Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 461,389 Buryats in the Russian Federation. Along with the Kalmyks, the Buryats speak a Mongolic language. They are concentrated in the Buryat Republic as well as Irkutsk Oblast, northern Mongolia and north-west China.
The Buryat Lamaist faith is part of a Buddhist sect which spread from Tibet to Mongolia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some Buryats have adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Although Russians penetrated the Buryat homelands as early as the seventeenth century, contacts between the two peoples remained limited until large-scale Russian migration in the eighteenth century. A Buryat nationalist movement developed at the turn of the century in response to the growing Russian presence. In 1921, a Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Oblast was established in the Far Eastern Republic; in May 1923 a Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Republic was created. In May 1923 they were merged to form the Buryat-Mongol ASSR.
In 1937, the Buryat-Mongol ASSR was divided into three units. Territory west of Lake Baikal (12 per cent of the territory) went to Irkutsk Oblast, establishing a Buryat enclave (the Ust-Orda or Ust-Ordynsk Autonomous Okrug, AOk); the eastern steppe (12 per cent) was incorporated into Chita Oblast, where another enclave (the Aga Buryat or Aginsk AOk) was created. This division of the Buryat lands caused resentment. In 1958, in an attempt to eliminate any link with Mongolia, the word Mongol was dropped from the region’s title leaving the Buryat ASSR. Mongolian cultural influence, however, remained powerful and led, at the end of the 1980s, to a revival of Buddhism and Lamaism in the region. A movement for closer links with Mongolia emerged. Together these elements laid the foundations for the declaration of sovereignty for Buryatia. After the late 1980s, Buryatia became a centre for Buddhists in the Russian Federation with the Central Theological Department of Russian Buddhists located in Ulan-Ude.
A session of the Buryat parliament in June 1992 declared that the 1937 division of the republic was unconstitutional. The main nationalist organization in the republic, the Buryat-Mongolian Peoples’ Party has demanded reunification of all Buryat-Mongolian lands on both sides of the Russian-Mongolian border.
The Buddhist revival brought the region into close contact with Mongolia, Tibet and Kalmykia. In 1999 Tibetan medicine was introduced as a subject for the first time in the history of Russian higher education at the Buryatia State University.
In April 2005 populations in Irkutsk province and the Ust-Orda AOk voted in favour of the unifications of the two entities into one administrative unit. In the Ust-Orda AOk 99 per cent of voters voted in favour of the unification, with a 99.5 per cent reported turnout. Moves for similar referendum to unite the Aga Buryat AOk and Chita Oblast were initiated.
Reports suggested that views on the merger were not as unanimous as the above results indicate. Some Buryats in the Ust-Orda AOk fear the further dilution of their culture as a result of union with Irkutsk, after which Buryats would account for only 5 per cent of the population of the new entity. Some Buryats in Ust-Orda claimed they had been prevented from organizing rallies to protest against the merger, and from organizing the Tailagan Buddhist spring celebration. Human rights activists also claimed that leaflets protesting the merger had been seized by the authorities and the publishing house that had printed them shut down.
Language shift and assimilation are widespread issues. The local authorities of the Republic of Buryatia are deeply concerned about the status of the Buryat language, especially since the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger has included it in its list of disappearing languages. In May 2014, the Buryat authorities adopted a program to support the development of Buryat language during the 2014-2020 period, with the aims of publishing new textbooks and manuals in Buryat as well as to create educational platforms.
Updated December 2020
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