Staunton, April 25 – Between 1989 and 2010, the number of ethnic Russians living in Tuva fell from 98,900 to 49,400, with nine of 16 districts of the republic having no Russians at all or five more having only a handful in district capitals, a trend typically explained by Western observers as being the result of Tuvan violence against Russians in 1989-1990.
That such violence played a role is beyond question, but that it explains everything as many in Moscow and those who rely on Moscow coverage of the regions and republics beyond the ring road assume is wrong, overstating as this does Tuvan responsibility for what happened and understating the role that Russian policies past and present has played.
Roman Tas-ool, a Tuvan commentator provides a useful discussion of why the latter played a far greater role than many assume. His article originally appeared in Tuvinskaya pravda but that source is now inaccessible. Fortunately, his article, “How Tuva Lost the Russians,” has been reposted on the AsiaRussia portal (asiarussia.ru/blogs/21768/).
“The impetus for the departure from Tuva of law-abiding ethnic Russian citizens was given by perestroika,” he says. “But not the events in Sumgait, Osh, or the Fergana valley – they occurred later – but rather the quiet death of the system of assignments of graduates of [Soviet universities].” Already in 1986, there were no longer enough being sent to Tuva to fill critical jobs.
As a result, by 1988, a third of the rural schools had vacancies among foreign language instructors. That led Russians to decide they needed to leave because they had come to see that studying a foreign language would be critical for their children’s future. Also driving them out was the collapse of major industries like asbestos and cobalt.
These social and economic trends were compounded by the new election law. Given that elections began to matter, Russians, already a distinct minority in Tuva, could not hope to retain the top jobs in the republic; and they didn’t. They even lost out in most of the lower-level positions as well. As a result, Tuva looked less welcoming to them than it had.
And when CPSU structures were disbanded in 1991, that “in practice” put an end to the Russian presence “in the key positions in the organs of power of the districts and the republic.” The government became Tuvan in fact as well as in name, Tas-ool continues.
Adding to all this, he says, is the upsurge in crime, personal crime like that which hit the USSR as a whole after 1953 rather than the economic kind which was predominant in most parts of the Russian Federation in the 1990s. There simply wasn’t the kind of economic infrastructure which could be criminally privatized in the republic.