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According to the 2010 national census, there are 74,238 Altai in the Russian Federation. Altai consist of a variety of tribes. The Altai language is from the Turkic branch of the Uralo-Altaic language family. Altai live primarily in the Altai Republic, formerly Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast in Altai Krai. The Altai religion is a mixture of shamanist and Eastern Orthodox beliefs.

Historical context

Russia conquered the region from the Chinese in the middle of the nineteenth century. Russians soon began to migrate to the area. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Oirot Autonomous Oblast (AO) was created (1922), and this became the Gorno-Altai AO in 1948 to counter potential aspirations for reintegration with Mongolia. The region declared its sovereignty in 1990 and became a full republic in May 1992, renamed the Altai Republic. In spring 1992, conflict broke out between Altai and the richer Russians. Many Russians left the region. The republic adopted a new Constitution on 7 June 1997.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a reported revival of Burkhanism (or Ak Jang, ‘the white faith’), a religious cult popular in Altai from 1904 to the 1930s.

Current issues

With the onset of mergers between smaller federal units of the Russian Federation with larger ones, there were calls from 2004 for the merger of the Altai Republic with neighbouring Altai Krai. Local Altai elites have resisted this move.

Nevertheless, in recent years the Altai people have faced difficulties in protecting their cultural heritage. In 2012 a conflict emerged between the Russian Federal Government and the Government of the Altai Republic, focusing on a new Gazprom project and the proposed construction of a gas pipeline to China through the Ukok Plateau, an important environmental treasure and a holy place for the Altai minorities. On 20 June 2012, the Government of the Altai Republic recognized the sacred status of the Ukok Plateau in the hope of obstructing undertake commercial and industrial activities in the area. Nevertheless, it remains an ongoing issue as further plans to develop the pipeline through Ukok have continued.