So as not to offend anyone, films set in Eastern Europe commonly take place in imaginary countries like Trouble for Two‘s Karovia, The Terminal‘s Krakozhia or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s Vulgaria. In reality, there are several little-known, obscure republics which enjoy various amounts of autonomy that would fit the bill. As portions of their citizenry actively campaign for self-rule, I thought I’d shine a light on the unrecognized peoples of eastern Europe. It turns out there’s more to the region than ruthless spies, fortunetellers and stout babushkas.
Chuvashia is a highly industrialized, densely populated tiny republic. It is the home of the Chuvash people, who divide themselves into three groups: the Hill people, the Meadow people and the Downer people. Originally the area was home to a Finnic peoples, the Mari and the Mordvins. In the 600s and 700s, a Hunnish people, the Suars, left their home in north Caucasia and moved to the area. The resulting mix became the Chuvash. They were later conquered by the Tartar Khanate of Kazan and subsequently Russia. Today Chuvashia is famed in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for its enormous beer industry. They should be known, as well, for their scale mail hats.
Traditional Chuvash music uses the pentatonic scale. Tradional genres include lingering songs (lamentations and recruit songs), semi-lingered songs (labor songs, hymns, cradle-songs and guest songs) and quick songs (children’s, comic and play songs).
Originally, Ingria was home Finnic Izhorians and Votes. After the Swedish conquest of the Ingrian Finns, many emigrated to area, giving the Republic its name. Later, large numbers of Estonians and Russians assimilated into the country’s populace. Over the centuries, Danes, Swedes, Vikings, Russians and Germans have all fought over the land but the most dramatic event in their history was Stalin wiping out nearly all of them. In 1926, there were 26,137. In 2002 there were 327. Not all were victims of the genocidal Russian tyrant though; the Ingrian existence also disappeared due to intermarriage.
Ingrian music shares characteristics with Karelian lamentations. Today, the repertoire is kept alive mostly by non Izhorians, since they’re expected to die out within the next few years.
Kalmykia (or Xal’mg Tanghch in the tongue of the natives) is noteworthy as the only republic in Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion. The Kalmyk are descended from a western Mongolian tribe, the Oirats. When they arrived, around 1630, the land was in the possession of the Turkic Nogai Horde. The Oirats summarily chased them off and founded the Kalmyk Khanate. After years of Russian encroachment, 200,000 attempted to returned to their ancestral homelands. Crossing the desert, many Kalmyks were enslaved and killed by Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. When they arrived in modern day East Turkestan, there were only 96,000. Catherine the Great then formally abolished the Kalmyk Khanate. Stalin later killed many and dispersed the rest and Kruschev allowed them to return in 1957. Today, their government has focused on promoting chess, which is why the Kalmyk women above are wearing chess-themed outfits. The guy who won is not Kalmyk.
The music of Kalmykia is based on Mongolian roots with Turkic, Russian and Caucasian influences. The group Tulpan formed in 1937 to promote Kalmyk culture.
For centuries Karelia has been fought over by Russians and Swedes, who ultimately decided to divide it amongst themselves in 1323. Since then, the Finnic Karelian people have been ruled by various states, currently Finland and Russia. Their folklore and that of the Finns was collected and published by Elias Lönnrot, compiled from Finnish and Karelian folklore in the Kalevala. The best version has illustrations by the great Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
The music of Karelia is closely related to Finnish music but with less Germanic influence and is exemplified by The Karelian Folk Music Ensemble, Burlakat, Myllärit and Värttinä.
The Komi Republic is located in northeastern Europe. Mostly located within the boreal forest, it has a large timber industry and is known in the region for its woodwork. The Finnic Komi once were part of a kingdom in the middle ages called Permia. One of their kings was named Stephen of Perm. I like the picture above because it really captures the foresty side of Komi. Their main industry is reindeer husbandry.
Unfortunately, I can’t find much about Komi music but this Komi song his a pretty good video.
The Republic of Mari El (or Марий Эл Республик in Mari) is home to the Finnic Mari people. A significant part of the country is swampland and their main resource is peat. The people divide themselves up into Mountain, Meadow and Eastern. Many Mari still practice their own indigenous religion. Though pantheistic, there is a figure of singular importance, Ош Кугу Юмо, which translates to “Great White God.” The picture above is of real-life European pagans, not Tori Amos-listening, Magick the Gathering-playing kind.
The Mordovins are a Finnic people who divided into two groups in the first century AD, the Moksha and Erzya. One of their unresolvable issues was over which way the dead should be buried, head to the north, or head to the south.
The earliest written mention of them occurs in 6th century accounts of their princes raiding Muroma and Volga Bulgaria. In 1241, they fell to the Golden Horde of Gengis Khan. Later Mordovia was ruled by the Khanate of Khazan and Russia. In the 1600s, an elderly ex-nun, Alyona, led a peasant revolt and freed Temnikov. When apprehended, the Russians burned her at the stake.
Sandžak, nestled between Serbia and Montenegro, derives its name from the Turkish word, sancak, meaning “flag.” In antiquity, the indigenous Thracians were overrun by successive waves of Celts, Huns, Goths, Sarmatians, Greeks, Romans and ultimately, Slavs, who arrived in the 500s and 600s. In 1912 it was divided between the kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro. Today, most of its inhabitants self identify as Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Serbs or simply Muslims, but caught up in the Balkanization craze, many call for the return of independence.
Traditional Sandžak music draws from a variety of influences including Slavic, Vlach, and Albanian.
Originally inhabited by Finnic peoples, around 660 they were joined by a group of Bulgars. In the 1230s, the land was ruled by Mongol prince Batu Khan. He brought with him the subjugated Ta-ta (or Dada), a desert people from the Gobi in modern China. The resulting mixture of ethnicities became known as Tatars. Today the republic is highly industrialized and contains many oil fields, which dominate the economy.
The folk music of Tatarstan mixes Hun, Turk, Hungarian, Russian and Finnish elements, though using the pentatonic scale. Noted composers include Cäwdät Fäyzi, Salix Säydäş, Mansur Mozaffarov, Zölfiä Kamalova and Näcip Cihanov.
The Finnic Udmurts (literally “Field People”) were mentioned in writing by ancient historians Herodotus and Ptolemy. Overrun by successive invasions from the east, some Udmurts joined the Samartians and settled far to the west. From the 900s-1200s, those who remained resisted the Kievan Rus’ attempts to subjugate them. In 1237, they were consumed by the Mongol Horde. Over the following centuries, the Udmurts and Tatars united in rebellions against a succesion of foreign invasions.
Although Udmurtia has a strong folk music tradition, the republic’s most famous musician is undoubtedly the famed Romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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