There are a large number ethnic minorities live in the middle section of the Volga River and its tributaries. These include the Turkic-Mongol Tatars, the Chuvask and Bashkirs and the Finno-Ugric Mordivians, Udmarts (or Votyaks), the Mari (or Cheremys), and Komi.

Forming a crescent from the middle Volga to the southern extent of Russia's Ural Mountains, six republics for the ethnic group mentioned above—Bashkortostan, Udmurtia, Chuvashia, Karelia, Mari El, Mordovia and Tatarstan— represent a variety of ethnic and religious groups. Included in this group are the republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, two of Russia's richest and most independent republics.


The Bashkirs are a mostly Turkic people that are nominally Muslims. There are about 1.5 million Bashkirs and they live mostly around the Volga region in Bashkortostan republic. The origin of the Bashkirs is still a matter of debate. They have both Asian and European features. Some historians believe they are of Turkish descent. Others consider them of Finno-Ugric descent. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

The Bashkirs were first described in A.D. 922. At that time they were a steppe horse people that lived at the junction of the Volga and Kama Rivers and were in the process of converting to Islam. Their territory was divided up by the Golden Horde (the Mongols). After the Mongols were driven out they fiercely resisted the Russians for almost two centuries and didn’t come under Russian rule until the 18th century.

The Bashkirs gave up the nomadic life in the nineteenth century, adopting the agricultural lifestyle that remains their primary means of support. The traditional clan-based social structure has largely disappeared. Some practice Russian Orthodox Christianity. Some speak Bashkir, a Turkic language, at home.

The Bashkirs live mostly in villages or communities with other Bashkirs that are scattered among villages or communities made up of other ethnic groups. Bashkirs are mostly Sunni Muslims. They have traditionally not had any problems getting along with their Christian neighbors. They were nearly swallowed dup into the Soviet system. Many lived and worked on collective farms. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many have had difficulty dealing with the changes and today live in poverty.

Bashkir Holidays and Sports

The Bashkirs celebrate Navruz, a spring festival held throughout Central Asia on March 21s around the time of the vernal (spring). They probably adopted the celebration of Navruz from Persian tribes that once lived in the Ural Valley. The weather in these territories is not yet spring like in late March, so the holiday is somewhat different than in other regions. First, young men in a community collect products for the making of a common meal and embroidered "prizes" for the winners of running, dancing and singing competitions that will be held. On the day of Navruz, ceremonies are performed to cajole the natural forces and spirits of ancestors into assuring a successful new year. In addition to the common meal, each family cooks a celebratory dish from buckwheat groats and sweets.”

The Bashkirs have traditionally had a reputation for being skilled horsemen. They were enlisted to fight in special cavalries in the tsarist armies. Today they Bashkirs are regarded as skilled motorcyclists. They have transplanted their skill as horsemen to "steel" horses.

Tatar-Bashkir “sabantui” festivals feature dancing, running, horse racing, climbing slippery poles, fighting on a log and strong man trials In “kureh”, the traditional Tatar-Bashkir form of wrestling, opponents grab each other using sashes or towels. The winner receives a live sheep which he hoists over his head. Kureh is popular thoughout the former Soviet Union. Champions in the sport have won Olympic medals in Greco-Roman wrestling and judo.

Wrestlers use a variety of holds and throws in an effort to get their opponent off balance and make a pin. Wrestlers perform in five weight categories and track suit pants, knitted shirts and national boots. They throw their sash around their opponent’s shoulders and tie it around their waist, with the wrestlers taking hold of each other with their hands. The winner pins his opponents on the shoulder blades,


Bashkortostan is an ethnic republic in the southern Urals that is rich in oil. Bashkirs make up about 20 percent of the 4.1 million people that live in this republic in a green, hilly region at the southern tip of the Ural mountains. The streets signs are in Bashkir and Russian. Large numbers of Russians and Tatars also live in the area.

Bashkortostan is the name assumed in 1992 by the former Bashkir ASSR, which also had been called Bashkiria. The republic occupies an area of 143,600 square kilometers in the far southeastern corner of European Russia, bounded on the east by the Ural Mountains and within seventy kilometers of the Kazakstan border at its southernmost point. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The region was settled by nomads of the steppe, the Turkic Bashkirs, during the thirteenth-century domination by the Golden Horde. Russians arrived in the mid-sixteenth century, founding the city of Ufa, now the republic's capital. Numerous local uprisings broke out in opposition to the settlement of larger Russian populations in the centuries that followed. *

A major battleground of the Russian Civil War (1918-21), in 1919 Bashkiria was the first ethnic region to be designated an autonomous republic of Russia under the new communist regime. The republic declared its sovereignty within the Soviet Union in 1990, and in 1992 it declared full independence. Two years later, Bashkortostan agreed to remain within the legislative framework of the Russian Federation, provided that mutual areas of competence were agreed upon. *

The republic has rich mineral resources, especially oil, natural gas, iron ore, manganese, copper, salt, and construction stone. The Soviet government built a variety of heavy industries on that resource base, and the republic's economy is relatively prosperous. The traditional Bashkir occupations of livestock raising and beekeeping remain important economic activities. Bashkortostan's population was about 4 million in 1995. In 1989 the major ethnic groups were Russians (39 percent), Tatars (28 percent), Bashkirs (22 percent), Chuvash (3 percent), and Mari (3 percent). *


The Chuvash are a Turkic-Mongol people that predate the Tatars and are Orthodox Christians. There are about 1.8 million Chuvash and they live mostly around the Volga region in the Chuvash Republic and are also in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and in the Ulianov, Kuibyyshev and Saratov areas. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

The Chuvash language is the only living language of the Bulgaro-Turkish branch of the Turkic group of Altaic languages. The closest language is Volga-Bulgarian, which is now extinct. As of the late 1980s, about 80 percent of Chuvash spoke Chuvash as their first language. Most Chuvash that live in the cities and towns are bilingual in Chuvash and Russian.

The Chuvash have traditionally lived in small villages but now the majority live in towns and cities. They have retained their language but their other cultural traits and customs are similar those of Russians. The Chuvash Republic has traditionally been heavily industrialized. The Chuvash are regarded as skilled folk artist. They are particularly known for making carved wood spoons, cups and jugs.

History of the Chuvash and Chuvashia

The Chuvash speak a unique Turkic language and are believed to have descended from the same stock as the modern Bulgarians, whose ancestors migrated from the area. The Chuvash also are the only Turkic ethnic group in Russia to have converted en masse to Russian Orthodoxy. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Chuvash came under Russian rule in the 16th century. Little is known is about them before that except what is known about Bulgaro-Turkic tribes. Ancient Bulgaro-Turkic tribes split from other Turkic tribes and migrated westward. One of these tribes was mentioned in a chronicle that was dated to A.D. 481. By the 7th century one group had penetrated the lower Danube. Others were under the control of the Khazars, who established an empire on the Caspian Sea. By the 9th century another tribe had established itself on the Volga River, This stated, named Magna Bulgaria flourished for 2½ centuries. Magna Bulgaria was invaded by the Mongols in 1230. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

After the Mongols were driven out in the 15th century the Chuvash began to emerge as a distinct group. Their territory first was settled and annexed by Ivan IV (the Terrible; r. 1533-84) in the sixteenth century. At that time, the Chuvash already were a settled agricultural people. Under the Russians many became serfs and forced labors. They participated in peasant uprisings. When capitalism came to homeland, the Chuvash prospered. In 1995 the Chuvash constituted 68 percent of the population of their republic, which totaled about 1.4 million. Other groups are Russians (27 percent), Tatars (3 percent), and Mordovians (1 percent). The capital city is Cheboksary.

The Republic of Chuvashia, the former Chuvash ASSR, occupies about 18,000 square kilometers along the east bank of the Volga River, about sixty kilometers west of the river's confluence with the Kama River and some 700 kilometers east of Moscow. In 1920 Chuvashia became an autonomous oblast, and in 1925 it was redesignated an autonomous republic. The republic declared its sovereignty within the Soviet Union in 1990. The primary economic activities are agricultural; grain and fruit production and logging are emphasized. Except for phosphates and gypsum, Chuvashia lacks significant amounts of minerals and fuels. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]


The Maris are a Finno-Ugric people that are scattered throughout the Volga and Urals region and have their homeland in the Republic of Mari, an area of rolling hills, forests, swamps and farm land in the middle Volga region. Also known as the Mar and Cheremiss, the Maris are mostly farmers who have retained their traditional shamanist beliefs and peasant lifestyle.

There are around 700,000 Maris, with about half of them in the Mari Republic (Russians make up most of the other half). There are more than 100,000 in the Bashkir Republic and significant numbers of the in the Tarar and Udmurt Republics and Kirov and Sverdlok oblasts. The Mari first came into contact with the Russians in the sixteenth century, when the major Tatar outpost of Kazan', just downstream from the current republic, fell to Ivan IV.

The Maris are descendants of Mari tribes that developed around the end of the A.D. 1st millennium and settled in Middle Volga region. These tribes were shaped by their interaction with Turkic tribes in the medieval period. They were part of the Volga Bolgar Kingdom and a vassal of the Kazan Mongol-Tatars. After Slavic settlers began moving into their territory and the defeat of the Mongol-Tatars in the Volga region in the 16th century they fought with the Russians in what were known as the Cheremis wars. The Russians had to build forts for protection in Mari areas. The Mani participated in peasant uprisings and began migrating eastward. An effort by intellectuals to develop a sense of Mari identity in the early 1900s led to creation of the Mari Republic under the Soviets.

The Mari and Mordivians speak languages that belong to the Volgaic Branch of the Finno-Ugric language family. Efforts to covert the Mari to Orthodox Christianity were only superficially successful. They continue to pray to a supreme god of the forest and a pantheon of natural spirits and deities. They believe that souls sometimes leave the body of the dead in the form of a butterfly and conduct sacrifices in sacred groves. All animals except pigs and chickens are regarded as suitable for sacrifice. At funerals it is customary to put some tobacco, money and other things in the grave that the dead can take with them to the afterlife. They also have a unique style of music features lyrics of images that can only be understood in the context of the accompanying music.

The Republic of Mari El, formerly the Mari ASSR, is located in the middle Volga Basin on the north shore of the river, directly east of the city of Nizhniy Novgorod (formerly Gor'kiy). The autonomous oblast of Mari was established in 1920; an autonomous republic was designated in 1936. The economy is based mainly on timber products, agriculture, and machine building; the region is not rich in mineral resources. In 1989 the largest ethnic group was the Russians, who make up 48 percent of the population, with Mari constituting 45 percent and Tatars 6 percent. The predominant religion is Russian Orthodoxy, although some traces of animism remain in the Mari population. The total population in 1995 was 754,000, about 60 percent of whom dwell in cities. The republic's area is 23,300 square kilometers. The capital city is Yoshkar Ola. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]


The 1.2 million Mordivians are mostly Orthodox and Muslim and they live primarily in Mordovia. Belonging to the Finno-Ugric ethnic group, the Mordovians were traditionally agriculturalists, known especially as beekeepers. The first Russians reached the area in the twelfth century, and Muscovy had taken full control of Mordovia by the seventeenth century.

Formerly the Mordovian (or Mordvinian) ASSR,Mordovia (or Mordvinia) is located at the southwestern extreme of the middle Volga cluster of autonomous republics that also includes Tatarstan, Mari El, Udmurtia, and Chuvashia. After receiving the status of autonomous oblast in 1930, Mordovia was declared an autonomous republic in 1934. Although the Mordovians nominally accepted Russian Orthodoxy in the seventeenth century, they retain significant remnants of their pre-Christian beliefs, as well as national costumes and social practices. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1995 Russians constituted about 61 percent of the republic's population of approximately 964,000. Another 33 percent were Mordovians, and 5 percent were Tatars. The total area of Mordovia is 26,200 square kilometers. The republic's economy is based mainly on agriculture, especially the cultivation of grains, tobacco, hemp, and vegetables. Industry includes some machine building and chemical manufacturing, as well as enterprises based on timber and metals. The capital of Mordovia is Saransk.


The Udmurt are a Finno-Ugric people that lives primarily in the Udmurt Republic , which is located is the middle Volga region between the Vyatka and Kama Rivers, south of Tatarstan and southeast of Bashkortostan. There are about 800,000 Udmurt, about three fourths of which speak the Udmurt language.

The Udmurt language belongs the Permian branch of the Finno-Ugric Language Family, which also includes Komi. Archaeological evidence indicated that the Udmurt have lived in their current homeland since the A.D. 9th century. At that time they were mostly hunters and fishermen who lived in settlements along river banks. They were victims of Mongol raids in the 13th century. The Udmurt’s territory was occupied by the Kazan' Khanate in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then passed to Russian control when Ivan IV captured Kazan' in 1552. Afterwards their territory was included in the Russian Empire.

The Udmurt adopted Orthodox Christianity but in many ways their conversion was only superficial. Elements of their traditional religion remain. They believe in a number of natural spirits and their Supreme God is named Inmar. At feasts they pay homageto shaman-like wise men and conduct ritual sacrifices at secret locations. Their folklore is filled stories about battles with Russians.


The Udmurt homeland is rich in both agricultural land and minerals. Under the tsars, the Udmurt were primarily farmers. Under the Soviets, the Udmurt area was heavily industrialized. Udmurt intellectuals were able to generate enough Udmurt nationalism to get the Udmurt ASSR created. Under Stalin, the Udmurts were forced into collectivization and much of their cultural identity was undermined as their villages were swept away and the Udmurt became increasingly Russified.

Udmurtia, formerly the Udmurt ASSR, occupies 42,100 square kilometers north of Tatarstan on the lower reaches of the Kama River, northeast of the confluence of the Kama and the Volga. Originally established as the Votyak Autonomous Oblast in 1920, the territory was renamed for the Udmurts in 1932, then redesignated an autonomous republic in 1934. In 1995 the republic's population was about 1.5 million, of which 59 percent was Russian, 31 percent Udmurt, 7 percent Tatar, 1 percent Ukrainian, and 1 percent Mari. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Located in the industrial zone of the south Ural Mountains, Udmurtia has a substantial and diversified industrial economy that emphasizes locomotives and rolling stock, metallurgy, machine tools, construction materials, clothing, leather, and food processing. The capital city, Izhevsk, is also the largest industrial center. The most important agricultural products are grains, vegetables, and livestock.

Kriashen Tatars

The Kriashen Tatars are an ethnic group that inhabits the middle Volga region. They speak a Turkic language like other Tatars but are Christians unlike other Tatars who are mostly Muslims. Because they ceased to be defined as a specific group in 1930 it is difficult to guess their numbers. They have traditionally lived in Kama Basin of the Tatar Republic and in Bashkir and Chuvash republics, and have intermarried wish other groups namely the Chuvash.

The Kriashen Tatars live near the Volga Tatars but speak a different dialect than the Volga Tatars. They evolved from groups in the Kazan Khanate that were converted in the 16th and 17th centuries to Orthodox Christianity and were Russified and became serfs. To escape paying oppressive taxes many of them fled yo the Bashkir and Kazakh steppes. Under the tsars, they were treated like other serfs because they were Orthodox Christians. Under the Soviets, they were grouped with other Tatars because they spoke a Tatar language.

Although the Kriashen Tatars were nominally Orthodox Christians, the Christianity they practiced was largely beyond the confides of the formal Orthodox church and had a character all its own. Many of their rites were based on ancient agricultural rituals ane even animal sacrifices that predated their conversion to Christianity and their earlier conversion to Islam. There were elements of ancestor worship and a cult of heroes. Some groups had seers and diviners that specialized in retrieving lost objects. Their chief deity, Koday, corresponded to the Christian god. Their pantheon of spirits was quite rich and varied. Local communities were believed to be comprised of both the living and the dead.

Volga Tatars

The Volga Tatars are the westernmost of the Turkic ethnic groups living in the former Soviet Union. They have traditionally lived in Tatarstan in the middle Volga’s forest and steppe and Bashkirstan in the southern Urals. There are two distinct groups: 1) the Kazan Tatars; and 2) the Mishars.

There are about 1.8 million Volga Tatars in Tatarstan and another 2.5 million live in nearby republics, particularly Bashkir Republic, and regions and another 1 million live elsewhere in European Russia.

The Volga Tatars are descendants of the Kipchak Turks and formed a distinct Tatar dynasty, the Kazan Khanate, which lasted for more than a century until it was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible. The Tatars were originally a powerful Turkic tribe. Most of the people known in Russia as Tartars were descendants of Turkic tribes like the Kipchaks who inhabited the eastern part of the Mongol Empire and worked as soldiers and tax collectors and were slaves of the Mongols. The name Tatar was later used to describe the Mongols.

Defeat and Persecution of Volga Tatars

In 1552, Ivan the Terrible ravaged Kazan and defeated the Volga Tatars, St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow was built to celebrate the victory. The conquest of Kazan opened the way for the expansion of the Russian empire across Siberia to the Pacific.

The conquest of Kazan was followed by a series of assimilation policies of the Russians on the Tatars, that lasted through the 19th century. They included forced conversion to Christianity, economic sanctions and cultural assimilation through education,

Even though Russia had long promised the Tatars people a degree of independence the reality was that Moscow dictated policy, even choosing the street names in Tatar twons. This didn’t make the Russians very popular. One Tartar toast goes, "Being in Russia is good. But being here is better.”


The Karaites are followers of non-Talmudic Judaism. They are different from the vast majority of rabbinic Jews. They speak a Turkic language and accept the Torah but not the Talmud. And they don’t regard themselves as Jews. Many Jews don’t regard them as Jews either. There are only maybe 2,000 of them in Russia, plus a few thousand more in Europe, the United States and Israel. The ones in Russia are mostly assimilated. Many speak only Russian. They have traditionally lived in Lithuania and the Crimea.

The origin of the Karaites is not clear. Some think they are descendants of the Khazars. More likely they are remnants of a sect that was founded in Baghdad in the A.D. 8th century and made their way the Crimea via the Byzantine Empire by the 14th century. Under the Tatars and the other groups that ruled Crimea they distinguished themselves as traders and were treated the same as other Jews. Under the czars they were often treated differently and given exemptions to taxes and military service that other Jews had to honor. In World War II, the Nazis decided their “racial psychology” was not Jewish and they were spared persecution.

Karaites reject the Talmud’s divine origin and say it is based on folk tradition. They do no celebrate Hanukkah and the holidays they celebrate often fall on different days than those honored by conventional Jews. Karaites have greater restriction on working on the Sabbath and butchering cattle. Their liturgy is very different from that of Talmudic Jews.

Other Groups in Western and Central Russia

Slavic groups with significant numbers in Russia include Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. Slavs are divided into three main groups: 1) Western Slavs (chiefly Poles, Czechs and Slovaks); 2) Southern Slavs (mainly people from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia): 3) Eastern Slavs (primarily Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians).

There are about 740,000 Kazakhs in Russia, compared to 8 million in Kazakhstan.

There are about 180,000 Hungarians, 30,000 Assyrians, 20,000 Czechs, 12,000 Slovaks, 5,000 Albanians, 3,000 French, and 2,000 Indian and Pakistanis in the former Soviet Union.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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