The Bashkir nationality developed from a mixture of Finno-Ugric tribes and a variety of Turkic tribes. They were recognized as a distinct people by the ninth century, when they settled an area between the Volga, Kama, Tobol, and Ural rivers, where most Bashkirs still live. Conquered by the Mongols of the Golden Horde in the thirteenth century, the Bashkirs were absorbed by different hordes after the breakup of the Golden Horde. Since the sixteenth century, they have been under Russian rule. Impoverished and dispossessed of their land by Russian settlers, the once-nomadic cattle breeders were forced to labor in the mines and new factories being built in eighteenth-century Russia. For two centuries prior to 1917, the Bashkirs had participated—together with the Chuvash, the Tatars, and other nationalities in the area—in the many violent outbreaks and popular uprisings that swept the Russian Empire. After the revolutions of 1917, a strong Bashkir nationalist and Muslim movement developed in the territory of the Bashkirs, where much of the Civil War was fought. In their quest for an autonomous state, the Bashkirs sought the support of both the Bolsheviks and the White forces. In the end, most joined with the Bolsheviks, and in February 1919 the Bashkir Autonomous Republic was established, the first autonomous republic within the Russian Republic.
The great majority of Bashkirs were Sunni Muslims. They had originally adopted Islam in the tenth century, but many were forced by the Russians between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries to convert to Christianity. Most, however, reconverted to Islam in the nineteenth century.
In 1989 over 1.4 million Bashkirs lived in the Soviet Union. Nearly 864,000 of them resided in the Bashkir Autonomous Republic, where they made up about 22 percent of the population. The Bashkirs were only the third largest nationality in the Bashkir Autonomous Republic, behind the Russians and the Tatars.
The Bashkir language belongs to the West Turkic group of languages. Until the Soviet period, the Bashkirs did not have their own literary language, using at first the so-called Turki language and in the early twentieth century a Tatar language. Both languages used an Arabic script as their written language. In 1940 Soviet authorities gave the Bashkir language a Cyrillic script. In 1989 about 72 percent of the Bashkirs claimed Bashkir as their first language.
The Bashkirs remained predominantly rural and agricultural; less than 25 percent of them lived in urban areas in the 1980s. Although Ufa, the capital of the Bashkir Autonomous Republic, had over 1 million people in 1987, the overwhelming majority were Russians.