This land has been populated by Buryats for over a thousand years – it has been populated by various types of Mongols for a lot longer. Their nomadic lifestyle in a vast region of Central Asia may have made it easier for the colonizing Russians to instal the Russian nation. Certainly, there is a reduced region called the Republic of Buryatia that is meant to be their country but surely that is just a name given that, politically, the autonomous state answers ultimately to Moscow.
Nevertheless, traveling east along the Trans-Siberian Highway, this whole area remains geographically very distinct from the wastelands of Siberia proper. It begins to look altogether Mongolian, grassy hills and rolling vistas provide the stage for gangs of wild horses – but it still retains a mountainous, northern aspect with the terrific and cold Lake Baikal dominating the scenery.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the Baltic States won their independence, as did Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etcetera and so on, Buryats have become the largest non-white minority in modern Russia. It would seem strange that they didn’t win their independence along with all the others. I don’t think, at the time, they were given any vote in a referendum – possibly, their nation is too strategically important for the Russians who would find it more difficult to keep their Far East linked to Siberia and Europe with an independent nation in the middle that could well forge alliances with an over-populated China. Maybe they imagined that the Far East, too, would attempt to secede… The hold on these far way lands, vast, lonely regions, has always been firm but not strong, if that makes any sense. But that could almost be said, too, for the indigenous nomads who lived here.
We talked to one guy, an ethnic Buryat, one evening, parked up in the center of Ula-Ude, the capital of Buryatia. He said that Buryats were happy to be a part of the Russian Empire – the situation of Buryats and the prosperity of the Autonomous Republic in general are improving. He didn’t think there was any serious independence movement.
In many ways, Buryatia is a nation that you may never have heard of, one possibly similar to the First Nations of Canada or USA: The experience of indigenous people who suddenly find themselves living in a modern country. It is another question; what the Russians have done for Buryats that the Buryats bury any dreams for absolute self-determination?
Not far from the internet café where we had met our Buryat friend, some Russians were talking to me, admiring our trucks close by. But I got fooled by their heavy metal appearance. They looked kind of grunge to me but they were actually fascists who thought it cool my truck was painted black, white and yellow – the colors of Imperial Russia. They also corrected my use of the name ‘Ulan Ude’, preferring to use ‘Udinksy’, a Slavic rendition of ‘town on the river Ude’ – ‘Ulan’ refers to soviet red as said in the Buryat language – two faux-pas for your typical Russian fascist who hates Communists and hates non-white people living in Russia. And this was in Ulan Ude, the racism in general in Russia getting worse, it would seem to an indigenous Siberian, the further east and more populated it gets. Our Buryat friend, indeed, considered it unthinkable to travel around the country away from this small Buryat part of it.
And so, too, you won’t find much information on Buryatia. Wikipedia doesn’t say much, the guidebooks are pretty quiet. There’s information out there, to be sure… But, for me, Buryat identity is a work in progress.