Staunton, May 12 – Enormous attention now focuses on Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, but much less to nationalities which are dispatching people beyond the borders of what was once the USSR. Among these are the Buryats, who now are reaping the rewards from the dispatch of 25,000 people from their republic to South Korea.
Those workers are currently sending home money roughly equal to the Buryat Republic budget, a development that few appreciate fully but that calls attention to what Buryat commentator and activist Bato Ochirov says is the critical importance of “the Buryat world,” which consists of the Buryats of Buryatia and the Buryats abroad (asiarussia.ru/articles/27450/).
Indeed, he suggests that the diasporas can not only help the republic financially but because of their historical experience, they can play a key role in helping to overcome the problems which have been plaguing the Buryat nation within the Russian Federation and keeping it divided.
“In the term ‘Buryat people,’” he writes, “the word ‘Buryat’ is not a definer of cultural identity and even more of national pride. Instead, ‘Buryat’ now in ‘the people’ is in fact a set of Buryat problems.” Not only are the Buryats divided territorially and culturally, but they have not seen their cultural identity return in the wake of the collapse of the USSR.
According to Ochirov, “we today are not so much the Buryat people as a social phenomenon lost in time and space,” a group of people that is either retreating into sub-ethnic identities like family and clan or losing any sense of a Buryat collectivity in larger super-ethnic groupings like the non-ethnic Russian nation.
And seeing these developments, many who still call themselves Buryats think they are being reduced to “a non-entity” about which others will decide and from within which potentially violent competitors for the revival or redefinition of Buryat identity are likely to emerge.
Part of this trend reflects broader ones. When Buryats are in Buryaia, they are either eastern or western ones; when they are in Mongolia or Moscow, they are Buryats; and elsewhere in the world, they are viewed and view themselves as Mongols or non-ethnic Russians. But those caught in this matrix risk losing what makes them Buryats in the first place.
Consequently, one of the resources they have are precisely those Buryats who are not in Buryatia but rather in Asia and thus who identify most strongly as Buryats rather than as some sub-ethnic community or super-ethnic formation. And that in turn means that promoting the idea of “a Buryat world” can help prevent the dissolution of Buryats at home.
According to Ochirov, “the Buryat diaspora, which over the course of a century has taken shape in Mongolia and China” and more recently in South Korea “is practically an ideal example of successful integration: it is loyal to the new countries of its residence” but maintains its identity as Buryat.
What needs to happen, he argues, is for Buryats to import its values back into Buryatia because that can no only save the Buryats as a nation but give them models for living in Russia.
Ochirov’s proposal is intriguing because it has application to other groups, especially in the former Soviet space. Not only are émigré communities often not just halfway houses to assimilation but also hothouses for the develop of ideas and practices about national identity and nationalism that are then re-imported or not to the places from which the emigres left.