Making Sense of the ‘Khara Khalyk’ Protests in Bashkortostan
February 9, 2024
  • Guzel Yusupova
    Freie Universität Berlin
Based on her conversations with protesters in Bashkortostan, sociologist Guzel Yusupova analyzes the nature of the recent protests in the region. She argues that they were fundamentally not about nationalism or separatism – rather, people rose up to express their outrage over injustice and corruption.
In mid-January Baymak, a small town in southeast Bashkortostan, became the scene of one of the largest protests in Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Around half of the town’s adult population took to the streets to support Fayil Alsynov, a well-known eco- and Bashkir-national activist who had been charged with “inciting inter-ethnic hatred.” The charges were over Alsynov’s criticism of improper and often illegal gold mining in the region.

In his speech that was at issue, Alsynov criticized the corrupt elite for letting the land be damaged while resources were extracted, and for leaving the local population to cope with the consequences. He emphasized that when the work to extract resources would be finished, all the newcomers would leave and only the local population would stay. He insisted that it is locals who should take action to protect these lands, because otherwise no one else would.

‘We, the multinational people of Bashkortostan…’

Most observers believed that the Bashkortostan protests were essentially nationalist, while some suggested that they presaged separatist tendencies in Russia. However, as a scholar of nationalism among Russia’s ethnic minorities I must share some reservations.

The speeches of the crowd’s leaders indeed touched upon the topic of ethnic nationalism, yet only in the sense that they were aware of its danger and they were acting not as an ethnic group expressing grievances, but as citizens of a multiethnic region who want equal justice for all.
Radiy Khabirov (left), the head of Bashkortostan, at an event for teachers of the Bashkir language and literature. Ufa, April 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
One of the subsequently detained activists shouted on January 15, the first day of the protests: “we are not extremists, we are not Nazis, we are people who want the Constitution to be respected… we want to live peacefully, especially when there is such a tense situation in the country. We are not extremists; we are the multinational people of Bashkortostan. We are for justice.” Another activist told me in an interview: “there were not only Bashkirs. It was also Russians and Tatars. They are all, regardless of ethnicity, for Alsynov. They understand that he is doing the right thing. He is taking steps to save their children.”

The head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, brought a case against Alsynov accusing him of inciting ethnic hatred. In Khabirov’s understanding, in a 2023 speech in the Bashkir language Alsynov used the word “black” supposedly in reference to people from the South Caucasus and Central Asia with a derogatory connotation. The court agreed with Khabirov.

Thus, a respected activist who had experience mobilizing people for political protests was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.
“If this was meant as an act of intimidation, it had, in fact, the opposite effect, as thousands of people took to the streets to show their support for him.”
Baymak, Bashkortostan. January 15. Source: Yandex
As the protests continued in the following days, the riot police reportedly used smoke grenades, tear gas and batons to disperse the crowd, injuring at least 40 people. Two protesters died afterwards of their injuries, while about 200 were detained, with more than 40 now facing criminal charges.

What does ‘khara’ mean?

The charges against Alsynov had to do with his speech at a local gathering (not in Baymak) on April 30, 2023, where he called some unidentified people “black people” (khara khalyk).

“In current times,” he said, “we are even not allowed to organize a meeting… at his time Salavat Yulaev [an 18th century Bashkir historical hero who joined a popular uprising against the imperial administration of Catherine II], who defended his homeland, was also called a terrorist. All people who defend their homeland are called terrorists… outsiders will develop our gold, and then Armenians will go back to their homeland, ‘black people’ (khara khalyk) will go back to theirs, Russians to theirs and Tatars back to Tatarstan, and only we will stay here. We have nowhere else to go. Therefore,it is only us who have an obligation to protect this land.”

I asked my father, who understands Bashkir and lives not far from the area how one should translate khara khalyk – the words for which Alsynov was tried and sentenced. “Khara khalyk is us, my dear. It is us, ordinary folk, whom privileged elites call plebs,” he said, unaware at that moment why I was asking.

However, there is also another, literal meaning of khara khalyk as “black people.” Thus, the words in the context of Alsynov’s speech could have been used in reference to some particular groups. Indeed, it happens that Tatars and Bashkirs call some groups of immigrants khara, though this word does not possess such a negative connotation as churki or khachi in Russian.

As an experiment, I spoke to several people from different villages in the Volga region, asking them what khara khalykmeans. No one told me that this was a derogatory word for members of other nations. However, for some of them, unlike for my father and me, it was indeed a word that brought together several ethnic groups of immigrants into one. Of course, being part of the broader Russian context, indigenous minorities may have their own prejudices and may not recognize that identifying people by their skin color can be regarded as racism, even if they do not mean to offend anyone.

Nevertheless, the main argument of Alsynov’s speech for which he was сonvicted, as well as the context in which he used this word, implied that all those people who came to his land to extract gold and other resources would one day go back to their own homelands. It is unlikely he wanted to offend specifically khara khalyk, whom he mentioned among other nations such as Armenians, Russians and Tatars.

In any case, khara khalyk was picked up by many protesters and could be seen on signs and profile pictures of Telegram channels supporting the detained activists in Baymak. In my view, this phrase with its other, more common, meaning as “plebs” shows the true nature of these protests: ordinary people against the ruling elites.
Hundreds of people gathered on the streets of Bashkortostan’s capital, Ufa, the day after the sentence to Alsynov was handed down, some chanting the new slogan of the protests: bez – khara khalykwe are plebs.
Ethnic riots or anti-government protests?

In Russia, ethnic minority activism has long been strictly controlled and severely repressed. Ethnic and migration questions have been securitized since Vladimir Putin came to power.
Legal restrictions on the expression of ethnic-based demands had been already introduced before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when some other kinds of activism were still possible.
Demonstration against repression in Bashkortostan. Berlin, February 3. Photo by Author.
Here is how one of the eco-activists who supports Alsynov explained her rationale to join the protests against his conviction: “we [eco-activists] understand that this accusation of inciting ethnic hatred is just an excuse to put one of us in prison. There is no legislation concerning eco-activism, therefore they will use the legislation concerning ethnic issues to get rid of us.”

As my own research shows, even those have an ethnic minority background but are not activists are well aware about the securitization of ethnic issues in Russia. Therefore, it is unlikely that the protesters wanted to express ethnic grievances and even less likely that they mentioned separatist demands. Alsynov’s mention that Salavat Yulaev was also treated by the state as an extremist or terrorist in his time (but is a hero for Bashkirs today), as well as other analogies with the present-day situation, shows his awareness of the risk of ethnic activism in today’s Russia.

At the same time, in the speech for which he was convicted Alsynov also touched upon another dangerous topic. Namely, that there are no men left to defend the land from inappropriate exploitation and improper use of natural resources because many locals died in the current war: “… those who are ill die from illness, those who are healthy die in the war.” Bashkortostan is infamous as a region with one of the highest death tolls in Russia.

I spoke to a number of people who took part in the January protests in Baymak. In my interviews, I did not touch upon the ethnic dimension; rather, I asked them why they thought people took to the streets, what the true reasons of the protests were.

One of the protesters said: “we came not just for Fayil, but for justice. Our anger has been building up for a very long time. There are lies, deception, theft everywhere. I came to support Fayil from another town nearby and saw very, very old houses in Baymak, slums. This is the attitude toward people. And this has become the norm; gold miners arrive without documents. And they destroy everything. Some are caught, some are not, this is how the thieves’ machine works. The authorities say they are working in line with the law. A federal road was commissioned, yet it is still not completed. People see everything… We talk among ourselves, not only in our kitchens, but also at work. We understand that the country is being led somewhere in the wrong direction.”

Another eco-activist pointed out that to her the protests in Baymak were an eco-protest in essence, a rally in support of an eco-community member against state repression: “there were not just Bashkirs [there], but also Russians, Tatars and people of other nationalities. They came to support a member of a big eco-community. Ethnicity matters here only in the sense that the charges against Fayil were related to inciting ethnic hatred. This means that this legislation can be used also to incriminate other eco-activists, since for now we do not have legislation against eco-activism… yet. More eco-activists would have shown up, but that did not happen for two reasons: first, Baymak is a distant town that is hard to get to; second, dozens of activists were preemptively detained for 10 days. The police came to their houses to prevent them from joining the protest.”
Solidarity was what pushed people to join the protests, but this solidarity is not based solely on ethnicity – it was also ecological, local and social solidarity that galvanized people into expressing their anger over injustice toward their fellow Bashkir, fellow Bashkortostan resident, fellow activist.
Why involve Putin?

The protesters sought to get President Putin involved, which made some observers think that the protests were not anti-government. However, the protesters themselves explained that involving Putin was the only way to influence the court decision because, as they see it, there are no other political mechanisms to influence the case.

I asked my interlocutors why the protesters addressed Putin and not their local authorities. All of them gave similar answers. “People understand that their ability to express their will is limited. They have to choose their words carefully these days,” one protester explained. “People turn to the federal authorities, because they have no one else to turn to.”

Another highlighted that it is Putin who is responsible for all the injustice, but there is no other way to achieve the result they wanted: “there is no one else to turn to. This tsar-father (tsar’-batyushka) did all this himself, yet we turn to him. There would be no sense in looking to anybody else. Our governor is fully loyal to the tsar-father and would do anything he says.

Of course, there are believers that he [Putin] is our savior. There are enough of them, but not the majority.”

In my analysis, there were many drivers of the Baymak protests, but ethnicity played only a minor role in them. More importantly, all my interlocutors in one way or another highlighted the multinational nature of the protests. Their acknowledgement that there’s no one left to address local problems and protect their lands with so many men being killed in the war implies that the protesters hold the authorities at all levels responsible for injustice in general, and this makes their protest if not explicitly anti-war, then implicitly anti-regime.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy