The Profound Vepsian Influences on Russian Culture and Language

Jul 6, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in July 2012]


The Veps are an 8,000-strong Finnic-speaking group that lives in small pockets on the western shores of Lake Onega and in northeastern Leningrad oblast (see the LinguistList map on the left). The Veps’ self-designations in their various dialects are vepslaine, bepslaane, lüdinik, and lüdilaine. Archeological studies and place names suggest that these people once inhabited a much larger area, extending from the northern shores of Lake Onega in the north to the present-day city of Cherepovets in the south, and from the Olonets on the eastern shores of Lake Ladoga to the eastern shores of Lake Onega. Tomb findings prove that they traded with western Finns, the Merya and other Volga Finnic tribes, and later with Novgorod and other Russian principalities; one of the eastern routes of the Vikings went through their territory. Yet despite their key location and extensive participation in trade, the Veps “have been unduly ignored by both historians and students of contemporary Russia”, as Martin W. Lewis pointed out in an earlier GeoCurrents post. They, and their Finnic neighbors—the Murom, Merya, and Meschera, all three of which have disappeared entirely, as well as the Votes of Ingria, who have been even more marginalized than the Veps—are “usually portrayed as peoples without history, insignificant pawns of larger powers”, as Lewis put it. Many historians, especially Russian ones, tend to view these Finnic peoples as minor tribes with no legacy of statehood who made no important contribution to the Russian history, culture, or language.


However, in recent years those views have been challenged. Work on the Obran Osh and Sarskoye Gorosdishche archeological sites (see the map on the left) indicate that Finnic peoples may have state-like polities. They were plugged into the vitally important Volga trade route, which flourished in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, connecting the Baltic Sea region with Central Asia and the Middle East. And as the recent work in several disciplines shows, the Finnic peoples left an indelible mark not only in the historical and archeological record, but also on Russian material culture, language, and gene pool.

The first mention of the Veps in the chronicles, under the name Ves’, dates back to the 6th century C.E. Archeologists associate those references to the Ves’ with the Dyakovo culture that flourished in the northern part of the East European Plain in the 5th and 6th centuries. In later centuries, the Ves’ almost certainly created the kurgans (burial mounds) on the southeastern shores of Lake Ladoga. These mounds, up to 10 feet (3 meters) in height and up to 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter, mirror the structure of these people’s homes, with the hearth and household utensils, suggesting that they believed in the afterlife as a continuation of life in this world. In ancient and medieval times, the Veps and other Finnic peoples were at roughly the same technological level as their Slavic, Scandinavian, or Turkic-speaking neighbors. Their basic occupations were agriculture, cattle breeding, fishing, and hunting. The Veps were also known as skilled craftsmen: they practiced weaving and sewing, manufactured tools, and fashioned ceramics and other objects of everyday life. And if one scratches the surface of Russian traditional arts and crafts, one funds abundant influences of Finnic, and more specifically Vepsian, culture.

Take, for example, the sarafan, the traditional Russian women’s dress that consists of a long full skirt hanging just below the arms with straps or an extremely abbreviated bodice that secures it over the shoulders (see image). Though sarafans are now worn as a short summer-time light dress, traditionally they were ankle-length and worn over a white or embroidered undershirt with sleeves (more on the embroidery below). While some writers compare the sarafan to the kimono of Japan, the sari of India, or the peplos in ancient Greece, it has become an important symbols of Russia. In the words of the AeroTranslate website, “When you are talking about a sarafan, you think about Russia”. The traditional Russian wooden matryoshka dolls are “dressed” in sarafans. Performers of folk music and dance wear them. Paintings of Russian peasant women usually depict them wearing sarafans. Prior to Peter the Great’s modernization of Russia in the 18th century, Russian women from the upper and middle classes wore sarafans too. The first mention of the costume in Russian sources is in the 16th century Nikon Chronicle, under the year 1376, although it is believed to have a much longer history. The word sarafan is a borrowing from Turkic languages, as is suggested by the appearance of the same vowel, [a], throughout the word. However, the garment itself originated from the traditional costumes of the Finnic-speaking Veps around the area of Olonets and its vicinity. From the extreme northwest of the country, the sarafan permeated the northern and central parts of Russia, changing styles from one area of the country to another. To this day, sarafan-style dress remains part of the traditional Veps costume, as can be seen from the following images:

Tree of Life


The origin of the sarafan with Finnic- rather than Slavic-speaking peoples is further supported by the fact that folk costumes of other East Slavic peoples are very different in design. For example, traditional Ukrainian women’s costume consists of an embroidered shirt, known as vyshyvanka, and a skirt, with an optional vest and apron.

Image60Another traditional Russian craft that exhibits more affinity to that of the Finnic-speaking Veps than to that of East Slavic-speaking Ukrainians is embroidery, specifically the “painting” style of embroidery, most typically done entirely in red over a white background (see image on the left). While traditional Ukrainian embroidery often used red stitching on white or grey backgrounds, other colors such as deep green and blue were frequently used as well. Also, Ukrainian embroidery relies mostly on cross-stitch and half-cross-stitch rather than on backstitch or Holbein stitch employed in the “painting” style embroidery of northern Russia. While Russian and Ukrainian folk embroidery styles differ in both colors and stitchery, the Russian style bears close affinities with the traditional embroidery of the Veps, illustrated below with a photo from the most recent “Tree of Life” Veps folk festival:

Tree of Life

The Tree of Life motif from the Veps folk legends is also an important part of the time-honored Russian embroidery design called “the Sun Chariot” (illustrated in two images above): two birds attached back-to-back form a boat, and from their backs grows a fairy tree with fancy flowers and leaves. The birds are symbolic “servants of the Sun”, and the tree represents Mother-Nature. The overall meaning of the Veps legend and the Russian embroidery pattern is the allegory of spring, the rejuvenation of nature, and the impending harvest season. The same pattern is also found in Veps ornamental art, as can be seen from the image on the Veps Language National Corpus website.











Recent genetic studies shed new light on why such specifically female-oriented crafts as sewing and embroidery have been especially heavily influenced by Finnic cultures. According to a paper by Boris Malyarchuk and colleagues, Finnic-speaking peoples made a significant contribution to the Russian gene pool, especially in the northern and eastern parts of European Russia. In other words, considerable numbers of Finnic speakers and even whole Finnic-speaking communities were absorbed into the Russian ethnos through “replacement of an earlier Uralic … language … by the … Russian language” (p. 896). However, the stories told by Y-DNA and mtDNA are not the same. While the more prominent differentiation of the geographically distinct populations in the male than in the female lineages is commonly found around the world and usually explained by patrilocal residence, there is also evidence of sex-specific migration. Russians from the northern cities of Kostroma and Pskov were found to “cluster more with Finno-Ugric-speaking Karelians and Mari than they do with the other Russian populations” (p. 891). Malyarchuk and colleagues conclude that “Russian colonization of northeastern territories might have been accomplished mainly by males rather than by females” (p. 877). In human terms, this means that Russian men settled in the Finnic territories and (often) took wives from the local Veps communities.

The picture of sex-specific colonization pattern, emerging from the genetic studies, also suggests that we should expect certain substratum linguistic influences on Russian from Finnic languages such as Veps. While the Slavic-speaking men who colonized the northern lands imposed their tongue on their wives drawn from the local Finnic-speaking community, these women picked up the language of their husbands without special instruction and certainly did not speak it natively. As any non-native speaker would, they would often make subtle “mistakes”, introducing into their Russian patterns and constructions from their native Finnic tongues. Children who grew up in such linguistically mixed communities incorporated some of the Finnic-based patterns into their otherwise Slavic speech. Thus, massive second-language learning led to patterns from the substratum Finnic language gradually penetrating into Russian. Because people are more self-conscious about words than grammatical structures, the linguistic influences of the substratum Finnic language are expected to be—and indeed are—more grammatical than lexical in nature: there are virtually no words borrowed from Finnic languages in Russian, in stark contrast to Turkic languages which contributed a great deal of the Russian vocabulary.


For a long time, the possible linguistic influences of Finnic languages on Russian have been downplayed in scholarly literature. Besides the general academic trend of ignoring the Finnic peoples, the reason that such Finnic influences have gone unnoticed until fairly recently is that scholars looked for contrasts between the wrong sets of languages. Their logic was as follows: Finnic-speaking tribes such as Merya, Meschera, and Murom disappeared in the 11th-12th century CE, when East Slavic languages—Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian—were still undifferentiated. Therefore, the linguistic effects of these Finnic languages were expected to be apparent in comparison of East Slavic languages as a whole with the other two branches of the Slavic family: West Slavic (Polish, Czech, Slovak, and so on) and South Slavic (Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and the like). However, the influences of Finnic tongues were probably much more local, differentiating not the three major branches of the Slavic family, but rather the three East Slavic tongues. It is also possible that this influence was even more local than that, differentiating northern Russian dialects from southern Russian dialects (note that Standard Russian arose mostly on the base of central Russian dialects which exhibit some features of both the northern and southern dialects).

However, when it comes to proving that a specific grammatical feature results from the Finnic substratum influence on Russian, things get rather controversial. Wolfgang Veenker in his 1967 work on the Finno-Ugric substratum in Russian cites three phenomena: (1) the non-application of so-called akan’e, the pattern of reduction of certain unstressed vowels; (2) the so-called nominal sentence, lacking the copula in the present tense; and (3) the use of the verb ‘to be’ instead of ‘to have’ to express possession. Yet, each one of these three peculiarities of Russian grammar may be explained in an alternative manner unconnected with the influence of Finno-Ugric languages.


First, consider the Standard Russian rule of akan’e, which involves pronouncing unstressed /o/ and /a/ similarly to the vowel in the English love or the first vowel in about (depending on the position in the word). For example, in the Russian word moloko ‘milk’, the final vowel is stressed and pronounced [o]. The vowel in the first syllable is pronounced as the initial vowel in about and the vowel in the middle syllable as the vowel in love although the etymologically correct vowel in all three syllables is /o/. The rule of akan’e came into Standard Russian from the southern and central dialects. It does not apply in northern Russian dialects, such as those of Kostroma and Vologda, which feature okan’e instead, retaining the unreduced pronunciation of /o/ and /a/. Thus, in Standard Russian, as well as in the southern and central dialects, the names of the two above-mentioned northern cities are pronounced with reduced vowels, whereas in those cities themselves they are pronounced “as spelled”, with unreduced [o] and [a]. As the map on the left shows, the land of the okan’e—the northern Russian dialects marked 1 through 5 on the map—coincides with the territory formerly inhabited by Finnic-speaking peoples (Veps in particular lived mostly in zones 2, 3, and 4). Crucially, Finnic languages do not have vowel reduction. It is thus possible, even likely, that northern Russian dialects got the okan’e from Finnic languages.

One possible problem with this theory concerns the fact that while akan’e applies in central and southern Russian dialects (marked 6 through 11 on the map above) and Belarusian (where the akan’e is even stronger than in Standard Russian), it does not apply in the southernmost East Slavic language, Ukrainian, which had no contact with the Finnic-speaking peoples of the north. When the pronunciation of unstressed vowels in all varieties of East Slavic is taken into consideration, two competing theories emerge. According to one, the akan’e in southern and central dialects of Russian (and Belarusian) is the aberrant pattern that needs to be accounted for, rather than the okan’e of northern Russians. Alternatively, both northern Russian dialects and Ukrainian developed similar patterns of vowel non-reduction independently and for different reasons. Detailed argumentation for and against both proposals would take us too deeply into historical phonology, but it should be noted that only the latter theory is compatible with the hypothesis that northern okan’e pronunciation stems from a Finnic substratum.

The second phenomenon in Russian grammar that has been attributed to the Finno-Ugric substratum is the so-called nominal sentence. Unlike in English, where the copula be is required in all tenses including the present tense—I was a linguist, I will be a linguist and I am a linguist—Russian does not use the copula in the present tense, as in Ja lingvist (literally ‘I linguist’). According to Lenore Grenoble’s contribution to The Handbook of Language Contact, this pattern is “found throughout all Finno-Ugric languages except those in the Baltic subgroup” (p. 584); hence, the Finnic substratum must have contributed this pattern to Russian. However, her claim is mistaken: the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online lists Votic (Baltic subgroup of Finnic) and Mordvin (Central Volga subgroup of Finnic) as languages with obligatory copula. Aet Lees cites examples from Veps, Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, and Livonian with a copula in the present tense, where Russian would not have one. The lack of copula in the present tense in Russian thus could not have resulted from Finnic influence.

Finally, when it comes to the expression of possession, Standard Russian does not use the verb ‘to have’, except in scientific prose and some other marginal genres. Instead, the verb ‘to be’ is used—which is again omitted in the present tense—in combination with the preposition u ‘at, by’ and a genitive form of the possessor. So instead of ‘I had a dog’, a Russian would say ‘At me was dog’. However, it is not clear whether such a pattern reflects the influence of Finnic languages. Two theories have been proposed to account for the lack of ‘to have’ in Russian. One treats it as haivng been induced by contact with Finnic languages. Note that all modern Slavic languages have the verb ‘to have’, with the sole exception of Russian, which immediately suggests Finnic influence. Another piece of evidence in support of the Finnic-induced-change theory comes from Baltic languages: Latvian—which had Finnic contacts—also uses a ‘be’‑based construction to express possession, while Lithuanian—which did not—uses the verb ‘to have’. However, an alternative explanation has been suggested: instead of treating the lack of ‘to have’ in Russian as a Finnic-induced innovation, it considers it a relic of the earlier state-of-affairs in Common Slavic, inherited from Proto-Indo-European, which is generally believed to have lacked the verb ‘to have’. In other words, the majority of Slavic languages introduced the verb ‘to have’, while Russian was geographically removed from the center of this innovation and hence never acquired ‘have’-based expression of possession. The proponents of this theory point out that the verb ‘to have’ in most Slavic languages might have developed under the influence of Greek, especially through translations of Biblical texts within the Byzantine tradition.

Overall, some grammatical influences from Finnic languages on Russian are expected, but proving any of them conclusively remains an elusive goal.


Lees, Aet (2008) “The partitive case in existential and copula clauses in Balto-Finnic”. Selected papers from the 2007 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, edited by Timothy Jowan Curnow.

Malyarchuk B, Derenko M, Grzybowski T, Lunkina A, Czarny J, Rychkov S, Morozova I, Denisova G, Miścicka-Sliwka D. (2004) “Differentiation of mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes in Russian populations”. Human Biology 76(6): 877-900.


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