A guide to Mordovia

A guide to Mordovia

Church and soviet statue in Saransk, Mordovia

Long before being the so-called home of Gérard Depardieu (3 days in Saransk, a Russian passport & a panar tunic and he became the ultimate citizen), the Republic of Mordovia located in the Volga – Ural region is the historical homeland of the Mordvins, the largest Finno – Ugric people in Russia.

Off the beaten track and yet very close to Moscow, discover Mordovia and its welcoming people !

Last updated : 13/02/2024

The orthodox church of Saransk in Mordovia. A Travel guide to Mordovia in Russia
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General informations

Capital : Saransk

Population : about 800,000

Languages : Moksha, Erzya & Russian

The Mordvin languages, both Moksha and Erzya are considered to be endangered languages ​​by the UNESCO with less than 40,000 speakers who also live outside of Mordovia, in neighboring republics such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan (Bashkiria) and in the Nizhny Novgorod region.

Religions : Orthodox Christianity for the majority, but includes some pagan rites.

Other minorities : There is a small community of Tatars who are Sunni Muslims.

The Mordvins

Who are they?

Finno – Ugric people originated from the territories of the Volga region, they are cousins ​​of Hungarians & Finns. The Mordvins are the largest Finno-Ugric people in Russia, outnumbering Maris, Komis and Udmurt peoples.

One or two Mordvin peoples?

The word “Mordvin” is an exonym in Russian which means Moksha and Erzya together. These people identify themselves distinctly by their respective names. These are also divided into subgroups:

  • The Moksha : includes the Karatay (Qaratay) who live in Tatarstan and have been heavily influenced by the Tatars. Their language is considered by researchers to be a dialect of Tatar with Moksha vocabulary.
  • The Erzya : includes the Teryukhan almost completely assimilated with the Russians, and the Shoksha.

According to researchers and linguists, the Mordvins originated from the regions between the Volga, Oka and Suna rivers. A division was made in the 6th century and had for consequences differences in languages, appearances, national costumes and even in folklore.
The Moksha and the Erzya did not marry each other until their Christianization by the Russians.

The 2 languages ​​are themselves divided into several dialects which are not really intelligible between them to the point of wondering if they are actually truly related. There are many theories and opinions among both Russian and foreign linguists.

A family picture of Mordvins in the 19th century in Russia

National cuisine

Historically speaking, the Mordvins are hunters & fishermen. Their national cuisine is based on that, though beef has replaced hare & other wild game; fish is served in all sort of ways : boiled, dried, fermented, smoked and even raw.

Some must-try Mordvin dishes & drinks :

  • Bear Paw (Медвежья лапа in Russian | овтонь лапат in Erzya & офтонь мадят in Moksha). Don’t worry, it’s not literally a bear paw cooked on the barbecue, but a mix of minced pork and beef meat, and the whole thing is sprinkled with black bread crumbs to look like a bear paw.
  • Shurba soup. It’s usually prepared in a fish broth, but also has beef versions.
  • A drink called “posey“. It contains a very low percentage of alcohol and is made from sugar beets to which rye flour, malt and hops are added. It’s a bit like Kvass, but Mordvian version of it. In the past it was considered a ritual drink during Pagan ceremonies.
  • Pajankay in Erzya & Kurgon in Moshka is a sort of pie with potatoes and tvorog cheese (cottage cheese). The Mordvin festival of Kurgonya is edicated to it.

Others :

Shongaryam, a millet porridge
Manniky, semolina pancakes
Topon orychkat, a tvorog cheese dessert similar to syrniki
Pachat, thick pancakes made with millet flour
Balanda, a summer soup with vegetables & thistle leaves

The best restaurant in Saransk to try Mordvian cuisine is surely Mordovskoe Podvorye.

My personal choice of favorite restaurant in town both for the service and for the best pelminis I’ve eaten in Russia to this day (I’m not even exaggerating) is the “Otmennaya Pelmennaya“. On Yandex Maps it’s showned as permanently closed but check it out, hopefully not.

A street sign in 4 languages in the street of Saransk in Mordovia, Russia
4 languages street sign in Saransk

Where to sleep

Because of the 2018 World Cup, Saransk has now dozens of hotels and hostels, it’s very easy to find where to sleep in the capital, there is accomodation for every budget. Beware of so-called “hostels” though, there are often dormitories for male workers. Cleanliness isn’t great and as a solo female you will feel most uncomfortable (been there, I didn’t stay).

In the rest of Mordovia, like everywhere in Russia, there are hotels and or guesthouses that can be found directly on Zenhotels, the best alternative to Booking.com.

Because my last minute booking & off-season travels, I went to the Olympia hotel, very good value for money and the receptionist was lovely, so I definitely recommend the place.

The street side of a house in Saransk with traditional Mordvin patterns on them. Russia


It’s very easy to travel to Saransk by train :

Directly from Moscow in less than 10 hours. There are several trains a day, including night trains with an early morning arrival.

There are also trains from Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan. You can book directly on the official site of the Russian national railway company if you have a russian bank card or on Russiantrain.com with a foreign Visa/Mastercard.

You can get around easily by bus and marshrutka (mini buses) between towns and villages. You can find a bus to any village anywhere in Mordovia from Saransk bus station.

2 wooden sculptures, one of a man's face and another of a woman's by the Mordvin artist Stepan Erzya. Located in the museum in Saransk in Mordovia, Russia
Sculptures in the Stepan Erzya museum

Top 3 places to visit in Mordovia

  • Saransk, the capital. Easily accessible by train from Moscow, the city offers an excellent overview of what Mordovia has to offer : Restaurants, museums and the friendliness of its people. You must visit the Stepan Erzya museum.
  • Temnikov, a small town in the northwest of Mordovia. Visit the Sanaksar monastery surrounded by pine forest on the banks of the Moksha river.
  • The center of national Moksha culture in the village of Staraya Terizmorga. See on Yandex maps, next to Nikolai Chudotvortsa Church.
The orthodox church of Saransk in Mordovia, Russia

Read & watch to learn more

Forget the Lonely Planet and other travel guides for informations on Mordovia, they say very little or even nothing about the republic and its inhabitants. Here are a few things to watch, read and listen to learn more about the republic :

If you have any recommendations for books or documentaries about Mordovia, feel free to share in the comments!

An isba in the green countryside of Mordovia in Russia
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