Information Centre of Finno-Ugric Peoples
Press release 02 August 2005
Press releases by the Estonian Institute for Human Rights:
ESTONIAN STUDENTS CAUGHT IN THE WHEELS OF RUSSIA'S INTERNAL POLITICS
On August 31, the 28th Finno-Ugric expedition of the Estonian Art Academy returned home from Russia where it was visiting republics of Chuvashia and Mari El to study local culture. For many years, such expeditions for art students to Finno-Ugric regions of Russia have been arranged each summer. This time, however, after normally working for two weeks in Chuvash republic, the expedition met with difficulties in the Mari republic.
One the day of its arrival to Mari El (21 July), the expedition was deported back to Chuvashia by officials who said that security could not be ensured to foreign residents, and pointed that the local administration had not been notified of the expedition, although the day of its arrival was agreed with the Ministry of Culture of Mari El. The permission for arrival was given four days later. Later, the officious press started accusing the expedition in all sins. These reports were rather contradictory. The expedition was accused in entering the Mari republic secretly, in conducting intelligence studies, in asking provocative questions and in behaving eccentrically. The students were accused in visiting mountain villages on their own without witnesses, although this has been practiced by folklore collectors for over two centuries. Some students were falsely accused in violating the visa regime. All this closely reminded the Soviet newspapers of the 1930s, with their horror stories about foreigners.
Participants in the expedition Mrs. Kadri Viires, Head of the Department of Folk Art at the Estonian Art Academy, and Mr. Jean-Loupe Roussellot , Vice Director of the Ethnography Museum in Munich, Germany, commented on those articles in their interview to the Information Centre of Finno-Ugric Peoples.
On 11 July, teachers and students of the Art Academy, accompanied by J.-L. Roussellot and two teachers from the Antwerp Art School, arrived at Cheboksary, the capital city of Chuvashia. Mr. Roussellot described the work in Chuvashia: 'The expedition was very well prepared. We knew where we were going to be and for how long. Thanks to the Humanitarian Institute in Cheboksary, the ten days we spent there were a very rewarding time."
When the Humanitarian Institute contacted the Mari Ministry of Culture on 18 July, the latter recommended to arrive at the Mari town of Kozmodemyansk on 21 July, said Mrs. Viires. After the arrival, however, they were transported back to Cheboksary, accompanied by a police escort.
Commenting on their deportation from Mari El, Mr. Rousselot said that for him "it is not exceptional to experience this kind of moving around, being pushed on the one side by the native organisations and on the other side by the officials." He recalled similar cases from his work with the native Americans and the Eskimos: "When they started deporting us back to Cheboksary, it was exactly the same when I am coming to the Indian reservation. [...] The Eskimos may say one thing and the white man from the federal bureau of Indian affairs may say something else." He found no mistakes on behalf of the organisers: " I cannot say what was wrong in the organisation of the expedition, I don't see any wrongdoing".
"To conclude, I think that we wasted our time but it was only two or three days. I think that we are guests and we must follow the rules and laws of the country where we are arriving. I have no idea about the Russian laws and I am not interested to know more about the Russian law: indeed I want to know more about the art, the architecture and the way of life. I think we were caught in the middle of an internal conflict of Russian institutions", said Mr. Rousselot.
The anti-Estonian paranoia of Mari El authorities might be caused by the Estonians speaking the Russian language 'too well' and therefore being able to converse with the locals without mediators. The local administration, however, strives to control and censor all information that goes outside. The officials might be in trouble with having not enough personnel to spy on all participants of the expedition.
The Estonian Art Academy has organised Finno-Ugric expeditions every summer since 1978. Almost all Finno-Ugric peoples have been visited by now, of them 20 times in Russia. Expeditions were also made to Ukraine, Latvia, Romania, Finland, Norway and Estonia. This year, folk art of the Chuvashes was studied for the first time. The Chuvashes belong to the Turkic-Tatar language group but their culture is similar to that of the Maris.
The primary aim of these expeditions is recording the folk culture of Finno-Ugric peoples: ethnographic objects and other ethnographic material are sketched, measured, photographed or recorded on video. Copies are always sent the museums of the peoples visited by these expeditions.
It is no less important that the young artists can see the visual world of their kindred peoples and remember their ethnic roots. Participating in the expeditions are junior students from various faculties. Each of them makes an independent study using the collected materials.
the collected materials are displayed at exhibitions held in the frame
of the Pan-Finno-Ugrian Days (every October), and a scientific conference
is held the following spring. The studies have been published and the
materials wee used as illustrations in the Finno-Ugric Calendar published
jointly by the Fenno-Ugria Foundation and the Art Academy.