Sunday, December 3, 2017

Moscow’s Last Great Territorial Acquisition Before Crimea – Stalin’s 1944 Annexation of Tuva

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 3 – One of the murkiest events in Soviet history is Stalin’s annexation of Tuva in 1944, an event so obscure that the international community didn’t learn of it until after World War II concluded and one that even today is mired in mystery despite numerous works by Russian and Western scholars, according to Ivanna Ostroshenko.

            In the new issue of Novyye isledovaniya Tuvy, Ostroshenko of Kyiv’s Institute of Oriental Studies offers a 10,000-word survey of what is known and what is still unknown about Tuva’s becoming part of the USSR, a commentary that is interesting not only historically but in terms of the light it casts on the Crimean Anschluss (

            She points out that “the inclusion of Tuva within the USSR in 1944 became the last major territorial acquisition ofhte Soviet Union, an unusual evet, many of details of which remain unknown to this day.” Russian historians stress that annexation was the only way out given Tuva’s location between the USSR and China. But Western ones have adopted a different view.

            Most of them, she says, draw an analogy between the Soviet annexation of the Baltic countries and the Tuvin situation, and they focus their discussions on why Stalin annexed Tuva but did not do the same with the Mongolian Peoples Republic or Xinjiang, which Soviet forces largely occupied at that time.

            Western treatments, she says, usually follow the arguments of Walter Kolarz who in the 1950s argued that several factors were at play: First, by the middle of the 20th century, Soviet leaders were increasingly driven by a desire to restore the empire of the tsars, which included as of 1914 Tuva as a protectorate of the Russian state.

            Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang, on the other hand, were viewed by Moscow at that time as “elements of buffer zone along the Russian border. (Tuva had the advantage that its territory lay between the USSR and the Mongolian Peoples Republic.) In addition, Tuva had significant reserves of uranium, something that became important with the start of the nuclear arms race.

            Based on her review of the published literature and some archives, the Ukrainian historian draws three important conclusions. First, she suggests that Stalin moved in secret because of concerns that otherwise the US and China would object. Presenting them with a fait accompli was clearly in Moscow’s interest.

            Second, despite the fact that Tuvan leaders had asked twice before for annexation – in 1941 and 1943 – Moscow wasn’t prepared to move until it was closer to victory. And the way in which it absorbed Tuva still troubles Russian legal specialists who point out that the referendum required by the Soviet constitution did not occur.

            And third, the annexation was kept secret from the Soviet population and the West until August 1946, nearly two years after it happened, to give Moscow flexibility in speaking with China and Mongolia and to avoid provoking a response from the Western powers who had indicated an intereset in Tuva at conferences during the war.

            Ostroshenko provides a detailed discussion of Russian-Tuvan relations from 1914 to 1944 and of the first acts taken on its inclusion within the USSR.  And especially valuable is her detailed bibliography of Soviet, Russian, Tuvan and Western histories of this complicated history.  But perhaps the most important thing about her article is that it appeared.

            For a Ukrainian historian to be writing about the history of a Moscow-orchestrated annexation of territory after the Crimean Anschluss is a testament to the independence of the Tuvan scholarly community and may even be seen as a challenge to what Vladimir Putin has done in Crimea. If so, the events of 1944 Ostroshenko recounts may be even more relevant in the coming months.   

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