Vepsians call themselves ‘vepslaine’, ‘vepsalne’, but also ‘lüdikel’. The latter may be derived from the Russian word ‘lyudi’ (people). Russians refer to Vepsians as Chuds. The name ‘Chud’ may originate from the Saami language, where the word ‘c’udde’ signified a strange and hostile people.
The ancient territory of Vepsians is much larger than today’s. It comprised the area between Lake Ladoga, Lake Onega and Lake Beloye. Vepsians’ dispersed settlement extended from the Dvina river in the East to the White Sea. These days, Vepsians live in small groups in two separate areas: on the southwestern coast of Lake Onega and in the Vepsian ridge.
Vepsians live in the Republic of Karelia and in Vologda and Leningrad Oblasts, where Vepsian village groups are situated. Usually a group of villages (in Vepsian: külä) has a name of Vepsian origin while smaller village within it (in Vepsian: deroun) is often of Russian origin. Frequently Vepsian villages have three names: Vepsian, Russian in local colloquial language and the official name in Russian.
In the 1940s the Vepsian population was 30 000 – 40 000 while in 1989 it had declined to 12 501. According to the last census from 2010, there were 5936 Vepsians, a 28% decline from 2002 when their number was 8240. There were 3613 speakers of the Vepsian language in 2010, a 37.2% decline from 2002 (5753 speakers). Today, many Vepsian villages have been Russified or abandoned.
The Vepsian language belongs to the Northern group of Baltic-Finnic languages alongside Finnish, Karelian and Izhorian languages. The Vepsian language has been called the Sanskrit of Baltic-Finnic languages, due to its archaic nature – for instance, there is no consonant gradation as a result of which the language is very rule-based.
Vepsians (vas, vasina) have been first mentioned in the Jordanis chronicle in 551 A.D. Back then, Vepsians’ main livelihoods were shifting cultivation, pasturing and hunting. The Vepsian tribe from Lake Beloye (ves’) participated in the establishment and expansion of the Novgorod Republic. Between 10th and 11th centuries Vepsians exported furs via Vikings’ Eastern route to the Volga Bulgaria. At the same time Vepsians migrated to eastern Karelia. In 1879 there were 25 600 Vepsians, of whom 7300 lived on the coast of Lake Onega.
In the Republic of Karelia, Vepsians have been recognized as one of Karelia’s three main ethnic groups. In January 1994, a Vepsian ethnic municipality was established in the Republic of Karelia, on a traditional Vepsian territory on the western coast of Lake Onega. In 2002 its population was 3493, of which 1202 were Vepsians. In 2006, as a result of an administrative reform, the ethnic municipality was divided into 3 village settlements as part of the Onega Coast region.
Vepsian Cultural Society was formed in 1989, and since 1990 Vepsian language has been taught at Petroskoi (Petrozavodsk) University. A Finno-Ugric school is operating, with lessons for Vepsian, Karelian and Finnish children.