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"One Hundred Eastern Buryat Folk Songs"

June 2, 2012 at 12:27 am
By Danielle Bennon and Sophia Kissin

In the middle of May, we left Moscow and flew to the center of Siberia—to Buryatia, an autonomous republic stretching from the southeastern coast of Lake Baikal to the Mongolian border. Buryatia is the region where the Buryat and Evenki tribes lived. Both tribes were nomadic and of Mongolian origin, but the Buryats raised horses and other domestic livestock, while the Evenki herded reindeer. Buryat horse-herding pushed the Evenki northward because horses required a lot of the available resources. This problem was exacerbated when Cossacks began to settle the region in the early 17th century. For this reason, Buryatia today mostly consists of Buryats and Russians.

When we landed in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, we were surprised at how Russian the city felt. Though we had few expectations before our arrival, we expected to feel more of a cultural difference from Moscow. Over the course of our stay in Buryatia, we learned that the Buryats had been extremely Russified, unlike many other indigenous peoples of Siberia. The Buryats have compromised more than other groups with Russian culture and adopted Russian ways of life. However, Buryat culture has not completely been wiped out and is still noticeable at present.

One of the ways Buryats in Ulan-Ude express their native culture is in performances at the Buryat State Philharmonic, where we had the privilege to see a performance by the group "Uragsha." The show “100 Eastern Buryatian Folk Songs,” was directed by Sayan and Erzhena Zhambalov and featured men and women in Buryatian dress performing traditional dances and folk songs. The songs and dialogue were in Buryatian, but the exposition of the historical storyline was in Russian. Though the audience was predominately Buryat, we wondered how many people in the crowd understood Buryat. We also wondered why traditional singing was accompanied by pop-rock recordings, which over-powered the one traditional string instrument.

The audience was mostly middle-aged and older, showing a divide in generations and their interest in preserving Buryat culture. We were told that the pop-rock instrumental accompaniment was meant to appeal to the younger generation. We could tell from the crowd’s reaction they understood the jokes told in Buryat. However, we wondered if this was only because the crowd was older—we heard several times throughout our stay that many young Buryats in Ulan-Ude only speak Russian.

Indeed it seems that Ulan-Ude has been very Russified. Russification of indigenious groups has created an indentity struggle for many individuals. Under the Soviet Union many indigenous people indentified as Soviet citizens, but after the Union’s collapse indentifying oneself became more difficult. Under the Soviet regime, Russia was united as separate republics working together, but since the USSR’s collapse, what unites the various ethnic groups within the Russian Federation’s borders? We feel that the Russian has been defined by “white” or Slavic Russians, but sadly this definition excludes Russia’s rich ethnic diversity.

Throughout russification, Buryat culture and other indidenous Siberian cultures were devalued and treated as inferior to “white” Russian culture. Through we noticed russfication in Ulan-Ude, we felt the performance was a way for Buryats to reaffirm, preserve, and take pride in their culture.


More Interesting and Useful Links:


A brief overview of culture in Buryatia. It discusses philosophical ideas and Modern culture as well. It part of a useful tourism site, which includes information about the history of Buryatia, places of interest in Ulan-Ude, and maps of the region.

Here's one of many beautiful songs from the performance

This site has several gorgeous pictures of the performance. It gives a better sense of the breadth-taking visuals.

A concert annoucement--in Russian.

A news report about the performance. It includes a breif interview with on of the creators, Sayan Jambalov--in Russian.

This site provides a brief history of the Buryat State Philharmonic--in Russian.