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Museum exhibits: an informative piece representing a thriving culture, or a relic of a declining one?

12 July 2012

Elvira Nurieva, who recently interned at MRG’s Europe office in Budapest, reflects on the deeper meaning of museum artifacts from indigenous cultures

During my recent visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest, Hungary, I pondered upon a recurring hypothesis of mine about artifacts being both exhibits from a disappearing culture, and symbols of the policies that can lead to the extinction of a distinct language and culture.

Folk bag. Credit: Museum of Ethnography (Budapest).

Studying hand-made objects and colourful photos of women in their national dresses, I caught sight of a piece of information for visitors, revealing that in 2010 the International Finno-Ugrian Congress was held in Hungary, and the representatives of different Finno-Ugrian peoples made a gift to the Museum of Ethnography. At that point my thoughts drifted back to the situation of Mari people in the Republic of Mari El, in the Russian Federation.

Mari women in traditional clothes. Credit: Osmo Joronen webpage

Mari are an indigenous people belonging to one of the five Finno-Ugric language groups; the most sizeable of which are the Hungarians, the Finns and the Estonians. Mari can be divided into three ethnic subgroups: Hill (Kuryk) Mari, Meadow (Olyk) Mari and Eastern (Upo) Mari. Meadow Mari are the largest group. There are two literary languages among Mari and several different dialects are spoken. Mari (who number 670,000) make up almost one-half of the Republic of Mari El (capital city Yoshkar-Ola, meaning Red City), located in the north of the Volga region of the Russian Federation.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the former Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was recognized as a constituent republic of the new Russian Federation. According to a 2006 report by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Moscow Helsinki Group, in April 1990 a major grass-roots organization Mari Ushem was set up to promote “the revival of the Mari people,” to advocate for the Mari language to become official in all schools in the republic, and for all civil servants to have bilingual competency.

Sovereignty was declared in October 1990 and the name of the republic was changed to Mari El. The early 1990s were also marked by the revival of cultural trends in Mari El. For instance, in addition to the bilingual Mari National Theater, there was also a new Mari Youth Theater where performances were in Mari only. In comparison with most eastern Finno-Ugric nations still struggling to secure native-language education in the first four grades, the authorities of the republic promoted and protected language and culture by education in the Mari language in public schools, and public funds were allocated to promote Mari language media and Mari cultural activities. Importantly, the 1995 Mari El Constitution included a provision requiring the president of the republic to have command of both state languages. However, the Russian Supreme Court later declared this requirement unconstitutional.

Unfortunately a sizeable change for the worst arrived in the cultural and political life of the Mari people with the launch of federal reforms by President Putin during his first term, between 2000 and 2004. According to state statistics, in 2004 a total of 15 publicly funded Mari language newspapers and magazines and only one privately funded Mari language newspaper were published in the republic.

The spread of the Russian language at the cost of the Mari language has been observed in schools and nursery schools, and also in family homes. In terms of political participation and access to power, although the Mari people make up 43 percent of Mari El’s population, in the republic’s Parliament they constitute only one-quarter of its members.

Where is this boundary between an exhibit as an informative piece of a thriving culture and a relic of a declining one? Knowing that the vitality of a language depends mainly on the number of its speakers, particularly its native speakers, the outlook is somewhat gloomy for Mari.

With the prospect that one hundred years from now the majority of the languages existing today might be extinct, all eyes are on policy-makers of those states where the majority languages are spoken, who have all the political, legal, financial powers to make a positive difference.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.