This article was published in Baikal People Journal on September 14, 2023. A translated and edited version is republished on Global Voices with permission.
The Buryats, an ethnic group of Mongolic descent, originate from southeastern Siberia. They represent one of the two predominant indigenous populations in Siberia, along with Yakuts. Today, most Buryats reside in their titular homeland, the Republic of Buryatia. This federally administrated province of Russia extends along the southern shoreline and partially encompasses Lake Baikal. The region, along with many other remote poor regions of Russia, had been disproportionally targeted by the military draft in the Russian war on Ukraine.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Donbas, a meme has emerged about “boevoy Buryat” (“battle-ready Buryats”) prepared to sacrifice themselves for Putin. This meme gained widespread popularity after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This has exposed a disturbing undercurrent of racism in a country that swears to be ‘fighting against Nazis. The conflict has also disproportionately highlighted Asians as the face of the war, even though they represent an absolute minority in terms of percentage actively participating. Together with an anonymous volunteer from a charitable foundation and Purbe Dambiev, an activist from the Buryat Center in Mongolia, we are talking about some discriminating phrases against the Buryat community.
‘I thought you could only herd cattle’ or ‘Wow, you can do that?’
These derogatory expressions are based on stereotypes about the low intelligence or qualifications of Asians in Russia. While it may seem that such comments are no longer prevalent, real-life experiences prove otherwise.
A volunteer recalled an incident when she and her friend attended a networking event in Moscow. “When I introduced myself and mentioned that I work as a lawyer, one man was surprised and said, ‘Can you do that?’ In his opinion, all Asians living in cities either work as cleaners or couriers. Then he added, ‘I thought you could only herd cattle.'”
There was another example when a Buryat woman went to a restaurant with her colleagues during lunch. “As soon as I entered the restroom, a woman started questioning me: ‘Where are the paper towels?’ In her view, because I am Asian, I must be only a cleaner at that restaurant,” the volunteer recounted.
‘Buryats are superstitious’
In every nation exists a system of widely accepted norms and values, including myths and superstitions. Superstitions reflect the centuries-long history of peoples, but it is not accurate to speak of Buryats as having a unified collective consciousness. Activist Purbe Dambiev explains, “There are quite a number of Buryats: several hundred thousand in Buryatia, thousands of Mongolian and Chinese Buryats. They are all very diverse, and their local customs vary. Among us, there are people who hold traditions dear, and there are those for whom they are not so important.”
Buryats are regular people who, in their daily lives, are not fundamentally different from other nationalities. Describing an entire nation as quarrelsome and aggressive is a clear exaggeration and falsehood. Furthermore, as per Dambiev's words, the phrase “battle-ready Buryats” is deeply offensive because it characterizes people as if they were some kind of particular breed of dogs.
‘For a Buryat person, you are quite…’ (beautiful, tall, muscular, and so on)
Such comments are common instances of racism that Buryats frequently face when they move to western regions of Russia for education or employment. Those who make such comments assume, for instance, that individuals of a specific nationality or ethnic group are typically not considered attractive, and, in this particular case, beauty is something unexpected and unusual.
A volunteer shares: “The sizes and heights of people depend on numerous factors and can vary even within a single ethnic group. However, such expressions are prevalent even among Buryats themselves.”
Sometimes, the speakers claim that they intended to give a compliment. Nevertheless, these statements should not be mistaken for compliments.
‘Before joining Russia, the Buryats didn't even have a written language’
This statement is factually incorrect. The Buryats had their own methods of transmitting knowledge and cultural heritage prior to contact with the Russian Empire. The Buryats had a Mongolic vertical script. So such a statement is disrespectful towards Buryat culture and history.
‘Even though you are Buryat, you are still one of us’
This is a highly popular and completely racist statement that categorizes people into specific groups. Furthermore, such expressions are now extremely widespread and even find reflection in popular culture. For instance, in the verses of so-called Z-poets who propagate the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In western regions of Russia, people might use this Chinese greeting towards any Asian, considering it a funny joke. However, it's a stereotypical and offensive expression that implies that all Asians are the same, sharing the same culture and language.
‘Did you buy a passport? Is Buryatia also part of Russia?’
It's not a crime to have a limited knowledge of geography. However, while migrants in Russia are legally required to know the language and culture, not all Russians are aware of which regions are part of Russia. This phrase also symbolizes a division between the “real people” with the right documents and the rest with the wrong ones.
There exist several offensive and discriminatory stereotypes associated with the shape of one's eyes. These physical characteristics lead to derogatory characterizations: Buryats are often unfairly portrayed as less intelligent, more cunning, or
as having hidden motives.
“The belief that one's eye shape can somehow reveal their character, behavior, or intelligence is absurd. Such oversimplified perceptions of appearance dismiss the rich history and cultural diversity,” notes a volunteer.
She adds that the complex of “slant eyes” did not emerge out of thin air. Some Asians attempt to address it by undergoing a “European eye fold” surgery. “These operations are quite popular, not only in Russia's national republics but also in Kazakhstan,” she further explains.
On one hand, stereotypes are a fairly common aspect of intercultural relations. People with a sense of humor may identify traits associated with specific groups. However, there is a downside to this process: hurtful stereotypes can narrow the boundaries of the world, create actual barriers between people, and fuel division and animosity. Stereotypes about Buryats are a vivid example of these negative social processes.