Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The Bashkirs


The Russian provinces bordering on the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea were, during the last war, in consequence of the drain of troops to the south, partially garrisoned by the Bashkirs, who constitute a specific portion of the Russian army, under the name of the Bashkir force, being divided into cohorts, each of which is commanded by a separate leader, who is always a native Bashkir. During the French invasion and retreat under the First Napoleon the Bashkirs were much more generally armed with bows and arrows instead of muskets than they are at the present day, and from this circumstance they obtained from their invaders the nickname of “Les Amours du Nord.”

The settlements of the Bashkirs are confined to the provinces or governments of Perm and Orenburgh, and their central point, or chief town, is Oufa, which was founded for the express purpose of their government. The Bashkirs submitted themselves voluntarily to the dominion of Russia, in the sixteenth century, shortly after the conquest of the kingdom of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible.

The Bashkirs are all Mahometans; but, from a difference in their mode of life, they may be divided into the stationary and the partially nomadic. The first, being almost entirely occupied with agriculture, reside in villages composed of strongly-built houses; the latter also possess houses, but they are of a slighter construction, and during the two summer months of June and July the Bashkirs abandon them, to wander round about their neighbourhood, for the sake of pasture, as the rearing and feeding of cattle form the exclusive sources of their wealth. During this season they dwell in kibitkas, or koshys, which are portable dwellings, with roofs in the form of a hemisphere, and containing within a good-sized room with a vaulted ceiling. The size of the kibitka varies according to the wants or means of the possessors, but one of medium dimension will measure about six yards in diameter, and it is constructed of five or six frames of trellis-work, which being fastened together by animal sinews or leathern straps constitute its walls. An open space is left between two of these trellis-frames, into which is fitted a wooden doorway to receive a door either of one or two wings. Over and upon the walls is placed the dome, or cupola, consisting of a stout hoop, from which spring a number of shafts all curving inwards and meeting together in the centre of the kibitka. The straight ends of the shafts or poles, projecting below the hoop, are bound to the trellis-frames by thongs or cords. The whole edifice is then covered with long strips of felt, which, among the most wealthy, is of a pure white, but of a grey colour among the poorer people. And, finally, the felt covering is secured by being bound round with hair-bands plaited from the manes and tails of horses, which are cropped for the purpose till they complete the third year of their age. In violent windy weather the kibitka is secured by ropes to several stakes driven into the ground around it.

Within the kibitka the walls are hung round with either cotton or woollen stuffs, and a curtain stretched across, beginning from the door, divides the internal space into two compartments of unequal size, the larger being occupied by the men, and the smaller by the women; but on special occasions of festivity this curtain is removed to afford more room to the invited guests. The furniture within the kibitkas is almost alike in them all. Against the wall is placed the bedstead, with a bed not over luxurious, but covered with a cotton counterpane. Around the sides are arranged the tubs, chests, benches, the tea-urn with its appurtenances, the pails, the toorzooks (or skins to contain koumuyce), kettles, and other domestic utensils. The gaudiest adornment of the kibitkas consists of the vivid-coloured habiliments, both for male and female use, which are displayed upon slender rods; to these may be added their arms, their horse-trappings, and various implements for the chase; and, lastly, the carpets laid over the benches and chests, and even also on the ground over a protecting layer of felt.

The stationary Bashkirs pay a tribute in money to the imperial treasury, but the half-nomadic tribes discharge their dues by personal service, constituting the Bashkir force.

The favourite beverage of the Bashkirs is koumuyce, a liquor readily prepared from mare’s milk by bringing it into a state of fermentation, which is allowed to continue till it reaches the acetous stage, when it becomes fit for use. It is made by adding an indefinite quantity of fresh, unskimmed mare’s milk to some old koumuyce, and the compound, being well stirred, is placed in some warm situation in the dwelling-place, where the fermentation is soon propagated by the older portion of the mixture through the new milk till the whole is converted into normal koumuyce. In default of old koumuyce common cow’s milk made sour may be used instead for a commencement; but, in all cases, the process is accelerated by warmth and agitation. Koumuyce is white like milk, and has a subacid taste; but this depends upon its age, which increases its acidity. It is sometimes, for economy, diluted with water, a moderate admixture of which assists the fermentation, improves the flavour, and renders it more intoxicating. Pure koumuyce effervesces like champagne, and, if shaken before it is poured out, it hisses, froths, and even expels the cork. The liquor sometimes has the flavour of bitter almonds, which proceeds from the nature of the grass pastured on by the animal, and this kind of koumuyce is highly prized by the connoisseurs. The koumuyce is kept in leathern bottles, called toorzooks, made from the skin of a horse’s hind quarter, taken off entire. The hair is singed off and the skin smoked. To the broader part is sewed a bottom, while the narrower, cut off at the knee, forms the neck of the vessel, which is stopped up with sedge or rushes. This forms a toorzook, which, standing on its bottom, has the appearance of a ham—being, in fact, the ham of a horse. Koumuyce, though inebriating, yet, even when taken in large quantities, occasions no inconvenience to the stomach. The Bashkirs drink enormous quantities with impunity. On holidays, when visiting each other, they sit for whole days drinking koumuyce, till they become so paralysed as to be unable to close their fingers into a fist, and yet recover, feeling no bad effects to remain. Copious draughts of it have even a strengthening effect, and are employed in certain diseases.