LOCATION: Bashkortostan Republic, in Russia (in the Southern Ural mountains)
POPULATION: 1.8 million (2002)
LANGUAGE: Bashkir; Russian
The Bashkirs are a Turkic Muslim people living within the Russian Federation. Bashkirs first appear in historical sources in the 10th century ad, as the inhabitants of the southern Ural mountains, the area which they still occupy today. The origins of the Bashkirs are obscure. Although today the Bashkirs speak a Turkic language, some historians consider them to have originally been Hungarian speakers who remained in the Ural mountains when the ancestors of modern Hungarians began the migration that eventually led them to settle in Central Europe. Whether or not this is the case, there can be little doubt that there was always a strong Turkic ethnic element among the Bashkirs and that this element became dominant before the end of the Middle Ages. Traditionally, the Bashkirs were a pastoral nomadic people, leading their herds of sheep, cattle, horses, and camels along fixed migration routes, but under Russian rule the Bashkirs increasingly practiced agriculture.
Politically, the Bashkirs have always been subjects of more powerful neighbors. The earliest sources identify them as subjects of the Volga Bulgarian state, centered in the middle Volga region. Before their subjection to Russia in the 16th century, the Bashkirs found themselves subjects of various steppe polities. These include the Mongol World Empire, the Golden Horde, the Noghay Horde, and the Kazan Khanate. Following the Russian conquest of the Kazan Khanate in 1552, the Bash-kir leaders likewise became subjects of Russia. Until the late 17th century, subjection to Russia was a largely formal affair, but Russian influence gradually increased in Bashkir lands as a result of Russian peasant and military colonization and increased taxation. Despite a series of violent Bashkir rebellions, over the course of the 18th century, the Bashkirs and their lands became increasingly integrated into the Russian state.
With the advent of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bash-kirs found themselves divided among various political forces and embroiled in the Russian Civil War. Although no actual Bashkir independence movement emerged at that time (the Bashkirs were the only Turkic people to voluntarily join the Soviet Union), the Bashkirs were eventually granted by the Soviet authorities in Moscow an "autonomous" territory within the Russian Republic. This territory eventually became known as the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), and it has become known simply as the Republic Bashkorto-stan since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Bashkir territory has traditionally encompassed the southern Ural Mountains as well as adjoining steppe regions to the south and in Western Siberia, that is, straddling the imaginary line separating Europe and Asia. Most Bashkirs live in the Russian republic, where 1.2 million Bashkirs constitute just under 30% of the republic's population. The remaining Bashkirs mainly reside in provinces and republics in neighboring Bashkortostan. Except for the rugged terrain of the central southern Urals, Bashkir territory is characterized by a mixture of evergreen and birch forest with steppe, or prairie. Roughly 40% of the republic's territory is forest. The northern parts of Bashkir territory are the most wooded and receive the most rainfall, while the southern regions frequently suffer from insufficient rainfall and have much sparser tree cover. The central southern Ural Mountains are largely forested, and the highest point in Bashkortostan is Yamantaw, which has an elevation of 1,638 m (4,900 ft). Much of Bashkir territory is uncultivated and is home to a rich variety of wildlife, especially in the Ural Mountains region, where there are large populations of bears, wolves, deer, and smaller mammals and birds.
The climate of Bashkortostan is markedly continental, characterized by long, harsh winters and cool, dry summers. The mean temperatures for January are –16°C to –14.5°C (0°F to 4°F), and for July 18.5°C to 20°C (69°F to 72°F).
The territory of the Republic of Bashkortostan encompasses 144,000 sq km (56,000 sq mi), an area slightly smaller than the state of Iowa. According to the 1979 Soviet census, the Bash-kirs numbered 1,371,000, but made up less than 25% of the population of Bashkortostan, occupying third place in the republic's ethnic composition after Russians and Tatars. It is believed that the 1.8 million Bashkirs now account for less than 20% of the republic's population.
The Bashkirs speak Bashkir, which is a Turkic language of the Kipchak, or Northwestern, branch of the Turkic language family. Bashkir is most closely related to, and mutually intelligible with, Tatar, a Turkic language spoken widely by the Tatar population of Bashkortostan as well as in neighboring regions. Bashkir is also closely related to Kazakh. Bilingualism is typical among rural Bashkirs, but Russian is the dominant language in urban areas. In northern and western Bashkortostan, where there is a large Tatar population, the linguistic division between Bashkir and Tatar has essentially evaporated.
The Bashkir literary language is based on dialects spoken in the far southeastern reaches of the republic, dialects that are the most linguistically distant from Tatar and closest to Kazakh. Nevertheless, it is widely used, along with Russian, by the Bashkirs for everyday communication. There are newspapers and books published in Bashkir, as well as radio and, to a lesser extent, television broadcasts.
Because the Bashkirs are Muslims, Bashkir names are commonly adapted from Arabic names, as well as from some Turkic ones. Some common men's names are Äkhmät, Mökhämet, Ildus, and Bulat. Some common women's names are Gulnara, Gölfiya, and Zukhra. However, Russian and Western given names are increasingly common among the Bashkirs as well.
Like the other traditionally pastoral nomadic peoples of Inner Asia, the Bashkirs have a rich repertoire of folklore which includes songs, poetry and tales. The most remarkable genre in Bashkir folklore, however, is the heroic epic. While Bash-kir folklore (particularly the epic tradition) has its roots in the Bashkirs' Inner Asian nomadic past, the conversion of the Bashkirs to Islam in the 14th century resulted in the insertion of Islamic themes and interpretations into Bashkir folklore. Some of the more famous epics include Ural Batïr, an ancient epic about the formation of the Bashkir people, and Idheügey menän Moradhïm, which describes historical events in the Golden Horde in the 15th century.
Bashkir heroes traditionally corresponded to the heroes of the epics; therefore it is not surprising that historical figures deemed to be heroic became the subjects of heroic epic poetry. The most prominent among these figures was Salavat Yulayev, a Bashkir commander during the Pugachev Rebellion of the 1770s. Yulayev, himself an accomplished poet in the Bashkir language, became the subject of a large cycle of Bashkir folklore. He was canonized in Soviet times as the Bashkirs' national hero and remains so today. A massive Soviet-era bronze statue in the Bashkiria capital of Ufa is very much a Bashkir national landmark.
Bashkir folklore retains a rich cycle of myth. In addition to myths recounting the creation of the world, the various Bash-kir tribes and clans have retained myths of their own groups' formation. The category of myth can also include Islamic legends, particularly those concerning the Prophets and famous SufiShaykhs.
Historically the Bashkirs have been an overwhelmingly Muslim people. The conversion of the Bashkirs to Islam appears to have begun on a large scale in the 14th century, with the conversion of the Golden Horde to Islam. However, Bashkir Islamization legends are quite numerous and vary widely, including accounts of their conversion at the hands of the Prophet Muhammad himself, Volga Bulgarian missionaries, or to Central Asian Sufis such as Ahmad Yasavi. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lifting of Soviet anti-religious policies, there has been a resurgence of interest in Islam and a sharp increase in mosque construction in Bashkir villages. Seventy years of Soviet repression of religions, including Islam, resulted in the marginalization of Islamic knowledge and ritual in Bashkir society. The vestiges of traditional Bashkir religious life are most evident in rural Bashkir communities, especially among the older generation. These Islamic practices include reading from the Koran, ritual fasting, and pilgrimages to nearby Muslim saints' tombs.
Traditional, specifically Bashkir beliefs are equally deep-rooted, especially in rural communities. These include beliefs in various spirits thought to inhabit different buildings and natural features, as well as tutelary spirits of livestock, and amulets. Such beliefs are often artificially distinguished from Islamic beliefs, however, since tutelary spirits are often Muslim saints and amulets contain verses from the Koran, and the Bashkirs themselves understand their beliefs to be part of a unified Muslim belief system.
Historically, Bashkirs have observed major and minor Muslim holidays, the most prominent of which among the Bashkirs is Qorban Bayramï (the commemoration of the trial of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son), which typically takes place in early June. This festival historically involved the sacrifice of animals and large communal feasts. Today, Qorban Bayramï is an official holiday and people get the day off from work to relax. Various festivals not of a strictly Islamic character but rather corresponding to the agricultural calendar are also observed. One such festival is Sabantuy (also called Habantuy), or "the plow festival," which is held after spring planting. Sabantuy festivities today involve playing picnic-style games. Another traditional festival is the clan and tribal gathering, called Yïyïn, usually held in early summer. In the past, these gatherings involved sacrifices of animals, but now there are only feasts and various games and dances. The Muslim season of Ramadan is not strictly observed by most Bashkirs.
While such festivals are still common in rural areas and seen by Bashkirs as being thoroughly "Bashkir," holidays offi-cially promoted during the Soviet era are also widely observed, especially in urban areas, where Bashkirs are integrated into larger, primarily Russian environments. While specifically Soviet holidays such as May Day and the Anniversary of the October Revolution are generally ignored, less political Soviet holidays such as New Year's Day (January 1) and Victory Day (May 9) are widely celebrated.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Traditionally the Bashkirs observed numerous and complex rituals to mark the primary life cycle rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Bashkirs believed that a newborn was especially vulnerable to the "evil eye" (qatï küdh) during the first 40 days after its birth, and a number of amulets were hung around its crib. Another ritual involved the pretended sale of the child to the midwife, as protection against evil spirits who might seek to harm the actual parents. After 40 days, a name was given to the child, traditionally by a mullah. To what extent these rituals are practiced today is unclear. Home births are still common in rural areas, but name-giving is usually carried out by the parents of the child.
Puberty rites per se are not well documented among the Bashkirs, but the conscription of young Bashkir men into the army, usually at age 18, has generally functioned as a de facto and de jure puberty right. Induction into the armed forces also had its rituals meant to protect the life of the young soldier.
Bashkir weddings, especially in rural areas, were traditionally quite complex, involving countless rituals and large-scale feasting. In the past, brides would have been around age 15 and grooms around age 18. Today, the ages of the bride and groom are typically between the ages of 18 and 20. Weddings in rural areas continue to retain older rituals, but urban weddings are usually performed by civil authorities and correspond to the wedding traditions of Russian society.
Death and funerary rituals among the Bashkirs have tended to be the most impervious to the changes brought about by Soviet and Russian society. Today, as throughout the Soviet period, the dead are buried in Muslim cemeteries. The deceased is typically wrapped in a shroud and buried with a headstone with an Arabic or Bashkir inscription. On the third, seventh, and fortieth days and the first anniversary after a death, memorial feasts are held. Remembrance feasts for the dead in general are held during Qorban Bayramï, when families go to cemeteries and have a meal at the graveside of relatives or have prayers read.
Superficially, the interpersonal relations of Bashkirs differ little from those of Russian society as a whole, and this is especially true in urban settings. However, especially in rural areas, traditions of Bashkir hospitality are still observed. In traditional Bashkir society, guests were treated with considerable respect, and it is still common in rural areas for elaborate feasts to be held in honor of guests.
In urban areas, Bashkirs generally have access to hospitals, although the quality of care in these hospitals is generally poor. In rural areas, clinics and doctors can be very distant from Bashkir settlements, and it is common for Bashkirs, both urban and rural, to depend to a large extent on traditional forms of medicine, particularly herbal medicine.
Most urban Bashkirs live in large apartment blocks. For urban Bashkirs, as for urban citizens of Russia in general, vacant apartments are hard to find as apartments rarely change hands. Urban apartments rarely have more than two bedrooms, and in many cases consist of only one room with a communal bathroom and kitchen. Apartments often go without gas or hot water for weeks at a time. In Bashkortostan, telephone numbers are assigned to individuals rather than to residences. In order to get telephone service, an individual must register, which usually involves waiting in lines and completing forms for bureaucratic approval. It is then up to an individual to find someone who can install a telephone line to his or her house or apartment.
In rural areas, Bashkirs tend to live in wooden houses. In Bashkir villages, there is typically electricity, but no running water or private telephones. Water is usually obtained from wells. The quintessential traditional Bashkir dwelling is the felt yurt (tirmä), which was the traditional dwelling of Inner Asian steppe nomads. This was a round tent with a conical roof, constructed of lattice-work surrounding long wooden tent poles over which thick felt was draped. Although such tents are no longer used by Bashkirs today, they retain a powerful symbolic significance for Bashkirs.
Very few Bashkirs own private automobiles, and as a result most Bashkirs depend on public transportation. In rural areas bus service is often irregular, and many Bashkirs rely on animals, primarily horses, for transportation.
Generally, however, living standards among Bashkirs have broadly improved since the late 1990's, as the Russian economy has expanded.
In traditional Bashkir society, most men had only one wife, although wealthy Bashkirs could have as many as four wives. Polygamy, especially with more than two wives, was very rare however, and became illegal after 1917. Bashkir women have traditionally worked, either performing agricultural work, or in urban areas holding paid jobs. Before 1917 Bashkir families were typically very large, with a woman commonly bearing 15 or 16 children in a lifetime. Because of high child mortality rates, however, perhaps only four or five children might survive into adulthood. During the late Soviet era, family size among the Bashkirs was generally similar to that of ethnic Russians in general, less than two children per family, which is far lower than the fertility rates for most Muslim groups in the former Soviet Union.
The Bashkirs have retained a large and extended kinship network and a deep-rooted system of clan and tribal identities. Some of the major Bashkir tribal groupings were the Usergan, Ming, Qïpsaq, and Burjan. Tribes are divided into clans and sub-clans, and awareness of one's affiliation with clans and tribes remains high, even though the distinctions between these tribes were blurred during the Soviet years. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, several tribal-based political movements have emerged among the Bashkirs.
Traditional Bashkir clothing was strongly influenced by the region's harsh climate, as well as by Bashkir conceptions of Islamic precepts. Traditional Bashkir winter clothing consisted of long, thick hats, usually made from the fur of animals such as wild cats or fox. Coats and jackets were also made of wild animal fur, as well as reversed sheepskin. High boots made from soft leather were also common.
Islamic headgear, especially the skull-cap, was once commonly worn by Bashkirs. Women generally covered their heads with scarves, and before 1917 some Bashkir women wore veils as well. Islamic headgear is still occasionally worn by Bashkir men and women, especially the older generation.
Today the everyday clothing of Bashkirs is thoroughly Westernized and differs in no way from that worn by Russians.
Bashkir staple foods today consist of dark bread, potatoes, meat, and various vegetables, especially cabbage, onions, and beets. Traditional foods include horse-meat sausage, honey, mutton, and fermented mare's milk (kumys). Large-scale feasts are an important element in Bashkir dietary custom, both on religious occasions and to welcome guests. Specific dishes are served for specific religious occasions such as memorial feasts and animal sacrifices.
Bashkirs often eat a vak-belyash, a round pastry filled with meat and potatoes, for a quick meal. Tatars in Bashkortostan may eat a uch-pochmak, which is like the vak-belyash except that the pastry is triangular. The Bashkirs are famous for their kulama, a type of soup where each person puts in what they like. Each ingredient is prepared separately in its own dish. Typical kulama ingredients include horse meat, onions, lapsha (square noodles), and carrots. Each individual puts what he or she wants into a bowl and then pours some broth over the top. The broth, traditionally made with horse meat, is now usually made from beef.
Before 1917, most Bashkirs had some sort of access to Islamic education. Nearly every village mosque had attached to it an Islamic primary school (mäktäp) and secondary school (mädräthä). Although access to instruction depended to a large degree on material conditions of the village and the energy of the village's imam (leader of the congregation), children and older students would be taught basic literacy in Arabic and Bashkir. Several large and prestigious mädräthäs were also located in Bashkir territory (in Sterlibashevo and Sterlitamak), and it was common for Bashkir students to study in major centers of Islamic learning both in Russia (Kazan and Orenburg) and in Central Asia (Bukhara and Samarqand).
After 1929, Islamic education was for all intents and purposes outlawed, and Bashkir education was taken over by the state. In Soviet times, education became compulsory, and higher education was entirely in the Russian language. Bash-kirs typically receive eleven years of schooling, although some opt for higher education in universities in the capital, Ufa, or in other institutions in Russia. Bashkortostan has a controversial affirmative action educational program that encourages rural Bashkirs to seek a university education in Ufa. The program involves a quota system, in which one-third of the students must be from urban areas (such as Ufa), one-third from villages, and one-third from rural areas. There is much competition for acceptance to the university among urban residents (mostly ethnic Russians) because there are so many vying for the limited number of spaces. In villages and rural areas, however, the university must actively recruit just to meet its quotas. As a result, the competition to get in is not as tough for those in the villages and rural areas (who are more likely to be Bash-kirs). In order to maintain this program, the university has set up separate remedial education classes. Most Bashkirs who do finish their university studies stay in Ufa to look for a job rather than return home.
Bashkortostan is home to some large educational institutions, including Bashkir State University in Ufa, and a number of technical and pedagogical institutes in Ufa and in the republic's smaller cities. Many Bashkirs also study in larger Russian cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as abroad, particularly in Turkey and Western Europe.
The Bashkirs have retained a rich cultural heritage, and Bash-kir music is especially fascinating because of its retention of archaic Inner Asian traditions. Most interesting is the musical tradition of throat-singing (ödhläü), which exists nowhere else in western Inner Asia, but is well known in Mongolia and South Siberia. In ödhläü, the singer is able to produce two notes at once in his or her throat. Another characteristic of Bashkir singing is that it is based for the most part on a pentatonic scale (one with five tones per octave). A particularly characteristic Bashkir musical instrument is quray, which is a kind of reed flute held vertically. Traditional Bashkir dance is similarly archaic, and is commonly performed at gatherings and religious occasions.
Although the Bashkirs are well known for their oral literature, especially their oral epic poetry, Bashkir written literature, based on the Arabic script, was well developed before 1917. This literature includes tribal genealogies (shäzhärä) containing historical narratives, as well as historical chronicles. Bashkir Islamic literature was also well developed before 1917 and remains virtually unstudied. This literature was written in Arabic as well as in Turkic; in fact, a substantial body of literature produced by Bashkirs was written in Arabic.
Beginning in 1917, the Soviet authorities encouraged the creation of a formal Bashkir culture which includes European-style literature, classical music, classical dance, and so forth. The economic crises of the 1990's and the reduction of state subsidies for cultural institutions severely impacted Bashkir cultural life, from which it is currently recovering.
The Bashkir economy was historically based on semi-nomadic stockbreeding, cereal and mixed agriculture, and the hunting and gathering of forest products. Today, stock breeding, agriculture (including beekeeping) together with industrial manufacturing, oil and petrochemical production, and service industries form the basis of the Bashkir economy.
One of the most popular sports among Bashkirs, as among many other Turkic peoples, is wrestling. In addition, horse racing is quite popular as entertainment during Bashkir festivals. The most popular spectator sports are hockey and soccer.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Contests associated with the Sabantuy festivities are a favorite activity among the Bashkirs. One such traditional game is a pillow fight between two contestants who stand on top of short pillars and try to topple each other. There are also potato sack races and a log pole climb (with a prize on the top for the winner). A popular amusement is nardoy, a Turkic game similar to checkers that is played on a large board. Traditionally a common feature of public celebrations was competitions of improvised verse, known as aytïs.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The Bashkirs are especially skilled at weaving, particularly woolen carpets. Bashkir carpets are generally flat-woven and feature simple geometric designs. Handicrafts in general are still widely engaged in, partly for supplemental income, but especially because of the lack of retail establishments in rural areas.
Bashkirs share many of the social problems being experienced in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. This includes increasing rates of alcoholism, crime, unemployment, and poverty. In certain areas of the Republic of Bashkortostan rural poverty among Bashkirs is especially severe. Despite the ethnic diversity of Bashkortostan, no single ethnic group constitutes a majority, and ethnic tensions have not exploded into violence. The Bashkir movement for full political independence receives limited support among Bashkirs as a whole.
The most severe social problem facing Bashkirs is without a doubt their republic's environmental degradation. Bashkortostan's position as a moderate oil producer and especially the presence of petrochemical installations in the cities of Ufa and Neftekamsk have caused catastrophic pollution to the region's air and water. Most serious are high levels of toxins such as dioxin in urban areas, especially Ufa.
In traditional Bashkir society there were sharp and clear-cut gender divisions in terms of division of labor and social interaction. Before 1917 both Bashkir customary law and Islamic law regulated the rights and obligations of men and women, and Islamic law became increasingly prominent until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Russian law allowed Bashkirs to use Islamic law, or sharighat, to regulate family law and inheritance law. In particular it regulated divorce, the division of household property, and child custody. Similarly, Islamic law allowed for the division of property, both male and female, among heirs. Before 1917 many Bashkir women had access to Islamic education. Small boys and girls were educated together, but older girls and young women were educated separately by women, usually the wives of the village imam. As in much of the Islamic word, women were especially prominent as Quran reciters. Women also participated extensively in specific religious rituals, especially pilgrimage to local shrines.
Child-rearing, traditionally, in Soviet times and since 1991, has generally been relegated to women, as are specific domestic duties. Although women always contributed substantially to farming and stock-breeding, during the Soviet era, during and after World War II Bashkir women entered the service and industrial workforce in large numbers, and obtained greater access to Soviet education.
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—revised by A. J. Frank with acknowledgment to M. Tabatchnik