Thousands of Buryats, a distinctive ethnic minority in Russia, fled tsarist conscription during World War I as well as the Soviet repressions that followed to form their own microcosm of Buryat culture in a remote region of Mongolia.
Karina Pronina, a journalist with the Siberian online magazine Lyudi Baikala, visited the north Mongolian village of Dadal where some of these Buryat emigrants settled in the last century, and came back with this report, which has also been published by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities.
In 1924, a starving Buryat family left their village of Bada, in the south of the nascent Soviet Union, and fled toward Mongolia. During the weekslong journey, it's said that one of the women, exhausted, placed her baby daughter on the ground. She covered the infant’s face with a scarf to keep the flies away, then hurried after the rest of the group.
"Soon a relative asked her, ‘Where is your child?'" says 74-year old Yumzhavyn Tsevelmaa, a direct descendant of that same woman. “They forced her to return and pick up her child. If they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you now.”
Tsevelmaa was born and has lived all her life in the Mongolian village of Dadal, where some 70 percent of the 3,000 inhabitants are descendants of Buryat migrants who left the Buryatia and Transbaikal regions of today's Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
Buryats are an ethnic minority of Siberia whose population of around half a million largely follow a blend of Buddhism and Shamanism. The Buryatia region has been hit hard by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with thousands of Buryat men being mobilized to fight. Buryatia has reportedly suffered the highest casualty rate of any region behind only the neighboring Tuva Republic. Around 50,000 ethnic Buryats currently live in Mongolia.
“They were afraid for themselves and for their children,” Tsevelmaa says of the reasons her relatives fled the Soviet Union as it was being formed. “The Russian Civil War had just ended, there was a famine. In Mongolia, my family felt safe.
Over time, the new arrivals began to thrive in Mongolia. “They were resourceful and hardworking,” Tsevelmaa says. "Everything they earned was kept in chests. There was jewelry, Chinese silks, coral, leathers."
But in the 1930s, during communist purges in the Mongolian People's Republic, “everything was shaken out of those chests and confiscated,” Tsevelmaa says. “The Buryats were called traitors and enemies. They were accused of betraying the Soviet Union because they fled the country.”
When Mongolia's Soviet-backed authorities arrested Tsevelmaa’s grandfather he reportedly told others not to worry, saying, “I’m not guilty of anything.” Her grandfather put on his best clothes, got on his favorite horse and rode off to give himself up for interrogation. He was later executed.
Like many other residents of Dadal, Tsevelmaa believes the repression of Buryats in Soviet-backed Mongolia took place on the personal orders of Josef Stalin in Moscow. But the former teacher’s views of Russia today are without emotion. “We need to be friends with Russia, because it is our neighbor. A very big neighbor,” she says.
Dadal is located in northeastern Mongolia, just 34 kilometers away from the Russian border but nearly 400 kilometers from the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, as the crow flies. Half of that journey is across rough dirt roads of the steppe.
“Don’t bother asking Google,” a driver in Ulan Bator laughs when I check the driving time to Dadal on my phone. The navigation app claims a travel time of seven hours. In fact, we drive for some 14 hours. When we arrive, my mind and body are so jarred from the endless shaking that it seems like we’ve arrived in a Russian village.
Instead of Mongolia’s endless steppes and sheep herds, here there are lakes, rivers, and meadows. In a pine forest near the entrance to Dadal, fine edible mushrooms grow on the side of the road.
The feeling of distance from Mongolian culture intensifies inside Dadal. There are no yurts -- the traditional houses of nomadic farmers in the East Asian country -- everyone here lives inside wooden houses, many with cows and roosters wandering outside.
Gelegzhamsyn Purev, 77, and his wife, 70-year-old Dugarzhav Dolgormaa, live on the outskirts of Dadal.
With his camouflaged hunting jacket and flat cap, Purev looks like any ordinary pensioner from a Buryat village in Russia. But he was born in Dadal and speaks no Russian, only a mixture of Buryat and Mongolian.
The Purev family are prosperous livestock managers, owning 1,000 sheep, 100 cows, and 200 horses. Purev doesn’t call himself a farmer, but modestly introduces himself as a pensioner. His business success came through selling milk and cottage cheese to workers toiling on roads in the region.
Purev says his relatives fled to Dadal from Buryatia in 1924. The settlers walked with children, livestock, and their possessions loaded onto a cart. When they crossed the border of the fledgling Soviet Union, they tied the dog's muzzles shut so they couldn’t bark, and wound rags around their horses' hooves to muffle the sounds of their escape from any potential border patrols.
Buryats left for Mongolia in three waves. The first wave came at the beginning of the 20th century when ethnic Russian settlers arrived in Buryatia en masse, squeezing the indigenous population out of pasture areas for livestock.
The second wave took place during World War I as Buryats were being mobilized to assist the Russian Army. Despite not being assigned to frontline fighting roles, many died from harsh conditions in the military.
The third wave of Buryat settlement in Mongolia came after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the conflict that followed.
“The Russian Civil war became an accelerating factor [of resettlement],” says Ivan Peshkov, the head of Central Asian studies at Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.
By 1934 there were already 35,000 Buryats living in Mongolia, mostly in regions along the Soviet border, Peshkov says.
Today, most descendants of the settlers know little about how the exodus took place -- potentially dangerous knowledge during the Soviet period -- but some legends have been handed down through the generations.
Badam Baterdene, a guide at the local museum, says his family arrived in 1902 as one of the first to move to Mongolia. Baterdene's great-great-grandmother was five years old at the time. According to the myth-like family story, she was riding in a cart, fell asleep on the way and tumbled out without the adults noticing.
“In the morning they realized the girl was missing,” Baterdene recounts. When a relative retraced their route he saw the girl riding toward him “on a dog,” which had allegedly guarded the child.
It's estimated that some 20,000-35,000 “enemies of the revolution” were executed in Mongolia under communism. As in the U.S.S.R., the peak of repression in Mongolia occurred in the 1930s. Buddhist monks were the first to be targeted, then Buryat migrants.
“According to my Mongolian colleagues, a third of the Buryats living in the country were arrested.” Peshkov says. “Of those, around a quarter were shot. The rest were imprisoned, exiled to Siberia, fired from work, or restricted in employment.”
“In Mongolia, the Buryats were perceived as a dangerous people associated with Japan,” explains Peshkov of the Asian minority of the U.S.S.R. “The fact that they left the Soviet Union only served to confirm suspicions.”
For many, Peshkov says, “their 'cross-border' status became a death sentence."
Of the 2,000 residents of Dadal, it's said that more than 600 people -- nearly a third of the entire population at the time -- were arrested in the 1930s. Many were executed, including three women, one of whom was pregnant.
“Stalin really didn’t like the Buryats who left him,” says 63-year-old Dadal resident Tsyrendorzhi Monbish.
In the 1930s, her grandfather and his two sons were arrested. Monbish's grandfather was exiled to Siberia and never returned. His fate remains a mystery. Her grandfather’s eldest son was also exiled to the Soviet Union and died there. Her grandfather’s second son worked for the state but was also arrested. During interrogations, he denied being guilty of any crime.
“And they shot him,”Monbish says. “He could have simply remained silent, but he boldly declared his innocence. He was brave.”
When asked her opinion of Russia today she indicates a positive attitude to the country but says “war with Ukraine? I am against war! The image of Russia has sunk so low, I want [Russian President Vladimir Putin] to die.”
She adds, “I know that Putin is sending the Buryats to war. We are against this.”
Buryats have borne a heavy burden from the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the first wave of mobilization in the autumn of 2022, more than 4,000 Buryat men were reportedly drafted into the army.
Some Dadal residents decline to express their opinions about Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- especially officials.
Badam Baterdene, who also works in the agricultural department of the local administration, says that initially he thought, “Russia is right in this war.”
"We read that Ukrainians are former Nazis," he says. "But now I can’t understand who, what, why and what for."
Other locals are more forthcoming. Tsyrendorzhi Yanzhima, a cafe owner says that she “cannot understand why the Buryats are being sent to war.”
“In the 1930s, the Buryats were repressed; now repressions have returned. Young guys get sent to war, and may never return. Let them move here instead. If all the Buryats [in Russia] moved to Mongolia, we would help them” she says. “There is a lot of work here.”
Yanzhima leads me to the local monastery. Several years ago, three Buddhist stupa were placed here to commemorate the Buryats killed during the communist era. A Buddhist drum was placed nearby with all the names of the villagers killed by the authorities. Yanzhima points out several names on the drum that are her relatives.
“All the men were taken away from us, all the men’s work was done by women and boys,” Yanzhima says. “They mowed hay, chopped firewood, slaughtered the cows. It was a difficult time, but it strengthened this village. We became even more hardworking. Many people want to marry a Buryat because we are very competent and we don’t complain about life.”
One ardent critic of the Russian government is Galsangiin Dorzhsuren, the former mayor of Dadal.
When we meet Dorzhsuren he is working in a potato field in rough old clothes. Soon, however, he heads inside his house and changes into a traditional Buryat suit and hat.
“Buryats in Russia go to war because they live very poorly there,” Dorzhsuren says. "They are fleeing to us in Mongolia because your economy is weak." He recalls his impressions from a trip to Buryatia 15 years ago. “There were destroyed villages, destroyed houses, devastation all around,” he says.
Dorzhsuren invites us to sit with him. Nuts, Russian chocolates, and a bottle of vodka are served up. This is the first time we have been offered alcohol in Dadal. The spirit is poured into shot glasses for everyone, then the ex-mayor gives a long toast about how good it is that Russians such as us have come to Dadal. And then after glasses are clinked he shouts in Russian: “Let’s go!” And we drink.
Dadal also went through difficult times, Dorzhsuren says. “But our older relatives never complained to us about their lives,” he recalls. “Only when there were parties, they poured out all the sorrow of their souls with songs. They sang about who was repressed, who was taken away."
But, he adds, "when sober again, they kept everything to themselves."