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Erzyans and Mokshas (Mordvins)

Mordva Vabariigi lippNames

Russian ethnonym ‘mordva’ has been used as a common name for Erzyans and Mokshas. Through the Russian language this practice has spread to other languages. Erzyans and Mokshas have traditionally called themselves respectively Erzyans (‘erza’, ‘erzä’) or Mokshas (‘moksha’, ‘mokshk’). The latter has been associated with the Russian name of the river passing the Mokshas’ territory.


Administratively Erzyas live in the eastern part of the Republic of Mordovia, in Nizhny Novgorod and Ulyanovsk Oblasts, as well as in Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and Chuvashia, while Mokshas live in the southern and western parts of the Republic of Mordovia and in Pensa and Saratov Oblasts. The capital of the Republic of Mordovia is Saransk.


Mordvins (Erzyans and Mokshas) are among the largest Finno-Ugric peoples, and the 8th largest ethnic group of Russia. According to the 2010 census there were 744 236 Mordvins. Of those 84 407 specified their ethnicity as Erzyan and 49 625 as Moksha. In 2002, there were 843 359 Mordvins of whom 73% spoke the mother tongue.  84 407 of them self-identified as Erzyans and 49 624 as Mokshas, with the as Mordvins.

In 1989 the Mordvian population in the same territory was much larger – 1 072 939. Erzyans and Mokshas are assimilating faster than other Finno-Ugrians due to their geographic dispersion. In the Republic of Mordovia they make up only a third of the population. The greatest number of Mordvins are living in Samara, Pensa, Orenburg, Ulyanovsk and Nizhny Novgorod Oblasts. Outside Russia there are many Mordvins in Kazakhstan (30 000), Ukraine (19 000) and Uzbekistan (12 000).


Erzya and Moksha languages belong alongside the Mari language to the Volga group of Finno-Ugric languages. The Mari language is considered as its closest relative. The same group includes Merian and Muroma languages that disappeared already in the early Middle Ages.

Erzya and Moksha are as similar to each other as Estonian is to Finnish. While the Moksha language and physical features have some Persian influences, Erzya culture and appearance is closer to the Baltic peoples.

Erzya and Moksha written languages began forming at the end of the 19th century. An official standardised written language was completed for the Erzya language in 1925 and for the Moksha language in 1933. Both written languages are based on the Cyrillic alphabet.

According to the consitution of the Republic of Mordovia the republic has 3 official languages: Russian, Erzya and Moksha. The official status of the latter two is nonetheless a formality and in reality they have very little weight in public life and education.


Erzyans and Mokshas appear to be indigenous people of the Central Volga area. Their original territory was much wider, however began contracting at the end of pre-historic times under the pressures from Eastern Slavs and Bulgars. The core territory of Erzyans was more to the north, in the southern part of today’s Nizhny Novgorod oblast while Mokshas lived in the territory of today’s Republic of Mordovia, as well as to its West and South.

Eastern Mordvins were brought under the influence of Volga-Kama-Bulgar probably starting from the end of the 10th century, while western Mordvins had to respond to Russian expansionist efforts after the end of the 11th century (in 1080 Russians erected a Murom castle on the river Oka and in 1221, Nizny Novgorod was established). Mordvins’ lands were increasingly infiltrated by Russian settlers.

In 1230, however, Mordvin territories were invaded by Mongols and these lands were annexed to the Golden Horde. With the weakening of the Golden Horde the Russian influence from the north and west gradually strengthened and colonisation of farmers picked up speed. Erzyans began resettlement to the east and southeast from Mokshas. Mokshas’ territory remained at first under the Kazan Khanate – one of the heirs of the Golden Horde. Moksha aristocrats maintained a certain autonomy.

By the middle of the 16th century the entire Mordvin territory went under the control of Moscow. Mordvins’ lands were allocated to Russian aristocrats and monasteries, peasants were placed under serfdom.  In the 17th century the Russian rule gradually shifted to the forest steppe areas which was followed by southward resettlements of Russian and Mordvin peasants.

Forced baptism of Mordvins who until now had mostly kept their animist religion took place in the first half of the 18th century. Many Mordvins resettled in the 18th-19th centuries to steppe areas annexed by Russia on the other side of the Volga River. In their traditional territory they remained a minority, while the role of the Russian language and mixed marriages increased.

In the 19th century Mordvins were largely an illiterate peasant folk whose one-time upper-class had long ago dissolved. At the end of the 19th century Mordvian written languages began to be developed as part of the Ilminsk system and a small Mordvin intelligentsia who was interested in folk customs and culture emerged. The most outstanding Mordvin intellectual of the first generation was Makar Yevseyev (1864-1931).

Mordvins gained their own autonomous territory relatively late given that there was no concrete core area based on which it could be formed. Still, in 1928 the Mordovian region was established which in 1930 was reorganised into an autonomous oblast and in 1934 into an autonomous soviet socialist republic (ASSR).

Collectivisation of agriculture hit traditional peasants relatively hard. In the 1930s, represssions against Mordvin intellectuals were perpetrated. Since the end of the 1950s, the positions of Mordvin languages in public life, media and educational life began to deteriorate. Erzya and Moksha languages were effectively given the status of the collective farmers’ home language. In schools, Mordvin languages were taught only in the first grades (mostly, in the countryside) and written word in these languages had become less frequent than before World War II.

Modern Times

The breakup of the Soviet Union gave rise to a certain national reawakening among the Mordvins. In the autumn of 1989 mostly Erzyan intellectuals initiated an organization resembling Estonia’s Rahvarinne (National Front) called Mastora (Mother Earth). In 1991 a society Vaigel’ (“Voice”)for the promotion of Mordvin culture and language was established at the University of Mordovia.

In March 1992 the 1st Congress of Erzyan and Moksha peoples was assembled, which witnessed tensions between Erzyas and Mokshas. Erzyas were more active and radical and accused Mokshas of being too passive and conciliatory.

In 1993 separate Erzya organisations Erzjan’ Mastor (Erzyan Land) and Erzjava (Erzyan Mother) were established. Erzyan diaspora was activated. Erzyans were not satisfied with the joint ethnonym “Mordvin” and with its usage in the name of the republic. The ethnic Russian leadership of the republic was also considering renaming Mordovian ASSR into simply Saransk Oblast and thus getting rid of the national autonomy altogether. Mordovian ASSR was declared the Republic of Mordovia only in 1994.


Religious Mordvins are mostly Russian Orthodox. There is also a small number of Old Believers among Mordvins. Atheism was widespread in the 20th century, while towards the end of the century several new religions were introduced.


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Maailmakongress toimub 15.-17.juunil Soomes

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