History of Buryatia (Ar Mongol)

The Mongolian Ancestral Homeland

The Buryats are a Mongolian people numbering approximately 252,000 (1995 estimate of Buryats in Buryat republic) whose lands are located north of the Russian-Mongolian border near Lake Baikal. Buryatia lies within an area long contested by Russia, China, and (before 1945) Japan. Thus, historically and today, Buryatia has precariously existed amid the competing spheres of influence of more powerful neighbors. In the post-Soviet era, Buryatia has safeguarded its interests by maintaining good relations with Russia, of which it is a constituent part,and by establishing economic and political ties with independent Mongolia and China (through China’s “Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region”). Another avenue by which Buryats attempt to mitigate Moscow’s control is by cultivating links with a wider Mongolian cultural sphere.
It should also be noted that Buryat Mongols do not only live in Buryatia, but also are significant minorities in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia as well. Mongolia’s Dornod, Hentii, Selenge, Tuv, Bulgan, and Huvsgul Aimags, most of which border on Buryatia or Chita Oblast, have significant Buryat Mongol populations. Today many Mongolian Buryats hold important positions in government, business, and in the scholarly community. In Inner Mongolia the Hulun Buir region bordering Dornod Aimag also has a Buryat group called the Shinheeni Buryats, and a Mongolian group called the Dagur, who had fled Buryat lands after they fell under control of the Russians. This article, however, will focus mainly on the Buryat Mongols living within today’s Russian Federation.


Origins

The latest archaeological evidence shows that humans have been living in Siberia for at least 300,000 years, even before modern humans had developed as a species. Archaeological evidence found in Buryatia and Mongolia include cave sites and petroglyphs of very ancient age. Stone points and blades from 8-15,000 years ago belong to the Microblade Tradition, a technology which was carried by some ancient inhabitants of Buryatia in their migrations all the way to North America. This is evidence that at least some Native Americans may share a common ancestry with the Buryat Mongols.
The earliest peoples who were definitely Mongolian in language and culture lived in the Lake Baikal basin, Angara River valley, and the Tunken valley of the Eastern Sayan Mountains. In Buryat Mongolian mythology these people were referred to as the Burte Chino (Blue Wolf People). In mythology the ancestor was a man named Burte Chino who took as his wife Goa Maral (Beautiful Red Deer), and from their marriage the Mongols, and most especially Chinggis Khan’s clan was descended. Burte, or Bured, meant “wolf” in the ancient dialect of the region, and from this word comes the name Buryat. To this day the wolf clan is recognized as a lineage among the Buryat Mongols.
The Burte Chino people’s land had the ancient name of Barguzin Tukum, which encompassed the Lake Baikal basin and lands to the west. This is historically the cradle of the Buryat Mongols, and of all Mongolian peoples. In this land the craft of creating bronze was developed at a relatively early period, some scholars believe it developed in southern Siberia even before the technology was adopted in China. Metalsmiths from that time onwards were recognized as being a type of shaman, and the bronze shaman mirrors which they crafted are believed to be of great spiritual power, some of which have been passed down shaman lineages to this day.
The Huns were an early offshoot of these ancient Mongols. They spread southward into the steppes, creating a tribal confederation of warriors that terrorized northern China for centuries, and then later traveled westward to devastate Europe. Hun graves and megalithic monuments are common in Buryatia, Mongolia, and in the Altai region. One of their most well known monuments are the deer stones, decorated with deer bearing the sun in their antlers, which had some now forgotten shamanic use.
After the collapse of the Hun confederation the area which is modern Mongolia was largely overrun by Turkic tribes while the core Mongolian homeland was the Selenge, Kherlen, and Onon River valleys and Lake Baikal, a region which is Buryat Mongolian to this day. For this reason Mongols are called even now the “gurvan goliin Mongolchuud,” “Mongols of the three rivers.”

The Rise of Chinggis Khan

Up to the end of the 12th century the people who were to become the Mongolian nation was still loosely organized into tribes that ranged over the forests and steppes of southern Siberia. The Secret History of the Mongols mentions that Kutula was elected khan of the Mongols at a huriltai (tribal council) held in the Onon River valley. The Secret History tells that his elevation to khan was celebrated with the traditional Buryat yohor dance, which lasted all night. However, Kutula’s authority did not include the Urianhai and Merkit tribes, Mongolian speaking tribes further to the west.


Temujin, who was to later become Chinggis Khan, was born in the late 12th century, and rose to power after proving himself a worthy warrior and leader. Through a series of wars with the various Mongolian tribes he managed to unite all of the Mongolian speaking peoples under one leader. On the advice of his shaman, Teb Tenger, he took the name Chinggis, which is derived from the word “tengis,” which means “ocean,” an epithet used for Lake Baikal. For the full story of Chinggis Khan’s career please see the page.
An important point that should be made here is that contrary to what was asserted by historians of the Soviet period, who tried to deny the Mongolian identity of the Buryats, Buryatia was part of the core Mongolian homeland from ancient times. As the Secret History of the Mongols shows, the region known as Buryatia today was important in Mongolian history up to the time of the Great Mongolian Empire.

The Decline of the Mongolian Empire

After the ouster of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in China the great empire of Chinggis Khan broke up into many smaller khanates. While China took its own historical course, Mongolian dynasties in Persia, Russia, and Turkic Central Asia became Muslim and gradually assimilated with the people that they ruled. In the Mongolian steppe and southern Siberia, however, Mongolian culture and language remained strong, and the Mongolian empire remained in a much reduced form until the 17th century. Throughout this period the region known as Buryatia today remained part of the empire.
Civil war among the noyons (princes) of the Mongols led to the disintegration and fall of the Mongolian empire. The civil war was due to the contention of the Oirat Mongol prince, Galdan Boshigt, for the position of khan. In this split the main contenders were the Oirat and Halh Mongols. The Oirat, who are closer to the Buryats in dialect and culture, live in western Mongolia, while the Halh live in the central part of Mongolia and in the Gobi regions. A long war between the Oirat and Halh tore the Mongolian nation apart at the very time when a new danger was close at hand.

To the east of Mongolia the Manchu people had rapidly grown in power and swept down into China and taken control of the Chinese empire, setting up the Ching Dynasty. Not satisfied with this conquest, they looked west and northward to Mongolia, which was weakened by civil war. The Manchus invaded Mongolia and added much of Mongolia to their empire. Some of the Oirats fled westward into Russia, and were allowed by the Russians to settle in the Volga River valley, where they became the Kalmyks. The princes of northern Mongolia, however, appealed to the Russians for protection.

A Russian protectorate was established over the Buryat Mongols in order to save them from the Manchu invader, making them the only Mongolian people besides the Kalmyks who did not submit to Manchu rule. It should be understood, however, that when the Manchu overran Mongolia they ruled it as a separate political entity, as a Manchu province, and did not annex it to China. In a similar way, Buryat Mongolia was not officially annexed to Russia, and the local princes remained in authority under a Russian protectorate. Buryatia was not fully part of the Russian empire until it became part of the Soviet Union in the 20th century.


The Russian Protectorate: An Uneasy Rule

The Russian protectorate saved the Buryat Mongols from the Manchus, however their relationship with the Russian Empire was at times fraught with problems. In distant Siberia, far from the imperial centers of power, enforcement of Russian authority fell into the hands of Cossacks who in some cases conducted themselves little better than brigands. They raided Mongolian settlements and terrorized the population to a degree that the Dagurs abandoned their villages in the Onon River valley and resettled in Manchu territory, where they still live today. Large parcels of prime land were expropriated from the Buryats and given to Russian settlers who turned it into farmland. Many of these settlers were exiles from western Russia, some were criminals, but others were religious and political dissidents who did contribute to the culture and educational system of the Buryat lands over time. However, large sections of Buryat territory west of Lake Baikal were seized and the Mongol population of these areas forced to resettle elsewhere. The Buryats did not take this without resistance -- there were two anti-Russian revolts in 1695 and 1696. Another form of resistance took form in shamanism, the worship of gazriin ezen, master spirits of the land and mountains became stronger and reinforced resistance to expropriation.

In regions where Buryats had been converted to Buddhism the Yellow Faith was tolerated, however in areas where shamanism was still strong Russians tried to force conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity. This Christianization was not successful and at best just drove the shamans undergound while the people observed a nominal form of Christianity while observing shamanism as well. If anything, the attempts at Russianization were weak and sporadic and actually helped to galvanize a feeling of Mongolian national identity.
In the centuries of the Russian protectorate the feudal system of western Russia was never imposed. Most local authority remained in the hands of the taishas (Mongolian chiefs mostly descended from Chinggis Khan) and even a Buryat Cossack regiment was organized in the Selenge region that kept watch over the border with the Manchu Empire. Exiled Russian scholars played an important role in the creation of an educational system and sons of some of the better Buryat families even attended universities. The first prominent scholar of Buryat descent was Dorji Banzarov, who lived in the early 19th century. In his short lifepan of 32 years he distinguished himself as a scholar of Mongolian culture and history. This educated elite was to become important in the political life of the Buryats and Mongols in the early 20th century.


Buryats and the Revival of Mongolian National Identity

At the beginning of the 20th century Mongolian nationalism began to revive in all Mongolian areas. At first this agitation was met by hostility by Russian authorities, who threatened to destroy Buryat culture through forcible Russianization, but this approach was abandoned as being futile. In Buryatia the leading figures in this movement were Bazar Baraadin, Elbegdorj Rinchino, and Ts. Jamtsarano, who were all educated in Russian universities. The uniting vision of these and other Buryat intellectuals was to re-unite the Mongolian people. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904) the Japanese gave support to pan-Mongolism with the intent of destabilizing Russia. Furthermore, in 1905, during a revolt against tsarist rule, Buryat leaders held a congress in Chita, which demanded self-government for the Buryat Mongols. After the conclusion of that war, the Russian government itself lent support to the pan-Mongolist movement in hope that Mongolian areas to the south in the Manchu Empire would desire to secede and unite with Buryatia to form a Mongol state under Russian hegemony.

Bazar Baraadin advanced the agenda of pan-Mongolism in a very special way. He developed the first alphabet to transcribe the Mongolian language in a way that would better reflect the modern pronunciation of the language. In doing this he hoped to provide a means by which Mongols in all regions in which they lived could communicate easily among each other. The Bazar Baraadin alphabet, which uses Roman letters, is still believed by many Mongolian scholars to be the best ever developed for the Mongolian language, and it was used in Buryatia, Outer Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia for almost three decades alongside the less accurate Old Mongolian script.

Buryat Mongols and the Communist Revolution

When civil war erupted in Russia at the end of World War I Buryats largely remained neutral in the conflict. In 1921, however, the “mad baron” Ungern-Sternberg, a White Russian leader, did unite with some Buryats in order to attempt to establish an independent Mongolia including Buryatia. The intellectual elite of Buryatia, however, on the most part did not get involved with his movement, rightly knowing that his domnation of Mongolia would be short-lived.

On the other hand, many Buryat intellectuals, most prominently Elbegdorj Rinchino, did ally themselves with Suhbaatar, a Mongolian rebel leader who had the support of the Bolsheviks. In 1921 Ungern-Sternberg was captured and executed, and Suhbaatar and his allies created an independent Mongolian People’s Republic in Outer Mongolia. Buryats from Buryatia as well as from northern and eastern Outer Mongolia played an important role in the new government; several of the cabinet posts were occupied by Buryats.

While Buryat intellectuals’ dream of an independent Mongolia was realized, it did not yet include their own territory as the unrest in Russia continued. In 1923, however, the Buryat-Mongolian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created. For the first time in over two hundred years the Buryats had a measure of independence, although still being under the hegemony of the Communist government in Moscow. The newly created republic, however, did not include many historically Buryat lands in Irkutsk and Chita Oblast which had been expropriated and settled by Russians.

In the 1920’s Buryat culture flourished, newspapers and books were published in the Mongolian language. Even though their republic was considered part of the Soviet Union, Mongolian culture was given relatively free rein and relations with Mongolia were close.


The Dark and Bloody Years

Starting in 1929 Stalin imposed collectivization on Mongols as well as on other peoples under Soviet control. People were dispossessed of their farms and herds both in Buryatia and Mongolia. Opposition to collectivization was brutally crushed. Many Buryats fled to Mongolia during this time, but found little support from the Choibalsan regime, which was allied with Stalin. In Mongolia in 1931-1932 the Buddhist clergy and Buryat intellectuals led a revolt against Soviet rule known as the “Shambhala War,” but this ultimately failed. Soviet authorities gave relatively mild treatment to the agitators because Japan was once again using pan-Mongolism as a tool to extend its influence in North Asia.

In 1937 the dreams of Mongolian autonomy collapsed during the Stalinist purges. In only a few months most of the Buryat Communist leadership, intelligentsia, and religious leaders were rounded up and slaughtered. Prominent Buryats such as Rinchino, Baraadin, Jamtsarano, Agvan Dorjiev, and many others disappeared in Soviet prisons. Rinchino, faithful ally of the Bolsheviks in Buryatia and Mongolia, was shot after beatings and torture in NKVD custody. It is said that of the over 100 members of the Buryat writer’s union a mere handful survived. To this day no one really knows how many Buryats died during the purges. In Mongolia Choibalsan followed Stalin’s example, and about 30,000 died, many of whom were also Buryats.

In addition to the purges the Buryat-Mongol Republic was stripped of about half of its land, including the west shore of Lake Baikal, Olkhon Island, Ust-Orda, and Aga. These last two regions were made Buryat autonomous orkrugs, similar to reservations, and Buryats in surrounding Russian majority areas were moved into these teritories. In Buryatia itself Stalin brought in large numbers of Russian settlers in order to dilute the Mongolian majority. Mongolian script was banned and all writing in the Mongolian language was only allowed in the Russian Cyrillic script. Buryat religious buildings and sites were largely destroyed and Buddhist and shamanist artifacts were either destroyed or placed in a central storage area for use in the creation of a “Museum of Atheism.”

During World War II Buryat soldiers served with distinction in the Red Army, receiving more Hero of the Soviet Union decorations than any other minority group in the USSR. However, the devastation of Russian areas in the west accelerated the migration of Russians into Siberia. In 1948 Soviet authorities made further attempts to Russify Buryats and extinguish their culture. Traditional art forms were banned and it was forbidden to speak of Buryat traditional heroes such as Geser and Chinggis Khan. Control of the educational system was placed in the hands of Russians in Irkutsk. The official history of Buryatia spoke little of pre-protectorate times, asserting that Buryats were not Mongols but had been conquered by Mongolian feudal leaders. A non-standard dialect, Khori Buryat, which is the most dissimilar to standard Mongolian of Buryat dialects became the only acceptable literary language. The idea was to create a fiction of a Buryat nationality that was non-Mongol. Lacking any ties with any other nation, over time the culture seemed fated to die out. For “security reasons” Buryatia became a restricted area within the Soviet Union and access was denied to the region without special permission.


Buryatia from Khrushchev to Gorbachev

After the death of Stalin Soviet policy toward the Buryats was slow to change. In 1958, as the rift between Russians and Chinese became critical, the name “Mongol” was dropped from the name of the Buryat republic. The reason for this was the support of pan-Mongolism by Mao Zedong, who desired to bring all Mongolian peoples under Chinese hegemony (ironically the Inner Mongolian pan-Mongolists were themselves purged by Mao ten years later in the Cultural Revolution). In 1970 the teaching of Mongolian in Buryat schools was abolished as unnecessary.

In spite of these policies a new generation of Buryat intellectuals who had grown up in the 1950’s and who had studied Mongolian before it was dropped from the school curriculum became the backbone of a new national movement. Many of these were from the western part of Buryatia and even from Mongolian areas in Irkutsk and Chita Oblasts. In spite of the risk of being decried as dissidents they boldly wrote poetry in Russian and Mongolian about Mongolian themes or researched and wrote about Mongolian topics. In a time when it was yet impossible to enter politics (most of them did not join the Communist Party) on their people’s behalf they played an important role in re-awakening national consciousness. The poets Dondok Ulzituyev, Dashi Dambaev, Lopsan Tapkhaev, and Bayar Dugarov were part of this new generation. In the religious sphere Buddhism was allowed to continue on a small scale at the one sanctioned monastery and Buryat lamas represented the USSR in international peace conferences.

In the period of glasnost Soviet suppression of nationalism loosened and Buryat intellectuals became more bold. For example, in 1989 Bayar Dugarov led a successful movement to re-establish the celebration of the ancient Buryat holiday of Sagaalgan. In the following year he and other Buryat cultural leaders mapped out a 5-year celebration of the culture hero Geser which would involve all Buryat regions. It was a subtle strategy to re-awaken Mongolian consciousness and remind them of the heritage of Chinggis Khan (discussion of whom was still taboo in Russia and Mongolia).

The bloodless toppling of the Communist government in Mongolia in 1990 unleashed Mongolian culture from decades of suppression. Buryat intellectuals participated in the revival of Mongolian culture and were further emboldened to follow Mongolia’s example in their own country.

Buryat Mongolian Renaissance

In the fall of 1990, feeling the weakening of Soviet control, the Buryat government issued a declaration of sovreignty, stating that its own laws took precedence over those of the USSR and claiming control of its own natural resources. Buryat intellectuals urged that the republic’s name be restored to Buryat Mongolia. A Buryat nationalist party was founded with the goal of independence. In 1991 Buryatia created its own foreign relations ministry and established closer ties with Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, and a Mongolian consulate was opened in the capital, Ulan-Ude, in 1992. An apolitical All-Buryat Cultural Association was established with the purpose of cooperation between all Buryat ethnic areas and the revival of the Mongolian language. It now publishes textbooks for the teaching of adults who were not able to learn Mongolian in school.


After 1990 there was a rapid revival of Buryat shamanism, and the number of shamans increases to this day. Buddhism also revived, and new temples have been built in most major Buryat towns. The teaching of Mongolian has been re-instituted in the schools and writing of poetry, literature, and history about Buryatia in both Mongolian and Russian flourish without ideological controls.

In 1992, however, Buryatia agreed to remain an autonomous republic within the Russian federation. In response to the revival of Buryat nationalism Russian nationalist organizations have also appeared but there is no overt hostility between the two ethnic groups at this time. However, the problem of absentee ownership of many of Buryatia’s industries has not been resolved, and a lot of the profits from these businesses go to western Russia rather than enter into the local economy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a staggering 93% of Buryatia’s citizens now live below the poverty line.

A new Buryat constitution was adopted in 1994 and the first free elections elected Leonid Potapov, a Russian former Communist, as president. While Potapov has at times done much to ensure harmony among the various ethnic and religious groups in Buryatia, at times he has also shown an insensitivity to them as well, as illustrated by the recent controversy over the Tibetan Medical Atlas. In 1998 the presidential election was hard-fought and bitter. Accusations of corruption and other acrimony was abundant, but yet Potapov’s opponents were not sufficient to topple him. One accomplishment, however, was the election of Sergei Aidaev, a Buryat, as mayor of the capital city Ulan Ude. While the revival of Buryat culture and language remains strong, and in spite of their historical role as leaders among the Mongols, at this time Buryats have been unable to unite as a strong political force. The cultural revival is also in threat of being derailed because of lack of money in the government and funding for cultural programs is threatened to be cut in 1999. It is indeed a crucial period in Buryat Mongolian history for the Buryats to join together in order to preserve their traditions and control the destiny of their land for the future.