A historian looks at the effects of modernization on ethnic Mongolians.

At first glance, Siberia, a massive province spanning 77 percent of the Russian Federation, which is composed of frozen tundra, rugged mountain ranges and dense coniferous forests, might seem too remote to have much in common with the United States. But Assistant Professor of History Melissa Chakars, Ph.D., who has studied the Mongolian Buryats, an ethnic group of 400,000 that makes up Siberia’s largest indigenous population, says there are aspects of its history mirroring that of the United States.

“In Russian history, just like in U.S. history, indigenous people lived on the frontiers of expanding empires,” says Chakars. “During the Russian Empire, European settlers — a wide group including Ukrainians, Russians, Estonians, and others — moved east toward Siberia, seizing territory and fighting with the indigenous people, the Buryats, who lived as nomadizing herders. Sometimes, the colonizers chose to ally with the native population, but either way, it was impossible for the minority to fend off the invaders.”

Though the rule of competing empires in Inner Asia has waxed and waned over the millennia, for the Buryats, the story of this Cyrillic manifest destiny has played out much the same as similar movements have throughout human history, says Chakars, who has written extensively about the group, most recently in The Socialist Way of Life in Siberia: The Buryat Transformation (Central European University Press, 2014).

The book details how the Buryats have responded to the assimilation of their culture under the former Soviet Union, and how they have survived — or thrived — in the modern world. 

“In that sense, the Buryat assimilation is a global phenomenon,” she says. “In the end, most indigenous people struggle with the same two questions: How do you preserve traditional culture, and how do you participate in the life of the developed world?”

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Chakars grew up a close and sensitive observer of this dynamic in the American West, and felt a deep connection to the Native American version of this narrative, having spent time with her father on a Navajo reservation where he taught junior high.

“I was aware of indigenous people in a way that you might not be if you were raised in a big city in the Northeast,” she says. “So I feel like I’ve always had an understanding of what it’s like to live as an indigenous person.”

Her desire to know more about aboriginal peoples took her to graduate school at Indiana University (IU), which has the only Mongolian studies program in the United States. There she learned standard Mongolian, as well as the Buryat language. (Chakars also speaks advanced Russian). At IU, she received a grant to study for one month in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia’s largest city, and was “hooked, from then on,” she says.

The Socialist Way of Life in Siberia chronicles the second half of the 20th century in Siberia and the Buryats’ rise from being a pastoral society suppressed under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s to become by 1991 proportionally the most highly educated people in the Soviet Union.

“Some resisted the pull, but the majority decided to follow the Soviet path to modernization and embraced the system’s benefits,” says Chakars, who adds that Siberia is "covered with universities. The Buryats chose to learn Russian and took advantage of the state-sponsored schools, and ended up residing in comfortable apartments, working as chemists, for example, as opposed to being goat herders living in felt tents in the Siberian countryside.”

At the same time, “the loss of their culture is still very sad for the Buryats," she says. "They’ve attempted to reintroduce their language, but today most prefer to study English, because it can get them a job, and Russian is still the language of success.”

In their transformation from living as nomadic herders to being city-dwellers holding advanced degrees, were the Buryats able to preserve any of the old felt tents?

“No,” Chakars says, with the palpable regret of a historian who knows that indigenous groups like the Buryats may advance under modernization’s effects, but the attendant loss of culture is costly.