views updated May 18 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Buryats;Buriaad
LOCATION: Russia (mountains of Southeast Siberia)
POPULATION: 515,175 (445,175 in Russia, 2002), (70,000 in Mongolia)
LANGUAGE: Buriat, Russian
RELIGION: Tibetan Buddhism; native religious practices, Eastern Orthodox Christianity


The Buriats (sometimes spelled Buryats) are an Asiatic people who inhabit the steppes and mountains surrounding the southern half of Lake Baikal in Southeast Siberia and speak a language belonging to the Mongol branch of the Altaic language family. The Buriats' name for themselves is Buriaad (or, less commonly, Buriaad-Mongol). The origins of the Buriats and the exact time at which they arose are unclear, but anthropological, linguistic, and archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the modern Buriats may have been formed sometime during the Bronze Age (between 2500 and 1300 bc) along the shores of Lake Baikal and the Selenga River from Mongol tribes who mixed with native Siberian groups who spoke Turkic, Tungus, and perhaps Samoyedic languages. Russian soldiers and explorers first encountered the Buriats in the late 1620s and conquered them over the course of the 17th century. Most Buriats fought fiercely against the Russian invaders, and uprisings and attacks on Russian forts continued for decades, although some groups submitted voluntarily to the Russians in order to stop paying tribute to the Mongol khans and to escape the wars that were occurring in Mongolia at that time between Mongols and Manchus and between rival Mongolian leaders.


The Buriats in Russia numbered around 445,175 as of 2002. The main area of Buriat settlement is the Republic of Buriatia, which contains 249,500 Buriats and is part of the Russian Federation. Buriatia covers about 351,300 square kilometers (135,600 square miles) along Lake Baikal, making it 1.5 times larger than Great Britain. About 49,300 Buriats also live in the Ust'-Ordynsk Buriat Autonomous District to the west of Lake Baikal, and 42,400 more live in the Aga Buriat Autonomous District to the east. Altogether, 445,175 Buriats live inside the boundaries of the Russian Federation. Outside Russia, 70,000 Buriats live in Mongolia, and a few thousand live in northern China. Most of Buriat territory is mountainous taiga. Rolling steppes are to be found east and southeast of Lake Baikal, and in some places steppe valleys extend deep into the taiga. The highest parts of the Buriat Republic lie in the Eastern Sayan mountain range to the southwest of Lake Baikal. Buriatia's climate is harsh and continental. Because Buriatia is far from the moderating influence of the sea and high above sea level, temperatures are extreme and precipitation is sparse. Winters are long, dry, and very cold (the average January temperature ranges from -23ºc to -27ºc [-9ºf to -17ºf]). Summers are short, hot (the average July temperature is 20ºc [68ºf]), and relatively rainy. Most of the region's 300 mm (12 inches) of annual precipitation falls during the summer.

Wild animals found in forested areas of Buriatia include deer, reindeer, elk, boar, squirrel, bear, lynx, and wolverine. Hamsters and marmots also live in the steppe areas. There are numerous species of birds, including ducks, and fish in the Buriat lands. Freshwater seals can be found on the many islands that dot the shoreline of Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the deepest continental body of water in the world, reaching a depth of 5,700 feet (1,737 meters). The lake contains about 20% of the world's freshwater reserves.


The Buriat language belongs to the Mongolian family and is divided into numerous dialects and subdialects. The Buriats did not have a written language until the early 17th century, when they began to write in Classical Mongolian, a literary language traditionally employed by most of the Mongol peoples. In this flowing vertical script, words are written from top to bottom in columns of text that read from left to right. After 1929, Buriat was written in the Latin alphabet, which was in turn replaced by the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet in 1938. The Buriat literary language used today is based on the Khori dialect of the eastern Buriats and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet with extra letters for Buriat sounds that do not exist in Russian. Some common Buriat male names are Baatar ("hero") and Mergen ("wise"); common female names include Gerelmaa ("light") and Erzhena ("mother-of-pearl"). Because many Buriats practice the Tibetan form of Buddhism, names of Tibetan origin, such as Sodnom ("virtue"; male) and Geleg ("luck"; male) are also widely used. Some Buriats use Russian names such as Mikhail (male) and Tania (female).


The Buriats have a rich heritage of folklore that has accumulated over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The most remarkable genre of Buriat folklore is the uliger, or epic poem, which has been compared to the Iliad and Odyssey epics of the ancient Greeks. The Buriat epic poems all describe the struggles of mythical heroes such as Geser, Alamzhi-Mergen ("Alamzhi the Wise"), and Shono-Bator against various enemies and monsters. (The Buriats' favorite hero, Geser, is actually of Tibetan origin.) All Buriat uligers are very long, ranging from 2,000-3,000 to 25,000 lines in length. Some have developed several versions in different regions of Buriatia. The uligers have been most faithfully preserved in western Buriatia, perhaps because Buddhism is much less widespread there than among the Buriats east of Baikal, so the uligers have not had to compete with Buddhist tales. Because most Buriats were illiterate until the 20th century, the uligers were passed down orally from generation to generation, memorized and publicly recited by uligershens (bards). The Soviet persecution of Buriat national culture almost destroyed the uligershens. The Geser epic was banned for several years after World War II because Russian Communists misinterpreted several lines as anti-Russian, and new uligershens were no longer trained to replace the older ones who were dying out. In the past decade, Buriat cultural institutions have begun the slow, difficult work of preparing new uligershens.


The traditional religion of the Buriats was shamanism. Mountains, rivers, forests, and the sky were all considered to have their own spirits or gods that had to be respected. Animals, too, had their own spirits that had to be respected. For instance, it was forbidden to refer to certain animals directly by their usual Buriat names during the hunt lest they take offense at this impertinence. Thus, a shono (wolf) was called tengeriin nokhoi (heavenly dog). The Buriats also held fire to be sacred and sacrificed meat, milk, fat, liquor, and butter to it. A tribal priest, or shaman, was responsible for communicating with the gods. Like the Native American "medicine man," the shaman performed rituals at births, marriages, and burials and officiated at sacrifices, the most important of which was the horse sacrifice to the sky god Tengri. The shaman also prayed for and gave medicine to the sick and divined the future. There were both male shamans and female shamans, and the profession of shaman was hereditary.

Buriats east of Baikal adopted the Tibetan form of Buddhism in the 1600s. Most western Buriats remained shamanists, but some adopted Buddhism or Russian Orthodox Christianity. The Buddhism practiced by the Buriats has incorporated many shamanist beliefs and rituals. Buddhist datsans (monasteries) filled cultural and educational as well as religious needs, since they contained schools, libraries, and printing facilities. The Soviet government destroyed the monasteries and imprisoned or killed almost all of the Buriat lamas (Buddhist monks or priests) and shamans in the 1930s as part of its war against religion. Buriat religious practices had to go underground until the 1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned the government's anti-religious policies. Now some of the previously destroyed datsans are being rebuilt, entirely new ones are being opened, datsan schools are again training lamas, and shamans can practice openly without fear of persecution.


The Tsagaalgan (New Year's Festival) is the most popular Buriat holiday and is celebrated by feasting and drinking that, in theory at least, can last through the entire first month of the year (the sagaan hara or "white month"). Since the Buriats formerly used the lunar calendar, the Buriat New Year falls on a different day each year in the Gregorian calendar. Buriats also celebrate the Western New Year's Eve and New Year's Day (31 December and 1 January). Buddhist Buriats also attended tsams, festivals held at the datsans that featured dramatic dances by lamas in elaborate masks and costumes depicting gods and demons. Shamanist Buriats also celebrated holidays called tailgans that began with animal sacrifices to local deities and ended with feasts, horse races, wrestling matches, and archery contests. There were three major tailgans— spring, summer, and fall—every year as well as many minor ones. Christian Buriats and those who lived in areas with large Russian populations also observed Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas. Because all these holidays had religious aspects, they were banned by the Soviet regime, but in recent years Buriats have begun to observe them openly again. Of the Soviet-era secular holidays celebrated throughout Russia, the most popular among the Buriats are International Women's Day (8 March) and the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany (9 May).


Buriats have traditionally called upon shamans or lamas to bless the birth of a child. Because childlessness is considered a great misfortune by the Buriats, and infant mortality rates were high before the spread of Western medicine, superstitious parents temporarily gave newborns unappealing names or names inappropriate to their sex in order to make them less attractive to evil spirits that might otherwise harm them. For this reason, it is still common to refer to infants in uncomplimentary terms. A mother, for example, might say that her baby is muukhai ("ugly") even though she considers him beautiful.

The Buriats have no special rites of passage for childhood, puberty, or adulthood. Buddhist Buriats consider children to be without sin until they are about eight years old, but attaining this age is not marked by any special ritual. Buriats traditionally disposed of their dead by exposing them in the open air on the ground or on a raised platform. Weapons, saddles, and other everyday items were sometimes buried with their owners, and the deceased's horse was sometimes killed. Sha-mans were cremated and their ashes placed in tree trunks; groves that contained these trees were considered sacred, and it was forbidden to take wood from them. Cremation was also common in traditional Buriat society, especially among Buddhist Buriats. Buriats now bury their dead in cemeteries or cremate them.


Upon receiving a guest in one's home for the first time, it is customary to present him or her with a khadag, a strip of silk approximately one yard long and a little less than one foot wide. The host places the khadag across his or her outstretched arms and transfers it to the arms of the guest. This practice, along with the word khadag, is of Tibetan origin. It is considered poor manners to hand someone an item with one's left hand when in polite company.


The nomadic eastern Buriats' traditional form of housing was the yurt, or ger, which was covered with felt cloth and held in place by a wooden frame. The doorway of the ger always faced south. The ger could be quickly taken apart and reassembled when the family moved from pasture to pasture. Because most western Buriats lived in mountainous areas unsuitable for nomadism, they used eight-sided permanent wooden "yurts." As a result of Russian influence, some also adopted log cabins and houses. At the present time, rural Buriats live in wooden houses in collective farms and villages, and urban Buriats live in Soviet-type apartment buildings or private wooden houses. Because of the persistent shortage of desirable housing during the Soviet period, it was not uncommon for Buriats in Ulan-Ude and other Buriat cities to live for years or even decades in crowded apartments with relatives or in dilapidated wooden houses that lacked indoor plumbing while waiting for suitable apartments of their own.

Like all Mongol peoples, Buriats have traditionally been excellent horsemen, and horses are still widely used for transportation in the countryside. Buriats living in cities, on the other hand, use public trolleys and buses and, to a much lesser extent, private automobiles.

Before the Soviet period, Western medicine was virtually unknown among the Buriats; instead, they were treated by shamans who knew herbal folk medicine and lamas trained in Tibetan medical practices at Buddhist monasteries. Western medicine has become widespread since the October Revolution of 1917 and is provided by the government at low cost. Many Buriats combine Western medical treatment with traditional methods of healing. Buriatia contains numerous mineral springs that are used for medicinal purposes, the most famous of which are located at Arshaan, southwest of Lake Baikal and are used by people from all over Buriatia, and indeed, from all parts of the former Soviet Union.


Traditional Buriat society was made up of esege zon (large tribes) organized on a territorial basis and otog (clans) that were based on kinship rather than territory. Wealthy clan members were obligated to help poorer clan members and widows and orphans who belonged to their clan. Clans, in turn, were divided into families. There were two types of traditional Buriat families: small nuclear families consisting of the male head of a household, his wife, several children, and sometimes his parents; and extended patriarchal families that combined the households of several brothers into a single settlement under the leadership of their father or the eldest brother. The nuclear family has always been the more common type, and the large patriarchal families have now faded into the past. Nevertheless, ties between members of related nuclear families are still strong, and it is not uncommon for parents, grandparents, and unmarried adult grandchildren to live under the same roof. Buriat couples usually have two or three children, and families tend to be larger in the countryside, where housing is in greater supply than in the cities.

Traditionally, most marriages were arranged by the parents of the prospective pair. The groom's family was required to pay a "bride-price" to the family of his prospective wife; if they could not afford to pay the bride-price in money, livestock, or other property, the groom was required to work it off at the home of his future in-laws before the marriage could take place. The difficulties caused by this practice sometimes led a prospective groom or his family to kidnap a bride from another clan rather than pay for her. Families who wished to gain financially by a marriage sometimes arranged it long before their children were old enough to marry. The minimum age of marriage was 15 or 16, but in practice women usually married between the ages of 17 and 21, and men between 18 and 25. (Men married later since they had to provide the bride-price.) Marriage between clan members who shared an ancestor within the preceding nine generations was forbidden. Polygamy was permitted, but only wealthy men could afford to have more than one wife. During a traditional wedding ceremony, the bride was brought on horseback to the groom's home, where she bowed to the gods of the groom's clan and sacrificed food and drink to them. Among Buddhist Buriats, lamas performed additional rituals to ensure the marriage's success. Buriats are now married in civil ceremonies. During the 20th century, marriages for love have replaced arranged marriages, although some parents still use unofficial "match-makers" to help their children find suitable mates.


The traditional Buriat garment for both men and women is the degel, an ankle-length robe of felt, fur, or cloth that is fastened on one side with buttons or hooks. A lighter version of the degel worn in summer was called a terlig. Men also wore hats of cloth or fur and belts to which were attached knives in sheaths and elaborately decorated pouches for tobacco, snuff, and fire-making flints. Women wore trousers and shirts under their de-gels and sometimes an embroidered vest on the outside. Both sexes wore boots, or gutal, with thick soles and toes that curled slightly upward. (Men carried their pipes in the tops of their boots). Women, especially wealthy ones, wore elaborate silver earrings, rings, headdresses, and trinkets. Today almost all Buriats wear Western clothing (suits, dresses, etc.). Few Buriats even own traditional clothing, which cannot be purchased in stores, and those who do wear it only on holidays or other special occasions. The Buriats in the Aga Buriat Autonomous District represent a major exception to this tendency, however. Almost all Buriats their own and wear traditional clothing.


Because Buriats have traditionally been a livestock-breeding people, it is not surprising that most of their national dishes feature meat and dairy products. A particularly esteemed delicacy is sheep's tail, which consists of very fatty meat; it is given to the most honored guest as a sign of esteem. Customary foods include boiled mutton, süsegei (a type of sour cream), eezgei (a dish similar to cottage cheese), blood sausages, butter, buuza (steamed dumplings filled with ground mutton or beef), and various types of yogurt. A recipe for buuza follows.

(Buriat meat dumplings)

850 grams (1¾ pounds) lean mutton (Beef, pork, or horsemeat may be substituted)
220 grams (8 ounces) pork or mutton fat
3 onions
130 milliliters (4½ ounces) water
9 grams (1 tablespoon) flour
3 grams (1 teaspoon) salt

350 grams (2½ cups) flour
2 eggs
60 grams (2 ounces) water
dash of salt (optional)

Grind the meat in a meat grinder. Finely chop the fat and onions and mix them thoroughly with the meat, water, flour, and salt. Set aside.

Mix the dough ingredients together in a bowl. Roll the dough by hand into a tube about 2 centimeters (¾ inch) wide, then cut the tube into pieces (about 2 to 4 centimeters ¾ to 1½ inches) long. Use a rolling pin to shape the pieces into thin circles.

Place 50 grams (slightly less than ¼ cup) of the filling onto each of the dough circles. Pinch the edges of the circles together in tiny folds at the top of the meat, leaving a small hole in the center to let steam escape. Steam the dumplings over boiling water until the juice from inside is clear, 18 to 20 minutes. Serves 4 to 5.

(Translated and adapted from G. Tsydenzhapov and E. Badueva, Buriatskaia kukhnia (Buriat Cuisine), Ulan-Ude: Buriatskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo, 1991, 50–51.)

Buriats are fond of tea, which they sometimes drink in the Tibetan style with milk, salt, and barley. The Russian influence on Soviet food production has made cabbage, potatoes, and other vegetables, as well as bread, sugar, and canned goods staples of the Buriat diet. The wooden and leather containers and utensils formerly used to prepare, store, and consume food have been replaced with metal, glass, and enamel ones purchased in stores. Food and drink are preferably given to guests or respected persons with both hands, or, if this would be impossible or awkward, with the right hand (preferably supported symbolically at the elbow by the left). When vodka or darasun (a liqueur made from fermented milk) is drunk, the first drops from a bottle are spilled into the fire (or, as is more common today, onto the electric or gas stove).


Prior to the October Revolution, most Buriats were illiterate. Some Buriats attended local Russian elementary, and much more rarely, secondary schools. Most schools in the Buriat lands taught in Russian, not Buriat, because there were few Buriat teachers. Very few Russian teachers knew Buriat, and the Russian government opposed the use of Buriat and other non-Russian languages in the classroom. Russian Orthodox missionaries also established religiously oriented elementary schools, but these institutions were unpopular among the Buriats, who associated them with forced assimilation. Some Buddhist Buriats attended schools at the datsans, and there they learned Tibetan (the ritual language of Buriat Buddhism), Classical Mongolian, Buddhist theology and philosophy, and sometimes Tibetan medicine. Pre-revolutionary Buriats who did not attend school occasionally learned to read and write from relatives or tutors in Russian or Classical Mongolian.

The Soviet government made school attendance mandatory and universal. As a result, illiteracy has been practically eliminated among the Buriats. Most Buriats graduate from secondary school, and a sizeable proportion go on to attend colleges or trade schools. These advances have not come without a price, however. The Soviet regime attempted to use schooling as a tool of Russification (that is, replacing native cultures and languages with Russian), especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Teaching in the Buriat language was intentionally reduced, leading to a sharp decline in the number of young Buriats who knew their own language. Even those who spoke Buriat fluently could not read or write well in it. Since Gorbachev abandoned the policy of Russification in the 1990s, Buriat educators have increased the Buriat language's role in the classroom as both subject of study and means of instruction.


Many aspects of the Buriat cultural heritage were represented in the Buddhist monasteries (datsans). Datsans contained libraries of religious and secular literature in Classical Mongolian and Tibetan and even printed books in these languages. Artist-monks painted icons and carved statues of Buddhist deities and copied scriptures onto lacquered wooden pages using inks made of precious stones. The lavishly decorated monasteries were in themselves unique architectural monuments.

In addition to epic poems and other forms of oral folk literature, the Buriats possess historical chronicles written in Classical Mongol in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 20th century, Buriat writers have adopted Western literary modes such as the novel, short story, and play. The most famous modern Buriat author is Khotsa Namsaraev (1889–1959), whose works attack the real and alleged shortcomings of traditional Buriat ways of life and speak in glowing terms of the new Communist society. Although most Buriats find these propagandistic themes crude and distasteful, they still respect Namsaraev for his excellent literary style.


The Buriat economy traditionally centered around the breeding of cattle, sheep, horses, and goats. Some Buriats to the south and southwest of Lake Baikal also raised yaks. The Buriats in the steppe lands to the east and southeast of Baikal were nomads, moving their flocks to new pastures after they had exhausted an area's grass and water. Most nomadic Buriats moved twice a year, but rich Buriats who owned large herds changed residences up to a dozen times a year. Buriats west of Baikal also raised livestock, but because they usually lived in rugged mountain areas where movement was difficult, they were more sedentary. Western Buriats traditionally raised barley, wheat, and other grains. Buriats on both sides of Baikal engaged in hunting, particularly squirrels, sables, bears, elk, and deer, and those who lived near lakes or rivers also fished. When the Soviet government collectivized agriculture and animal husbandry in the 1930s, the Buriats lost their herds and were forced to settle in collective farms. Because the issue of private land ownership has not yet been settled in the former Soviet Union, most Buriats still live and work in the collective farms.


The most widespread sports among Buriats of all ages have traditionally been archery, horse riding, and wrestling, sports that are common among other Mongol-speaking peoples as well. Surkharbaan (archery festivals) are held every year at the town, district, and all-Buriat level, and include horse races and wrestling matches in addition to the archery contests. Buriats also enjoy Western spectator sports common throughout the former USSR such as soccer, basketball, and volleyball.


The traditional forms of Buriat entertainment—watching horse races and archery contests and listening to bards recite epic poetry—have been supplemented by modern ones. In addition to the Russian-language news and entertainment programming of the national stations in Moscow that broadcast by satellite to the entire Russian Federation, there are several hours each day of Buriat-language radio and television programs from stations in the Buriat capital, Ulan-Ude. Since the early 1990s, Buriat-language television broadcasts have been videotaped and sent to television stations in the city of Irkutsk west of Baikal to be rebroadcast to Buriats who live outside their republic. Buriats enjoy watching Russian and Western films; young Buriats especially like American action-adventure films and East Asian martial-arts movies. A Buriat-language theater in Ulan-Ude stages plays by Buriat authors and translations of works by Russians and other non-Buriats. There is also an opera house in Ulan-Ude that performs Buriat, Russian, and Western compositions.


Because many Buriats were traditionally nomads, Buriat craftsmen have tended to focus on portable and relatively small items of everyday use such as saddles, tools, chests, clothing, storage trunks, and religious statues (shamanist ongons, or representations of deities, and Buddhist figures). The techniques they employ include carving, embroidery, stamping, and embossing. Although Buriats have long worked in leather, wood, bone, felt, iron, and stone, they are especially talented at crafting silver and even today produce very detailed and beautiful silver knives, pipes, buckles, buttons, rings, earrings, bracelets, and other jewelry.


Modern Buriats face many of the same social problems that confront people in other parts of the former Soviet Union. A collapsing economy, rampant crime and corruption, alcoholism, and environmental degradation are foremost among these. In addition, they must confront threats to their cultural integrity that stem from specific historical circumstances. Although the Bolsheviks initially encouraged the formation of a multicultural state in which all cultures and languages would enjoy equal rights, Stalin and his successors considered Russian language and culture superior to those of the USSR's other peoples and pursued a policy of Russification aimed at wiping out non-Russian cultures and languages with a mixture of persecution and neglect. The Buriat language was almost entirely removed from schools, and Buriat book and newspaper publishing declined in quality and quantity. Even worse, propaganda subtly but unceasingly fed Buriats (especially young ones) the message that "Buriat-ness" was equal to "backwardness" and that there was nothing in their cultural heritage of which they could be proud. Only in the last decade has the end of censorship and official Russification allowed Buriats to criticize these policies and to begin to slowly repair, primarily through education and the press, the damage done.


The social position of women was somewhat inferior to that of men in traditional Buriat society. For example, a woman had to observe many taboos in dealing with her husband's family: she was forbidden to address her mother- and father-in-law by their names, to sleep in the same dwelling with them, to walk in front of them, or to appear before them without covering her head with a cap. Buriat women now have legal rights equal to those of men, but sexist attitudes are still common. Although most Buriat women are employed outside the home, many husbands refuse to help them with household tasks. Historically, collectivization and the Second World War brought profound changes to traditional Buriat gender roles. The integration of the Buriats into the Soviet economic system, and into Soviet society shifted gender roles to some degree, but also provided Buriat women with increased educational opportunities.


Czaplicka, M. A. Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914 (reprinted 1969).

Forsyth, James. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Galdanova, G. R. Dolamaistskie verovaniia buriat, (The Pre-Buddhist Beliefs of the Buriats). Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1987.

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

Mikhailov, T. M. Buriatskii shamanism. (Buriat Shamanism), Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1987.

———. "Buriaty" (The Buriats). In Narody Rossii: Entsiklopediia (The Peoples of Russia: An Encyclopedia). In Russian. Ed. V. A. Tishkov. Moscow: Bol'shaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 1994.

Montgomery, Robert W. Late Tsarist and Early Soviet Nationality and Cultural Policy: The Buryats and their Language. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005.

Vyatkina, K. V. "The Buryats." In The Peoples of Siberia. Ed. M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov. Trans. Stephen Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Zhukovskaya, Natalia. "The Buriats." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Vol. 6, Russia and Eurasia/China. Ed. Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1994.

—revised by A. Frank


views updated Jun 11 2018


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)


views updated May 21 2018


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