Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Altay Artist Who Sought Independence for Siberia’s Turkic Peoples Celebrated in His Homeland

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 12 – Today, in Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Altay Republic, more than 300 people assembled to honor the memory of Grigory Choros-Gurkin, an artist who briefly headed an independent Altay Republic during the Russian civil war and who supported independence for all of Siberia’s Turkic peoples.

                Natalya Yekeyeva, the first deputy prime minister of the republic, told the meeting that “the current status of the Altay Republic” as a place “equal and free within” Russia was what Choros-Gurkin sought, but as the Turkist.org portal points out, the Altay artist in fact sought complete independence for his people and their land (gorno-altaisk.info/news/34346 and turkist.org/2015/01/choros-gurkin.html).

            This is a rare case of Altay activism, but it is noteworthy, not only for calling attention to the plight of the various Turkic peoples in Siberia and the Russian Far East but also for helping to explain why there is what for many may seem the curious situation in which even today there are two federal subjects linked to that name, the Altay Republic and the Altay Kray.

            Grigory Choros-Gurkin (1870-1937) was an Altay painter, poet, and ethnographer; but he was also a political leader during the Russian civil war.  Then, when both the Whites and the Reds “tried each in its own way to preserve the former empire from disintegration, the Turkic peoples of Siberia no longer saw themselves as part of Russia,” the Turkist portal says.

            Among those peoples were those of the Altay; and in early 1918,, Choros-Gurkin headed an independent mountainous Altay government, Karakorum-Altay, which “united ‘the lands and waters’ of the region which belonged to free Altay, ‘Jer Suu Khan-Altay.”  His state raised its own flag and began a cultural revolution, opening schools and medical institutions.

            Unfortunately, the then-independent republic did not have sufficient forces to defend itself against the Red Army which “drowned it in blood” and inflicted “real terror in the region,” the Turkist portal continues.  But even Soviet historians acknowledged that this action had the effect of transforming there “’the civil war’ into a genuinely national one.”

            One result of this was that Moscow divided the Altay into two parts, one a kray within the Russian federation and the other “nominally all the same a sovereign state,” a neglected example of Soviet ethnic engineering which reduced the size, population and hence capacity to resist of the Altay Republic.

            The Altay kray has an area of 169,100 square kilometers and a population of 2.4 million, 94 percent of whom are Russian; the Altay Republic has an area of 92,600 square kilometers and a population of 206,000, approximately 40 percent of whom are of Turkic background. By dividing the two, Moscow reduced the latter to a kind of reservation for those groups.

            After the Karakorum-Altay Government was overthrown, Choros-Gurkin fled to Mongolia and then to Tyva which was at the time an independent country.  In the mid-1920s, the artist returned to the Altay, but later he was charged with being “’a Pan-Turkist’ and ‘a Japanese agent’ and shot. He was rehabilitated in 1956.

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