[by Geniya Derevyannykh]
The Bashkirs are a Sunni Muslim ethnic group, the majority of which lives in a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, Bashkortostan. Today the republic occupies territories from the Middle Volga to the Ural Mountains, with its capital at Ufa. The Bashkir language originates from the Kipchak language, a northwestern Turkic branch of the Altaic family. It has two dialects: the Kuvakan, which is spoken in the northern, forested regions of the republic and Yurmatin, which is spoken in the southern steppes (Olson, 85). There is a continuing debate about over the origins of the Bashkir people among ethnographers and demographers. Some earlier scholars maintained that Bashkirs are the people of the Finno-Ugric tribes, whereas for others they come from Turkic Bulgars (Brokgauz and Efron, 225-240). Linguistic and other ethnographic similarities to Tatars support the theory that Bashkirs stem from Turkic tribes. Some support for this argument is that the Bashkir and Tatar languages are related and “mutually intelligible” (Olson, 85).
Bashkirs are settled people like Russian peasants. They have permanent villages but during the summer they usually stay in the fields with herds of sheep and horses or in the woods with the beehives, much like Russian settlers did during the sowing and harvesting seasons. They are not nomadic in nature, but rather find it impractical to go home every night as these fields and forests are a good distance from the main settlement. Bashkirs specialize mostly in horses, sheep and in some areas in cows and camels. They also practice wild-hive beekeeping and some agriculture. Bashkir cuisine is based on the things that they produce: meat, milk and grain with most dishes being a variation of boiled dough stuffed with meat, as well as various recipes of cured milk (Brokgauz and Efron, electronic source).
In the mid-sixteenth century, after Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatar Khans, the Bashkirs fell under Russian sovereignty. During massive colonization under Catherine’s rule in the eighteenth century, the Bashkirs were considered to be more privileged than other nomadic tribes. The amount required by their iasak (tribute in fur) was lower than other colonized tribes, and they maintained the rights to their original lands (Millar, 126). With the influx of Russian settlers, however, the land situation changed greatly. Bashkirs, unaware of the true value of the land and unable to accurately measure their lots, were cheated by Russian entrepreneurs, who would buy hundreds of thousands of acres of land for literally nothing. One entrepreneur, who owned Belovodskii plant, was able to buy 300,000 hectares of building wood for 300 rubles, which even by that time’s standards was unbelievably below market price (Brokgauz and Efron, 225-240). The Russian government often turned a blind eye to these dealings, which led to unrest among Bashkir peoples and often resulted in revolts against Russian settlers and the Russian government.
After the loss of major territories to Russian settlers throughout centuries of tsarist regime and with Stalin’s collectivization and deportation of the resisting people, Bashkirs had suffered a severe population loss (Olson, 85). However, despite major assimilation with Russian settlers, Bashkirs were able to preserve their main traditions and customs. They still observe religious ceremonies for marriage, birth, death, and other main events. This assimilation into Russian culture did, however, leave its mark on the Bashkir people. Although they practice Islam today, they are monogamous and more likely to eat pork and drink alcohol. Today only two thirds of the Bashkir population speak Bashkir as a native language, the rest speak Tatar and 70 percent of the population is fluent in Russian (Olson, 85). Bashkortostan, the official republic of the Bashkir, has been an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation since March 20, 1919. Today the total population of Bashkirs in the Russian Federation is 1,345,273 people (Russkaia tsivilizatsiia). Only 60 percent of this number lives in Bashkortostan, which represents only about 22 percent of the republic’s population.
Bashkirs have been trying to gain their independence since 1917 but without success. With the weakening of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, they saw a new opportunity. In 1990 Bashkortostan created a new constitution asserting control over tax revenues, foreign currency exchange, and natural resources, all in conjunction with the proposition to secede from the Soviet Union (Olson, 86). But because the majority of the republic’s population was comprised of Russians and Tatars, the constitution was strongly opposed. Despite the strong desire of the Bashkirs to assert their ethnic sovereignty, they are still a minority in their own state, a serious obstacle to their independence.
- Encyclopedia of Russian history, edited by James R. Millar, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004).
- Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires, edited by James S. Olson, Lee Pappas, and Nicholas C. J. Pappas (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994).
- “Bashkiry,” Narod.ru, 21 March 2009.
- “Bashkirskaia Kukhnia,” Million Menu. Arkaim., 21 March 2009.
- “Bashkiry,” Bashkiry. Russkaia tsivilizatsiia, 21 March 2009.