Ural Federal University: University Researchers Study When and How the Ural Identity Was Shaped

When and how the Ural identity was formed is the grand research task being carried out by a group of scientists from the Ural Institute of Humanities at Ural Federal University. Researchers are completing three years of work on the large interdisciplinary project “Regional Identity of Russia: Comparative Historical and Philological Studies”. The project was supported by the Russian Science Foundation.

The project, which brings together dozens of specialists, is led by Elena Berezovich, Head of the Department of Russian Language, General Linguistics and Verbal Communication of Ural Federal University, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. She is also the Head of one of the project’s research groups, which brings together linguists. The group of archaeologists is headed by Vladimir Borzunov, a Senior Researcher at the UrFU Fundamental Research Archaeological Laboratory. Historians are represented by two groups. One of them is headed by Irina Pochinskaya, Head of the University Academic and Research Laboratory of Archeographic Studies, and the other is headed by Dmitry Redin, Professor of the Department of Russian History and Head of the Laboratory of Primary Sources Research at Ural Federal University.

“Russia is a country of regions, this explains its diversity. What is a region? Discussions about this complex concept have been going on for decades. A region is a systematic set of factors: geographical, social, cultural, administrative. A region takes a long time to form, regional identity, which is most vividly expressed in onomastics and, in particular, toponymy, separates the inhabitants of one region from the inhabitants of another. The task of the project is to understand retrospectively, using primarily historical and philological methods, when, why and how the Ural identity was formed,” explains Redin.

According to him, first of all, a region is a territory with a special landscape, fossils, flora and fauna. Next, it is the inhabitants, who have a special culture, in a broad, socio-cultural sense: including traditions, everyday life, clothing, etc. The characteristics of the region are also expressed in the administrative peculiarities – the structure and functioning of the government.

Elena Berezovich’s group studies how the Ural identity is reflected in the linguistic mining “profile” of the region – in the people’s names of minerals and mineraloids, rocks, metals, in the names of ways and tools for mining and processing stone, making products from them, in the names of the guardian spirits of the treasures of the Urals, in toponyms designating deposits, mines, deadmines, etc. According to Berezovich, researchers seek to understand the origin and motivation of this or that name.

During the implementation of the project “Regional Identity of Russia: Comparative Historical and Philological Research,” the specialists of Berezovich’s group conducted field research, meeting with informants from towns and villages of the Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk Regions. Thus, an electronic card catalog of 4,000 titles was formed.

In addition, written sources such as mineralogical dictionaries, the works of famous mineralogists (for example, the first Russian academic mineralogist Vasily Severgin), and medieval lapidaries – works devoted to the magical properties of stones – were studied.

“Studying the lapidaries and classifying their data, we found out, for example, that the definition “Mary’s glass” (so in the Ural they call mica as well as leafy gypsum) was formed under the influence of Western European languages, that is, in fact, the translation of Latin “glacies Mariae”, French “glace de Marie”: this is explained by the special properties of the stone (purity, transparency), which link it in popular consciousness with the Virgin Maria. Amethyst is named “talyan” in the Ural because it reminded our ancestors of the Italian glass, and garnet was named “venice” because of its resemblance to the Venetian glass. Products of these southern European industrial and art schools were well known in our region,” says Berezovich.

Collecting data on the lexicon and toponymy of stone is a new stage in the work of the world-renowned toponymic expedition of UrFU. It was created at the Department of Russian Language, General Linguistics and Verbal Communication by Aleksandr Matveev, the founder of the School of Ural Onomists and Etymologists and a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (at present, the Head of the Expedition is Elena Berezovich). For 60 years, the expedition has been collecting material, amounting to more than 4 million units of storage today. It is collected not only in the Urals, but also in the Russian North, as well as in the Volga Region and Western Siberia. This allows to conduct comparativist research. Thus, it turns out that many Ural place names come from the Russian North, from where the Ural was settled by Finno-Ugric peoples. The names of some stone guardian spirits came from the territory of modern Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, and the name of the spirit Shubin even came from Donbass in the 1920s-30s.

In turn, the Laboratory of Primary Sources Research studies how documents from the imperial period of Russian history reflect the evolution of territorial administration systems (the Laboratory is one of the leaders in the country in terms of its contribution to scientific knowledge of administrative governance in New Age Russia).

Russian supreme power, says Dmitry Redin, began to delineate territories, to form regions, and to choose models of governing them in its interests in the New Age, at the turn of the XV-XVI centuries. And until the 30s of the XVIII century the Ural, both at the level of domestic relations and officially, in accordance with the administrative and political glossary, did not stand out from Siberia, forming the western counties of the vast Siberian province. The regional mining administration was called the Siberian Ober-bergamt (regional Mines Inspectorate), and later the Chancellery of the Chief Board of the Siberian and Kazan Plants. These “layers” are still evident today: for example, the Permians, who are part of the Volga Federal District, identify themselves as Ural residents, and the Tyumen residents, who live in the Ural Federal District, identify themselves as Siberians.

At the same time, since the time of Peter the Great, the Ural, as a territory of special status, had developed a unique administrative system that met the need to build a major industrial cluster, stresses Dmitry Redin. Whereas regional “capitals” of general civil administration were located first in Tobolsk and then in Perm, Ekaterinburg served as the center of an independent extraterritorial mining and factory department. Moreover, this departmental model of government proved effective only in Ekaterinburg: in Moscow and Kazan the regional Mines Inspectorate proved ineffective. The two strong centers of power – in Ekaterinburg and Perm – constantly competed with each other, which had an impact until the late Soviet period, for example, in the rivalry between the universities of both cities.

The second component of the research project of the Laboratory of Primary Sources Research is comparative studies of unique models of territorial administration in the Ural, in the Central Russian provinces, in the Baltic German provinces taken from Sweden during the Great Northern War – Livonia and Estland, and in the Malorossia. In this work, Ural Federal University scientists rely on a huge array of historical documents, which over the past two decades have been collected and studied by the laboratory, as well as colleagues in other cities and regions.

“The supreme power puts up with regional diversity as long as it is weak. That is why in 16th century Russia it was enough for the supreme rulers that the regional elites retained general loyalty, recognized the supreme jurisdiction of the center, its right to collect taxes and foreign policy. However, as the central state apparatus strengthened and – at the same time – the political and economic life of the country became more complex, there was a movement towards unification, suppression of regional originality. Keeping a balance between centralization and autonomization is one of the primary tasks of the supreme power in such a heterogeneous country as Russia. We study how successfully this task was solved in the New Age, under Peter the Great and after him,” describes Dmitry Redin.

The third component in the work of the project’s Laboratory of Primary Sources Research is the study of the anthropology of power: why the heads of administrations acted one way or another, what determined their choice of ideas and actions, how it was expressed in the formal and informal language of power, in vocabulary and speech manners, in patrimonial, patron-client relations. This field of research is an area of joint efforts not only by historians, but also by philologists, psychologists, and sociologists of the UrFU.

“We have access to documents, themes, and approaches that, because of ideological doctrinaireism, were not available to Soviet scholars. Thus, we are discovering information not known to our predecessors-about what in New Age Russia determined the choices of both individuals and society as a whole,” Redin concludes.

The result of the project “Regional Identity of Russia: Comparative Historical and Philological Studies” will be books, monographs, and scholarly articles. The authors have applied for the continuation of research through 2025 and expect funding commensurate with the significance of the project.