“Are you talking about the Russians or the Udmurt?”
“There’s no difference. The two cultures have been intertwined for so long that it’s really impossible to distinguish which traditions belong to which people.”
This quote is an excerpt from a shared exchange between journalist Daniel Kalder and an ethnographer (whom he never names) at the State Museum of the Udmurt Republic in Izhevsk, Russia. Kalder, a journalist for The Guardian and RIA Novosti who spent eight years as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, travelled to Izhevsk in order to, as he put it, “discover the Udmurt” as part of his venture in anti-tourism. Anti-tourism is, as the term suggests, travel that defies all aspects of traditional modern tourism in favor of a return to the “true unknown frontiers” that must “of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban black spots.” Udmurtia (also known as the Udmurt Republic) located about 800 miles east of Moscow, perhaps fits the description to the average tourist.
Kalder asked the ethnographer the above question because he had noticed that she was using the terms “Russian” and “Udmurt” interchangeably to describe the clothes, festival depictions, and “things” that were featured in the museum. Any of Kalder’s attempts to get at the specifics of Udmurt culture were met with incomplete responses, uncomfortable hesitations, and subject changes by the ethnographer. He noted that this “Russian/Udmurt obfuscation didn’t shock [him]” as “[t]he Soviet Union had spent the best part of its existence systematically eradicating national differences.” What did surprise him was the first and only utterance of non-scripted opinion when she said that perhaps the Udmurt ceremonies were prettier, followed by “But maybe that’s because I am an Udmurtka.” He had assumed—based on her appearance, dress, speech, and attitude toward Udmurts—that she was Russian.
Although Kalder does depict Izhevsk as something of a depressing black hole, this depiction is not entirely accurate – especially as the city has undergone much change since his book was published in 2006. However, his commentary also shows the larger dynamics of multicultural societies, where marginalization and neutralization of the minority group culture prevail, regardless of official discourse.
Maurice Halbwachs’s concept of collective memory, expanded into a theory of cultural and communicative memory by Jan Assman, provides a valuable lens for examining the Udmurt situation. There are, however, constraints to Halbwachs and Assman’s social and spatial frameworks for collective memory given that the Soviet Union and Stalinist totalitarianism were anomalies that had major implications for the trajectory of both Russian and Udmurt cultural memory/identity.
Udmurt cultural memory is largely subsumed within greater Russian (rossiiskii: relating to the Russian Federation) cultural memory. In a 1926 census, Udmurts constituted only 52.3% of the population of Udmurtia. That percentage has dwindled to just 30% today and the world population of Udmurts has fallen to just 640,000. Minority cultures affected by dominant cultures often experience such declines. The situation is thus not unique to Russia and is, unfortunately, a reality of the dynamics of a post-colonial, globalizing world in which indigenous and minority cultures are increasingly facing challenges in retaining their identity and traditions. However, the specific trajectory of Soviet history was the result of a system that maintained a forced repression of the memory of Stalinism and the Stalinist terror and its specific effects on ethnic groups and mandated an all-inclusive Soviet identity. This has implications for Udmurt cultural memory and identity.
The Udmurts’ ability to adapt and sustain their ancient traditions and identity practices was hindered by the Soviet experience. One cannot say that it was completely halted, as the younger generation of Udmurts is increasingly likely to self-identify as Udmurt and is actively pushing for a visible Udmurt culture. However, these young activists are mostly urban university students living in the capital, and may not indicate a long-term and sustainable cultural trajectory.
How a nation views its past, and especially how it views more controversial or painful aspects of that past, plays a major role in how a nation constructs its national identity. Alexander Etkind, a cultural and memory studies scholar, theorizes how Russia’s failure to come to terms with its Soviet past, in general, has repercussions on post-Soviet Russian society. His theory has major relevance for how Udmurts understand the Soviet experience and its impact on Udmurt cultural development. This, in turn, has major implications for the maintenance of cultural identity, which will be discussed further below.
I. Early Historical Context 
The Udmurts are a non-Slavic ethnic group—one of the Russian Federation’s indigenous minority peoples. They constitute the titular ethnic group of Udmurtia, which was initially established under the USSR as the Votiak Oblast in 1920. It was renamed the Udmurt Oblast in 1928, and eventually changed to the Udmurt Autonomous Socialist Republic in 1934. It is officially known as the Udmurt Republic (Udmurtskaia Respublika) today, although Udmurtia and Udmurt Republic are used interchangeably.
The prehistoric Kama culture, from which the Udmurts developed, dates to 2000 BC. Udmurts were subjects of the Turkic Bolgar Empire from 1000 AD until 1236 AD, as part of the Kazan Khanate in the south. Russian conquest came from the north in 1200 and Muscovy officially annexed them into the Muscovite Empire in 1489. Although Udmurts occasionally participated in revolts, they were characteristically non-aggressive and never sought to conquer other peoples. Udmurt princes paid tributary taxes (iasak) first to the Khanate and later to the Russian authorities and in doing so were able to remain fairly autonomous and peripheral, while more or less maintaining their traditional sociopolitical organization and animist pagan traditions.
The early conquests did not drastically change Udmurt life, as they were able to pay the iasak and continue traditional life in secluded villages and forests. However, in the 18th century, tsarist Russian rule consolidated authority by establishing major ironworks centers and settling an exponential influx of Russian peasants in the region. This was followed by the forced Christianization of the Udmurts largely by economic coercion and social pressure (such as in discrimination for job opportunities, access to education, etc.) rather than by overt violence. Rein Taagapera, an Estonian political scientist, explains that this Christianization was done by placing Orthodox priests in Udmurt villages, which ultimately “consolidated Russian state control down to the local level.”
Authorities denied Udmurts the right to work in the ironworks centers that they had established in Izhevsk and Glazov, which had two implications. The first was somewhat positive because, as Taagapera states, “factory work was tantamount to slavery.” Udmurts remained confined to agricultural work in the villages and at that point actually fared better than the Russian peasants. However, the more serious implication was that this exclusion denied Udmurts the chance to modernize and facilitated increased Russian migration into the region.
In the 19th century, however, authorities revoked the employment ban but instituted other measures, such as banning them from brewing kumyshka, a fundamental part of their animist sacrifices. The cultural implications of this were drastic, as Udmurts believed that those who did not prepare the beverage would die and that the Udmurt religion as well would cease to exist if brewing were prohibited. This, among other measures, resulted in the rebellion (which the Russian army quelled) of 3,000 Udmurt factory workers as they “realized that the advantage of daily wages and relief from other duties did not outweigh the creeping abolition of their traditional rights.” Although Udmurts who moved to cities for factory work quickly assimilated into Russian culture, the majority of Udmurts remained in villages, and two-thirds of them still carried out their animist traditions, both in secret and openly.
In an attempt to “enlighten” the animist Udmurts, authorities developed a plan to achieve Christianization via education and sent some Udmurts to Nikolai Ilminskii’s seminary in Kazan from 1872-1918 with the idea that they would learn the gospels, improve the Cyrillic orthography of Udmurt, and become trained teachers. This did help crystallize written Udmurt and enabled the creation of a literary elite, but it is also important to note that Udmurt song collections were published as early as the late 1760s, and a grammar book was published in 1775, all well before this intervention. As a scholar at Leningrad State University pointed out in 1990, a time when new and dissenting historical narratives began to emerge in the Soviet Union, some historians, although recognizing the practical success of Ilminskii’s seminary, noted that it was simply a continuation of Russification and the colonial politics of tsarism.
By the end of the 19th century, those Udmurts who had not assimilated into Russian culture or fully accepted Christianity maintained a belief in animism and an affinity for the forest. Open declarations of animism and non-baptism resulted in renewed anti-animism sentiment.
However, things changed after the 1905 Revolution, when authorities removed restrictions against secular Udmurt publication. Over 200 Udmurt-language publications emerged by 1917, including the first Udmurt-language newspaper in 1913 (Udmurt), the first literary journal in 1926 (Kenesh), celebrated Udmurt author Kedra Mitrei’s first novella Vuzh-gurt (The Old Village) appeared in 1926, followed by his first novel Sekyt zibet (The Heavy Yoke), and poetry was written by Udmurtia’s literary hero, Kuzebai Gerd.
II. The Soviet Period
Following the advent of Udmurt-language publishing, Udmurts were able to participate in the artistic boom of the 1920s and promote their minority culture under the Leninist nation-building era. In 1931, however, Stalin accused members of the Udmurt intelligentsia of supporting a “Finno-Ugric plot” to overthrow the regime, of which Kuzebai Gerd, Udmurtia’s most prominent poet, was supposed to have been the leader. Gerd was arrested in 1932 and died a few years later. Gerd’s imprisonment and death were only the beginning of Stalin’s repressions for the Udmurt intelligentsia. The Udmurt literary journal Kenesh(renamed “Molot” or “Hammer” in 1936) was discontinued from 1941-1954. Kedra Mitrei, the first Udmurt novelist, was arrested in 1937 and deported to Novosibirsk. An estimated thirty other cultural activists were arrested, and Ashalchi Oki, a female poet was said to be “so traumatized by the events of the 1930s that she never wrote again.” By the end of the 1930s, the Stalinist terror had eliminated or silenced the entire Udmurt literary intelligentsia.
The early 20th century, particularly the 1920s, had generated a cultural awakening among Udmurts. While the Udmurt literary elite and intelligentsia were small and nascent, they were the foundation that would have enabled Udmurt culture to continue to grow and develop into something sustained and adapted to modern society. However, Stalin’s policies prevented the Udmurts from adapting and developing their culture into a unique, modern form.
As Francine Hirsch, a historian of Russia’s ethnic minorities, points out, nation-building under the Soviet regime was not meant to benefit the minorities for their own sake, but rather to consolidate seemingly backward peoples into a “colonial-type” administration system with the ultimate practical goal of “assimilating a diverse population into a rapidly modernizing state preparing for the transition to socialism.” The goal was to allow the existence of multiple “national-cultural distinctions” but only within the confines of a single state. It was token multiculturalism, limited largely to folk ensembles, craft shows, and national dress displays, with the ultimate goal of single cultural assimilation into a new Soviet (de facto Russian) identity. This stifling of human potential, joined with the ensuing Soviet measures of eradicating Udmurt language use and of misrepresenting Udmurts in history textbooks while encouraging the identification with a strictly Soviet identity, have all contributed to problems in Udmurt cultural identity.
In 1958, Udmurt language instruction in schools was again reduced to only the first four years and the authorities ordered “all Udmurt schoolbooks to be destroyed around 1970.” Udmurt language instruction continued to decrease, and hardly any Udmurt children in urban areas spoke Udmurt by the early 1990s; parents either did not know the language themselves or refused to speak it at home with their children, because, it was believed, speaking Russian meant gaining an education and speaking Udmurt meant backwardness. The lowest point of language education was in 1989, when there were no schools in the republic in which Udmurt was an authorized language of instruction. Thus, even though the literary journal Kenesh/Moltov was reestablished and writers after 1950 were free to start rebuilding literary traditions, the demeaning of the Udmurt language and its limited use in education meant that the foundation for Udmurt cultural development was undermined at the same time that literary restrictions were eased. This, then, precluded any sort of long-term cultural development.
Vasileva points out that although some historians towards the end of the 1970s began to note the heavy damage that had been inflicted on the Udmurt Republic’s culture and economy by the mass repressions of the 1930s, these historians had not yet carried out an analysis of the damage’s effects on the Udmurt intelligentsia. Before the late 1970s, historians were still looking at the Stalinist repressions in terms of the Stalinist lens of “bourgeois nationalism.”
Vasileva also notes another problem in the historiography of national relations. She writes that historians generally disregarded the Stalinist politics of “great-power chauvinism” (stalinskaia politika velikoderzhavnogo shovinizma). This chauvinism was seen in the conflict between the Russian majority ethnic group and emerging minority nationalism, which Stalin saw a problem to Soviet state building. Most historians of Soviet-Udmurt relations preferred to simply note that there were a few “mistakes” made in maintaining those relations. Vasileva pointed this out in 1990, but, while the documentation of the extent of the damage Stalinist policies inflected exists, a public dialogue around its analysis has yet to unfold.
III. The Memory and Mourning Discourse
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, this situation has improved, but an identity boom among young urban Udmurt intellectuals cannot undo decades of repression. During an international conference on the Finno-Ugric peoples in the early 1990s, Albert Razin, head of the Laboratory of Humanities at Udmurt State University, characterized the 1980s and early 1990s as a time in which Udmurts had fallen into a state of “ethnic nihilism” (etnicheskii nigilizm). This denoted a loss of respect for Udmurt ethnic identification and a loss of self-respect. He described this as a time in which Udmurts were not allowed to “for one second forget about their inferiority (vtorosortnosti).”
When asked about the reasons for this descent into ethnic nihilism, Razin gave four main reasons. First, the seemingly closed-off and non-aggressive nature of Udmurts had a lasting impact on others perceiving them as weak. Second, the destruction and defamation of pagan beliefs and traditions associated with them. Third, Russian influence had been maintained for many years. Finally, the distortion of history had led to the impression that Udmurts do not have their own separate thousands of years history that they can be proud of. 
Of course, this lack of history is not true, Razin adds, but because of historical manipulation and the merged Russian-Udmurt historical narrative, Russians, and even Udmurts themselves, do not know the rich and spiritual aspects of Udmurt cultural history. Razin stresses that more than anything, policy has been aimed at destroying historical memory and separating one generation of Udmurts from the next. Razin said this in 1994, but in a recent open-response survey, when asked the question, “What do you wish that non-Udmurts knew about Udmurts and their lives?” one respondent answered: “I would like for non-Udmurts to know not the politicized version of our history, but the real facts of history and the formation of the people. So that there would not be just a one-sided relationship to the people. (sic)”
In such conditions as previously described by Razin, historical memory cannot be sustained. In line with Halbwachs’s theory that groups have to have the ability to reconstruct their past, Udmurts have fallen into a position in which they have no influence over the factors that control this historical reconstruction. Halbwachs says that an individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but that group memory also manifests in individual memories. In his 1950 publication The Collective Memory, Halbwachs asserts that “every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework,” which can be a physical, legal, economic, or religious space. Jan Assman notes that Halbwachs allows the individual to belong to not just one, but many social, or group, frameworks, “from families…up to and including nations.” This allowance is important, as Udmurts can have many different (and often conflicting) collective identities: village, traditional, urban, intellectual, worker-class, Soviet-nostalgic, greater Russian citizen (rossiiskii), inferior/ethnically nihilistic, culturally prideful, pagan/animistic, secular, Orthodox Christian, etc.
The problem with Halbwachs’s theory, as it applies to Udmurt cultural memory, is that their collective identity has suffered the warping of stable memory paradigms due to a seventy-year-long totalitarian regime. Halbwachs would allow that ritual can be a substitute for spatial (or geographical) continuity. Udmurts have more or less retained their original territorial space, so a break in spatial continuity is not the problem. However, their animist and spiritual rituals have been destroyed. Of course, destruction of folk culture is not unique to Russia and is, unfortunately, a fate that many indigenous cultures are facing in a globalizing and modernizing world. Udmurt memory of the past (and Russian memory, in general) is at odds with Halbwachs’s theory in relation to his focus on a continuous spatial framework: he assumes the continuity of one people in one space for a long time. To go even further, because of the peculiarity of the Soviet past, Udmurt cultural memory – in its merging with the dominant Russian cultural memory – has been determined not by spatial, legal, economic, religious, or even a more Freudian temporal space, but by a disrupted ideological space. Halbwachs’s theory does not leave room for a disruption in the continuity of memory as occurred with the Soviet and post-Soviet experiences.
According to Etkind, because no clear perpetrator has been identified for Russians in their collective memories for the violence that occurred in the Soviet past, it has been difficult for Russia to reach any “historical, philosophical, or theological–in fact, any rational –understanding” of Stalinism and the Soviet past. He also notes the paradigm of foreign power oppression versus self-infliction, in that Russians cannot claim that some outside power invaded and oppressed them. .
In comparing the Soviet terror to the Nazi genocide, which must be done with several limitations and acute considerations, Etkind also states that there is no clear victim in the Soviet past. He describes this paradigm as that while the Nazis focused on the extermination of a clear Other, specifically, Jews, “the Soviet terror was suicidal,” as it was all-inclusive. That is, the terror was arbitrary and affected all strata of Soviet society, regardless of ethnic, religious, class, professional, or territorial affiliation. This constituted a “universal suffering,” and even outside the specific realm of the Stalinist terror and purges of the 1930s (i.e. victimization in World War II, the drastic effects of collectivization, the aftermath of the civil war), no group was allowed recognition for unique or specific suffering. All suffering was conglomerated together as universal Soviet suffering. This means that Udmurts can recognize that they did suffer, but they cannot discuss how it affected them, specifically, as Udmurts.
Etkind says that other former republics of the USSR or post-socialist states, such as Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, etc., have charted a different mourning trajectory than the Russians, as they can at least say that they were the victims of a Soviet (de facto Russian) aggressor, around which they have been able to base their post-Soviet identities. However, he continues, Russians cannot say that an outside aggressor conquered them “precisely because [their terror] was self-inflicted.” But what does this mean for the small ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation? The Udmurts are not separatists as their geographic location would not facilitate it, nor is there desire for it. They are not aggressively anti-Russian, nor large enough to constitute a national presence and authority even within the Russian Federation.
In an open-response survey conducted among Udmurts, in response to a question concerning the impact of Stalin’s destruction of the nascent Udmurt intelligentsia and literary elite, one respondent was quick to say that although the system had claimed the lives of many talented Udmurts, the “tragedy” impacted the lives of all members of the Soviet Union, not just Udmurt. This is directly in line with Etkind’s discussion of the universalism of Soviet suffering. Also, several scholars, Etkind among them, have noted that a major obstacle to mourning victims of Stalinism is the persistent use of the blanket word “tragedy,” which is vague and absolves anybody from responsibility, instead of the word “crime.” It is not surprising that Udmurts would look at their Stalinist past through the same lens of universal suffering and blanket “tragedy” as the Russians with whom their historical narrative was merged.
However, the implications for what the Stalinist past means for Russians and what it means for Udmurts are not the same. Because of the principle of universal suffering and the general nature of the Soviet mourning process described by Etkind, Udmurts have not been allowed to recognize how the terror, collectivization, civil war, Second World War, and most importantly, Stalin’s total destruction of their entire nascent intelligentsia and literary elite has affected them specifically as Udmurts. The goal is not to compare levels of victimization. They were sent to the same camps, shot by the same guns, subjected to the same accusations, and were victims of the same terror as Russians and other ethnic groups. However, as an ethnic minority based on pagan/animist traditions and folklore with a very young intelligentsia, as a minority without the benefit of a long and stable literary culture, with stifled modernization opportunities, and an already extremely diluted and assimilated population, Stalin’s killing of their early cultural elite had more severe implications for them as an ethnic group.
High cultural production stopped because those engaged with it were killed or traumatized in ways that restricted them from producing – this also negatively impacted not only cultural production at the time but the potential for further development. As Taagapera puts it, although the Terror had a severe impact on Russians and Russian culture in “absolute terms,” the “net effect of terror was to widen the sphere of use of Russian at the expense of other languages…[and] reinforced Russian relative to most other national cultures within the Soviet Union… [a trend which] the post-terror state continued to impose.”
The situation is not absolutely irreversible; although the previous survey respondent stated that she was not certain if Udmurts would ever again see such bright personalities as those whom Stalin destroyed. Obviously, one important step to regaining a culture’s literary potential would be to encourage the use of the native language. Assman also outlines this as one step for retaining cultural identity. One of those steps, language use, could foster Udmurt cultural memory retention.
One other significant problem is that the official historical narrative has already been standardized in school history textbooks, and those already in existence in the region, such as Udmurtiia Forever with Russia, have continued to consolidate the separate histories of all of the regions and nationalities into one standard narrative of a glorious and ancient past, excluding the possibility of a separate cultural identity or a destiny apart from Russia’s. Changes to the historic narrative and language policy has the support of President Vladimir Putin who has said that: “We must increase support for Russian as a native language and to promote it at the federal level and in all regions without exception… Everyone must learn the true story of our country’s unification, the joining of Russian lands into a single powerful multiethnic state, and not all kinds of pseudo-scientific, biased speculations on the subject.”
As Francine Hirsch’s research illustrates, in a continuity of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, where “Soviet” meant “Russian” and now “rossiiskii” (characteristic to or of the Russian Federation) means “russkii” (ethnically Russian), even in the midst of strong ethnic activism, the future seems ripe for a continuation of encounters with Udmurt ethnographers who jumble Udmurt and Russian into one shared history.
Assman, Jan. “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German Critique 65 (Spring-Summer 1995): 125-133.
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