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The riddle of the uralic peoples 3/3

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Fate of the Uralic Peoples

Finns and Hungarians account for more than 85 percent of the Uralic population in the world. Is their demographic success due to their sojurn in Europe, in lands far removed from the ancestral homeland, or that, owing to their unique languages, they succeeded in maintaining their national identity through institutional statehood during long stretches of their history? Estonians, numerically few, were less fortunate in their national aspirations, having been subjected to long periods of foreign domination until recent times. In comparison, the destiny of the Uralic peoples who remained closer to the lands of their predecessors in the Ural region that later became part of historic Russia, is outright tragic. Climatic rigor and the inhospitable nature of the territory they occupied was the harsh reality in which they had to survive and which doomed them to a subsistence economy and perpetual social fragmentation. Political pressures have also contributed to their marginalization.

Long before the Russians, Uralic peoples had been subjected to domination by strong Turkic and Tatar invaders. Entire Uralic tribes disappeared through conquest and subsequent assimilation. It is claimed, for example, that the Kirgiz people, who number over three and a half million are of Uralic stock. They were subjugated by a Turkic warrior class and forced to abandon their identity and language. Scores of Uralic languages have died out over millennia and centuries because their speakers were forced to adopt another language, in most cases a Turkic one.

The Karatay and Teryuhan Tatar people who occupy the territory between the Oka and the Volga rivers were originally Finnic Mordvins. Russian chronicles mention such Uralic peoples as the Meris, Meschers, and Muromas who lived in the Rostov region in southern Russia, and whose forced assimilation by the Russians began as late as the 10th century A.D. There are scholars who maintain that in prehistoric times, the northern Baltic, northeastern Scandinavia and northern and central Russia were solidly populated by Uralic peoples. There are some historians who go even farther by asserting that the majority of the population of Russia consisted originally of Slavicized Finno-Ugric peoples. Since we lack documentation, all this is but mere informed speculation that the science of linguistics can neither confirm nor deny. Certainly, the presence in the Baltic and around the Gulf of Finland of so many ancient, presently dying Finnic languages raise some legitimate questions about the peopling of the whole area.

At this juncture, we are also compelled to take up again the enigma of the Yukaghir. As we have indicated earlier, the Yukaghir are of a very ancient Uralic stock who have drifted 3000 miles away from the hypothetical homeland on the Western side of the Urals and have ended up in the Arctic regions of Northeastern Siberia, not too far from the Bering Straits. How did they get there? One answer would be that there is nothing unusual about prehistoric people journeying thousands of miles in search of a place that would sustain them. Another would be a proposition that the Yukaghir could be the eastermost surviving outpost of an Uralic population that for thousands of years inhabited the Northern tier of Siberia in one arch, stretching from the Urals to almost the Bering Straits until the ancestors of the Tungus and Turkic peoples, the present predominant groups in the region, separated them with an ethnic wedge inserted between them and forced them to assimilate. Similar situations occurred in the British Isles in historic time, when the invading Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and others drove the Celtic inhabitants, the Gaelic speaking Scots, Irish and Welsh to the fringes of the island. That was also the case of the Basque, probably the remnant of the oldest population strata of stone-age Europe, who survived by fleeing to the mountains of the Pyrenees on the border of France and Spain from invading Indo-Europeans.

The cautious scholar ought not venture this far. After all, it is not advisable to raise questions that one cannot answer. But the riddle of the Uralic peoples haunts the imagination. In the first place, there is the mystery of the primordial Uralic people; where did they come from and who were they? How did they happen to come to the Urals? Why did they leave their previous habitat, and when? Or, were they indigenous to the area? If so, how was that possible? What was the Proto-Uralic language like and how did it come into existence? Is it conceivable that this primordial people invented a language from scratch which we refer to as “Uralic?”

No mainstream linguist would dare to address such questions. But there is a new school of researchers in linguistics which aims at probing into the very deep layers of languages to bring to the surface relics of great antiquity for the purpose of trying to illuminate the kind of questions we have just raised. Through such effort, an in-depth comparative analysis of the Indo-European and the Uralic families of languages came up with the suggestion that the two may be genetically related, that both sprang from a common source some time in the very distant past. Could it be that Proto-Uralic and Proto-Indo-European were, at one time, sister languages?

This hypothesis goes even further in its implication. In earlier linguistic literature we find that the Uralic Family had often been associated with the Altaic family of languages, named for the Altai Mountains in Asia. In this classification, the two together formed the Ural-Altaic superfamily. The Altaic group comprises the Turkic, Mongol, Tungus and Manchu languages. Despite some obvious common features, a newer breed of conservative linguists do not accept the relatedness of the Uralic and Altaic languages. The liberal school, on the other hand, professes that the ancestral tongue of the Altaic people belongs, together with the Uralic and the Indo-European people, to the same “Mega-family.” The two opposing linguistic trends are popularly branded “the splitters” versus “the lumpers.”

History has not been kind to the Uralic peoples. To maintain their national identity and independence, the Finns and Hungarians have paid dearly. Prior to the Russian imperial advance in the East into inner Asia and Siberia, periodic Iranian, Turkic, and Mongol assaults ravaged the tribally organized Finns and Ugrians. Beginning with the earliest stages of the Muscovite state, the Uralic peoples were subjected to the "yasak"”system which placed crushing compulsory tributes of precious furs and women from each tribe. Violations were brutally suppressed by the Russians, not infrequently by a neighboring Uralic tribe that was forced to carry out the punishment. Bloody revolts marked the Russian conquest of Siberia. The impact of Russian rule on the native peoples was devastating.

The Uralic people were doomed to live as oppressed minorities in the Russian Imperial governmental system. The Soviet regime promised them better treatment. But while there were official efforts to introduce an alphabet and create a literary language for the native peoples of the north, at the same time the communists tried to eradicate their traditions and the ways of life that had sustained them through millennia. Although the native language was taught on the elementary level in native enclaves, further studies were available only in the Russian language. Members of minorities became bilingual by necessity and the younger generation, seeking economic opportunities, as a rule abandoned their native language and became Russian speakers only.

In the wake of the Soviet’s huge building projects in all parts of Siberia, a massive influx of Russians and Ukranians outnumbered the native populations in their own autonomous territories. Today, the vast oil and gas fields and mineral industries, which have become the mainstay of the Russian economy, are situated in the lands inhabited by Uralic peoples, the Komi, Khanti, Mansi and the Samoyeds. Ecological ravages mar the whole area, causing medical problems for the population on a major scale.

We don’t know what the minimal optimum number of speakers of a language would be, nor what the requisites are for a homogeneous community for that language and the culture that it embodies to survive. In modern times, humankind has been losing ancient languages by the hundreds. And the tragedy is that with each extinct language a whole civilization disappears. Our world becomes poorer for it. It may be too late for the Yukaghir, the two still surviving Urgric speaking groups, the Khanti and the Mansi, as well as for the few very small Samoyedic communities. Unless something dramatic happens, the chances of their cultural survival is not promising. What obligations do we, Finns, Hungarians, Estonians, members or descendants of Uralic communities, have in assisting the still surviving Uralic groups in European Russia and Siberia in their struggle to preserve their ancient languages and their cultural identities?

Michael Keresztesi, Professor Emeritus, Wayne State University


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