Ethnic group. Previously known as Cheremiss, the Mari are a Finnic people whose traditional homeland lies in the Volga and Kama river basins. They are the titular nationality of Mari El, where they form 43 percent of the population, but also live in Bashkortostan, Kirov, Sverdlovsk, and Tatarstan, as well as other parts of the Russian Federation.
   The distribution of the Mari among the Muslims of the Volga is, in part, the result of an exodus after the Cheremiss Wars (1552–1584); many Mari left their homeland to avoid Slavicization and forced conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. In total, they number over 600,000, more than half of whom live in Mari El. Mari are divided among three principal groups: Meadow (Olyk) Mari, Hill (Kuryk) Mari, and Eastern (Üpö) Mari. The Meadow Mari are by far the largest of the three. Literary languages exist for Hill and Meadow Mari, though the two languages might be classified as dialects of the same tongue. The Mari languages are members of the Volga-Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric language group, which is part of the Uralic language family. Native language use remains high among the Mari, who tended to resist urbanization during the 20th century; a recent study suggests that 80 percent use Mari as their first language and that a third of the Mari lack fluency in the Russian language. Seventy percent of Mari El’s rural population is ethnic Mari.
   Modern Mari national identity was forged in the 1870s as a result of open resistance to Russification. The catalyst was the Kugu Sorta (Mari: “Great Candle”) movement, a nationalistic religious sect with anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox orientations. The group’s activities focused on literacy campaigns and a revival of Mari animism and shamanism. As a result, many Olyk and Üpö retained their traditional beliefs; highland Mari, however, generally embraced Russian Orthodoxy. In the early 20th century, Mari nationalists coalesced under the umbrella organization Mari Ushem (Mari Union). The radical fringe ultimately came under Bolshevik influence after the 1917 revolution. Moscow’s creation of an ethnic territory for Mari did little to protect them from Joseph Stalin’s tender mercies. The Mari language was steadily pushed from the public realm during midcentury; however, a revival of Mari culture and language characterized the Gorbachev era. Mari Ushem was reconstituted during the period; the organization pursued a moderate platform, working with the Soviet (and later, Russian) federal system.
   In 1992, Mari Ushem organized the First Congress of the Mari Nation, which called for greater Mari representation in government. In 1993, a new, more radical organization, Kugeze Mlande (Land of Our Ancestors), also became active under the leadership of animist priests. The movement advocated limits on migration into Mari El and promoted secession and/or the formation of a Volga Federation independent of Russia, but failed to attract many adherents and was forced to merge with Mari Ushem by 1995.
   Mari identity remains rooted in traditional religious practices, which are sanctioned both at the republican and federal levels. Since 1991, Mari paganism, which has strong anti-Russian overtones, has achieved a level of respectability within Mari El, with karts (shamans) often exercising political influence among their followers. The first post-Soviet president of Mari El was publicly blessed by Aleksandr Yuzykain, the leader of Oshmari-Chimari (White MariPure Mari), Russia’s first registered pagan organization. Religiously oriented environmentalism, protection of sacred groves, and public support for pagan festivals such as Agavairem has become a basic element of political life in contemporary Mari El. Mari animism is not confined to the republic, however; Mari in Bashkortostan, in particular, are more militantly attached to their pagan faith than those in the ethnic republic.
   Like the Mordvins, the Mari national movement is divided on how to address the issue of territoriality, that is, whether activism should be confined to Mari El or extended to diasporic Mari across Russia. Under Leonid Markelov’s presidency of Mari El (2004–present), Mari organizations, media outlets, and gatherings have faced growing government restrictions.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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