The Finno-Ugrian student conference IFUSCO was held in Russia’s Perm Krai in 2010. Madis Tuuder, a student at the Estonian Art Academy, reported her impressions and subsequently a Finnish translation by Sonja Laitinen appeared in the University of Helsinki’s Alkukoti magazine (2010 no. 12, online version here). Here follows my English translation of a report that explains well why I no longer go to academic conferences in Russia.
IFUSCO (the International Finno-Ugrian Student Conference) is turning into a state propaganda event. This claim is based on multiple indicators from the conferences of recent years. This year’s academic event for Finno-Ugrian linguists and others interested in Finno-Ugrian affairs – which IFUSCO ought to be – was held from May 14 to 16 in the Perm Krai of Russia, in the cities of Perm and Kudymkar.
The Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug district was combined several years ago with Perm Oblast to form Perm Krai. Now there’s a Finno-Ugrian façade over the whole region, but what lies behind it is something different. The Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug was the only area in Russia where a Finno-Ugrian people made up over half of the population. Now the Komi Permjaks’ share in the population of the region is only 3.7%.
In their opening speeches, local officials took every opportunity to boast that Perm Krai belongs to the family of Finno-Ugrian regions; it would certainly be strange to hear claims to the contrary in this sort of conference.
The choice of Perm, a city with a million inhabitants, as the second conference venue might be due to aspirations to put the city on the Finno-Ugrian world map. We were told, however, that Kudymkar, which is little more than a large village, couldn’t organize such an event on its own. That claim is hard to understand, since the entire conference – except for the public opening ceremonies – took place precisely in Kudymkar.
It has become a sad trend that in recent years the opening ceremonies have sung the praises of local officials. The same happened this year, as can be seen from who was on the organizing committee: of the organizers, three were local ministers. The Finno-Ugrian youth organization MAFUN came last in the list of organizers. The opening speeches dealt with Perm Krai’s economical and social progress, with an emphasis on transport.
One theme emerged at the end of the opening ceremony. Alevtina Lobanova, a lecturer at Perm Pedagogical University, spoke passionately and sensibly on the shrinking role of Finno-Ugrian languages in the social life of their titular regions. Her views and arguments were virtually the opposite of what the officials had said before her. The audience applauded Lobanova’s courage and outspokenness several times.
One local historian’s presentation on ‘societal-social modernization’ attracted some interest, as it ought to have dealt with the development of Komi Permyak identity. The historian however criticized the national policies of the Baltic countries (the only example he gave outside Russia) and recommended that they take Russia’s Finno-Ugrians as a model, for whom the policy cultivated in the Baltic countries would not be suitable and wouldn’t even be considered due to its oppressive and discriminative nature. He compared the state of the Baltic countries to the situation prevailing in Chechnya and called on those two areas to solve their national problems in radical ways.
In their presentations officials praised, besides economic progress, the synergy and neighbourliness of the nationalities in the area. According to them, everything is being done to maintain a diversity of languages and identities. Of course, nobody talked about what hasn’t been done, like a sufficient guarantee of teaching in pupils’ native languages. At the same time that IFUSCO was held, there was a seminar for teachers of minority languages. Of Perm Krai’s many nationalities, the most successful in native-language education are the Tatars. The situation of the area’s titular nationality (we use that term with certain reservations), the Komi Permyaks, becomes worse year after year.
Around 180 students registered for this year’s IFUSCO. Estonia sent 12 people, but there were fewer rows of Finnish and Hungarian students this time. It’s unfortunate that more and more talks and abstracts are in Russian. In former years it was required that participants either speak or write abstracts in a Finno-Ugrian language (such as their native language), but now this requirement has become only a suggestion. Some students were even forbidden from using a Finno-Ugrian language in their talk or abstract.
The pathos of this conference was seasoned by plays about invented pseudo-mythological heroes, which have become an integral part of Finno-Ugrian conferences. The plays deal with historical events (which may not have ever happened) and profess the eternal brotherhood and friendship of local (and sometimes made-up) tribes.
The political tone of the conference was also visible in the fact that during Estonian-led sessions, a picture of the Bronze Soldier was projected on the big screen. However, they did allow people to make their own Powerpoint presentations.
Luckily, politics and propaganda didn’t diminish the students’ enthusiasm and happiness at meeting each other. The next IFUSCO will be held in Hungary. The choice of this venue is intended to bring the conference back on track and offer some relief from these kind of IFUSCOs which are dominated by bureaucrats and state figures.
I was frustrated by the IFUSCO conference in Saransk in 2007, but there state control was visible less in propaganda and more in strict control of participants’ movement. All the participants were split up into different groups depending on their nationality – as a holder of a US passport, I was not even allowed to join my fellow students from University of Helsinki – and had to remain with the group at all times, a minder ensuring that no one wandered off alone. The arrival times of each group at events were staggered, and everyone was marched straight into the lecture halls, so that they could not mingle outside. Unfortunately, it seems that some Western students have contact with Russia’s Finno-Ugrians only at these conferences, and I’d recommend that everyone spend their time and money in travelling independently to Russia instead.