August Ahlqvist in Russia

August Ahlqvist is known best as a sharp critic of author Aleksis Kivi’s works. His true life’s work, however, was linguistics, which inspired him to travel to Finno-Ugric peoples all the way to Siberia. The following is an extract from Ahlqvist’s trip to Mordvin in 1856.

“If language alone did not indicate that this people is a member of the Finnic family, it would be obvious based on these songs, too, that the Mordvin in the same way as the Finn loves a silent, melancholic sentiment and is also in this respect a brother of the latter. Otherwise, the Mordvins are content with their fate, sincere in their behaviour and diligent and skilled in their work. Of all the East-Russian peoples, it is the Mordvins who in terms of their appearance are most like the Finns, and oftentimes when seeing a group of Mordvin men I have thought of men from Finland’s Savo region--.
-- In other respects, the quality of life and dwellings of the Mordvins are much akin to those of the local Russian common people, with their customs no longer differing greatly from the latter, either. They are devout Christians, that is, they fast meticulously and cross themselves frequently, but there are many aspects in their present beliefs as well as in older writings concerning their life and being in the olden days that show that keremet worship was their religion, too. Without discussing other remnants of this worship, I shall merely state herein that, in the spring, usually on the first Pentecost, their village communities gather in some nearby grove to slaughter an ox that is then cooked and eaten on the site and the hide of which is hung in a tree; yet this custom remaining from keremet’ sacrifices has transformed into what is almost Christian behaviour, as the feast begins and ends with a prayer conducted by an Orthodox priest and those praying are also equipped with their own icons, whereby one would think that the spirit for whom this feast used to be held would find it rather difficult to hold his own feast in this company.”

A Mordvin woman depicted around a hundred years before Ahlqvist’s trip. German-Russian botanist, naturalist and geographer Johann Gottlieb Georgi took part in a scientific expedition in 1772–‍1774 and recorded material on themes such Uralic peoples. Illustration from the book by Johann Gottlieb Georgi: Beschreibung aller Nationen des Russischen Reichs, ihrer Lebensart, Religion, Gebräuche, Wohnungen, Kleidungen und übrigen Merkwürdigkeiten. St Petersburg 1776.