Archaeological data indicate that the Udmurt have lived in the area of their present-day home since the ninth century AD. Most of their settlements are on the banks of the rivers, and clans or families build their kar-s (castles, towns, nests) relatively far from one another. Udmurt society still bears the mark of the ancient clan organization, and most Udmurt feel that they belong to one of the approximately seventy clans that have been recorded by historians. The word "kar" has a common Permian root, as shown by the current names of the Komi-Syryenian town Syktyvkar and the Komi-Permyak capital, Kudymkar. For a short period in the early 1930s even the Udmurt capital, Ivzevsk, was called Ivzkar ("town by the river Iz'").
Until the middle of the thirteenth century the Udmurt were mainly occupied with fishing, hunting, beekeeping, limited trade and industry, livestock farming, and military campaigns to expand their territory. Their settlements were destroyed by the Mongolian-Tatar invasion. Some Udmurt shared the fate of other groups, becoming subjects of the conquerors, whereas others launched attacks on the tax and tribute collectors of the Tatar administration from their hiding places in remote parts of the forest.
In 1552 the Moscow-centered Russian Empire overthrew the Tatars by joining forces with the small ethnic groups in the Volga region and occupying Kazan. The above-mentioned ethnic groups—in the view of Russian historians—supported Moscow voluntarily and sought inclusion in the Russian Empire in 1558. This interpretation is incorrect in every detail except that the groups were included in the empire. It was this steadily expanding Russian imperial state, often referred to as "the prison of nations," that later became a part of the Soviet Union, including the Udmurt and their territory.
The Udmurt region, owing to its geographical advantages (navigable rivers) and natural resources (timber and mineral wealth), came under central administration, and only the Russian Orthodox church was permitted by the czar to establish cloisters and church estates. The industrialization of the region began relatively early, in the first half of the eighteenth century. Ironworks, shipyards, and sawmills were established in Votkinsk and Ivzevsk; the first workers were the local "state serfs," but increasing numbers of Russian serfs then settled in Udmurtsk. Most were people who had escaped from estates in neighboring provinces. At the same time, the proselytizing of the Orthodox church grew stronger and stronger and paralleled Russification efforts of the court administration. In spite of industrialization and centralized control, the standard of living remained low, even in the early twentieth century. The growing population of the local towns was almost totally Russian (with a small number of cultural institutions), and the Udmurt villages, most of them without schools, became more and more isolated. Agriculture was rather underdeveloped, and the Udmurt people, not aware of modernization possibilities, firmly preserved their traditions. They accepted Russian Orthodoxy only superficially; the majority of Udmurt remained unconverted even during Revolutionary times. It was this large unconverted population that afforded the czarist government a pretext to initiate one of the most infamous antiminority campaigns, the so-called Multan case of 1892-1896. Thanks to Korolenko's efficient interference, the attention of European countries was drawn to the plight of Udmurt peasants charged with ritual murder, and the accused were acquitted.
By the first two decades of the twentieth century, small groups of Udmurt intellectuals had appeared, primarily teachers, priests, village notaries, and clerks, who took a leading role in forming an ethnic consciousness. What was later to become the Udmurt ASSR took shape with some genuine ethnic variety during the following fifteen years, although the hopes of a better life were soon destroyed. It took the Stalin regime only a few decades to accomplish all that the czarist policy had failed to achieve for centuries. Collectivization and the establishment of kolkhozy swept away the old villages, the towns lost their unique features, and the transformation of the Udmurt people into Soviet citizens progressed in schools and in the military. There were several purges of the old intelligentsia and the younger generations of modern thinkers. The Communist party, the local soviet, the police, the Komsomol, and the Pioneer Organization made their presences felt even in the most private corners of everyday life. These intrusions were reinforced by the continual propaganda of the mass media, delivered both in Udmurt and Russian. As with other ethnic groups, retention of their native language helped the Udmurt to survive, to adhere to traditions, to establish their literature, and to preserve their ethnic identity.