Staunton, March 24 – Two weeks ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, declared that the Buryats are not a separate nationality but rather the product of a Bolshevik policy to split them from the Mongols of Mongolia. The Federation Council has now condemned his words, but that is far from the end of the story.
On the one hand, many Buryats resent Zhirinovsky’s insinuation that they aren’t a “real” nation and wonder how they should respond. And on the other, some Buryats are interested in cultivating ties with the Mongols and would like to see a return to the times when they were known as Buryat Mongols and their republic as Buryat-Mongolia.
Today, in an article for the AsiaRussia.ru portal, Buryat commentator Seremzhid Intogarova considers the ways in which Buryats are now thinking about “how to live” after Zhirinovsky’s statement and what that means for their future with regard to Russia and Mongolia (asiarussia.ru/articles/11725/).
The reaction of Buryats to Zhirinovsky’s declaration has ranged from “nervous chuckles to Homeric laughter,” Intogarova says, particularly because in Soviet times, any such suggestion would have had the most horrific consequences for those who made it. And that means that now, Buryats and others cannot fail to consider what the LDPR leader’s words portend for them.
It is of course the case that the Bolsheviks preferred to think that “there are no Mongols in Russia,” not only because they wanted to set the Buryat Mongols off from the Khalka Mongols of Mongolia, she writes, but also because they did not like to think about the fact that the Mongols under Chingiz Khan inflicted on Russia one of its greatest defeats while giving rise to some of Russia’s most aristocratic families.
That has had consequences for the Buryats and more seem to be ahead, if Zhirinovsky’s statement reflects the thinking of many in Moscow, Intogarova continues. Mongolia has profited by attracting tourists to sites connected with Chingiz Khan, but “up to now” there are no such sites within the Russian borders even though there certainly could be.
But the issue is bigger than that, she says. “In the contemporary world, states devote enormous efforts to win for themselves prestige, authority and the respect of their neighbors. In that process, the historical heritage plays far from the last role.” In many ways, Russia could profit from recognizing the Buryats as Mongols. It could even be a form of “soft power” in Asia.
Buryats Petr Badmayev and Agvan Dorzhiyev contributed to tsarist diplomacy in Asia in pre-revolutionary times; and Buryats played a key role in the acquisition of Mongol independence and its later defense against Japan even later, Intogarova observes.
“Buryatia for a long time has been part of a large state,” she writes. “Buryats among other citizens of Russia more than once have helped their neighbors defend their independence, language and culture. Baron Ungern, a subject of the Russian Empire, in whose forces there were Russians, Tatars, and Buryats helped Mongolia defend its independence from China.”
“A multitude of Buryats, called to serve during World War II, fought in the ranks of the Soviet Army at Khalkin Gol defending Mongolia against Japan. [And] residents of the Chinese Peoples Republic and the Korean Peoples Democratic Republic to this day show respect to Soviet soldiers who liberated them from Japanese aggressors.”
“The outcomes of military-political events are a measure of peoples. Man does not live by bread alone,” and as long as that remains so, the Buryat commentator continues, peoples will be measured in that way,” especially in Asia where memories of past victories and past defeats remain very much alive.
In the 20th century, Intogarova continues, “there were no Mongols in Russia; there were [only] Buryats. Soviet school textbooks seriously declared that when the Cossacks arrived in Siberia, the Buryats already were able to work iron.” And “Soviet ideologists actively developed the theory that the Buryats came into the Baikal not so long ago,” driving out others.
In the 21st century, if Zhirinovsky is to be believed, “suddenly it turns out that there are no Buryats in Russia; there are only Mongols.” If that is true, then concerns about genuine pan-Mongolism are certain to spread because thanks to the LDPR leader, they will be given a powerful impulse.
Buryats not have to ask themselves who they are, Intogarova concludes, because Zhirinovsky has told them that their nation does not exist. And how they answer that question will have important consequences for the future, consequences far beyond what the LDPR leader may have thought.
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