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The Buryats of Siberia

Covering almost all of Northern Asia, Siberia is home to around 28 percent of Russia's population, although it makes up as much as 77 percent of the country's territory. The tumultuous history of this vast, mostly inhospitable area and Soviet era domination resulted in the displacement of people which remains evident in the diversity of minority ethnic groups living in Siberia today. One of these groups is the Buryats (Buryads) of the Buryatia Republic – a federal subject of Russia.

As the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia, the Buryats are estimated to number 436,000, and being a subgroup of the Central Asian Mongols, they share many of the Mongolian customs, speaking a dialect of the Mongolian language called Buryat. The Buryat population is concentrated in and around the Republic's capital city of Ulan-Ude, which is eastern Siberia's third largest settlement by population. However, many still follow the Mongolian custom of nomadic herding, moving to where the grazing is plentiful and erecting temporary dwellings called yurts. Stronger than tents, yurts generally consist of a felt-covered circular latticed wooden frame, which is dismantled and taken to the next destination as the Buryats move on.

The first historical reference to the Buryats is in the oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language, The Secret History of the Mongols, which is believed to date back to 1240. There it was noted that the eldest son of Genghis Khan, Jochi, dominated the Buryats in 1207 at the time when they still lived along the Angara River – the only river to flow out of Lake Baikal. Also at this time the Baryat-speaking Barga people moved to the Barguzin valley of Buryatia, and the Khori Tumad settled alongside the Angara River. The Tumad people rebelled against the Mongols in 1217 when the notorious Genghis Khan allowed his men to capture thirty young Tumad women, but the rebellion was crushed. In the late 14th century, the Buryats and the Oirats joined forces to challenge the Eastern Mongols, or Khalkhas, but were subdued.

By the time the Cossacks moved into Eastern Siberia (known as Transbaikalia at the time) in 1609, there was only a small group of Buryat-speaking people, who were controlled by the Khalkhas. Following a time of great turmoil, with local ethnic groups either being annihilated or assimilated into various other groups, the modern Buryat tribes and associated groups were consolidated as a Russian state, and during a time of relative stability the Buryat population increased to 300,000 by the beginning of the 20th century. Another important development at this time was the growth of the Buryat Buddhist Church, with 48 places of worship being recorded in 1914. Their horsemanship skills and prowess in mounted combat resulted in many Buryats being enlisted by the Amur Cossacks, and during the Russian Civil War the Buryats sided with the so-called White forces. With the end of religious tolerance during the Soviet era, many cultural treasures of the Buryat Buddhist Church were destroyed and the Buryats suffered under Joseph Stalin who harshly dominated them, fearful of an uprising. Following the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the constitution of the Republic of Buryatia was adopted in 1994, with a bilateral treaty being signed with the Russian Federation in 1995.


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