N 1, 28.02.2001


Mikhail Akashkin, a fellow countryman from Kulikovo village in the Torbeevo region, defended his dissertation at the Galimjan Ibragimov Institute of Language, Literature and Art (IIaLI) in Kazan on October 25, 2000. His dissertation was entitled, “Wedding Ceremonies and Songs for the Tatar-Mishars and Mordovians: A Comparative Analysis.” The dissertation panel included venerable Tatar scholars, both Academics and Professors, and his work has been recommended for publication as a monograph. In his dissertation, the young scholar from Mordovia explained that 53% of Tatar-Mishar traditional wedding rites correspond exactly with those of the Mordovians, and another 20% are very similar. This is a sensational finding, one that may lead scholars to reexamine questions of the origins of the Mordovian and Tatar peoples.

TG: Mikhail Mikhailovich, you yourself are ethnically Moksha. Why, then did you choose a theme connected with the Tatars for your scholarly work?

MMA: I was a graduate student at the State Scientific Research Institute of Language, Literature, History and Economics of the Republic of Mordovia (MNIIIaLIE) in the Folklore Department. Under the direction of Pavel Danilovich Gruznov, the institute has recently begun to devote a lot of attention to the study of the Tatar population in Mordovia. For example, Liudmila Nikonova, a senior research assistant at MNIIIaLIE, wrote a book on Tatar, Bashkir and Chuvash traditional medicine, which appeared in print last fall. In 1999, Vera Semina, who was a graduate student at our institute, successfully defended her dissertation on early 19th century Tatar-Mishar families in Mordovia. But the very first dissertation that dealt with the Tatars in Mordovia was the work of Nikolai Butylov, which is entitled, “Turkish borrowings in the Mordovian languages.” He defended it in 1998.

It is a well-known fact that in terms of both language and origin, our local Tatar-Mishars differ greatly from Kazan Tatars. However, the history, culture and language of the Tatar-Mishars have not yet been studied in depth. The fact is, for scholars from Kazan, they are not considered to be a part of their culture, and for the Mordovian scholars, they are considered to be foreign. Because of this fact and years of Soviet rule, the culture of the Tatar-Mishars was for all intents and purposes not studied here in Mordovia. Only at the end of the 50’s were there a few expeditions from Kazan. As I am sure you realize, scattered attempts like this accomplish very little. As a result, there are a lot of unknowns in the study of Mishars, even today.

The Philologist Tatiana Petrovna Deviatkina, Ph.D., suggested the theme of Mishar and Mordovian weddings to me. Her dissertation was devoted to Mordovian weddings. At the time, she had compared them with Russian and Tatar ceremonies. She realized that the Tatar-Mishar weddings had many elements in common with the Mordovian weddings, but it was a different time then. She was firmly advised to take the chapter on Mishar-Mordovian similarities out of her dissertation.

Tatiana Petrovna taught a seminar on ceremonial poetry at the University of Mordovia while I was studying in the Philology department. Under her direction, I wrote my thesis on Mokshan weddings. I studied the particulars of the wedding ceremony in our village, Kulikovo. I collected and processed a lot of field data at that time, and Tatiana Petrovna recommended that I take up scholarly work. Therefore, I enrolled in the correspondence department of MNIIIaLIE.

TG: How could you study Tatar ceremonies and songs without a knowledge of the language?

MMA: It was very difficult in the beginning, but now I can understand Tatar, and can even speak a little bit. Many of the materials on Tatar weddings have been published in Russian, and this has made my task a bit easier. However, the majority of materials have been published in Tatar. I couldn’t have gotten around this problem without the help of Irek Damirovich Bikkinin, to whom I am very grateful. He devoted so much time and energy to my project.

TG: Mikhail Mikhailovich, how could it have happened that the Mordovians and Mishars, who seem to be such different peoples, with different languages and different faiths, would have such similar ceremonies?

MMA: The fact is, wedding traditions are very conservative, and therefore provide us with the best way to look at the way of life of two neighboring peoples. The pre-Christian way of life for the Mordovians, and the pre-Islamic way of life for the Mishars, are quite similar, if not identical. This is also the result of sharing a common territory and, to some extent, a common ancestry. To that extent, we can establish firmly that at some point in the past there was a single system for Mordovian and Mishar wedding ceremonies, based on the similarities that have been preserved to the present day in the wedding ceremony. And wedding ceremonies are always closely connected to the beliefs of a given people. From this, it is possible to make yet another deduction; in ancient times, the Mordovians and Mishars believed in the same gods, had similar religious ceremonies and used the same exact wedding ceremony.

TG: Could you give an example?

MMA: Consider, for example the similar customs Mishars and Mordovians have for matchmaking, the bride price, the visits to the bride by the groom, the maiden’s bath, the toll the groom must pay at the gate and door of the bride’s house, the wedding procession, ceremonies as the newlyweds arrive to bridegroom’s house, gift-giving, welcoming of the bride to her in-law’s hearth, leading the bride to the well, the post-wedding receptions and others.

TG: How did you gather your materials? How did this all start?

MMA: In 1998, I began to go with Tatiana Petrovna to various Tatar settlements around Liambir region. Then, in 1999, Irek Damirovich and I went to the archive of the IIaLI in Kazan. The archive was preparing exerpts of expedition reports written by Tatar folklorists in Mordovia in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, the IIaLI was in the process of switching to the History Institute’s system at the time, and it wasn’t possible to use the archive. The only materials we were able to find were from one expedition in the 1970’s. That report was not in the archive, although it was of archival quality, but rather in the safe of the author. I won’t disclose her name, but she would only give us permission to look at the report. She would not allow us to copy it or take notes, and we did not have the money to purchase the report. And so we returned from our first trip to Kazan with empty hands. However, this had a positive effect on my work. I was forced to rely only on field materials from the Tatar villages of Mordovia, collected from 1998-99 , and on histories published earlier.

TG: How did you find the Tatar villagers?

MMA: Very well. But they over-fed me. Without eating and drinking tea it was impossible to set down to work. And in every village I ended up questioning between 4 and 6 informants. Just imagine! I am very grateful to all of the villagers, to whom fate brought me in these Tatar villages, for their hospitatlity, for everything.

TG: I am curious to know how you found Kazan and IIaLI, especially with the registration fiasco in 1999.

MMA: Everything went very well, better than I expected. I am especially thankful to Academician Mirfatikh Zakiev, the director of IIaLI, Professor Fatikh Urmancheev, Dr. Khuziakhmet Makhmutov Ph.D., and Zufar Rameev, the research secretary of the dissertation committee.

TG: Did you stay in a hotel in Kazan?

MMA: No, I stayed with a friend from the village of Mordovian Paevo Zhenya Akshaev. He works in a factory in Kazan. I really lucked out with the arrangements.

While in Kazan, I met yet another fellow countryman. You won’t believe this, but I was a guest at the house of the legendary pilot, Mikhail Petrovich Deviataev, a hero of the Soviet Union (who hijacked a German plane from Nazi concentration camp in 1945 during World War II). I was lucky enough to have been born in a neighboring village to his in Torbeevo region. After defending my dissertation, I called him, and he invited me to his home.

Mikhail Petrovich was very glad that one of his fellow countrymen had come to Kazan and defended a dissertation on a Tatar theme here. He told me about how in his childhood he had walked in the Surgod countryside (the homeland of the Tatar poet Hadi Taktash, whose 100-year anniversary was celebrated in Mordovia in December) to watch the Sabantuy (the biggest Tatar feast held in spring). Mikhail Petrovich and his wife Fauzia Khairullovna turned out to be very good hosts, and several hours of pleasant conversation flew by like a few seconds. As a farewell, Mikhail Petrovich gave me an autographed copy of his book “Escape from Hell,” which was recently reprinted in Kazan.

TG: Mikhail, you are married with two young children and live in a dormitory. How do you manage your work?

 MMA: I was helped by the diligence and persistence of my lead professor, Tatiana Petrovna. It also helped that people at the institute, such as the director, Pavel Danilovich Gruznov and Nikolai Vasilevich Zinovev and his staff at the Department of Folklore at MNIIIaLIE, held such a posititve attitude toward my work.

The Tatar society “Yaktashlar” also helped, not only by providing consultations and help with translations from Tatar, but also with paper and the use of a computer and printer. They provided every copy of my dissertation, as well as all copies of my abstracts. I also received help from other graduate studetns, who provided copies of documents necessary for my defence.

TG: You did not receive a stipend for your studies. How did you manage to take care of material things?

MMA: It all worked out. My relatives helped. Again, I’d like to thank the society “Yaktashlar” for assistance, and also some other acquaintances. In 1999, I was one of the young scholars working on Tatar-related topics to receive an award at a conference sponsored by “Yaktashlar.” The award was given to me by Abdulkhak Abdulgafurovich Salimov, who is famous throughout the Republic. He currently works as the Vice President of the Mordovian division of the International Academy of Information.

TG: And how about your expenses for the defence of your dissertation? It couldn’t have been cheap.

MMA: That truly could have been an unbearable burden for me. Scholarly work doesn’t receive enough support from the government yet. I owed the necessary sum of money for the defense, and a few businesspeople helped me to repay a large part of that debt. To begin with, I’d like to name those people who responded to my request immediately: Fiarid Fiattiakhovich Mamin, Kamil Shavketovich Mangutov, Rais Kasimovich Khairov, Ildar Damirovich Bikkinin, Ali Mavliutovich Saifetdinov, Fedor Dmitrievich Kudashkin (the director of the company “Ksenon”). Yunir Riashitovich Biktiakov, Biiazit Zinnurovich Kurmakaev and the retail center “Tatarstan” also ended up helping me.

TG: Mikhail Mikhailovich, what have you been doing with yourself since receiving your PhD?

MMA: Everything has been going well for me. I work in the prep-institute, in the Philological Department. My wife has enrolled full-time in graduate studies at the university. Our sons Alesha and Vania are growing. What else does a person need?

TG: Are you planning to continue your investigation of your theme?

MMA: Absolutely. I already miss it, and have already begun to forget Tatar words and phrases. So I am becoming more accustomed to my teaching duties and have again begun to work on my theme. There is a lot of work yet to be done.

TG: Well, Mikhail Mikhailovich, congratulations to you on the successful defence of your dissertation. We wish you success in the future in your work for the good of the people of our Republic.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Mr. Akashkin refers to several Tatar wedding traditions, which may not be familiar to our English-speaking readers. Much like the traditions of giving away the bride or throwing rice at the newlyweds, these symbolic acts afford us a glimpse at the cultural past.

Bride price: The reverse of a dowry system, this is the price paid to the bride’s family by the groom in order to arrange the marriage.

Toll at the gate and door: A small fee requested of the groom by the bride’s younger relatives. This fee gives the groom the right to enter the bride’s family home. The groom is generally required to pay three such tolls.

Welcoming of the bride to her in-law’s hearth: The bride greets her new Mother-in-law beside the hearth and is introduced to the spirits that dwell there. This prepares the bride for her role as a housekeeper/cook for the family.

Leading the bride to the well: The bride is introduced to the spirits of the water, so that they will not create problems for her in the future.

Translated by Michelle Hartner.

E-mail: irek@moris.ru