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ETHNONYMS: Brat, Bratsk, Buriaad, Buriat-Mongol


Identification. The Buriats live in Irkutsk Province (Oblast), Ust'-Orda Buriat Autonomous Region (Okrug), Chita Oblast and Aga-Buriat Autonomous Okrug of the Republic of Buryatia in the former USSR. They also live in Mongolia (in the northern part of Hentei Aimak) and in the People's Republic of China (a small group in the northern autonomous region of Inner Mongolia). They call themselves "Buriaad" or "Buriat"; the form "Buliia" or "Buriya" is found in the Secret Saga, a Mongol historical chronicle of the thirteenth century in the register of tribes and peoples conquered by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan. The form "Brat" or "Bratsk people" is found in official Russian documents from the seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century and in scientific literature of the twentieth century until the 1960s, when "Buriat-Mongol" came into use.

Demography. According to the census of 1989, there were 421,600 Buriats in the USSR: 249,500 of them in the Buriat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic; 77,300 in Irkutsk Oblast; and 66,000 in Chita Oblast; and over 5,000 in Moscow and the Moscow Oblast.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Buriat language is part of the Northern Subgroup of Mongol languages in the Altaic Language Family. Until 1930 the Buriats used the old Mongol-Altai script. From 1931 to 1939 the written language was based on the Latin alphabet, and since 1939 on the Cyrillic alphabet.

History and Cultural Relations

According to archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and mythological evidence, the Buriat ethnic group arose from a blending of western Mongolian tribes (Oirot) with Turkish (Altai, northern Siberian) and Tungus groups and possibly even Samoyed peoples. The territory where the ancestors of the Buriats lived and where the nucleus of the Buriat people formed includes the regions along Lake Baikal, in particular Pribaikal'e, the island of Ol'khon, and part of the territories to the east along the Selenga River. To the north, the neighbors of the Buriats were the Evenki and Yakut and to the south and east, related Mongolian tribes. Toward the middle of the seventeenth century during the Russian conquest of Siberia, the Buriats divided themselves into several territorial tribal groups, the largest of which were the Bulugat, Ekhirit, and Khor (Khorint, Khori-Buriat). The Bulugat lived along the Angara River and its tributaries. The Ekhirit lived along the northern shores of Lake Baikal and in the valley of the Barguzin River. The Khorint settled in the upper reaches of the Lena River and on the island of Ol'khon, from where they gradually penetrated farther and farther to the east up to the Aga steppes (now Chita Oblast).

The Buriats are made up of several groups: Tubin (Soiot), Tyngyc (Evenk, Khamnigan), and those native to Mongolia (Khongodor, Sartyl, Tsongol, Tabangyt, and others). Some of these settled in the upper reaches of the Selenga and Dzhida rivers. In the 1660s Buriatia became part of the Russian state. After the October Revolution of 1917, the Buriat-Mongol Autonomous Oblast was formed in 1921 within the Far Eastern Republic, and the Mongol-Buriat Autonomous Oblast was formed in 1922 within the Russian Sovied Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In 1923 the Buriat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was united with the RSFSR, into which was also incorporated the former territory of Pribaikal'e Province with its Russian population. In 1958 it was renamed the Buriat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.


By the seventeenth century the Buriats were engaged in nomadic animal husbandry. Corresponding to this type of livelihood, their nomadic camps were circular or stretched from east to west. The Buriats' yurts (ger), like those of the Mongols, were made of a wooden frame and felt coverings, which were attached to the frame by rope made of braided horsehair. The wooden frame of each tent included five to eight folding, trellised walls (hana ). The roof of the tent was in the shape of a truncated cone, consisting of long sticks (uni ) reaching from the low end of the trellised wall to the rim of the smoke opening (tono ) at the top of the tent. Pieces of felt of various shapes and sizes were spread over the wall and roof of the tent and covered the smoke opening. The entrance to the yurt always faced south.

Those Buriats who were hunters and lived in the taiga did not have yurts. Rather, they lived in conical huts (chum ) made of hide. The Russian Cossacks who settled along the steppes beyond Lake Baikal exposed the Buriats to the Russian type of frame hut (Russian: izba). At first the Buriats began to build five-, six-, or eight-cornered wooden yurts alongside their felt yurts. Later they built huts of the Russian type. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, the felt yurts were seldom used, but the wooden yurts can still be found in rare instances. The most common types of housing today are the apartment houses in the city and, in the countryside, the izba huts of the Russian type shared by one or two families.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the end of the seventeenth century the Buriats were mainly nomadic cattle breeders. Hunting continued to play a significant role in their economy. In the taiga they hunted large wild animals such as elks or bears. In the steppe it was foxes, wolves, or Siberian marmots. They hunted some animals for meat, some for fur, and others for both meat and fur. They especially valued beaver and otter fur, with which they paid tribute (Russian: iasak ) to the czar.

Food. The traditional staples of Buriat cuisine, like those of all nomads of Central Asia, were milk, milk products, meat, and meat dishes. Milk products (tsagan ige ) were eaten fresh in summer and in early fall until the end of the milking season. From urum or erme, the layer of milk skimmed off during boiling, they made butter. The remaining milk, fermented with a special leaven (kherenge), was used to make several sorts of cheese (arul, khurut, ezgii ) and yogurt (tarag). With a special distilling method, they made vodka from milk, varying from 6-8 percent to 45-50 percent alcohol. After distillation, the remaining curdled liquid was mixed in a separate dish with flour, roots from several plants ground into powder, and dried bird cherries. All winter this mixture was kept frozen. Pieces were broken off, cooked, and eaten. It was considered healthy and nutritious. They also made kumys (fermented mare's milk). Thought to have healing as well as nourishing powers, kumys was endowed with magic qualities in Buriat belief as well as in the beliefs of all Mongol peoples.

The Buriats herded rams, horses, goats, and horned cattle. Of all types of meat, they preferred mutton, except in winter, when they favored beef. They ate meat boiled in lightly salted water. To the bouillon they added millet or noodles. Mutton head was considered a dish appropriate for an honored guest. But the preferred dish was fresh mutton liver, which they roasted wrapped in fatty stomach lining immediately after the carcass was cut. They also ate the intestines and blood of the slaughtered animals. The Buriats made blood sausage, which they ate slightly cooked immediately after the butchering of the cattle. In order to have a supply of meat for the winter, they slaughtered cattle in late autumn, once frost had already appeared, cutting pieces of meat into long, thin slices and freezing it. In winter in southern Siberia, meat will keep for several months. Bread and pastry made from flour were adopted from the Russians, but these items did not have a special role in Buriat cooking. On the other hand, mixed dishes of milk and flour or meat and flour were very popular, as were flour grilled with sour cream (salamat ) and steamed meat pies made with sweet dough (buuz). The common drinks were tea served either with milk, mutton fat, or baked, salted milk skin; milk-based vodka; and, in summer, kumys.

Clothing. Buriat clothing was adapted to nomadic life and to the severe Central Asian climate. It was made for horseback riding, since it did not constrain the movement of the rider, and for sitting on the floor of the yurt. Clothing was sewn of leather, fur, and wool. In the winter men wore a straight fur overcoat (deel, degel). The left side buttoned closed over the right side. A long sash or a leather belt adorned with silver and copper ornaments was tied around the waist. On the right side of the belt, the men carried a tobacco pouch with tobacco and a snuffbox, a knife in its sheath, and a piece of steel for starting fires. They kept their pipes in their boots. The steel, tinder, and flint for starting fires were carried in a special sack, beautifully embroidered and even adorned with silver plates. In the past the steel for starting fires was highly valuedone could even exchange it for a horse. In summer, men wore a thinly lined coat (terlig), styled like the coats they wore in winter. The edge of the coat and sleeves were sometimes trimmed with velvet or another beautiful fabric.

Usually women wore trousers, shirts, and a coat much like the men's coat, but with a low collar. The sleeves, cuffs, and collar were made from a colored fabric. Especially valued were Chinese silks and brocades. The hem of the coat was sometimes decorated with otter fur. Over the coat, married women wore a sleeveless jacket (uuzha). For western Buriats it was just a jacket, whereas the eastern Buriats sewed a gathered skirt to their jackets at the waist. The sleeveless jacket, like the coats, had a lining and a slit down the front from the collar to the hem.

Men's and women's headgear was sown of fabric or fur (beaver, otter, fox); the elders wore hats of sheepskin. Traditionally, until the beginning of the twentieth century, men wore their hair pulled back in a braid. With Russification, this style gradually disappeared. Married women wore their hair in two braids covered with velvet. The braids hung in front, not on their backs. Silver and coral ornaments were woven into the ends of their braids. Young girls wore their hair in several braids, which were joined at the temples with coral-red thread.

Men and women wore low leather boots (gutal ) leather with thick soles. The boots were slightly turned up at the toes. Wearing such boots a rider felt more certain that his or her feet would not slip out of the stirrups. They wore such boots year-round, but in the winter, for extra warmth, they placed felt in them. Today traditional folk clothing is worn only by old people. Classical clothing with full decoration and additional detail can be seen only in museums.

Land Tenure. After the arrival of the Russians in the Transbaikal region, the Buriats gradually adopted agriculture and hay making. According to Buriat common law, land on clan territory (ulus ) was considered property of the community and had to be equally divided among all members. Clan property (the sign of the clan was branded on cattle) was gradually replaced by private ownership by individual members of the clan and their families. The combination of communal pasture and private herds allowed a rich, clan-based aristocracy to use its economic and administrative influence to secure plots of land for the owners of large herds.

After Buriatia was incorporated into the Russian state, the land was declared state property but the Buriat people were granted the right to communal land use. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the pastures, forests, and arable lands were taken out of communal use and became private property alloted to individual families. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, 25 percent of the Buriats in Irkutsk Oblast were no longer involved in animal husbandry but were engaged in agriculture. They grew rye, wheat, oats, buckwheat, and vegetables. For Buriats in Transbaikalia, animal husbandry remained predominant. The Buriats living on Ol'khon Island supplemented animal husbandry with fishing, and the Buriats of the Tunkinsk region supplemented it with hunting. About 10 percent of Buriat households had 100-200 sheep, up to 100 head of horned cattle, and 20-30 horses; 30 to 40 percent of the households had 60-70 sheep, up to 50 head of cattle, and up to 10 horses.


The Buriat social system at the time of their incorporation into Russia was an intricate web of clan and feudal institutions. The ancient clan was called obokh. (Sometimes it is incorrectly referred to as okok or amag). The clan was divided by lineage (yasa, yakha). Buriats had to know to which lineage they belonged. They also had to know their relatives by lineage nine times removed, as intermarriage was forbidden. Groups of families of the same lineage formed an ail. Several nomadic ail in one territory formed a hoshun, led by a chief (zaisang). Several hoshun united as an aimag, a large administrative unit headed by a feudal ruler (taisha). The term "ulus," as used by the Buriats, did not have the same meaning when used by the Mongols. For the Mongols, "ulus" meant the unification of several aimag, which they equated with a "state." But for the Buriats, the ulus was a clan territory, often designated by the name of the clan rulers. In Russian documents, such rulers were called "princes" (knjaztsy). The later meaning the Buriats had for the term ulus was simply a locality or settlement where several extended or nuclear families of different clans lived. Sometimes only one family group (hoton ) lived in such an ulus.

In 1822 the Russian administration issued a decree on governing the non-Russian peoples of Siberia, dividing them into settlers, nomadic settlers, and nomads. Nomadic Buriats were governed by their clan leaders and feudal lords, retaining their previous ranks as taisha, zaisang, naion, shulenga, and others. Criminal occurrences within the bounds of Buriat nomadic settlements were subject to traditional common laws.

Marriage and Family

Domestic Unit. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Buriats still had two types of family organization: a large patriarchal family and a small family. The first consisted of members of several generations, including brothers' families, who jointly owned property, had a common household, and together raised their children. The small family consisted of parents, unmarried daughters, and unmarried sons. Cut off from large patriarchies, the small families maintained economic and social relations with each other. They grazed and raised their cattle together, bought and used agricultural equipment together, processed the products of animal husbandry together, offered each other material assistance, and celebrated holidays and conducted religious rituals together.

Marriage. Marriages were formed in the following traditional ways: arranged marriage, in which two family groups, after negotiating the conditions, entered into a kinship relation (this included marriage through bride-price or the exchange of marriageable women between two family groups, sororate, and levirate) and marriage through abduction of the bride by relatives or friends of the bridegroom, sometimes with her consent and sometimes by force. Having reached the age of 15 or 16, a young man or woman was considered of marriageable age. Young men, however, usually married between the ages of 18 and 25 and girls between 17 and 21. In preparing for marriage the Buriats attached great significance to the genealogy of the bridegroom (udha), that is to say, his forefathers and his family. Physical and spiritual health, fertility, and respect for national traditions were qualities that were especially valued and sought.

The wedding was preceded by a proposal and betrothal. If the proposal was accepted, the fathers of the bride and groom exchanged waistbands (kyshak). After this pact the marriage contract could not be broken. The day of the wedding was set after the bride-price was paid. Before the wedding the bridegroom performed a sacrifice to the gods and spirits and to the protector of his bride's clan. A ceremony was also held in which the bride's family was entertained by the groom's family. The main dish served at such a ceremony was filly meat, served with double-distilled kumys (tarasun). The bride hosted a party for her girlfriends on the eve of her wedding with feasting and singing of sad songs. The bride had to be taken to the bridegroom's house on horseback. The most important rite was when the bride bowed to the spirits of the bridegroom's clanand later to the Buddhist godsand threw small pieces of fat at the bare chest of her father-in-law and sometimes at other elder relatives of the bridegroom. Accurate aim was taken as a sign of fertility.

Socialization. Women traditionally bore many children. Since infant mortality in past centuries was considerable, people used magic practices to try to protect their children from evil spirits. They appealed to the shaman to protect their children and tried to deceive evil spirits by giving boys girls' names and girls boys' names or by giving disparaging names to both boys and girls. Every nine and twelve years they performed rites to mark the beginning of new life cycles. From early childhood, children were accustomed to working. Girls learned from their mothers how to milk cattle, sew, and prepare meals. Boys helped their fathers and older brothers tend cattle, protect them from predators and bad weather, shear sheep, and tan hides. By age 6 or 7 children assisted in caring for their younger brothers and sisters.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The traditional religion of the Buriats is shamanism. In the middle of the seventeenth century the first Buddhist missionaries from Mongolia and Tibet appeared in Buriat encampments. The feudal aristocracy accepted Buddhism and began the construction of the first monasteries. In 1741 the Russian Empress Elizabeth issued a degree recognizing the Buriats as Buddhists and affirming the eleven monasteries (datsan ) and 150 lamas living in them. In 1991 the Buriats commemorated the 250th anniversary of this official recognition of Buddhism in Russia. The Buriats practiced the Buddhism of the Gelygpa school, which originated in Tibet in the beginning of the fifteenth century and constituted a synthesis of Mahayana and Theravada. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, forty-seven monasteries were active on Buriat land, the largest of which were considered to be Gusinoozersk (Tamchinsk), Tsongol'sk, and Aga. They had printing shops and printed religious and secular literature, medical and astrological works, didactic works for adults, and books for children. They even formed a national school of Buddhist iconography and sculpture. Along with Buddhist monasteries, Russian Orthodox and even Evangelical missions existed. Religious practice in Buriatia represents its own synthesis of Buddhism, shamanism, and Orthodoxy, as well as cults of nature (earth; sky; fire; "spirits" of mountains, rivers, lakes, etc.), a syncretism that to some degree is preserved today.

In the late 1930s the Buddhist culture of the Buriats was crushed. Monasteries were destroyed. Some of the masterpieces of monastery art were given to museums. Others were destroyed. In the last few years Buddhism has been revived. Twelve monasteries are now open and functioning.

Arts. The art of the Buriat people is multifaceted. It includes the heroic epic Abai-Geser, related to analogous Tibetan and Mongolian epics, and folklore of small genres (such as fairy tales, proverbs, riddles, and greetings). Metalworking, including forging of metal, coining in silver, and the making of knives and decorative plates for men's belts, goes back to ancient times. Local jewelers made beautiful adornments for women such as rings, bracelets, trim for headdresses, and pendants for braids out of silver, turquoise, coral, and pearl. Leather from domestic animals was used to make bags, vessels of various sizes, footwear, and clothes, all adorned with stamped ornamentation. Like all nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, the Buriats made wooden wares such as dishes for eating, storing of flour and salt, and cooking meat. However, Buddhist wooden sculpture (especially the characters of the pantheon and historic figures who contributed to the development of Buddhism in Buriatia) seems to have no analogy in the art of other cultures.


Humphrey, C. (1983). Karl Marx Collective: Economy, Society, and Religion in a Siberian Collective Farm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mihailov, T. M. (1987). Buriatskii shamanizm: Istoriia, struktura i sotsial'nye funktsii (Buriat shamanism: Its history, struture, and social factions). Novosibirsk.

Vyatkina, K. V. (1964). "The Buriats." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. G. Potapov, 203-243. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

NATALIA ZHUKOVSKAYA (Translated by Catherine Wanner)

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The Buryats, originally a nomadic herding people of Mongolian stock, live in the South-central region of Siberia, in the territory bordering Mongolia, with Lake Baikal on its western border and Yablonovy Ridge to the east.

The Buryats are one of the nationality groups that was recognized by Soviet authorities and had an autonomous republic of its own, along with the Yakuts, the Ossetians, the Komi, Tuvinians, Kalmyks, and Karelians. Of the five republics located east of the Ural Mountains in Asian Russia, fourBuryatia, Gorno-Altay, Khakassia, and Tuvaextend along Russia's southern border with Mongolia. After the changes of the immediate post-Soviet years, the Buryat Republic, or Buryatia (formerly the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, or ASSR), continues to exist in the Russian Federation and is recognized in the Russian constitution passed in 1993. Besides the republics, the constitution recognizes ten autonomous regions, whose status, like that of the republics, is based on the presence of one or two ethnic groups. One of these regions is Aga Buryat, in which Buryats make up 55 percent of the population; the rest are Russians.

One of the largest ethnic groups in Siberia, the Buryats number well over one million in the early twenty-first century. In 1994 the population of the republic was about 1.1 million, of which more than one-third lived in the capital city, Ulan-Ude, which lies at the junction of the Uda and Selenga Rivers. Other cities in Buryatia include Babushkin, Kyakhta, and Zakamensk. All are situated by key rivers, including Barguzin, Upper Angara, and Vitim. Occupying 351,300 square kilometers (135,600 square miles), Buryatia has a continental climate and mountainous terrain, with nearly 70 percent of the region covered by forests.

Contrary to popular belief, Buryatia, and Siberia in general, is not a frozen wasteland year-round. The Siberian winter extends from November to March. In fact, the Siberian flag contains the colors green and white in equal horizontal proportions, with the green representing the Siberian taiga (the largest forest in the world) and the white representing the snow of winter. This taiga shelters vast amounts of minerals, plants, and wildlife, some of which are quite rare and valuable. Along with huge hydroelectric reserves, Buryatia possesses rich stores of bauxite, coal, gold, iron ore, uranium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, lignite, graphite, shales, mercury, tin, and rare earth minerals. The main industries derive from coal extraction, timber harvesting, textiles, sugar refining (from beets), engineering (including locomotive building and boat repairs), and food processing (mostly wheat and vegetables, such as potatoes).

The peoples of Siberia fall into three major ethno-linguistic groups: Altaic, Uralic, and Paleo-Siberian. The Buryats are one of the Altaic peoples, speakers of Turkic languages widely distributed in the middle Volga, the southern Ural Mountains, the North Caucasus, and above the Arctic Circle. Buryatia is the center of Buddhism in Russia. In fact, it is a place where three religions coexist peacefully: shamanism, Buddhism, and Orthodoxy. The Siberian region even gave rise to the languages from which the term shaman is derived. Shamanism is a belief in unseen gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to priests (shamans) with magical and healing powers.

The Buryats have not always been a part of Russia. From 1625 to 1627, the Russian Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich (first of the Romanov dynasty) sent an expedition to explore the Bratskaya land. This first boat expedition, underestimating the ferocity of the Angara River's rapids, never completed the journey, but nevertheless word spread that Buryat farmers were eager to trade. Later that century, the Russiansin search of wealth, furs, and goldannexed and colonized the area. Some Buryats, dissatisfied with the proposed tsarist rule, fled to Mongolia, only to return to their native country saying, "Mongolia's Khan beheads culprits, but the Russian Tsar just flogs them. Let us become subjects of the Russian Tsar." In 1923 the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was founded, which consisted of the land on which Buryats lived. Fourteen years later, in 1937, Buryat was forced to split to into three parts: the Buryat-Mongol ASSR, and the Irkutsk and the Chita provinces. That population division remains in the post-Soviet era. During the 1970s Soviet authorities forbade Buryats from teaching the Buryat language in schools. In 1996 the Russian Parliament finally passed a bill concerning the nationalalities policy of the Russian Federation, allowing the Buryatlanguage and native customs to be taught and preserved.

See also: altai; kalmyks; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; siberia; tuva and tuvinians


Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam. (1997). Shamanic Worlds: Rituals and Lore of Siberia and Central Asia. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Hudgins, Sharon. (2003). The Other Side Of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Preobrazhensky, Alexander. (1993). "The Beginning of Common Road," International Affairs, May 1993.

Tkacz, Virlana, Sayan Zhambalov, et al. (2002). Shanar: Dedication Ritual of a Buryat Shaman in Siberia. New York: Parabola Books.

Johanna Granville

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