The Altay (also written as Altai) ethnic group formed in the Altay area from ancient Turkish (Altaic) tribes of Uygurs, Kimak-Kipchaks, Yenisey-Kyrgyz, Oguz and others. The Altay area was under control of the Dzungarian state (centred in northwestern China) until the 18th c. Dzungaria was under Mongol control from the 11th to the 14th c., when it was overrun by the forces of Tamerlane. Some Altay tribes left Dzungaria and invaded Kazakh territory, reaching almost to the Urals in the west. Until 1758, Dzungaria was under an Oirot/Kalmyk confederation (Altay nationalists in the 20th c. have borrowed the term Oyrot - see below), when China incorporated Dzungaria into Sinkiang. The Chinese launched a war of extermination against the Altay, reducing the number of Altay left alive to only a few thousand. The Russians had established contact with the Altay already in the 17th c., but it was not until the 19th c. that Russia began asserting control over the area. They annexed the region in 1866.

Russian influence has sought to destroy the traditional culture and way of life of the Altay. In the second half of the 19th c., an Orthodox mission was established, and a majority of the Altay were converted to Orthodox Christianism. At the end of the 19th c./beginning of this century, burkhanizm (a kind of Lamaist Buddhism with elements of Shamanism) spread among the Altay. This was a distinctly anti-Russian messianic faith, at whose centre was the mythical Oyrot Khan who promised to liberate the Altay from Russian domination and restore them to a pre-Russian, pre-Chinese reality. It served as a foundation for a new nationalist liberation movement, that was crushed in 1904.

A more secular Altay nationalism surfaced after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and Altay leaders demanded the creation of an Oyrot republic to include also Khakass and Tyvins. Many Altay leaders sided with the Mensheviks during the Civil war, to achieve their aims of a separate state, but by 1920, the area was under strict Soviet control. In 1922, the Oyrot Autonomous oblast was formed. Burkhanism and talk of a "Greater Oyrotia" was tolerated until 1933, when the nationalist movement was denounced as a conspiracy. With World War II, the Altay/Oyrot nationalists were accused of being pro-Japanese. The Altay communists were purged, and in 1948 the name of the region was changed to Gorno-Altay autonomous oblast. The word Oyrot was declared counter-revolutionary, and was removed from all contexts where it appeared.

Soviet industrialisation brought a large influx of ethnic Russians to the area, reducing the Altays from nearly 50% to 30% of the population by 1930, and just over 20% by 1950. During the Glasnost period from 1985, Altay nationalism resurfaced, again under the name Oyrot. In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the status of the Gorno-Altay oblast was upgraded to Republic. In 1992 the name was changed to the "Republic of Altay".

Source: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs [NUPI] - Centre for Russian Studies
Photos: Igor Shpilenok, Rob Badger, Oleg Kosterin

South Siberia Map TURAN Main Map