Erza We Are!

Mariz Kemal


I was eleven or twelve that summer. My elder brother, twenty-year-old, was living in the town. I remember him coming to the country to visit us on his day-off with his friend, a Russian guy. First, as usual, the guest was treated to food; after the meal the young men got out of the house to smoke a cigarette. Having the dishes done, I hopped out: I was curious, indeed! Meanwhile, my brother left for the cellar to fetch us kvass. His Russian friend, a tall and smiling buy, ruffled my whitish locks with his huge palm and said, ‘What about you, my little Mordvinian, do you go for a swim or what?’

I had an unpleasant feeling. I pouted and grumbled, ‘Well, I do swim. But I am not a Mordvinian’.

The boy was confused.

‘But who are you?’

‘I am Erza. And my mom and dad are Erza, too. And my brothers are also Erza…’

He looked at me in amazement, pondered and asked,

‘But who the Mordvinians are in this case?’

‘I don’t know. People who live in our village are all Erza. Maybe Moksha are Mordvinians?’

The Russian boy was struck dumb.

‘Very strange. I was speaking to Moksha the other day. They said that, too: we are not Mordvinians, we are Moksha and the Mordvinians are Erza.’

This story from my childhood outlines rather distinctly the subject I would like to treat.

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.

After the October Revolution many kindred nations had wisdom to reinstate their real names. Udmurts are no more referred to as ‘Votyaks’, Mari as ‘Cheremisses’, Laplanders as ‘Lopars’, Estonians and Finns are no more ‘White-eyed Chukhna’ as the ‘Great Russians’ once used to scoffingly call them. Neither a Ukrainian has in his passport the word ‘Maloross’ (‘small Russian’) or ‘Khokhol’, nor a Russian is nicknamed as “Moskal” or ‘Katsap’ – the names other Slavs called Russians in the past. Not so with Erza. They cannot be proud of having been wise in the 1920s when it was the right time to get rid of the wrong name. If those who agreed to retain the name only knew that their grandchildren would shrink from the word and curse them nowadays!

‘Mordvinians’ – who are they?

It is a fact that neither Erzas nor Mokshas call themselves Mordvinians nor even have the word in their languages. If so, where did it come from? And what does this word mean, after all?

From historical sources we can learn that peoples called ‘Merens’ and ‘Mordens’ were first mentioned by Jordan, an Alanian monk, in the sixteenth century. In his book The Provenance and Deeds of the Gothic People Jordan mentioned them among other peoples of the Volga area who paid tribute to Hermannarich, the Gothic king.

As to the meaning of the word ‘Mordens’ (in other sources, ‘Merdens’) that later was transformed to ‘Mordva’ by Slavs, there are different opinions.

The first version is that, probably, foreign travellers regarded the often used word mirde as meaning ‘the man’, i.e. the name of the nation. The second version is based on the assumption that five or six thousand years ago there existed the Great Finno-Ugrian Empire. It was ruled by strong and healthy people known for their bravery. They never took prisoners; their war trophies were the enemies’ skulls hung to their saddles as the token of courage. Their neighbours called this tribe Mordens or Merdens, meaning ‘those who grant death’. There are other hypothesises as well. Anyway, the name was given to us by others – we do not have anything like that in our language. On the other hand, Erza has connection with the words eritsia, eriaza, erjams (‘inhabitant’, ‘lively’, ‘life’ respectively).

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.

I. N. Smirnov, a Russian ethnographer, in his report The Mordvinians (1895) gives the following description:

‘The difference between Erzas and Mokshas is observed clearly in both the physical type and peculiarities in the way of life.

A close look at the Mokshan crowd brings to a conclusion that Mokshas present a wider variety of types as compared with the Erzas’ features. Next to the fair-headed and grey-eyed individuals with light skin that make up the Erzan crowd, here we find a great number, probably the majority of people who have black hair, black eyes and dark complexion. A Moksha mostly has a round face, the same as an Erza, but the texture differs. We would not take the risk to characterise the difference in terms of anatomy or anthropology, but it should be noted that the round-faced Mokshan type is closer to that of the Tatar and Chuvash.

The Erza and Moksha dialects differ phonetically, as well as lexically. A Moksha and an Erza, if they do not happen to come from neighbouring villages, are unable to understand each other.’

Some scholars hold to an idea of uniting Erza and Moksha into one ‘Mordvinian’ nation. Efforts directed at ‘consolidation of Erza and Moksha’ have been made for many decades but, luckily enough, unsuccessfully. Mordvinisation, should it happen, would ruin both nations because, as a result, Russians are produced. It was history itself that gave birth to the variety of Finno-Ugrian ethnic groups, and it would not come into anyone’s mind now to fuse them all into just one nation. Not so with Erza and Moksha. Even some Finnish and Hungarian specialists insist on the ‘Mordvinian’ nation with its ‘Moksherzan’ language, being ignorant about the situation with two different peoples. One of them, to my pity, is L?szlo Keresztes, a Hungarian linguist whose report I attended a few years ago at a symposium arranged by the ‘Vaigel’ Society. With no doubts whatsoever, dear L?szlo used the above-mentioned term ‘Moksherzan language’, though he himself knew that this language was non-existent and that he presented his report in perfect Erza (I cannot but appreciate the latter).

On the other hand, a group of Mokshan linguists (Feoktistov, Alyoshkin) suggests an idea of creating a single ‘Mordvinian’ language. They ignore the fact that Moksha and Erza are languages already formed; there are textbooks, works of literature, newspapers and magazines published in both. Supporters of this theory offer to invent a mixed Erza-Moksha language based on the dialect used in a couple of villages. And what about hundreds and thousands of others who speak fluent Erza – would it be necessary to ‘correct’ them and teach the ‘right’ Mordvinian language? This absurd situation would surely damage both the Erza and Moksha languages. For instance, the word ‘mother’ is avai in Erza and tädäze in Moksha; ‘father’ is tetyai and aläze, respectively; ‘cow’ is skal in Erza and traks in Moksha. How to construct the corresponding Mordvinian word? The same way like the invented word ‘Moksherza’?

The very sound of this comic word ‘Moksherza’ – half-Moksha, half-Erza – reminds of those absurd names we have already had: Chechenoinguch, Kabardinobalkar, Czechoslovak. I wonder how it did not occur to the Soviets to invent something like ‘Russoukrainian’, ‘Russobyeloruss’, ‘Tatarobashkir’. I know for sure that Finland is inhabited by Finns and Swedes. Nevertheless, there is no such nationality like Suomiswedes or Swedefinns!

Two languages – two nations

The manner not to call things by their proper names produces confusion, misunderstanding between colleagues, and sometimes even hostility. But that happens for the benefit of the authors of dissertations who made their career on the ‘Mordvinian’ theme. Suppose that one fine day the ‘Mordvinian’ nation is recognised officially as nonexistent: then, pardon, what was the life-work of Mr. so-and-so? Actually, the ‘Mordvinian scientists’ are moved by sheer personal interest in their struggle against true patriots who strive for restoration of their nation’s actual name.

Erza and Moksha are two nations from the one original Finnish mother. This must be generally recognised as a matter of fact. The vanishing people today are not the rather strange ‘Mordvinians’: two languages and therefore two nations are russified. The trick with the ‘Mordvinian’ concept must be finished with, to permit us see the real situation.

Strictly speaking, there are about a million-strong Erza people scattered all over the Russian Federation (only 160 thousand live in the Mordvinian Republic) and 300 to 350 thousand-strong Moksha people of whom 170 thousand live in the Republic. The figures may not be exact minding the fact that we are registered en masse as Mordvinians. Nevertheless they demonstrate the unequal rights the two nations are presented with.

The Erzan people does not have an administrative unit of their own. As the Mordvinian Republic has no positive effect on the nation’s destiny, Erzas are not protected against assimilation. As time goes, they dissolve in the Russian nation like sugar in water. No wonder every general census of population shows that my people get less in number.

In the 1st issue of the Inf, an article by A. V. Alyoshkin was published, entitled ‘The Mordvinians’. The author himself is Moksha and a supporter of the idea of a ‘single nation’. In his article he takes a strong line and repeats over and over the term ‘Moksherza’ (in the Russian version, ‘Mordvinian’).

In my thoughts I often return to the Moksha intellectuals: why are they particularly stubborn in clinging to this absurd theory? Is this a sort of fear of becoming independent in this large world?

Let us take a look at Erza in this aspect. Erza resisted Christianity for a longer period than Moksha did (mind the uprising with Nesmeyan Vassilyev and Kuzma Alekseyev as leaders). The Erzas produced a greater number of active and talented people: Patriarch Nikon, priest Avvakum, singer L. Ruslanova, the first researcher in permafrost in Russia M. Sumgin, the revolutionary R. Bodiazhin, a member of the Tsarist Duma and writer S. Anikin, enlighteners A. Yurtov, M. Yevsevyev, A. Ryabov; the great sculptor Erzya, poet Y. Kuldirkayev. During the Civil War and the Great Patriotic War a number of gifted military leaders were of Erza origin: Chapayev, Kutyakov, Frolov, Purkayev. I am convinced that among the sixty ‘Mordvinians’ awarded as Heroes of the Soviet Union most were Erzas.

It is significant that nowadays, with the awaking of national feelings, Erzas were the ones to organise the Mastorava Society headed by the late professor D. T. Nadkin, also an Erza. Hence it is not surprising that in periods of repression, losses among Erza are more tangible.

In the meantime, Erzas have three societies officially registered and active in the Mordvinian Republic: the Movement for Equal Rights ‘Erzanh Mastor’, the Foundation for Saving the Erza Language bearing the name of Prof. Ryabov, and the Women’s Association ‘Erzava’. These organisations are clear evidence of the Erzas’ desire for independence that years of colonial policy failed to abolish.

Returning back to the problem of a joint nation, one has to confess that only the people that has one native language can be actually united. Though Russian language has become the only language in the country, it was not the mother tongue but acquired as a common language. Were the Mokshas to change their language to Erza, they would become a part of Erza nation or, vice versa, would Erzas turn to the Moksha language and lose their nationality, then it would be a united Moksha nation. These are imaginary situations, though. 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!