Descendants of the Swan: In the Remote, Open Land Southeast of Lake Baikal, beyond Where Tourists Typically Venture, Live Most of Russia's 370,000 Buryats. in This Ancestral Homeland, Where Genghis Khan and His Troops Once Roamed, Modern Buryats Meld Their Culture and History with the Realities of Life in Modern Russia

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Typical Buryats live in a small, one-story wooden home, which has replaced the once-common portable, felt-covered tents (yurts). They fetch water from a water tower using aluminum pails and a roll cart, and they usually bathe once a week, either in their own private, wooden banya (bathhouse) or in a government banya. Wood-burning stoves that double as cookstoves keep them warm during the long winters. During the short, hot summers, there is no air conditioning and few fans. Many have a porch that serves as a summer kitchen or even a small second home in their yard, where they eat and sleep in the summer.

When one thinks of Buryats, the Republic of Buryatia is usually the place that first comes to mind. While the capital of that region, Ulan-Ude, serves as a center for Buryat art and culture, only 24% of the Republic's population is ethnic Buryat. Perhaps symbolically, singers of the Buryat National Opera perform across the street from the world's largest Lenin head, a surreal black stone reminder of the power of the Russian government.

Given its proximity to the Trans-Siberian route and as a result of heavy Russian immigration, the Buryats of the Ust-Ordinsk Autonomous Okrug have mostly integrated with Russians. Today, only 36% of the region's residents are ethnic Buryats. Unlike Buryats elsewhere, they rejected Buddhism, retaining a strong belief in shamanism. A traditional lifestyle and lack of industry has prevented economic advancement, making the Ust-Ordinsk Oblast the poorest region in Russia today, with an average monthly income of just $20 in 2001.

THe Buryats in the third region, the Aginsk-Buryat Autonomous Orkug (ABAO), have most successfully retained their native language and culture. Only in ABAO do Buryats form an ethnic majority, accounting for 54% of the population. And only the Aginsk Okrug is headed by a Buryat politician, Bait Zhamsuev.

According to Zhamsuev, only six of Russia's 89 subjects have ethnic groups that account for more than half of file population. He sees ABAO's ethnic composition as a way to distinguish the region from other areas. "We're small and we do not have a great economy, but we are an ethnic area. We can be different in our own unique language and culture. We are developing holidays, festivals, and things that show our uniqueness."

Origins of the Buryats

According to legend, Buryats descend from a beautiful swan front Lake Baikal. The story goes that nineteen-year-old Khoridoy traveled to Olkhon, an island in Baikal. There he found swans that shed their feathers to swim, turning into women until they replaced their feather coats. He fell in love with one and stole her feather coat while she was swimming, so that she would have to remain a woman. They married and had 13 sons, two of whom went to China. The other eleven became the ancestors of the eleven Buryat tribes.

For centuries after this fateful meeting, Buryats and their cattle retorted the grasslands east of Baikal, looking up at the sky to watch their swan kin fly by. In reality, the Buryats' ethnic origin is a mixture of Mongol, Turkic, Tugus, Saoyed and other peoples.

In the 13th century, the Buryats fell within Genghis Khan's empire. When Russian explorers and colonizers began to extend into Buryat areas in the 1600s, they found the Buryats a more formidable enemy than the more primitive tribes of Central Siberia.

It took Russia almost three hundred years to fully incorporate the Buryat areas into the Russian state. Shortly thereafter, the Buryats found themselves caught in the middle of the communist revolution, and in 1923, the Soviet government formed the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, with borders that did not coincide with the geographic and ethnic limits of the Buryats.

In 1937, fears of pan-Mongolism and collaboration with Japan caused Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to split the former Buryat-Mongol ASSR region into the Republic of Buryatia and two autonomous okrugs: the Ust-Ordinsk Autonomous Ogrug, on the western shores of Baikal, and the Aginsk-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, located near the Chinese and Mongolian borders in southern Chita oblast. …


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