Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Soviet-Era Identities of Russians and Non-Russians Fragmenting, Buryat Writer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 24 – The Soviet-era identities of both ethnic Russians and non-Russians based in almost all cases on descent and language are disintegrating into smaller and more diverse components, raising the possibility that they will be “rebuilt” in entirely new ways, according to Vasiliy Tararuyev, an Ulan-Ude journalist.

            In an essay that is part of a book he is preparing on identity in Buryatia, he notes that “Buryatia is traditionally presented as an example of a ‘tolerant’ region” where people joke that here it is very much “in the order of things to go to church in the morning, to visit a dastan later, and in the evening to turn to a shaman” (

            As a result, Tararuyev says, “in Buryatia, the inter-ethnic situation at present is stable, but one needs to remember than any balance and well-being is a very fragile thing,” especially given that there are people who would like to destabilize the situation and that the two major ethnic groups, the Russians and the Buryats, are rapidly redefining themselves.

            In Soviet times, both groups were defined as more or less homogeneous, but since the end of the USSR, both have discovered and played up internal divisions on a variety of things that have changed what it means to be either and how each relates to the other, the Buryat journalist continues.

            That is part of what many call “the national renaissance” that almost all ethnic groups in the former Soviet space have been undergoing.  “Naturally, these trends have not passed Buryatia by,” and Buryats are “rethinking their national self-identification and seeking a basis in traditional ethnic culture and in historical events.” 

            “For example,” he writes, “there is the campaign of the nationally active intelligentsia for the rebirth of the Buryat language as an element of ‘living’ culture,” there are more or less constant discussions of “’Buryat tribalism,’” and there are ever more efforts to fit Buryat identity into “an all-Mongol culture,” by focusing on their lineage from Chingiz Khan.

            Sometimes, unfortunately, this search has involved promoting Buryat superiority and ignoring more general history as when some Buryats have celebrated Urzhin Garmayev, a Buryat émigré who fought against the USSR during World War II. And it has certainly helped to power “the popularity of Buryat shamanism.”

            Among ethnic Russians, similar processes are going on. Those who were always just Russians in Soviet times are now identifying as Cossacks, Old Believers, and even followers of pre-Christian pagan gods, and they are reviving interest in the Transbaikal Cossack Host, Siberian regionalists and so on. They are even divided about the impact of 1917.

            In all these ways and others, Tararuyev says, “the ethnic Russian population of Buryatia is also experiencing a process of national rebranding,” in which a former common identity is fragmenting possibly on the way to coming back in a new form. The other indigenous people, the Evenks, are experiencing this as well, although with far fewer resources and possibilities.

            “If one speaks in summary fashion about the problems of the primary peoples of Buryatia, then the Buryats are dealing with a serious loss of language and ‘tribalistic’ disagreements, and the Russians with numerous splits and a certain social passivity after the pressure of Soviet nationality policy.”

            “Worst of all,” the Buryat journalist says, is the situation of the Evenks in Buryatia, “who are almost completely assimilated and have practically lost their language and national culture. Nevertheless, even they are engaged in actions directed at the rebirth” of their people and its distinct identity.

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