Friday, August 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: On Their National Day, Tuvans Recall When They were Independent

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 16 – Sholban Kara-ool, head of Tuva, said on the eve of his republic’s national day which was marked yesterday, that the independent Tuvan Peoples Republic that existed between 1920 and 1944 remains despite its brevity in “the 1000-year history of Tuva important to Tuvans now.

            The earlier republic, which like Mongolia was a pre-war satellite of the USSR, is very much present “in our lives,” the republic chief added, where it figures “in state symbols, in the administrative-territorial divisions of the republics, in the names” of places and institutions” and in “monuments of history and culture” (

            Consequently, “today it is important to preserve a grateful memory for all those who contributed part of their hearts and their labor to the flowering of their native kray [at that time] and not to forget the lessons of history,” including “inter-ethnic accord” and respect for representatives of other nations living on the territory of Tuva.

            Tuva, one of the 83 federal subjects of the Russian Federation, seldom attracts much attention beyond its pre-1940 stamps and Ralph Leyton’s 1991 book “Tuva or Bust” about American physicist Richard Feynman’s interest in and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to travel to a Buddhist republic which identifies itself as “the center of Asia.”

            But it is in fact a fascinating place, and this latest statement by its head Sholban Kara-ool only adds to that fascination because few republics within the Russian Federation have a relatively recent pre-Russian existence and even fewer have leaders who seem interested in cultivating memories of such independence.

            Tuva or Tannu-Tuva came into existence as a separate and distinct state in 1920 when Bolshevik forces occupied the region and allowed local followers to form a republic. Its quasi-independent status was confirmed by a 1926 treaty between Kyyl and Moscow, but from the beginning, Tuva was run by the Soviets and by graduates of Moscow’s Communist University of Toilers of the East (KUTV).

            Most Tuvans at that time were nomads and followed a mix of Buddhism and shamanism. The Soviets tried to destroy both, albeit with mixed success. On June 25, 1941, Kyzyl declared war on Germany after Hitler invaded the USSR, and on November 1944, at the end of World War II and after repeated requests by the Tuvin authorities, was annexed to the USSR.

            One of the reasons that this past does not seem so distant to Tuvans, perhaps, is that the communist leader of Tuva (himself a graduate of KUTV), Salchak Toka, served as general secretary of the Tuvan People’s Revolutionary Party until it became an obkom of the CPSU, from 1932 to 1973, well within living memory.

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