Monday, October 15, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Some Tuvans in the 1940s Wanted Their Land to be a Union Republic ‘on the Baltic Model’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Octoer 15 – Most people around the world have heard of Tuva only because of its diamond-shaped stamps issued in the 1930s, because of the failed plans of the late American physicist Richard Feynman to visit it, or because of the race riots in February 1990 which led to 90 deaths and the departure of a large segment of the ethnic Russian population.

            But one important aspect of that region’s history remained obscure until last week when Bayyr-ool Mongush, a Tuvan historian explained how Moscow decided to incorporate Tuva into the USSR in 1944, an event which most countries did not even take note of until after World War II (

            Between the 1920s and 1944, Tuva was a Soviet satellite, a nominally independent country to the south of Krasnoyarsk. By 1941, Mongush says, the Tuvan leadership had agreed that their country should be absorbed by the USSR, but there was a serious debate both in Kyzyl and in Moscow concerning what status it should have.

            Oyun Polat, a close comrade of Tuvan party leader Salchak Toka, told the historian that Toka visited Moscow just as the German army was approaching the Soviet capital.  Despite the closeness of the front, Polat says Toka told him, “the apparat  of the Central Committee worked like clockwork.”
            Again, according to Polat, Toka recalled that he was summoned to the International Department of the Bolshevik Central Committee, where the deputy chief noted that the Tuvans had asked to be absorbed but “you have not indicated in what status you see the Tuvan Peoples’ Republic having within the USSR.”

            Toka had not expected this question, Polat continued.  And so he responded that the Tuvans “consider that as a border territory with a predominaanc eof people of one nationality, they should be included in the USSR with the rights of a union republic.”  That is because Tuvans saw their future as being analogous to the absorption of the Baltic states.

            In fact, a majority of the Tuvan leadership thought that might be more than they could hope for, with most assuming that “in the best case [Tuva could become] an autonomous republic, but most probably an autonomous oblast within Krasnoyarsk kray.” In the event, none of those three options as they understood them in fact happened.

            After the Bolshevik apparatchik wrote down that the Tuvans wanted union republic status, Toka left, but he immediately returned and said: “Forgive me but the opinion which I expressed is the position of certain members of the Politburo of the Tuvan Peoples Revolutionary Party” but not his own.  

            Toka, who was to lead Tuva until his death in 1973, said that he had “a particular opinion on the question of the status” of Tuva withn the USSR.  He said that in his view, Tuva in terms of economic development “corresponded to an autonomous oblast,” but he suggested its distance from Krasnoyarsk meant that it should have “a special status.”

            And then he said that “personally, the question of status has [only] a secondary importance.  I am certain,” Toka continued, “that [Stalin] will take the only correct decision. For me,” he said, “the most important thing is that the USSR accept the Tuvan people within its own family.”

            According to Polat, Toka acknowledged that on the way to the permanent representation of Tuva in Moscow he was concerned that the Bolshevik leadership would be upset with him because there were splits in the party leadership in Kyzyl and would decide that either he or the others had to be expelled.

            But Polat said he comforted him by saying that he had told the Moscow official the right thing: “If you want to sheep,” he said, “it is best to ask for a camel.”

            Moscow did not take any action on the Tuvan’s request until after the tide of war had changed. Then, in the fall of 1944, 68 years ago this month, Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership made their decision.  Toka said that Lazar Kaganovich told him in 1950 that “even in the Politburo of the Central Committee there was no one position” on how to absorb Tuva.

            Very quickly, the Politburo members did decide that Tuva couldn’t be a union republic or even an autonomous one, but they could not decide whether making it an autonomous oblast was the correct course.  Then Stalin intervened and announced that Tuva would be an autonomous oblast but that it would be directly subordinate to Moscow and not to the kray.

            That gave Tuva enormous bureaucratic and political advantages, Mongush says, allogwing it to get resources that other AOs could not including more aid for the economy and more places in universities, special privileges that allowed the Tuvans to develop a far larger intelligentsia that its size would have predicted.


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