Sunday, April 18, 2021

Buryat Identity has Degraded in Much the Same Way Rwandan Identity Did Before the Genocide, Ochirov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 15 – Over the last century, Buryat activist Bato Ochirov says, his nation has suffered degradation “not as a result of the complex ethnic structure of its people and not because of the Soviet ideological system bur rather because of the socialization of society on the basis of tribal and clan memberships.”

            That process accelerated after 1959 when Moscow renamed the Buryat-Mongol ASSR “simply Buryatia” as part of an effort to differentiate Mongols inside the USSR and those in the Mongolian Peoples Republic and thus open the way for the latter to become a member of the United Nations in 1961 (

            That left the Buryats “a divided nation” but one divided “not as a result of territorial locations but because of the existing value orientations.” And those who came to power in Buryatia stressed local rather than national identities to underscore the difference with Mongolia but as a result left Buryats in an ideological vacuum.

            Indeed, things have reached such a point as a result of the discrimination against past history conducted by the powers that many in Buryatia view Buryat as a term of abuse roughly equivalent to the denigrating word golovar which refers to a thuggish rural resident and was popularized by a 2018 Buryat film of that name.

            Because those in power in Buryatia were afraid to promote a single national culture, Ochirov continues, they effectively ceded the ideological space to clans and tribes. Indeed, they did more than that: they helped these groups promote their identities with various kinds of festivals even as they suppressed efforts to talk about a common Buryat Mongol identity.

            Moscow doesn’t want that because such an identity would raise questions about relations with the Buryats in China as well as the Buryat Mongols in Mongolia, three closely related peoples who speak related languages and historically have had cultures which have much in common.

            But the policies that have arisen from this concern have thrown the Buryat nation back from a national one through “feudalism to a tribal and clan milieu,” one that Ochirov says increasingly resembles in this regard Rwanda, the site of one of the most horrific inter-tribal wars in modern times.

            “Although we use contemporary gadgets and other blessings of civilization,” the activist continues, “our people as far a social development is concerned has turned out to be at a very low stage.” And that is oppressing many young people who want to be part of a nation which is a subject rather than being constantly threatened from above and below.

            That is especially so, Ochirov says, because there has been a dramatic shift in views about the former colonial masters, yet another parallel with Rwanda. In the past, many Buryats viewed Russian culture “as uniquely correct and progressive” but now they view it as “colonial” and think that Khalka Mongol is something “progressive and desirable.”

            Such views, he argues, are both superficial and wrong; but they reflect as well as contribute to the further intellectual degradation of the Buryats. Consequently, Buryats must seek to recover their Buryatness even though it challenges existing borders and thus become again “’the eastern gates of Russia’” to Asia.

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