Filmmaker Jassim Mater Kunji

The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in south-central Siberia. Their language traces its origins to Mongolia, but many fear it is dying out.

In south-central Siberia, along the shore of Lake Baikal, lies a population of fewer than one million people. The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in the region and most can be found in the Republic of Buryatia, a federal subject of Russia. Their rich Mongolian heritage is evident in their culture and their language.


But it is a language that Bulat Shagzhin fears is dying.


After 12 years working as an IT specialist in the Russian capital, Moscow, Shagzhin felt drawn to his ancestral homeland with its majestic scenery and iconic lake.


When he returned, however, he felt a sense of disconnect. Like many other Buryats, he could barely speak the language. So he enrolled, with his wife, in a Buryat language course, hoping it would help forge a deeper sense of connection with his ancestors.


Shagzhin is one of a generation of Buryats who were prevented from learning their ancestral tongue during the Soviet era. It has, consequently, been largely eroded from the cultural framework of Buryatia and is, today, in very real danger of dying out, according to the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages.


Yet, when Shagzhin and his wife arrived for their first lesson in the capital, Ulan-Ude, they found just one other student in the classroom.

"I was really shocked that Buryatia has so many Buryat inhabitants, and only three people were enrolled in the class," he explains.

A Buryat cultural performance in Ulan Ude to celebrate the new year. [Jassim Mater Kunji/Al Jazeera]

Shagzhin resolved to create his own centre to promote the endangered language. He advertised its classes through local media and even began printing Buryat literature. Along with providing speakers with something to read, he hoped it would allow him to record the history of his people, setting straight the facts he believed had been skewed through Russia’s “historical revisionism”.


When classes at his newly established centre began in early 2014, 300 students were enrolled. The average age was 40 - members of the generation that bore the brunt of Soviet-era language restrictions from the 1970s to the 1990s.


"The only way to learn it [back then] was in your home or in the yard," recalls Sangiev Saman, a student in Shagzhin’s language programme.

As this generation reached their 30s and 40s, Shagzhin says they felt overwhelmed by the scale of what was required to resurrect their ancestral dialect.


When the language ban was lifted in 1992, the Obusinsk School near Irkutsk worked with the government to reintroduce the Buryat language and to formulate a model curriculum for other schools. But overcoming decades of decline posed a huge - perhaps insurmountable - challenge.


The government scheduled extra hours for subjects in Buryat, but these courses were cut in 2007, when the official school language reverted to Russian.


"Now, we only have Buryat language and Buryatian culture classes,” explains Oleg Matoshkinov, the head of the Obusinsk School. “The rest are in Russian.”

Assali attends German class five afternoons a week. [Ali Gardner/Al Jazeera]

Classes in Obusinsk School are typically taught in both Russian and Buryat. [Jassim Mater Kunji/Al Jazeera]

Since the curriculum reverted to Russian, parents have been given a choice as to whether their children should study the language at all. And practicality often wins out over romantic notions of reconnecting with ancestral roots.


Tatyana Tagarova, a professor of Buryat language and culture at Irkutsk State University, says many parents prefer to enrol their children in classes they believe will give them a competitive advantage in their pursuit of a higher education and in the job market.


"It's important to remember one's culture," Tagarova insists. “The situation is shameful when compared with other nations. When a Buryat child is asked to sing a song in their language, they can't."


Those who do learn the language, however, find few environments in which Buryat can be used. And that is critical, Shagzhin explains: "The students that could speak Buryat at home or work showed significant improvement in their language, while those who couldn't apply Buryat to their everyday life didn't progress.”


A member of the regional duma, Barkhiyav Vichislav, says he believes that local council members should make it mandatory for schools to incorporate Buryat into their curricula in order to “help preserve our language and our culture and our roots”.


"The language situation is very bad right now," he adds, grimly.

Assali cooks a Syrian lentil soup at his friend's apartment.

His friends usually help him to cook and serve the food. [Alie Gardner/Al Jazeera]

A mural in Buryatia's national theatre showing scenes from Buryat history. [Jassim Mater Kunji/Al Jazeera]

Although there have been some contributions from the Russian government, funding has been insufficient to cover the costs of essentially reviving a dying language. Shagzhin decided to stop applying for government funds altogether. But lack of money is not the only problem he faces.


"Recently, [Buryatia leader Vyacheslav] Nagovitsyn ordered all scientific bodies to stop communicating with our printing press. They also banned all our online sources on Buryat history," says Shagzhin of his books, which offer accounts of Buryatian history that he believes conflict with Russian efforts to control the region’s historical narrative – particularly as a controversial anniversary draws closer.


This year, the Russian government will mark the 350th anniversary of Buryat’s capital, Ulan-Ude and intends to spend lavishly on celebrations. The Russian government even intended to erect a monument in honour of the Cossacks, a group the Buryats consider invaders and colonisers – plans which have since been blocked, yet reveal a sliver of the rooted conflicts between the historical interpretations of the Russians and the Buryats.

Shagzhin's printing press was in the progress of releasing a new book titled The History of the Buryats, and much of its content subjected him to a great deal of criticism from authorities. Feeling increasingly threatened, Shagzhin was forced to close his printing press and return to Moscow.

"They say we were just some wild, uneducated people, and completely undeveloped," he says. “We started to tell the truth [in our books], but unfortunately, our government was very much against it," because these texts presented a version of history that contradicted the way the Buryats are depicted in Russian textbooks.


"The other nationalities in Buryatia say that Buryat is an alien language and they don't need it," Shagzhin explains, but he and many other Buryats see revitalising their language as crucial to preserving their culture.

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Filmmaker Jassim Mater Kunji

Writer Jassim Mater Kunji

Assistant Producer Ziad Ramley

Executive Producer Yasir Khan