Vepsian territory of Lake Onega, which has reduced the proportion of Vepses to approximately 50%.
A hopeful sign is perhaps the re-establishment of a national district around Lake Onega in Karelia and the introduction of the Vepsian language instruction at schools.
ENDANGERED URALIC PEOPLES
www.suri.ee: Karelia, Karelians and Vepsians