What the Buryats are inflicting on Ukraine, while fighting as part of the Russian army – the cruelty and greed of the Russian colonialists – they themselves experienced four hundred years ago. What do we know about the nation in Siberia?
A glimmer of hope for Buryatia’s ability to decide its own destiny came after the October Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today’s involvement of Buryats in the war in Ukraine on the side of the aggressor could serve not only as a pillar of shame but also as another opportunity for the nation’s self-determination, as Buryats are slowly becoming united by an anti-war movement. The seeds of Buryatia’s independence are now slowly sprouting, mainly abroad, including in Lithuania.
“It may not be very obvious to many Lithuanians, but there are many similarities between Lithuania and Buryatia,” says Lithuanian anthropologist Kristina Jonutytė.
“Both nations experienced the same minority situation in the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Both nations suffered Soviet repression. However, Lithuania has become democratic and independent, while Buryatia, which is part of Russia, is gradually losing any possibility of self-determination because Russia’s federalism exists only on paper,” she adds.
The Buryats are one of the most numerous nations living in Siberia. Almost half a million Buryats live in Russia, with an additional 150,000 living abroad for work or political reasons. Based on open-source data, more than 10 military units, including six brigades, with tens of thousands of troops from all over Russia, are deployed in the Republic of Buryatia and Ulan-Ude, its capital.
The 5th Buryat Tank Brigade is included in a list of more than ten other units of the Russian Armed Forces whose members may be implicated in war crimes in Ukraine’s Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin.
The 17th-century annexation of Buryatia to Russia was not peaceful. Back in 2013, historian Vladimir Khamutaev was forced to emigrate from Russia after writing a book, The Annexation of Buryatia to Russia. History, Law, Politics. In it, he presented a history of colonisation that is at odds with the official Russian version, from the first military forays of the Tsar’s Ataman and Cossacks into Buryat lands in 1618–1627 to the major Russian-Buryat battles of 1629–1767.
“Bringing the Buryats ‘under the hand of the White Tsar’ was accompanied by unprecedented atrocities. The local governors, intoxicated with their power in a land far from the state centre, mocked the people in every possible way. [...] Uluses were burned, women and children were taken into slavery, property was looted,” writes E. Zalkind in the book The Indestructible Friendship of the Buryat-Mongolian and Russian Peoples.
In the early 20th century, Russia set about dismantling Buryats’ tribal self-government and intensifying the Russification of the local population. However, the seizure of ancestral lands under the guise of new land management led to the first spontaneous and later organised Buryat resistance.
In April 1903, Russian War Minister Aleksey Kuropatkin said that “for the slightest manifestation of freedoms, disobedience to the authorities, and for any demands whatsoever, the Buryats will be wiped off the face of the earth”.
In the 18th century, the Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov promised that Russia’s power would grow with Siberia. However, in 2022, Buryatia could divide Russia, according to the Finnish-Buryat politician Dorjo Dugarov.
“If the Buryat people revolt, Russia will come to an end because Buryatia is almost in the middle, dividing Russia in two. If only the Buryats would unite!” Dugarov says.
In his words, all of Buryatia’s resources go to Moscow: “It’s unfair to keep all Siberian peoples in poverty – either ensure equality or put us into separate apartments.”
Coffins from Ukraine are often going to Buryatia, not Moscow. Meanwhile, in Ulan-Ude, modest blue and yellow stickers with calls for peace are being pasted on lampposts, and posters with Russia’s war symbols are being defaced. On social media, the Free Buryatia Foundation is also calling on Buryats, Karelians, Tatars, and other people to end the war in Ukraine and start the denazification of Russia itself.
Ojumi Bashynova, currently living in Vilnius, is originally from Buryatia. According to her, she has been ashamed of her origins for most of her life. However, she is now proud of the emerging Buryat anti-war movement.
“Of course, everything is coming from abroad. I look at all those familiar faces – they think like me. I contacted those people immediately and they asked me to record a video message,” Bashynova says. “In it, I started talking about racism and the denazification of Russia itself. And now, this whole movement has turned towards the denazification of Russia.”
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Bashynova, her husband, and their three children left Russia to settle in Lithuania. The woman says she constantly thinks that it was the right decision.
“I didn’t think there would be an even bigger disaster. [...] Those who didn’t leave then probably regret it now,” Bashynova says.
“I’m very worried both for those who left and for those who remained in Russia. The situation is such that I feel sorry for everyone. I feel sorry for the guys who are dying, as well as for the Ukrainian children,” she adds.
Polina Sotkina also followed her sister Bashynova to Vilnius. Both sisters are journalists.
“Now, we all feel unnecessary. My publication, called The Prisoners’ Rights Foundation Bulletin, which I used to work for, was discontinued,” Sotkina says.
Before moving to Lithuania, she wrote about the Gulag. She says her articles were politicised, it became risky to publish them. In Lithuania, she continued her work, searching for information about Lithuanians deported to Irkutsk and Buryatia during the Soviet times.
“There were not many Lithuanians who returned alive, but they were all very grateful to the Buryats. Lithuanians were deported there to die, and the Buryats supported them, fed them, taught them how to live in the harsh climate,” Sotkina says.
She has no doubt that if the Ukrainians, who are already being deported from the Russian-controlled territories, were moved to Buryatia, the local people would help them too.
War and poverty
According to Dugarov, it is “a bit easier for the Buryats to shoot at someone with a European look”.
“They are currently fighting for the so-called Russian world. But their logic is that they [Ukrainians] are not ours, they are white. This is not racism. It’s just that in Russia, there has always been a feeling of dislike for Ukrainians […] – it has been perpetuated for decades. Moreover, the Buryats themselves do not like Russians, and for them, a Russian or a Ukrainian is roughly the same,” he said.
Most Buryats know someone who is now fighting in the war in Ukraine. According to Bashynova, her cousin’s future son-in-law went to war, and she is now following the Ukrainian Telegram channel “Look for your own”.
Sotkina also says a husband of her classmate from Ulan-Ude is fighting in Ukraine: “They have a mortgage. Of course, they are in slavery. [Buryats] are fighting out of poverty.”
According to the Lithuanian anthropologist Jonutytė, Buryats do indeed go to war because of socio-economic reasons.
“It is one of the few options for a better life. According to statistics, the standard of living in Buryatia is very low,” the anthropologist says. In 2021, Buryatia was ranked 78 out of 85 Russia's regions in terms of affluence.
Moreover, Buryats, like the inhabitants of other Russian peripheries, have to constantly prove their loyalty to Moscow: “The Buryats grew up in such an environment. They are under pressure from the social hierarchy in Russia itself.”
Fate of the Buryat language
According to official data, just over 200,000 people spoke Buryat in Russia in 2010. Dugarov says that the local language is preserved in the family only if it is spoken in principle. A few years ago, Buryat was removed from the primary school curriculum. It is not required for university admissions, nor is it used in the public sector.
“Young people don’t speak, write, or read in Buryat. There is little Buryat on TV and radio, […] and everything is being done to break up Buryat into dialects and make it disappear because there will be no single Buryat language,” Dugarov says.
According to Jonutytė, the preservation of the Buryat language was complicated by the urbanisation of the region.
“Ulan-Ude has always been a Russian colonial city. When urbanisation and the policy of accustoming Buryats to a sedentary life was being implemented during the Soviet era, they were put in a linguistic environment that was not favourable to them – they could not even use Buryat in public,” she says.
“In the villages, Buryat is still very much alive. Unfortunately, recent trends are not positive. The sharp decline in Buryat language proficiency could be traced back to our own times and linked to post-Soviet Russian policies,” she adds.
According to Bashynova, not only the Buryat language but also the culture of the region is not being nurtured because people are encouraged to learn about “the great Russian culture”.
The memory of Buryatia’s statehood lives on in many families.
“I know that there was the Buryatia-Mongolia Republic, and our grandfather was the social security minister there,” Sotkina says.
Dugarov also recalls his nation’s history: “I come from a part of Buryatia that declared full independence at the beginning of the 20th century, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, after the October Revolution and the civil war, and existed as an independent state almost until 1921. And when the Bolsheviks came, the Buryats fought a guerrilla war until 1927.”
According to him, Buryats still remember the democracy that flourished in the independent country.
“We had our own king, parliament, and government. My great-grandfather was a justice minister and one of the main authors of the Constitution. It was quite a democratic state – a bicameral parliament, equal rights for both sexes. So we have a tradition of statehood,” he says.
Dugarov had been a member of the Buryat Democratic Movement and the Erche youth social movement since the early 2000s. In 2014, he openly opposed the deployment of Buryat troops to Ukraine and was soon forced to leave Russia. There was a very strong dissident movement in Buryatia during the Soviet era.
“Our rightful king, Bedjard Dandaron, was also a Buddhist philosopher. He was imprisoned in Soviet camps but survived and became a scholar, an orientalist. He had many Lithuanian followers from the 1950s and 1960s. When I came to Lithuania, I was welcomed by the descendants of Dandaron’s students, mainly professors from Vilnius University,” Dugarov recalls.
According to him, the ideology of pan-mongolianism is also popular in Buryatia: “This is the idea of the cultural, economic and political unity of all the Mongolian-speaking peoples of the world – the Buryats, the Kalmyks, and the Mongols. It was born on the territory of Buryatia.”
However, neither then nor now is there any talk of creating a unified Mongolian state: “Half a millennium has passed since the Buryats were separated from Mongolia. We have taken a different path.”
In the words of Jonutytė, there are some Buryats who want Buryatia to be fully independent or even to join Mongolia, but they make up a very small percentage.
“Many Buryats, including some Buryat activists, believe that Buryatia should remain part of Russia in the future, but they want a completely different Russia,” the anthropologist says.
But Dugarov is convinced that most Buryats secretly dream about independence: “We Buryats should live in our own country. That’s what 99 percent of people think. It’s deep down in all of us. It is only imaginary fears that cause problems, since Russia has shown that it is not so strong militarily.”