Few of us can comprehend what it means to be a member of a people or group of peoples that is slowly vanishing. The realization that one's cultural and linguistic identity will one day soon be extinct must be harrowing, if not terrifying. It no doubt fosters an entirely different dimension in a people's collective mentality, one so few of us will ever grasp. To be sure, this is not a distant phenomenon: One need only witness the Livs and the Karaites to understand it.
The 4th World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples taking place this week in Tallinn immediately illustrated the poignancy of the decline - indeed, in some cases the imminent disappearance of - many ethnic groups in this fascinating linguistic branch that stretches from Eastern Europe to Siberia. Granted, no one is lamenting a decline in the number of Hungarians or Finns, but there are many unique Finno-Ugric peoples scattered throughout Russia who are seeing their populations dwindle fast.
In such an environment, emotion is bound to rise to the surface as it did in Tallinn this week. A Hungarian professor said that in 13 years, from 1989 - 2002, Russia's Finno-Ugric population decreased by 400,000 to 2.7 million. The trend, he claimed, was set to continue thanks to policies of Russification. Russia's ambassador, who was present during the speech, was irate.
We in the Baltics, of course, are too aware of the deplorable vagaries of Russification. And while we will not pretend to be specialists on Russia's minorities and the government's policy toward them, the country's overall population decline is a well-recorded fact. As the country goes, so will its minorities. The other thing we can be assured of is that the Kremlin will not wake up one enlightened day and suddenly decide to promote cultural diversity among its hundred-plus ethnic minorities. Thus the onus of self-survival depends on the Finno-Ugrians themselves.
What should be done? Suggestions vary, from strengthening cultural and educational ties to implementing a broad program of economic cooperation. Each has its own merits, but using both approaches would be best. Anatoly Grigoryev, leader of the Karelian branch, said that the next congress should be held in Russia in order to confront the situation head-on. Another good idea. Otherwise, Finno-Ugric leaders - particularly the presidents and prime ministers - need to move beyond lofty talk and start acting. Don't forget, we're dealing with survival in Russia here - not the easiest of quandaries to solve.
If Hungary, Finland and Estonia do not take the initiative on this issue, then they will have no one to blame but themselves. Because when an ethnic group and language dies out, part of humanity dies with it.