The battle of Bashkir people: Why the largest protests in wartime Russia happened in Bashkortostan

Defenders of the Kushtau shihan, Rail Hamzin and Rinat Fayzullin. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

The most recent set of protests in Russia, in Bashkortostan, shook the whole country. Journalist Alyona Istomina, who writes for the environment focused independent media Smola, went to the republic and wrote about the people behind the protests. Global Voices is republishing Smola's article with permission, translated to English and edited for clarity.  

On January 17, 2024, thousands of people came to the small city of Baymak in the south of the republic of Bashkortostan in Russia to support eco-activist Fail Alsyanov. He was tried for “inciting ethnic hatred” and sentenced to four years of imprisonment. The reason was allegedly his speech at a people's gathering in the village of Ishmurzino, where locals were protesting against gold mining on the Irendyk ridge. Alsyanov then said that, unlike many other peoples living in Bashkortostan, the Bashkirs have no other land to go to if ecological problems start in the republic. The head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, interpreted these words in his own way and accused the activist of inciting hatred towards other nationalities. The Bashkirs at that time defended Irendyk prevented the start of  gold mining there. But Alsyanov was eventually imprisoned.

On the day of the verdict, about 10,000 people gathered near the Baymak district court, demanding the activist's release. The police used batons and tear gas to disperse them. The confrontation in Baymak lasted a whole day. Dozens of people were detained. The Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case on “mass riots.”

Why Bashkortostan?

Bashkortostan is the only region in Russia where residents systematically manage to fend off industrialists’ claims on forests, rivers, and mountains. In addition to Irendyk, last year they prevented the establishment of a sand and gravel quarry on the Belaya River.

Correspondent Alena Istomina and photographer Vil Ravilov went to the republic to understand how an environmentally oriented and, importantly, widespread civil society was born and persists there.

For three years now, at the end of August, a folk festival has been held in the village of Shikhany, Sterlitamak district. Thousands of people come here from all corners of the republic, cook, hold sports competitions, and sing.  The right to assemble was defended by the residents of Bashkortostan three years ago, literally with blood, in a confrontation with officials, law enforcement, and big business.

The events that unfolded in August 2020 in this remote area, more than a hundred kilometers from the Bashkir capital, Ufa, resounded throughout Russia, and journalists dubbed them The Battle of the Kush-Tau Shihan.

View of the Kushtau shihan from the village of Shikhany. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Noise on the Sacred Mountain

On August 1, 2020, heavy machinery headed towards Kushtau, one of the four Bashkir shihans. [Shihans — isolated chalk hills — are sacred to the indigenous people of Bashkortostan.] Residents of the Sterlitamak villages, seeing it, became worried and went to reconnoiter. On the mountain, they discovered a felled forest: trees were carelessly scattered down the slopes. The same day, a call for help spread through Bashkir publics: people were called to defend the shihan from destruction.

That Kushtau was in danger was known in the republic: in 2018, the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, said that the mountain might be dug up for the needs of the Bashkir Soda Company (BSC) — the country's largest soda producer. The shihan is made of limestone, necessary for the production of ammonia, without which soda cannot be obtained.

Stone on the top of the Kushtau shihan. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Since 1953, BSC had been developing another shihan — Shahtau. By 2020, it was not just destroyed; only a crater, a quarry 15 meters deep, remained. The same fate waited Kushtau. Industrialists claimed that no other limestone suited them: supposedly, only on Kushtau and other shihans contain almost no impurities that could disable factory furnaces.

Fossils in the area near the destroyed Shahtau shihan. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Mountain defenders noted that BSC is an offshore company, hardly investing money in the development of Sterlitamak and the republic. They also pointed out that the shihans protect the city from winds and are sacred to the Bashkirs. Thus, the confrontation began on Kushtau, quickly becoming iconic.

View of the Kushtau shihan from the village of Shihany. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

On August 2, local residents set up a tent camp on Kushtau and established a watch.

On August 6, clashes between activists and security guards of the soda company, police, and Rosgvardia (a special police force that is usually used to disperse protests) occurred on the mountain. Seven people were detained, and an 83-year-old resident of Ishimbay, Valentina Musavarova, had her leg broken.

On August 9, a flash mob took place on the mountain: about 3,000 people formed a living chain around the shihan. In their hands, they held huge blue-white-green Bashkir flags and chanted “Kushtau, live!” The same night, semi-criminal thugs hired by the government attacked the defenders’ camp. Some surrounded the 17 activists remaining on the mountain, and some began looting tents, stealing electronics and food. The activists did not succumb to provocations, and no beatings occurred. The thugs retreated when police officers arrived. The police did not detain them. Later, one of the attackers confessed that they were paid RUB 3,000 (50 USD) each for the attack on the camp. The next day, 500 people came to guard the mountain.

The morning of August 15 for the defenders of Kushtau began with another attack. Machinery was going up the mountain, and a private security company was beating citizens trying to stop it. Soon, riot police and police joined the battle for the shihan — more than 80 activists were detained. The media circulated terrible footage of the camp being destroyed. By nightfall, the private security had driven the activists off the mountain and surrounded the area with barbed wire.

On August 16, more than 10,000 people gathered on the shihan.  Law enforcement used stun grenades, batons, gas, and traumatic pistols. The situation was discussed by international media, as well as Russian artists, including Maxim Galkin, Yuri Shevchuk, and rapper Face. The head of the republic, Radiy Khabirov, urgently arrived at the shihan, demanded the removal of machinery from the mountain, and began negotiations with activists. The same day, Vladimir Putin instructed officials to deal with the situation.

On August 21, a meeting between eco-activists and the head of the republic took place, where people demanded the creation of a nature reserve on the mountain.

On September 2, a decree was issued by the head of Bashkortostan on the creation of the Kushtau natural monument.

Territory near the destroyed Shahtau shihan. In the distance, the Kushtau shihan is visible. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

The Battle on the Shihan united the residents of the republic and showed that ordinary people are capable of doing a lot together.

“Before Kushtau, we were divided, each to his own,” explains participant Gulshat Gazizullina. “We all met on the mountain, exchanged phone numbers, and started to make friends as families. Before, I thought that if the authorities decided, if everything was already sold off, serious business and serious people involved, then that's it, we can't do anything. The Battle on Kushtau showed that we can. It worked there — it will work elsewhere. And we will continue to fight.”

Since then, every year at the end of August, people from all over Bashkortostan gather at Kushtau to hold a festival in honor of the victory that united the residents of the republic.

A memorial sign at the site of the defenders’ camp of the Kushtau shihan. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Every year for this festival, Rafail Abdrakhmanov, a resident of Shihan village, hangs a huge stand on his garage doors with photos of Babay Abdrakhman Valdov — one of the first defenders of the shihans. Despite his respectable age [he was 75 at the time of the confrontation on Kushtau], Valdov participated in all ecological actions until the end. He passed away in 2021.

A poster in memory of Abdrahman Validov, one of the first defenders of the shihans. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Valydov began his struggle back in 1997. A simple physics and mathematics teacher, he first bought a camera and started photographing the foot of Toratau. Then he began telling tourists about the shihans and explaining that there are only four such solitary marine limestone mountains in the world. Three are preserved in Bashkortostan. Thus, Valydov, his acquaintances say, tried to convey to his fellow countrymen the value of the shihans and to express his sorrow about the destroyed shihan.

The festival also remembers the development of the shihan Shahtau. It is unknown whether it is true or fiction, but many Bashkirs believe that when they started to develop the shihan in 1953, 15 elders came to the mountain and died during its explosion. Activists cite this story as an example, explaining why they fought for Kushtau and continue to fight for other Bashkir lands.

The festival in August 2023 was already the third. People say they will celebrate it all their lives, and then their children and grandchildren will take up the initiative. Because it was the events at Kushtau that gave the residents of Bashkortostan confidence in their strength.

Unity of the different

In Bashkortostan, a distinction has appeared. To find out if you are facing a good person, just ask: “Where were you in August 2020?” If the person answers that they were among the defenders of Kushtau, it means you can invite them into your home and offer them tea.

It doesn't matter anymore whether they support the “Special Military Operation” [the term used in Russia to refer to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, since the word “war” is forbidden] or are against it, who they vote for, and what their views on life are. If they were at Kushtau — it means they are “one of us.”

Vera Vasilyeva is 89 years old. But she too was on the mountain. Recalling those days, she almost cries.

Vera Vasilieva. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

It was terrible. Such a pity for the mountain. But we will not give it up — it is ours. They will remove this mountain, they will remove that one, but what will remain for us?

Industrialists, by the way, did not hide that other shihans might follow Kushtau. In the midst of the confrontation, Rustem Basyrov, deputy general director of BSK, answering journalists’ questions, said: “If we take the perspective of the shihan, then yes, [after Kushtau] the next shihan.” It was later, when the people began to resist, that it turned out that there are alternatives to the destruction of Kushtau, and limestone of no worse quality can be mined in other places: for example, in the Sibaysky urban district of Bashkortostan, where mining will not require the destruction of valuable landscapes and will create jobs. But, in August 2020, businessmen were pushing their line: the suitable raw material is only on the shikhans.

View of the Yuraktau shihan. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

When Vera heard that they were going to develop Kushtau, she went to the mountain. And so did all her children and grandchildren. It was hard. Fear, anger, and resentment pushed them. But the woman climbed to the top.

“It was terrible,” Vera shudders, recalling the events of August 16. “Everyone was running, overturning tables, trampling people. My grandson screams, his face hurts. He runs, then returns with water, runs to other people.”

The Abdurakhmanov family's house in Shikhany is called the headquarters because many who came to the village in 2020 stayed here. And Rafael is called the caretaker of Kushtau, because he was constantly fixing and building something on the mountain, setting up tents. He has worked as a driver all his life and says about himself: “I am an ordinary person, a son of the Bashkir people.”

Defender of the Kushtau shihan, Rafail Abdrakhmanov. Custodian of Kushtau. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Rafael was initially skeptical about the prospects of protecting the mountain: he thought that people would not be able to achieve anything because “everything is bought.”

“I talked to everyone who participated in the actions. Only over time did I realize that people were doing a great deed,” explains Rafael. “Then I quickly joined them. And off we went.”

Rim Abdulnasyrov, Rafail Abdrakhmanov, Gulshat, and Grigory Gorovoy. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

In their family, there are two daughters — Gulshat and Alina. The girls are very similar, both read a lot and adhere to democratic views. But at the same time, they calmly communicate with those who support the “Special Military Operation” or even dream of reviving the USSR. Because, they say, everyone is doing the same thing.

“In Bashkortostan, there are many rules, the most important of which is — one is not a warrior in the field. [In a difficult situation] you have to unite even with those with whom you would not have spoken before because of different political positions,” concludes Alina.

Unspoiled patriotism

Defenders of Kushtau say that during the confrontation, Rim Abdulnasirov had the most difficult task: to talk to the police. They say that many police officers, listening to Abdulnasirov, shyly looked away, some took off their visors and quietly stepped aside. Several police officers even allegedly apologized to the activists.

Defender of the Kushtau shihan, Rim Abdulnasyrov. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

Abdulnasirov himself, when asked to recall what he said to the officers, just shrugs and waves it off: “It was a long time ago. It seems the words were ordinary.”

“By the way, I was once ready to shoot anyone who insulted Putin in my presence,” he sadly notes. “In 2014 [after the events in Crimea] I thought that the time had come when Russia really got up from its knees… But it turned out to be different: just a flock of sheep being led.” He stops. “Well, you see for yourself what is happening now.”

According to Abdulnasirov, at Kushtau he saw what was really done for the people in Russia.

“On August 16, we started gathering on the mountain. The police too. That day they were supposed to put an end to it: ‘pack up’ everyone who resisted. But they did not expect that they would have to ‘pack up’ the whole of Bashkortostan.”

Abdulnasirov, like other participants in the battle for Kushtau, says that the threat of destruction of the mountain stirred the souls of the residents of the republic, so thousands of people stood up to defend the shikhan. But he notes that the media also played an important role.

“There was great support from bloggers and journalists. Thanks to this pressure and support, we won,” explains Abdulnasirov. “In general, I believe that Russia is stepping on ethnic rakes. The Bashkirs have their own land, our people will defend it. At the heart of everything that happened at Kushtau is a word that is now distorted — patriotism. Not the kind when you go abroad with weapons, but the kind when you defend your land and your people.

The fate of Shahtau shihan

“When I was little, Shahtau was a huge mountain, and I grew taller and taller, and the mountain got lower and lower. And then it was gone,” says Rinat Faizullin.

A slim guy in work clothes, he initially answers briefly and somewhat timidly. But when he recalls the events of August 2020, he becomes agitated. Faizullin is a tractor driver, but in those weeks he became simultaneously a courier and a taxi driver, delivering people, essentials, building materials, and food to the camp on the mountain.

Defenders of the Kushtau shihan, Rail Hamzin and Rinat Fayzullin. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

“How else?” he exclaims. “I was born here, my parents are from here, my brother was also born here. Imagine if someone came to your garden and started digging around, would you like it? If this mountain was gone, I would never forgive myself. And no one I know would forgive.”

The territory of the former shihan Shahtau is closed and guarded — they are still transporting limestone remnants.  Everything around is red. It feels like being on Mars: such devastation here. Especially compared to the lush vegetation of Kushtau.

Soda extraction on the destroyed ShahTau shihan. Photo by: Vil Ravilov. Used with permission.

“Shahtau perished before my eyes,” Faizullin laments. “Our village is nearby, and we know what it's like. Every day at 4:30 pm, everyone jumped at the sound of explosions. It's impossible to get used to it. Everyone was deafened by these sounds. And we saw the mountain shrinking.”

Bashkortostan, because of the number of powerful environmental protests, is a unique region for Russia.  Of course, it is not only environment that the bashkirs are united about.  The envorinment, in this case, means more than preserving nature: it is preserving both national and ethnic identity. Says Rail Hamzin:

The grandsons of Salavat [Salavat Yule is a Bashkir national hero who led the uprising of Bashkortostan in 1773–1775] don't know how to give in. We endure, endure, and then we boil over. We don't let each other be wronged. This is our land, we live here, raise our children. I have a grandson who is two years old. What will we leave him? These quarries, Martian landscapes? What will remain for him? Where there are cities, there's already nothing to breathe. And if something happens, if the others here need help defending their land, I'm right there,  and there are many of us, we are a people, and we must be reckoned with.

The speech that eco-activist Fail Alsyanov presented, and for which he received four years of prison, was in the Bashkir language. Meduza reports that Alsynov told the protesters that Bashkirs no longer had their own land, their own language, or their own president. “Our boys,” he added, are “dying” rather than defending their own land.

The protests around Alsyanov's case in Bashkortostan continued January 19 in the capital city, Ufa. But, since that time, many participants have been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. OVD-info states that there are currently 44 people people awaiting trial, and at least 34 criminal cases were initiated against protestors.  One of the detained protestors in the was severely beaten. According to OVD-info, Dim Davletkildin was admitted to pre-trial detention with hematomas, bruises, and abrasions. The man was hospitalized in a civilian hospital, where he was diagnosed with a spine fracture. Another of the detained protestors died in custody under unexplained circumstances.

Rifat Dautov died after being detained in a criminal case related to mass riots. The cause of death was not disclosed to the family, and no autopsy report was provided, writes OVD-info.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.