Russia's Asian and European halves meet and mix in remote Buryatia

Why We Wrote This

Russia isn't just the cathedral-and-Kremlin society pictured by the West. In the remote – and struggling – republic of Buryatia, a mix of Cossacks and Mongols, Orthodox Christian exiles and Buddhists populate a decidedly different Russia. First in a five-part series.

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A hospital dominates the low-slung skyline of Ulan-Ude, capital of the Russian republic of Buryatia.

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When most people think of Russia, they think of onion-domed cathedrals, bundled-up babushkas, and stark Soviet architecture. But most people haven’t been to Buryatia. Only 63,000 foreigners, mostly Mongolians and Chinese, visited it in all of 2017, and Russians themselves rarely travel to the Siberian republic, which was largely closed off during the Soviet era. It is a very different sort of Russia. Its million inhabitants illustrate Buryatia’s place in between worlds: a mix of ethnic Mongols, descendants of Cossack settlers, and members of a Russian Orthodox sect exiled by the czars, among others. The republic’s forested mountainsides and steppes are today dotted with Buddhist monasteries. At Buryatia’s heart is Lake Baikal, considered to be sacred by native Buryats, and today a recognized UNESCO protected zone. The world’s deepest lake, it has scenic rocky shorelines, broad sandy beaches, and a unique ecosystem. The landscape is surprisingly diverse, as are the people, who seem comfortable with their differences and united in their desire to reinvigorate a region neglected by Moscow.

On a June evening, everyone in a downtown restaurant of this river valley city is cheering wildly for Russia’s World Cup soccer team. This is not surprising. Ulan-Ude is very much part of Russia.

But this is a Russia remarkably different from expectations in many ways.

The city and the Montana-sized republic of which it is the capital, Buryatia, is unmistakably Asian. Some 2,700 miles to the east of Moscow, Buryatia is physically closer to Mongolia and China than to the land most associate with the word “Russian.” Buryatia’s million inhabitants illustrate its place in between worlds: a mix of ethnic Mongols, descendants of Cossack settlers, and members of a Russian Orthodox sect exiled by the czars, among others. The republic offers proof that Russia is more than the cathedral-and-Kremlin society envisaged by the West.

But while Buryatia’s destiny is married to a Western-oriented Russia, there has been little economic development here since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Buryats appear torn between the perceived opportunities of the red-hot “Asian tiger” economies nearby and the more familiar Kremlin-run programs proposed by Vladimir Putin. So far, Moscow’s direction has won out, perhaps because they share not only the Russian language, but 300 years of Russian political control. The republic has been stalled on this crossroads for almost three decades.

“We can't have our own economic or social policy here. Everything depends on Moscow,” says Andrei Rinchino, an economist at Buryat State University. “We know there are dynamic economies, like China and South Korea, that are right in our neighborhood,” he says. “About 35,000 young Buryats are guest workers in South Korea at any given time, and we have considerable trade with China, which is just a few hours' drive away. A lot of young people here are learning to speak Chinese, for practical reasons, but the public mood is quite anti-Chinese. There is a fear that if we let them in, they will buy everything up and squeeze us out.”

A surprisingly diverse landscape

Buryats, who make up about half the population, are ethnic Mongols, descendants of Genghis Khan’s hordes that once conquered and ruled over half the known world, including Russia. They still identify closely with their brethren in independent Mongolia just a couple hours away.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Buryats have been embracing their ancestral religion, Buddhism, and the republic’s forested mountainsides and steppes are today dotted with Buddhist monasteries, or datsans, whose soaring pagoda-like temples and cone-shaped stupa reliquaries stand out from miles away.

The origins of the ethnic-Russian half of the population are varied. Some are related to the Cossacks who came to conquer this land in the 17th century in a process analogous to the US settlement of North America. Others are Old Believers, religious dissidents who were exiled from European Russia 250 years ago, who unexpectedly thrived here amid the wilds of Siberia.

Karen Norris/Staff

At Buryatia’s heart is Lake Baikal, considered to be sacred by native Buryats, and today a recognized UNESCO protected zone. It’s the world’s deepest lake, containing a staggering 22 percent of our planet’s fresh water supplies. It has a unique ecosystem, with scenic rocky shorelines in some places, and broad sandy beaches in others.

It all makes for a surprisingly diverse landscape, and a population who appear – so far – comfortable with their differences. They share the common goal of finding a path out of the economic malaise that has engulfed them since most Soviet-era industries shut down and big Russian companies took over most of Buryatia's natural resources, such as coal, gold, uranium, and jade. That launched an ongoing exodus that sees the best and brightest young people head for opportunities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

An attractive locale?

Given all this, it may seem that developing tourism is an obvious route out of Buryatia's deep economic torpor. But the republic's government, which is dependent on subsidies from Moscow to keep operating, didn't even have an official tourist department until this year.

During the Soviet era, Buryatia was completely closed to foreigners amid security concerns over its military industries and its proximity to Mongolia and China. Only 63,000 foreign tourists came to Buryatia in 2017, the vast majority of them on Mongolian and Chinese bus tours. The Mongolians even come on day trips, and tend to spend very little on local services. Fewer than 100 US citizens spent at least one night in a hotel here in all of 2017.

The new minister of tourism, Maria Badmanatsirevnova, is an enthusiastic booster of her republic, but also cautions that mass tourism is not an option for Buryatia because of environmental concerns around Lake Baikal, the tremendous distance from most of the developed world, and the very short summer tourist season.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
The Burkhan cape of Olkhon Island in Baikal Lake, Russia, in September 2016.

“We want to make Buryatia a center for eco-tourism,” she says. “We have diverse landscapes, an abundance of animal species – some of which can't be found anywhere else in the world – and unmatched hiking trails. We have great beaches too, but we don't want large numbers of people on them, and our season is too short anyway. We are going to create new national parks, and build an infrastructure” to cater to high-end, environmentally conscious travelers.

Local experts fear there are very few available alternatives to end the exodus of young people and turn the republic's economic fortunes around. Unlike some of Russia’s 22 ethnic republics, Buryats are divided by tribal differences and dialects, and have not been able win enough political power to deal with Moscow with a united voice.

“If Buryatia is the last on Moscow’s list of priorities, it’s because the situation here is calm and stable. There are no conditions that might lead to a social explosion, or anything that would get the Kremlin’s attention,” says Stanislav Beloborodov, editor of the local edition of the Moscow tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. “So, we are funded in a minimal way. Enough to maintain national standards, but not enough to engage in any major infrastructure projects or develop new industries.”

Asian alternatives

And while Buryatia’s Asian neighbors offer alternative ways forward, they generally hold little appeal.

Next-door Mongolia, where traditions and language are almost indistinguishable, has embraced its national independence since the Soviet collapse, and also taken the path of enthusiastic capitalism. Five years ago visa requirements were abolished for Mongolians visiting Buryatia, and the interchange between the two is increasingly intense. But it doesn't seem to generate any desire for change in the Russian republic.

“Everyone who wants to has visited Mongolia, and nobody idealizes the country or the way they live,” says Tuyana Zondueva, editor of Inform-Polis, an independent local newspaper. “They live differently from us, but not better. They do have a democratic system, and people here discuss that. Some people say that's a good thing, but others say it's a big drawback because their government keeps changing. Nobody gets very excited about it.”

Nor does the Chinese model seem to exert much attraction. That could change as Beijing rolls out its $1 trillion “One Belt, One Road” project to restore the old Silk Road – which ran through here – with massive infrastructure upgrades. But any decisions about that would have to be made in Moscow, and no one in Buryatia seems to be holding their breath.

“Some people look at Chinese investment with great hope,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor of Novaya Buryatia, an independent journal. “But the Chinese are not generous. In our experience they are very hard-nosed about how they invest. Until they attain the most beneficial conditions for themselves, they will not invest a single penny.”

Maybe time, and advancing technology, will bring solutions.

“I have a friend who is a very successful designer of book covers,” Ms. Zondueva says. “He has orders from all over the world, but he lives in Ulan-Ude because it's his native city and the nature around here cannot be matched anywhere else. In future, it may not matter where you live. Let's hope for that.”

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