Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 547,605 Mari in the Russian Federation. Mari are distinct from other Finnic peoples of the Middle Volga area because they never fully converted to Christianity and retain their shamanist-animist beliefs. The majority live in the Mari-El Republic, formerly the Mari ASSR.
The Mari literary language was formed using the Cyrillic script by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the early to mid-nineteenth century in an unsuccessful attempt to convert the population to Christianity.
Mari nationalism since the nineteenth century has been directed towards preserving their religion. The region was established as an Autonomous Oblast (AO) in November 1920 and became the Mari ASSR in December 1936. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Mari lost nearly all of their ethnic privileges; in the 1960s language teaching was banned. Sovereignty was declared in October 1990 and the name of the republic was changed to Mari-El.
In November 1992 the First World Congress of Finno-Ugrian Peoples took place in the Komi Republic. Delegates called for self-determination for all indigenous peoples and national minorities and condemned ‘Russian imperialism’. The Second Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples was held in July 1995 to demand new rights, including property rights in their traditional areas of settlement and language privileges.
Interethnic relations in Mari-El deteriorated significantly in 2005 due to allegations of the repression of Mari identity and ethnic Maris associated with the republican presidency of Leonid Markelov, and a spate of attacks on activists involved in Mari ethnic organizations.
A May 2005 European Parliament resolution cited the difficulties the Mari people faced in being educated in their first language, political interference by the local administration in Mari cultural institutions, the limited representation of ethnic Maris in administrative posts in the Republic and tolerance of attacks on representatives of Mari national associations. European parliamentarians linked the repression of Mari culture and associations with Markelov’s presidency, and alleged the firing of large numbers of ethnic Maris from public sector posts in regions that had voted against him in elections in autumn 2004.
On 1 February 2006, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Moscow Helsinki Group published a report on the human rights situation of the Mari people in the Russian Federation. It outlined the damaging effects of the Putin administration’s centralization policies on Mari culture and the declining use of the Mari language in recent years. Notwithstanding the fact that the Mari language remained an official state language, there were many obstacles to its use in public contexts. Moreover, lack of resources hindered its continue development and the effective promotion of Mari language in education.
Over the centuries Mari have experienced mixed marriages and have undergone conversions to Orthodox Christianity. During Soviet rule, their traditional beliefs were harshly suppressed. Nevertheless, many Mari continue to practice folk worship in sacred forests and offer sacrifices to the spirits in the trees. There are 500 sacred groves on either side of the Volga river that remain key centres of worship for the Mari. Whether these traditional practices can survive the migration and dispersal of Mari young people to the major cities in search of better economic prospects is a key issue for the community in the future.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs