by Alexei Markov, Senior Lecturer
Modern University for the Humanities
Most people associate the word meshchera with the territory of forests, pit bogs and lakes between the Klyazma and Oka rivers called Meshchera lowlands. This name originates from a medieval tribe of Volga-Finns, the Meshchera.
Written recordsThe first Russian document mentioning the Meshchera is Tolkovaya Paleya (13c. AD). The tribe was also often mentioned in Russian chronicles and other documents before the 16th century.
The Will of the Moscow prince Ivan Ivanovich (1358) mentions the village of Meshcherka which, as we can learn from another document, had been purchased from the indigenous Meshcherian prince Alexander Ukovich. There are some indications that this western Meshcherian dynasty had been converted to Orthodoxy and was a vassal of the Moscow princes.
Generally speaking, we can easily find the Meshchera in Russian documents of the 13th-16th centuries, unlike the other Finnish tribes: Merya and Murom which had been assimilated by Slavs before the 10th-11th centuries AD. A number of the documents mentions the Meshchera in connection with the Kazan campaign of Ivan the Terrible (16th c.). Some of those mentions relate to the Temnikov Meshchera, a state where the indigenous Meshchera of that time had lost their national identity in many ways by being assimilated by the Tatars and Mordvins. There is a written confirmation of this by Prince A.M. Kurbsky, which referred to the spoken Mordvin language in the Meshchera land.
We believe that some Arabic documents also could have information on the Meshchera history, as long as the Moslem clergy was active in the east of the tribal territory converting the locals into Islam.
Archaeology and ancient art
Most of the information on the Meshchera way of life may be found by archaeology. The archaeological studies of the Meshcherian heritage started in 1870, when a ground burial site was discovered by chance in the village of Zhabki, Ryazan province (now Egorievsk district, Moscow region). A collection of women’s bronze burial (or maybe partly casual) decorations was dated to the 5th-8th centuries AD and identified as Finno-Ugric. A number of similar finds were made shortly after in Ryazan and Vladimir provinces. The almost identical material culture let the scientists specify these burial sites as Meshcherian.
12 of these burial grounds were discovered along the Oka river from the Moskwa (Moscow) river mouth to the town of Kasimov (which earlier had been called Gorodets Meschersky). Some specific features of the artifacts from the Oka valley led to their different classification as the Oka-Ryazan culture. Now the majority of specialists believe that the people of the Oka-Ryazan culture were Meshchera.
The Meshcherian women’s burial set had many things typical for the other Volga-Finns of the 4th-7th centuries: jingling pendants, buckles, neckrings, rings, etc. One of the specific features was the presence of massive round-shaped breast plates with a distinct ornament, the varieties of which could be related to different Meshcherian clans or to carry some other significance.
A number of the women’s burials were well preserved with copper oxides of the decorations. They contained long black hair locked into one or two with little bells and pendants woven in. All these artifacts allow to reconstruct the woman’s burial costume in detail, but we still know very little what the casual clothes of men and women looked like.
The archeological finds suggest that the Slavs began to move into the ancient Finno-Ugrian territories between the 10th and 12th century AD.
Where and when have the Meshchera gone?
The most ancient source of the Meshcherian culture in the Oka valley had disappeared by the 10th-11th centuries. There are no obvious indications of genocide, but the fast change in the material culture of the settlements may tell us a story of the migration of the Meshchera towards east and west. All Meshchera men were armed and the possibility of local conflicts was high at that time. On the other hand, the Meshchera had a long history of peaceful coexistence with a number of Slavic and Baltic tribes. A number of newcomers could live peacefully side by side with the Meshchera assimilating them.
In the Northern part of their territory, the Meshchera were converted and stayed in their territory as long as the agricultural Slavic colonists had little interest in the poor marshy lands. The Meshchera noblemen were converted by the 12th-13th centuries, but the common hunters and fishers kept the elements of their language and traditional beliefs for a longer period.
Untill when was the Meshcherian language able to be preserved in the most remote and isolated tribal settlements? In Radovitsky, the Orthodox St.Nicholas monastery was founded in the 16th century with the primary task to convert the locals to Christianity. This also can point out indirectly to the relatively late disappearance of local traditional beliefs and culture in this area.
Considering all these data, we may suppose that the last people had stopped speaking the Meshcherian language at about the 16th century.
The ethnographyThe ethnographers consider the present-day Meshchera as local groups within the Russian ethnos. These ethnographical Russian-speaking Meshchera live mainly in the heartland of the massive forestland on the borders of Moscow, Ryazan and Vladimir regions of the Russian Federation. Some Meshchera settlements are also situated in Tambov, Penza and Saratov regions. There is little doubt that these people are of Volga-Finnic and Ugrian descent, with Slavic, Turkic and Mongol influence.
These Russian-speaking Meshchera still have a number of specific anthropological features. The people are generally of medium stature and have dark hair. There is a specific dialect and some country side housing details. The rural Meshchera are smart fishers, bee-keepers and hunters.
Facts and hypotheses
The British Encyclopaedia 2001 (Russia: history) says that the first state on the North-West Russian land identified by the Western and Islamic sources was the Volga Rus Khagan State. It was founded in 830 and its capital was near the present-day Ryazan. If it is true, the Meshchera were one of its main ethnic groups (if not the majority).
One of the hypotheses says that the most of Meshchera, being pushed out, moved eastward and was converted to Islam. Mixing with the Tatars, they took their language and gave a start to a new sub-ethnos known asthe Tatar-Mishers or Misherler. Part of the eastern Meshchera also could be assimilated by the Russians and the closely related Mordvins. A number of Russian-speaking groups identified by the ethnographers as Meshchera and living to the east of the ancient Meshcherian area, shows that it is highly possible.
The origin of the word meshchera is still unknown. We believe this word could be a self-name of the ancient Volga-Finns of the Oka river and was closely related to the following existing Volga-Finnish words: Mesh (Moksha-Mordvin) a bee;
Erzya (Erzya-Mordvin) a self-name of the Erzyas;
Eritsia (Erzya-Mordvin) an inhabitant, a local.
Thus the Meshchera were the Bee People, or the Beekeepers. This self-name could be easily taken by the neighbouring groups seeking honey for trade, plunder or tribute. The middle Oka area, a historical cradle of the Meshchera, has always been known for its productive apiculture.
There are still a number of mysteries about the history of the Meshchera. But what we know for sure is: they were skilled fishers, hunters and bronze craftsmen. They were not keen on cultivating their land though they knew how to do it. They definitely deified the nature around them with a number of its creatures and especially the water fowl. They kept their sustainable primary economy for hundreds of years. They were happy with their own life-style and were not fast to give it up. They gave their name to the vast area in the center of the Eastern Europe and their extinct language still exists in the names of some creeks, rivers and villages. Many living people are of their descent and we’d like them to remember their ancestry.