Russian History


The Republics of Siberia

Of the five republics located east of the Urals in Asian Russia, four--Buryatia, Gorno-Altay, Khakassia, and Tyva--extend along Russia's southern border with Mongolia. The fifth, Sakha (formerly Yakutia), is Russia's largest subnational jurisdiction and the possessor of a large and varied supply of valuable natural resources.

The Republic of Buryatia, formerly the Buryat ASSR, occupies 351,300 square kilometers along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal and along the north-central border of Mongolia. The Buryats, a nomadic herding people of Mongolian stock, first faced colonization by Russian settlers in the seventeenth century. After initially resisting this intrusion, most of the Buryats eventually adapted to life in farming settlements, which continues to be the predominant mode of existence. In 1989 the Buryats constituted only about 24 percent of the republic's population; Russians made up about 70 percent. The total Buryat population of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was about 390,000, with about 150,000 living in the adjacent oblasts of Chita and Irkutsk. In 1994 the population of the republic was 1.1 million, of which more than one-third lived in the capital city, Ulan-Ude.

Buryatia possesses rich mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, gold, iron, rare earth minerals, uranium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and tungsten. Livestock raising, fur farming, hunting, and fishing are important economic pursuits of the indigenous population. The main industries derive from coal extraction, timber harvesting, and engineering.

Gorno-Altay was established in 1922 as the Oirot Autonomous Oblast, for the Mongol people of that name. In 1948 the region was renamed the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Oblast. Redesignated a republic in 1992, the region took its present name--the Republic of Gorno-Altay, or simply Altay (the vernacular term omits gorno , which means mountainous in Russian)--in that year. Occupying 92,600 square kilometers on the north slope of the Altay Range on the northeast border of Kazakstan, Gorno-Altay had a population in 1995 of 200,000, of whom 60 percent were Russian and 31 percent Altay. About 83 percent of Russia's total Altay population lives in the Republic of Gorno-Altay. The Altay people comprise several Turkic-speaking tribes living in the Altay and Kuznetsk Alatau mountains. Several collective terms have been applied to the overall group, including "Oirot," which was used in tsarist times. The Altays first came into contact with Russians in the eighteenth century, when colonization of the region began. Some conversion to Christianity occurred in the nineteenth century, but substantial numbers of Altays returned to their previous Mongolian Lamaism in the early twentieth century, as part of a general movement against Russian domination. In the post-Soviet era, most of the republic's population is Orthodox Christian.

The economy of Gorno-Altay is primarily agricultural, supported mainly by livestock raising in the hillsides and valleys that dominate the republic's landscape. Gold and other precious and nonprecious minerals--especially the rare earth minerals tantalum and cesium--support a small mining industry, and Gorno-Altay possesses rich coniferous forests. The main industries, mostly based on local resources, are the manufacture of clothing, footwear, and foods, and the processing of chemicals and minerals. The capital of the republic is Gorno-Altaysk.

Khakassia, an autonomous oblast that was redesignated an autonomous republic in 1992, is located about 1,000 kilometers west of Lake Baikal on the upper Yenisey River. Before the arrival of the first Russians in the seventeenth century, Khakassia was a regional power in Siberia, based on commercial links with the khanates of Central Asia and with the Chinese Empire. The sparsely populated republic (total population in 1995 was about 600,000) occupies 61,900 square kilometers of hilly terrain at the far northwestern end of the Altay Range. The Khakass people are a formerly nomadic Turkic Siberian group whose modern-day sedentary existence depends on sheep and goat husbandry. Russians now constitute nearly 80 percent of the population of Khakassia, although in 1989 more than three-quarters of oblast residents spoke Khakass. The Khakass population is 11 percent of the total. The republic produces timber, copper, iron ore, gold, molybdenum, and tungsten. The capital of Khakassia is Abakan.

Sakha, whose name was changed from Yakutia in 1994, is by far the largest of the republics in size. It occupies about 3.1 million square kilometers that stretch from Russia's Arctic shores in the north to within 500 kilometers of the Chinese border in the south, and from the longitude of the Taymyr Peninsula in the west to within 400 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean in the east. Sakha was annexed by the Russian Empire in the first half of the seventeenth century. Russians slowly populated the valley of the Lena River, which flows northward through the heart of Sakha. In the nineteenth century, most of the nomadic Yakuts adopted an agricultural lifestyle.

Formed as the Yakut Autonomous Republic in 1922, Sakha had a population of 1.1 million in 1994, of which 50 percent were Russian, 33 percent Yakut, 7 percent Ukrainian, and 2 percent Tatar. The Yakuts are a Mongoloid people who originated through the combination of local tribes with Turkic tribes that migrated northward before the tenth century.

Climatic conditions preclude agriculture in most of Sakha. Where agriculture is possible, the main crops are potatoes, oats, rye, and vegetables. The republic's economy is supported mainly by its extensive mineral deposits, which include gold, diamonds, silver, tin, coal, and natural gas. Sakha produces most of Russia's diamonds, and natural gas deposits are thought to be large. The capital of Sakha is Yakutsk.

Tyva was called the Tuva ASSR until the new Russian constitution recognized Tyva, the regional form of the name, in 1993. The republic occupies 170,500 square kilometers on the border of Mongolia, directly east of Gorno-Altay. After being part of the Chinese Empire for 150 years and existing as the independent state of Tannu Tuva between 1921 and 1944, Tyva voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1944 and became an autonomous oblast. It became an autonomous republic in 1961. The Tuvinians are a Turkic people with a heritage of rule by tribal chiefs. The republic's predominant religion is Tibetan Buddhism. In 1995 the population of about 314,000 was 64 percent Tuvinian and 32 percent Russian.

Tyva is mainly an agricultural region with only five cities and a predominantly rural population. The main agricultural activity is cattle raising, and fur is an important product. Gold, cobalt, and asbestos are mined, and the republic has extensive hydroelectric resources. The capital is Kyzyl.