Orenburg’s Bashkirs Look to Ufa and Islam for Survival

By Paul Goble
The Bashkirs of Orenburg, increasingly concerned about their present and past mistreatment by the authorities, appear to be stepping up their collective political activity. The Orenburg oblast was created by Joseph Stalin to prevent Bashkortostan from having an external border and thus be able to demand union republic status in Soviet times (for background on this issue, see EDM, November 19).
On November 23, the Bashkirs held the fifth Orenburg oblast kurultay or assembly. They were greeted by Oleg Dimov, the deputy head of the government of the oblast, a delegation from Bashkortostan, which read out a message from that republic’s president, as well as other officials, journalists and scholars (kurultay-ufa.ru/2013/11/27/v-kurultay-bashkir-orenburzhya.html). Among the issues discussed, however, were many that were far more sensitive and controversial: the preservation of the Bashkir language in Orenburg, the protection of Bashkir national sites and mosques there, and government support for the only Bashkir-language publication in the oblast, “Karavan-Saray.”
Nurislam Kalmantayev, a Bashkir from Orenburg oblast who now teaches at the Bashkortostan State University in Ufa, outlined many of the concerns and complaints that the Bashkirs of Orenburg have.  In his speech to the kurultay, he not only talked about Bashkir resistance to Moscow’s decision to transfer some historically Bashkir lands to what became Orenburg oblast, but also about the assimilatory pressures the Bashkirs of Orenburg now face (kurultay-ufa.ru/2013/11/26/pora-poiskov-i-derzaniy.html).
Recent sociological research shows, he said, that most Bashkirs in Orenburg oblast aged 35 to 60 speak Bashkir but that those younger than that do not—the result of two waves of Bashkir-language school closures there, first in the 1960s and then during the last several years.  Despite the claims of some officials, Orenburg’s Bashkirs do not want their schools closed and want Ufa to pressure Orenburg.  But “unfortunately,” Kalmantayev said, “this decision does not depend” on Bashkortostan.
Bashkir activists have asked Orenburg officials to stop the current wave of school closings and to create Bashkir-language sections of Russian schools, where preventing the closures of Bashkir academic institutions is not possible for financial reasons. The Ufa-based scholar said that, in talking with Bashkir parents in Orenburg, he had found that they were ready to sign a petition to that effect.  “The time has come,” he continued, “to speak out on this problem. Today it is not yet too late; tomorrow, it will be.”

He said that the Bashkirs of Orenburg also want the Bashkortostan culture ministry to work with Orenburg to revive national customs. Moreover, the scholar noted, Orenburg’s Bashkirs believes that “for the consolidation of the people, [they] need to use the possibilities of the Muslim religion, to which the young are drawn.”  And they want to rely on organizations like the oblast kurultay because they are finally coming to understand that “no one will solve these problems” except themselves. Kalmantayev appealed to the kurultay to overcome its divisions, to work closely with Ufa, and to ensure that “the Orenburg Bashkirs will occupy a worthy place” in the future.