Staunton, Dec. 3 – Even though the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District was fused with Irkutsk Oblast in 2008 at the start of Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation campaign, what some have called “the strangest region in the Soviet Union” remains a flashpoint not only in that oblast but for Buryats and Buryatia more generally.
Its strangeness includes not only the fact that it has the word “horde” (orda) in its name, something one might have thought Moscow would have done everything to avoid, but also in that it has never had any urban center of its own but has historically been more tied to the Buryat Republic than to the surrounding and predominantly ethnic Russian oblast.
As a result, even though it ceased to exist 13 years ago, the Ust-Orda region not only continues to insist on its distinctiveness and right to run its own affairs but serves as a symbol for Buryat aspirations to restore Buryat control of a large swath of the Trans-Baikal and thus to form the nucleus of a new pan-Mongol state.
(For background on this, see windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2009/07/window-on-eurasia-another-obstacle-to.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/11/backers-of-putins-amalgamation-of-two.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/08/997-percent-of-taymyr-people-say-life.html.)
A new article on a Zen.Yandex page helps to explain why the Soviet authorities formalized something that has been causing problems for Moscow for more than a century (zen.yandex.ru/media/varandej/ustordynskii-buriatskii-uje-ne-avtonomnyi-okrug-kak-i-zachem-voznik-samyi-strannyi-region-sovetskogo-soiuza-61ca39c7fad6980d9a6002ad?&).
In 1921, the Soviets created two districts for the Buryats, the Mongol-Buryat Autonomous Oblast within Soviet Russia and the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Oblast of the nominally independent but Soviet-controlled Far Eastern Republic. Both were run from urban centers outside their territories as neither had an urban center, the article relates.
In 1923, with the disbanding of the Far Eastern Republic, the two were combined into a single enormous territory extending all the way to Lake Baikal and sitting astride the Trans-Siberian railway, the only link between Moscow and the Russian Far East. In addition, Moscow created two exclaves, one beyond the Angara River and a second in the Trans-Baikal.
But that was far from the end of the story, the Zen.Yandex page notes. In 1937, Buryatia lost much of its territory, leaving the Buryats with a republic and two exclaves. Then in 1958, Khrushchev stripped the word “Mongol” from their titles; and in 1978, Brezhnev ordered that they be called simple autonomies rather than national ones.
All this happened because many Russians believed that the continuing existence of anything reminding and appearing to celebrate the horde must be suppressed and that the absence of urban centers in these places meant that they should not have any ethno-territorial structures at all. They made sure of that by drawing the exclave’s borders to bypass a nearby city.
By the start of this century, the page continues, ethnic Russians formed 54 percent of the population of the Ust-Orda district with the Buryats a minority of 40 percent. But the symbolism of the name has meant that many Buryats want it to be part of a Greater Buryatia, a place where the Russians now there will leave.