What is a Mari Anyway?

The most famous Finno- Ugric nations are the Hungarians, the
Finns and the Estonians. They are descended from a tribe which,
it is believed, emigrated west from the Ural Mountains on the
border of Europe and Asia thousands of years ago. Their
languages and myths stem from the same roots and display many

But there are other, smaller offshoots of the original tribe living in
Romania, northern Russia and as far away as the Ob river in
Siberia. From the nearly extinct Livonians to the Nenets living on
the shores of the Arctic Ocean, from the Udmurt to the Sami, to
the Mordvins, to the Permyaks, to the Komi, to the Karelians, to
the Mari. There are groups, sub- groups and sub- sub- groups.
Each speaks its own language and has its own culture derived
from the original mother culture. There are three types of Mari for
example, Hill Mari, Meadow Mari and Eastern Mari.

Add these three groups together and you have about 500 000
people, living mainly in the Republics of Mari El and Chuvashia
and also in the Nizhni Novgorod region in Russia. Their history
has been a hard and brutal one.


Some Highlights from the History of the Mari

And what is that history? Let’s take a quick look at some of the
most important dates…

*551AD- The Mari living on banks of Volga first come under the
subjection of a foreign power: the Ostrogoths. They remain that
way until the…

*…7th Century, when the Bolgars move in and take over. A few
centuries pass with the Mari living as their vassals and then in…

*…1236 the Golden Horde arrive in the area. They crush the
Bolgars but also crush the Mari.

*1437-1552 the Mari live under the heel of the Kazan Khanate.
Like the Russians, the Mari pay tribute to Tatars. But they are also
made to do menial work, repair town walls, build fortifications, and
also have to serve in the army. The Mari live under their yoke until
1552, when the Russians sack Kazan and take over the Khan’s

*1552- 1557 The Mari fight against Russian colonisation. They

*1572- 1574 The Mari fight against Russian colonisation again.
They lose.

*1581- 1584 The Mari fight against Russian colonisation once
more. And lose. A chronicler writes: ‘The marshes, lakes and
rivers were filled with the bones of the Mari and the earth
saturated with their blood.’ Many of them are resettled in the East.
Russian colonisation begins in earnest.

*17th- 18th century: extensive pressure to convert to Russian
orthodoxy leads many Mari to emigrate. Their original national
territory is divided between the provinces of Kazan, Vyatka and
Nizhni Novgorod. The Mari, meanwhile, take an active part in two
peasant revolts, one led by Stepan Razin and the other by
Emelyan Pugatchev, which got as far as Kazan Kremlin. The
uprisings are cruelly suppressed, many peasants are beaten,
tortured, sent to prison, or executed. Some lucky ones get all

*1812: Napoleon invades Russia. The Mari consider the prospect
of French domination worse than Russian domination and many
join the army to fight the cheese eaters. The Mari peasant Vassily
Grigoryev becomes a national hero for taking part in the capture
of Paris. In spite of this, however, for the rest of the …

* …19th Century the Mari territories are considered a backward
region. People live in poverty. One out of every four babies dies in
infancy. Frequent droughts destroy crops over large areas. There
are only a few primitive factories producing glass, leather and
wine. Eighty-four per cent of the Mari are illiterate. Scholars
predict that they will soon die out.

*1917: The October Revolution leads to the creation of the world’s
first socialist state. Toiling masses around the world rejoice.

*1920 – Like the Tatars and the Kalmyk, the Mari are given their
own titular ‘homeland’. The Mari Autonomous Oblast (region) is
formed. However, Russians and Uncle Toms are in charge and
many Mari live outside its borders anyway. The Soviets begin the
work of abolishing traditional holidays and repressing traditional

*1930s – collectivisation takes place. Mari villages are uprooted
and transferred to work on enormous collective farms. A centuries’
old way of life is destroyed. Stalin’s purges begin and the majority
of Mari intellectuals are exterminated.

*1936: Time for a name change: the Mari Autonomous Oblast
becomes the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Some
paper mills open.

*1950s –Russian industrialisation and colonisation intensifies.

*1960s – increased urbanisation leads to a rapid decline in the
use of the Mari language. More and more Mari becomes a mere
“language of the village”.

*1992- Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Mari
Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic is renamed The Republic of
Mari El. It gets a nice new flag, too.

Flag of the Republic of Mari El