NPO Fenno-Ugria, 28 Pärnu St, 10141 Tallinn, Estonia
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The Finno-Ugric Peoples

According to recent studies, the peoples speaking Finno-Ugric languages have lived in Europe for about ten millennia. It seems that before the "Great Migration", mainly Finno-Ugric languages were spoken in Eastern and Central Europe.

Today, almost 25 million people belong to the Uralic (Finno-Ugric and Samoyed) language family, living in an area that stretches from Norway in the west, to the Ob River region in the east, and to the lower reaches of the Danube in the south. Thus, various Finno-Ugric enclaves can be found in this massive domain that is surrounded by people speaking Germanic, Slavic, Romance, and Turkic languages.

Statistics and Political Status

Speakers of the Finno-Ugric languages represent about 24 different peoples, whose political fates and statuses vary greatly. Despite the fact that they are the aboriginal inhabitants of the territories in which they live, most of them have never had their own nation state. Only about 15 million speakers of Hungarian, 5 million of Finnish, and 1 million of Estonian have their own independent states. The Saamis, on the other hand, live in the territories of four different countries. The Western Saamis (in Norway, Sweden, and Finland) have been successful in not only preserving, but even developing their culture and ethnic identity. In Norway, the Finnish-speaking Kvens are recognised as a national minority. However, the Hungarian-speaking Csángos in Romania do not have any official recognition. At the same time the Livonians (or Livs) have been constitutionally recognised as an indigenous people in Latvia.

The remaining Finno-Ugric peoples live in Russia, constituting 17 out of 24 different Finno-Ugric peoples. Furthermore, there are 3 peoples who live both in and outside the territory of Russia. According to the Russian census data of 2002, the number of Finno-Ugrians has decreased dramatically since the 1989 census: from 3.3 million to 2.7 million. The largest Finno-Ugric peoples have their own so-called republics (the Karelians, the Mordvins, the Maris, and the Udmurts) or autonomous regions (the Khantys, the Mansis, and the Nenets), in all of which they are minorities. The Veps (or Vepsians) have a so-called national commune in Karelia, whereas Ingrian Finns, Izhorians, and Selkups (Ostyak Samoyeds) have no territorial autonomy of any kind.

There are some Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia: the Votes (Vadjalain), Izhorians, and Enets (Yenisey Samoyeds), in whose case we can no longer speak of the threat of assimilation. Rather, they have already been assimilated by the prevailing Russian culture and language, to the extent that they no longer exist as distinct ethnic groups.

The number of people actually speaking Finno-Ugric languages in Russia has decreased to less than two million, and this number is declining constantly. There are many factors, which hamper the growth of the Finno-Ugric peoples’ self-awareness. The main ones seem to be urbanisation, modern demographic shifts and migratory trends, mixed marriages, and the attitudes of the surrounding population, which prevent the Finno-Ugric peoples from developing a satisfactory way of life appropriate to their ethnicity. Another very important factor is the continuous downgrading of native language education. The Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia have had very limited opportunities, if at all, to preserve their languages and cultures, though the situation, of course, differs from region to region.

Recently, new threats to the preservation of the languages and cultures of the Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia have emerged. One of these relates to changes in the Language Act of the Russian Federation, which now stipulates that all official languages in Russia must be written with the use of only the Cyrillic alphabet. The Act excludes the possibility that any language, which uses the Latin alphabet, can be an official language. Another threat stems from envisaged changes to the borders of ethnic territorial regions, which will probably increase the social pressure for the assimilation of the indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples. For instance, the consolidation of the Komi Permyak Autonomous Region (the Permian Komis’ area of inhabitancy) with the Perm Oblast is already underway.

The Finno-Ugric Mentality and the Role of Language

Despite the various similarities of the Finno-Ugric languages, they are not mutually understandable. Nevertheless, belonging to the same language family is the most significant feature unifying the Finno-Ugric peoples. The kinship of the Finno-Ugric languages can be detected especially in their analogous constructions. This distinctive construction of their languages has influenced the Finno-Ugric peoples’ frame of mind, as well as the way they perceive the world around them. This facilitates mutual understanding between the Finno-Ugric peoples. At the same time, the specifically boreal attitude of the Finno-Ugric peoples enriches world culture by adding a unique way of thinking. Unlike Indo-Europeans, individuals thinking in the Finno-Ugric languages would, for instance, tend to not consider nature as an object, but rather as a partner for coping with life. Nor are the cultures of the majority of the Finno-Ugric peoples aggressive – throughout history, they have tried to accommodate themselves to ever new neighbours, until they have had to migrate in order to maintain their own identity.

Differing racial, religious, and cultural characteristics

Western Finno-Ugrians belong to the Caucasian race. However, the closest relatives – the Hungarians, Khantys (Ostyaks), Mansis (Voguls) in Siberia, as well as their neighbours the Samoyeds – represent the Uralic race, having both European and Mongolian physical characteristics.

The culture of the Volga-Finnic, Permian, and minor Balto-Finnic peoples is strictly agrarian, since due to several historical, political, and cultural reasons, they have had no opportunity to develop their own urban culture. Throughout the centuries, the culture of the Khantys, Mansis, and Samoyeds – which are based on hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry – has adapted itself to life in extreme Siberian conditions. However, it is, unfortunately, most vulnerable to the negative influences of modern industrial culture.

As for organized religion, most Finno-Ugrians are Christians of various confessions. Estonians, Finns, and Western Lapps are minly Lutherans, whereas Hungarians are mostly Catholics, although some are Calvinists or Lutherans. Finno-Ugrians living in the European part of Russia are mostly Orthodox, but the Udmurt and Mari people have preserved their ancient animistic religion. Also, the Finno-Ugrians in Siberia, as well as the Samoyeds, are to this day shamanists.

International Cooperation

Over the course of time, the unity of the Finno-Ugric peoples has had a considerable impact on their cultural emancipation. Finns, for instance, have been influenced by their relationship with Hungarians, and in turn, have supported their nextdoor neighbours, the Karelians. At the same time, Estonians have used Finns as an example to emulate, and have received varied assistance from them. With the help of Finns, Estonians, and Hungarians, the Livonian (or Liv) ethnic consciousness and literary culture in Latvia was brought back from oblivion during the period between the two World Wars. Awareness of their kinship with the Finns, Hungarians, and Estonians is presently crucial for boosting the self-awareness of the Finno-Ugrians living in Russia. Also, moral- as well as material aid from their “linguistic brethren” in the outside world is essential for the preservation of their languages and cultures.

The main forum of the Finno-Ugrians is the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples, which has taken place every four years since 1992. The permanent body of the Congress, the Consultative Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples, is represented in the Work Groups of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The World Congress states that its primary objective is the preservation and development of the Finno-Ugric peoples and their cultures as part of the heritage of mankind as a whole. The rights of national minorities are not a matter that concerns a single country’s domestic policy, but rather the international community as a whole.

As a matter of fact, the international community is already paying significant attention to the situation of the Finno-Ugric indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has repeatedly drawn attention to the precarious situation of the Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia. The EU has also brought this topic to the attention of the Russian authorities throughout the course of EU-Russian human rights dialogue. And, in 2005, the European Parliament adopted a declaration concerning various human rights breaches in the Russian Federation Republic of Mari El. The problems of indigenous peoples are also a matter of serious concern for the UN, which has announced the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.

The Estonian Kindred Peoples Programme

Estonia supports the development of various other Finno-Ugric peoples by providing cultural, educational, and economic resources, as well as by cooperating with both the Russian central government and the appropriate local officials in helping to improve the opportunities of the Finno-Ugric peoples to preserve their languages and cultures. The Kindred Peoples Programme was launched by the Estonian government to support the efforts of the indigenous Uralic (Finno-Ugric and Samoyed) peoples living in the Russian Federation and the Republic of Latvia in developing their languages and cultures. The Programme also envisages cooperation with the Sámi of Russia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The Kindred Peoples Programme partly overlaps with the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Peoples, and constitutes Estonia's contribution to the Decade. 



Increase / decrease,
1989 to 2002*

Countries inhabited




Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, etc.




Finland, Sweden, Russia, Estonia





Mordvinians (Erzyas and Mokshas)












Zyryan Komis




Permian Komis









55,000 – 100,000


Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia




Russia (Siberia)




Russia (Siberia)








Russia (Siberia)












Russia (Siberia)



(not counted
in 1989)

Russia, Estonia



(not counted
in 1989)





Russia (Siberia)

Ingrians (Izhorians)







Russia (Siberia)







(not counted
in 1989)


* The Russian Federation’s 2002 census figures were compared with those of the USSR's 1989 census for the Russian SFSR. It is not possible to trace the dynamics of other peoples in a uniform way because of the absence, inadequacy, or dissimilarity of the available data.

It is absolutely scandalous…

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, it was greeted with enthusiasm by many renowned intellectuals: Sigmund Freud, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Claudel, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others. The intellectuals from both sides made an effort to prove that their culture, literature, and philosophy were superior to that of the other side. A French poet declared: "Let's throw German books out the window, long live clear thoughts!". The poet Paul Claudel later called Kant and Luther "sowers of pestilence". While German philosophers speculated about the inherent weaknesses of French thought, the priests and pastors of both sides blessed their troops, praying for God to give them victory over the satanic enemy.

At the same time, in Central Russia, far away from the battlegrounds of Western Europe, the news of a big war had reached the Mari people (also called Cheremis). The elders of several neighbouring villages, having thoroughly discussed the matter, ordered that all weapons in those villages, mostly old swords and antique firearms, be gathered together. Then a big grave was dug, the people put on their traditional ceremonial white clothing, and the weapons were given a ritually burial.

A significant percentage of Maris were at that time, and still are, non-Christians, having preserved their old religion. They have sacred groves where they pray to their gods and sacrifice food. The Mari old religion is imbued with veneration for all living and even non-living things. A Mari greets the forest upon entering it, greets a stream when crossing it, and at midsummer, the Mari people are careful not to disturb the wedding of the cornfield. And old shoes and garments are placed on a nearby fence, where they are allowed to decay and decompose, since old things that have served the Mari people well are not simply thrown away.

Since their subjugation by the Tsar in the 16th century, the Maris have resisted both Christianisation and Russification, the latter being especially brutal in the Soviet era. In 1937, most Mari leaders and intellectuals were either imprisoned or executed. At the time of Gorbatchov's perestroika, the Maris once again seized the initiative and tried to gain more rights. Initially, these attempts were somewhat successful, but now with authoritarianism and chauvinism gaining strength in Moscow, a new wave of repressions has hit Mariland. Although, officially they have their own autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, now called Mari El, the aspirations of the Mari people for real cultural autonomy, for the right to education in their own language, have been largely ignored.

It is absolutely scandalous that, in some parts of the Russian Federation the repression and assimilation of minorities that has been condemned and abandoned in Western and Central Europe is still going on, sometimes in a shockingly brutal way.

Jaan Kaplinski, Estonian writer, member of the Universal Academy of Cultures in Paris