Bashkortostan and Bashkirs

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Bashkortostan is a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, located between the Middle Volga and the Ural mountains, with its capital at Ufa. The Bashkirs are the official indigenous nationality of the republic, although they made up only 21.9 percent of its population in 1989 (compared to 39.3 percent Russians and 28.4 percent Tatars). There were 1,449,157 Bashkirs in the former Soviet Union in 1989, with close to 60 percent (863,808) living in Bashkortostan proper and most of the remainder in neighboring provinces. The Bashkir language belongs to the Kipchak group of the Turkic language family. Despite some modest efforts around the turn of the twentieth century, Bashkir was developed as a literary language only after 1917. The Arabic script was used until Latinization in 1929, followed by adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet in 1939. Most Bashkirs are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi legal school.

Throughout history the hills and plains of Bashkortostan have been closely linked to the great Eurasian steppe to the south. Successive settlement by Finns, Ugrians, Sarmatians, Alans, Magyars, and Turkic Bulgars had already created a complex situation before the arrival of the Turkic badzhgard and burdzhan nomadic unions of Pechenegs in the ninth century c.e. At this point these groups began to coalesce into a nomadic tribal confederation headed by the Turkic Bashkirs (bashkort). Later arrivals of Oguz and Kipchak Turks further Turkified the early Bashkir people.

By the sixteenth century, Bashkirs were dependent variously on the Kazan Khanate to the west, the Khanate of Siberia to the east, and the Nogai khans to the south. Constriction of migration routes had forced many Bashkirs to limit their nomadizing to summer months and to turn toward hunting, beekeeping, and in some places agriculture. In 1557 several Bashkir groups acknowledged Russian suzerainty, seeking protection from the Nogai khans. Subsequent years saw gradual expansion of Russian control over other Bashkir tribes, imposition of a tax (yasak ) in fur, construction of Russian defensive lines to repel nomadic incursions, and infiltration of Bashkir lands by Russian peasants and other peoples fleeing serfdom and taxation. The years from the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries saw five major Bashkir revolts against Russian rule, usually directed against both peasant settlement and high Russian taxes. In addition, Bashkirs participated with other discontented peoples of the region in Emelian Pugachev's great rebellion (17731775).

Like many native peoples in the Russian Empire, nomadic Bashkirs belonged to a specific estate category with particular privileges and responsibilities. Bashkirs were relatively privileged compared to other natives in the region, with lower tax rates and (theoretically) a guarantee to the land they had held when they joined the empire. In 1798 Russian authorities gave new content to Bashkir identity by establishing the Bashkir-Meshcheriak Host (later simply Bashkir Host), an irregular military force modeled on the Cossacks. Male Bashkirs were required to serve in units apportioned among twelve self-governing cantons. The Bashkir Host was abolished during the Great Reforms (1863), but it later served as a symbol of Bashkir independence. In the late nineteenth century, a vast increase in Russian settlement and occupation of Bashkir lands and expansion of mining and metallurgy concerns in the Urals rapidly and traumatically accelerated processes of Bashkir sedentarization. In the closing decades of the century the local Russian press debated whether the Bashkirs were dying out.

During the Russian Revolution, Bashkirs unexpectedly emerged as one of the most activist peoples in the empire. The expectation of many Tatars that Bashkirs would assimilate into the emerging Tatar nation, the Tatar and later Soviet plans for a large territorial republic that would integrate Bashkortostan with Tatarstan, and the increasingly violent confrontations between Bashkirs and Russian settlers encouraged Bashkir activism and separatism in 1917 and 1918. Ahmed Zeki Validov (known as Togan in his later Turkish exile) led a nationalist movement that sought to establish a Bashkir republic even while Red and White armies battled back and forth across the region and Bashkirs fought Russian settlers. The Bashkir republic was established by treaty between the Soviet government and Validov's group in 1919. In 1922 the republic was expanded to include most of the former Ufa province, bringing in the large numbers of Russians and Tatars that now outnumber the Bashkirs in their own republic.

Soviet rule brought many contradictions to Bashkortostan and the Bashkirs. Famine in 1921 and 1922, accompanied by banditry and rebellion, was barely overcome before the trauma of collectivization, crash industrialization, and the emergence of Josef Stalin's police state. Outright statements of nationalist sentiment were long taboo. Yet the Soviet government oversaw the development of Bashkir written language, literature, historiography, and other cultural forms that solidified Bashkir identity and may have prevented its submergence in a larger Tatar or Turkic identity. Suspicion of some Tatars that the Bashkir nation is a recent and relatively artificial creation of the Soviet state rather than an old and authentic nation challenged the legitimacy of the Republic of Bashkortostan itself and often underlay post-Soviet debates between Bashkirs and Tatars over the treatment of Tatars in Bashkortostan.

See also: islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; togan, ahmed zeki validov


Baumann, Robert F. (1987). "Subject Nationalities in the Military Service of Imperial Russia: The Case of the Bashkirs." Slavic Review 46: 489502.

Donnelly, Alton S. (1968). The Russian Conquest of Bashkiria, 15521740: A Case Study in Imperialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Pipes, Richard E. (1950). "The First Experiment in Soviet Nationality Policy: The Bashkir Republic, 19171920." Russian Review 9:303-319.

Schafer, Daniel E. (2001). "Local Politics and the Birth of the Republic of Bashkortostan, 19191920." In A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Era of Lenin and Stalin, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin. New York: Oxford University Press.

Daniel E. Schafer