Buryats, a Large Nation in Russia, Fear They Are on Verge of Extinction

By Paul Goble
Not surprisingly, many of the very smallest nations now within the borders of the Russian Federation fear that they will not survive for more than a few decades. Numbering only a few thousand or even less, they feel on their own skin, as it were, the predictions of international experts that they cannot hope to survive as separate nations given the lack of support from the Russian government and the pressures of globalization.
But disturbingly, this sense of doom is infecting ever larger nations there, peoples whose numbers and institutions would seem to make them good candidates to survive well into the future. Indeed, all but the largest nations in the Russian Federation—the seven who number more than a million each—now appear to be at risk of losing first their language and then their identities in this generation or the next. This has been mainly due to Moscow’s Russification policies (see EDM, November 5, 2012; March 17, 2015; see also jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com, November 27, 2013; January 23, 2014) as well as the impact of international media and economic change.
According to Bato Ochirov of the ARD portal, for cultural and historical reasons, Buryats are not capable of either evolutionary or revolutionary change. The first is precluded by the nature of the state in which they find themselves at present, and the second is impossible because of the nomadic past and individualistic nature of their 500,000-strong nation. Consequently, those Buryats who are most accomplished will seek their fortunes elsewhere and be assimilated; and those who remain will increasingly degrade, he suggests (ARD, September 16).
“Therefore,” he argues, “if one reflects on the prospects of the contemporary Buryat nation” and tries to study the fates of other peoples that the Buryats are “most likely to repeat,” the most obvious candidate is the Evenks. A numerically small people of the Russian North, the Evenks arose as the result of the intermixture of “several aboriginal tribes of Eastern Siberia.” Like the Buryats, the Evenks reflect three anthropological types and are involved in three distinct economic activities: reindeer herding, cattle herding and fishing.
Also like the Buryats, he continues, “the Evenks live in China and in Mongolia. At the time of their inclusion into Russia (the 17th century), the Evenks numbered approximately 36,135.” They had increased to 64,500 by the time of the 1897 imperial census, but declined to 35,527 in the 2002 Russian census. In short, they are on their way to exhaustion and extinction.
About half of the Evenks live in the Republic of Sakha, but the rest are widely spread around the country, again like the Buryats. Indeed, the dispersal of the population accelerates the rates of loss of language, assimilation, and loss of historical identity, Ochirov says. “All peoples who lose ‘their own’ are on a common path, that of slow withering away and dying. The conditions of life of the representatives of such a dying people, as a rule, are not enviable.”

That a leading intellectual of the Buryats—a nation that, after all, has important co-ethnic groups in Mongolia and in China—should be saying this now is a mark of despair. Ochirov clearly hopes to provoke his fellow Buryats to respond by changing the situation. But his words suggest that he has little confidence they will be able to do so.