Udmurts’ autonym ‘udmort’ means “meadow people”. Previously Udmurts were known as ‘votyaks’. This is a Russian-language ethnonym which has a slightly derogatory meaning and in the 1920s-1930s it went out of use.
Udmurts live on the hilly area on the coasts of the Kama and Vyatka rivers and their tributaries (Tsheptsa, Kilmes, Izh). Approximately half of the Udmurt territory is covered by forest (in the north – spruce, in the south – deciduous forests), the rest being mostly farmlands.
Udmurts have a national republic – Udmurt Republic (42 000 km2) – within the Russian Federation, with Izhkar (in Russian: Izhevsk) as the capital. However, only two-thirds of Udmurts live in the titular republic, with the remaining third in Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Perm Krai, Kirov Oblast and the Mari El Republic.
As of 1989, over two-thirds of Udmurts lived within the borders of the Udmurt Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (as it was then called), however they comprised just 30.9% of its population. According to the 2002 census, the proportion of Udmurts in the titular republic decreased to 29%. Ethnic Russians form the majority of the population and dominate large industrial cities (Izhevsk, Sarapul). Udmurts’ positions are stronger in rural areas.
According to Russia’s 2010 census, 552 299 Udmurts lived in Russia, as compared to 636 906 in 2002. In 2002, 73% of Udmurts spoke the Udmurt language. According to the 1989 census, 714 833 Udmurts lived on the territory of the Russian SFSR. Thus, the population of Udmurts has significantly declined over the past 20 years, mostly due to the ongoing demographic crisis in Russia, but also due to Russification.
The Udmurt language belongs to the Permic group of Finno-Ugric languages. The closest kindred languages are Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyrian. Differences between the Udmurt and Komi languages are supposedly analogous to the differences between Estonian and Finnish. Differences in dialects between northern and southern Udmurts are relatively minor. A separate ethnic group is Bessermans who live in northern Udmurtia around the city of Glazov. Bessermans are udmurtified Bulgarians or Tatars. Their language has usually been considered as an Udmurt dialect. According to 1926 census there were approximately 10 000 Bessermans, later they have been counted as Udmurts. More recently Bessermans have been classified as a separate ethnic group – according to 2002 census there were 3122 Bessermans.
Udmurt written language is based on the Cyrillic alphabet which has been augmented with a few additional characters. Written language began to develop at the end of the 19th century. Standardised written language was completed in the 1920s.
Official languages of the Udmurt Republic are Udmurt and Russian. In reality, Russian language dominates in the public sphere and mass media. The introduction of true Udmurt-Russian bilingualism is prevented by poverty and as well as passive resistance from the ethnic Russian majority. Still, compared to the Soviet period, the reputation of the Udmurt language has grown. In addition to rural schools, Udmurt language is taught as a subject also in some city schools. Udmurt-language radio and TV programmes, primarily news, are broadcast a few hours a day. Circulation of Udmurt-language printed media is very small.
Since the 10th century, traditional Udmurt territory, especially its southern part, came under the influence of Volga-Kama-Bulgaria. In the 13th century, Udmurts were subjected to the Golden Horde. After its dissolution, most of Udmurtia was brought under the rule of the Kazan Khanate. As subjects of these states, Udmurts preserved their upper class and a certain autonomy. In 1552, Moscovian forces conquered Kazan and soon thereafter Udmurtia was also taken by the Czarist Russia. Northern Udmurtia was under Moscow’s control already at the end of the 15th century. Orthodox monasteries were established, and Russian farmers resettled to Udmurtia. The culmination of Udmurts’ Christianisation came at the beginning of the 18th century, however baptising remained rather formal and animist beliefs continued to live. In the second half of the 18th century, metallurgy factories using serf farmers’ labour, were established in Izhevsk and Votkinsk.
In the 19th century, Udmurts were a mostly illiterate peasant folk. Only 0.05% of Udmurts lived in cities in 1897. Interestingly, at the end of the 19th century, almost 8% of Udmurts dared to identify themselves as carriers of traditional belief while the vast majority did so in a more disguised manner. Udmurt intelligentsia, written language and professional culture were formed at the end of the 19th century, largely thanks to the Ilminsk system which aimed to convert non-Russians of the Volga region into true Orthodox believers. In 1920, Votyak (since 1932: Udmurt) autonomous oblast was formed, which in 1934 was renamed into Udmurt Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and in 1990 into the Udmurt Republic.
The 1920s were relatively favourable for the development of national culture thanks to the indigenization or korenizatsiya policy of that time, however at the end of the decade the collectivisation of agriculture was implemented and in the second half of 1930s the ethnic intelligentsia fell victim to repressions. At the same time, forced industrialisation began, leading to extensive inflows of Russian-language labour. Udmurtia became an important industrial region with notable achievements such as the Kalashnikov automatic rifle (AK-47), IZH passenger cars and motorcycles. Udmurts became a minority in their traditional lands. The Udmurt language was removed from public life and remained nearly invisible in the cities during the late Soviet period due to a hostile social environment.
In 1988, an Udmurt club was established in Izhevsk which later evolved into the cultural association Demen (Together). In 1990, the youth organisation Shundy (Sun) spun off from it. In the autumn of 1991, Udmurt Peoples’ Party was established and the Udmurt Congress assembled in Izhevk, based on which the permanent Udmurt Kenesh (Udmurt Council) was formed. In 1994, an all-Udmurt organisation Vos’ (Prayer) uniting supporters of traditional belief was founded. Some of these organisations operate to this day while others have ceased activities due to lack of enthusiasm and money.
The main traditional livelihood of Udmurts is arable farming while animal husbandry has been secondary, however the latter grew in significance during the Soviet period. Hunting, fishing and beekeeping continues to be practiced, however the role of these livelihoods in the regional economy is insignificant. Since the second half of the 20th century, many Udmurts have been employed in industry and other modern economic sectors.
Most Udmurts are Orthodox, however the old animist belief is still vibrant, especially among southern Udmurts.