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Tuva: Russia's Tibet or the Next Lithuania?

Ronald McMullen

— Tuva deserves attention. Yes, it is small. But Tuva, this lost corner of Central Asia, is eminently relevant to the understanding of the nature of the Soviet union.1

So wrote the German scholar Otto Manchen-Helfen after visiting the independent state of Tannu-Tuva in 1929. Manchen-Helfen, arguably the first westerner to visit this remote and unknown country, felt that Tuva's relationship with Moscow exemplified important dynamics of the center-periphery nexus of the day.

More than six decades later, Tuva again deserves our attention for its ability to frame critical issues surrounding the turbulent politics of the Russian Federation. The international media is filled with reports of current debate in Moscow regarding the nature of the federal state in Russia. Not only is the degree of autonomy of the country's 88 administrative regions at stake, but so too is the very continuance of Russia's territoral integrity as challenged by ethnonationalists in several of the Federation's ethnically non-Russian republics.

Tuva's course, like that of most of the Russian Federation, will be influenced largely by events occuring in Moscow. Should the political stalemate and economic entropy emanating from the center continue or deepen, however, Moscow's rules would become increasingly irrelevant to peripheral peoples in their search for organizing principles of government to provide security and life's necessities. In such a case, events in outlying regions could generate similar actions elsewhere, and/or precipitate dramatic reactions in the polity's center. Thus, the near-to-mid-term political development of the Russian Federation may very well hinge on the interactive relationships between Moscow and this sprawling country's peripheral regions.

An independent country from 1921 to 1944, today Tuva is one of 20 republics of the Russian Federation. These ethnic-based political units were created by the Soviet system to give nominal autonomy to non-Russian peoples living within the RSFSR, but, in fact, most have an ethnic Russian majority. Of the Russian Federation's 148 million citizens, some 26 million are not Russian, and the republics, along with two less autonomous types of ethnic-based territories, account for more than half of the Russian Federation's total surface area.

The 200,000 Tuvans share their Tunisia-size homeland (larger than Florida) with approximately 100,000 ethnic Russians and over a million reindeer, yaks, Bactrian camels, and other herd animals. Once mistakenly thought to be the exact center of Asia, Tuva consists of high plains and valleys ringed by 10,000-foot mountain peaks which have long sheltered the country geographically, culturally, and politically from events in Sibera to the north and Mongolia to the south (see map). Traditionally Tuvans might be described as Turkic-speaking Mongol herdsmen who practice a form of Mahayana Buddhism similar to that of Tibet and have developed a distinctive culture featuring, inter alia, the bizarre musical style of harmonic overtone 'throat singing' enabling an individual to produce two tones simultaneously.

The case of Tuva provides an illuminating and intriguing bellwether of the development of center-periphery relations in the Russian Federation. While no one can predict the final outcome, theoretical and empirical arguments will help us analyze the potential dynamics and implications involved should either the centripetal or centrifugal forces gain the upper hand in Moscow's ongoing contest for political control with the regions. Following a section on political developments in Tuva, these alternatives will be presented metaphorically with Tuva as `Russia's Tibet' or `the next Lithuania'.

Independence Gained, Lost

The 1911 Revolution in China loosened the Manchu's grip on their remote Tuvan satrap, allowing Russian traders and settlers to trickle into the fur-rich regions. In 1914 Tsar Nicholas II declared Tuva a protectorate and increased the Russian presence significantly in the newly acquired march. The Tuvans, however,

...feared all strangers and disliked the Russian newcomers as much as they disliked their former Chinese masters. They spoke of the Chinese only as 'yellow devils', and their attitude to the European colonists can be characterized by the Tuvinian saying, 'The Russian is not a man'.2

The chaos surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war created something of an authority and power vacuum in Tuva, which local nationalist leaders sought to fill. Mongols, Reds, and Whites all vied for influence among the 60,000 Tuvans and 10,000 Russian settlers in the region. Chairman Smirnov of the Siberian Revolutionary Committee sent the following encrypted telegraph to Lenin and Trotsky on Moscow on 26 January 1920:

The Mongols have entered the province and ejected our [Russian] peasants from the villages. These peasants fought against Kolchak [the White reader Admiral Kolchak] and were independent of him. The Sojoty [Tuvans] are a nomadic tribe oppressed by both Mongols and Russians. Do you consider it necessary to allow the Mongols possession of the Uranchaj [Tuvan] region or to take it by force of arms or to organise an Uranchaj Soviet Republic on the Bashkir pattern? Let me know.3

Although Lenin's reply to Smirnov is unrecorded, apparently the Kremlin chose Smirnov's third option, and in the following year the Russian protectorate over Tuva was officially ended.

Tannu-Tuva existed as an independent statre from 1921 until it was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Officially, 'Tannu', meaning taiga, was dropped in 1926 and the country became the People's Republic of Tuva, although it continued to be referred to by the former name.4 Recognized as a sovereign state by Moscow, Tannu-Tuva issued its own postage stamps and currency, the Aksha, enacted a national constitution and criminal code, and hosted at least two diplomatic missions in its capital, Kyzyl. Its first ruler, Prime Minister Donduk, sought to strengthen ties with Mongolia and establish Buddhism as the state religion. Soviet ethnologist L.P. Potapov noted that

Tuvans were in complete political and economic and also spiritual dependence on the feudal and theocratic aristocracy. More than 5,000 lamas employed in about 30 khure (lamaseries) and more than 1,000 shamans were the 'teachers' and 'tutors' of the working peasantry.5

Such developments in Tuva unsettled the Kremlin, which orchestrated a coup carried out in 1929 by five young Tuvan graduates of Moscow's 'Communist University of the Toilers of the East'. In 1930 the pro-Soviet region discarded the state's Tibetan-Mongol script in favor of a Latin alphabet designed for Tuva by Russian linguists, and in 1943 Cyrillic script replaced the Latin. Under the leadership of Party Secretary Toka, ethnic Russians were granted full citizenship rights and Buddhist and Mongol influences on the Tuvan state and society were systematically reduced.6 By the time of its annexation by the USSR in 1944, Tannu-Tuva was a docile, perhaps even model, Soviet satellite state.

The exact circumstances surrounding Tannu-Tuva's incorporation into the USSR in 1944 remain obscure. One scholar observes that the incorporation took place 'apparently voluntarily',7 while Nahaylo and Swoboda write that 'on 17 August 1944 Tuva petitioned to be admitted to the USSR (four years earlier, the three Baltic state had been made to do the same).'8 Kolarz terms the Soviet takeover an 'annexation', and attributes its timing to an increased interest in Tuva's uranium deposits as Soviet atomic research shifted into high gear.9

Adam Ulam convincingly argues that the annexation of Tuva, following the Nationalist Chinese 'liquidation of the predominant Russian interest' in the border region of Xinjiang in 1943, was in effect Stalin's shot across the bow of China to keep hands off the Soviet satellite state of Mongolia, which, like Xinjiang, the Chinese also claimed.10 If Ulam is correct Tuva's petition for incorporation was probably orchestrated by pro-Soviet element in Kyzyl to further Stalin's perceived geostratic goals vis-a-vis China, much as the Baltic states had been coerced into joining the USSR as a buffer against threats from the west.

From 1944 until 1990 the Tuvan Autonomous Oblast (upgraded to Autonomous Republic in 1062) rather reluctantly underwent modernization and social mobilization, Soviet style. Collective farms bearing the names such as 'Road to Communism' and 'Stalin' sought to modernize agriculture on a large-scale, mechanized basis.11 Concrete apartment complexes housing Russian technocrats appeared on the outskirts of Kyzyl, mineral deposits were developed, dams constructed, electrification begun, and scores of stae-run boarding schools were established for rural children. Patapov opines in 1954 that 'the central hospital in Kyzyl is wonderfully equipped with modern equipment.'12 Overall progress was slow, however, and as late as 1944 Lydolph commented that 'the last strongholds of native life are in the Tuva and Buryat ASSRs.'13 During this period Tuva was among the most insular and obscure places on earth.

Post-Soviet Stirrings

Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost allowed long-suppressed Tuvan aspirations and frustrations to resurface. Pent up nationalist sentiment burst forth in the summer of 1990 as anti-Russian rioting engulfed Tuva's urban areas, leaving scores dead. The nationalistic outpouring swelled the ranks of the Tuvan Democratic Movement, founded in February 1990 and led by Tuva's future president, Kadyr-ool Bicheldei.14 Russian civilians were attacked by unruly Tuvan mobs, government facilities were damaged, and a general air of insurrection gripped the republic. Up to 3500 Russian professionals reportedly fled Tuva in the wake of the 1990 ethnic disturbances.15 Regarding the ethnonational discontent in Tuva, one Russian observer explained that 'essentially the people of Tuva were subjected to forced deportation from their own historical ways to the alien realities of barracks socialism.'16

In early 1991 Tuva failed in its attempt to be upgraded to full Union Republic status within the USSR. Had this effort succeeded, Tuva would probably now be independent. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, politics in Tuva have centered on the rivalry between 'nationalist' and 'nationalist-democratic' tendencies. The nationalist faction favors the status quo, including the incumbency of the Tuvan-Russian nomenklatura. Collectivists at heart, its members are nationalist primiarily in that they seek the largest possible share of the spoils of the Soviet system for the Tuvan government (i.e., themselves). The nationalist-democratic faction, headed by Bicheldei, favors the maximum feasible autonomy — or independence — from Moscow and relatively liberal politico-economic policies.

Tuva: Russia's Tibet

Tuva, like Tibet, consists of a mountainous, underdeveloped region tucked away in the Eurasian heartland, traditionally inhabited by Buddhist herdsmen, and relatively recently added to the state's official domain as a strategic buffer. Both Tuvans and Tibetans chafe at the cultural and demographic dilution of their homelands as Han Chinese and Russian influence has grown in past decades. Portions of both populations strive for independence from a metropole vastly more populous and powerful. Both look to the Dalai Lama to champion their cause on the world arena, and have partisans in the West; this Tibetan torch is carried by Hollywood personalities such as Richard Gere, while Tuva is best known in America among the California-based 'Friends of Tuva', an informal organization inspired by Ralph Leighton's Tuva ot Bust; Richard Feynman's Last Journey.17

Most importantly, the Tibetan metaphor represents the paramountcy of centripetal forces resisted valiantly but hopelessly by traditional peoples seeking to protect a vanishing culture and resurrect a lost polity.

Tuva has been Russia's Tibet since 1944, and chaces are that it will remain so. Should Moscow see the return of an authoritarian, de facto unitary state system (even in the so-called Pinochet scenario) Tuvans' discontent with their lack of autonomy and/or independence will certainly broaden and deepen. However, as the Kurile Islands issue bears witness, Russian nationalists feel the Russian onion has been peeled down to the core and will mightily resist further disintegration. Tuva stands no chance militarily in an outright struggle against the power of the center. A true federal system with a astrong but restrained center, as envisaged in the new Federal Treaty, would probably diminish Tuvan separatism in proportion to the amount of control ceded to the republics.

Tuvan resistance to control from the the center is apt to be increasingly conservative, that is, socialist and traditional in nature, should President Boris Yeltsin or other proponents of pluralistic capitalism prevail and press their liberal reforms country-wide. A recent Russian study of this issue concludes that '...pressure for the center will be resisted no only by the autonomies, but also by purely Russian lands with the dominant "socialist" attitude and those in the "agrarian" stage of socioeconomic development'.18 This study categorizes Tuva as being both agrarian and a stronghold og socialist orientation. Furthermore, in the April 1993 Russian referendum, Tuvans rejected a special initiative that would have allowed private land ownership,19 perhaps because it was anti-socialist of perhaps due to the negative implications for Tuva's traditional free-range herding.

Moscow's inability to dictate and implement policy in the regions bodes well for the provincial status quo and the conservatives who control the organs of state in Tuva and many of the other republics. A functioning but 'soft' center is unlikely to press home the radical policy changes (either liberal or reactionary) that might fan the fires of secession. Some might argue that the Russian Federation in its current form will remain viable only as long as it remains superficial. A continuation of gridlock in Moscow or even the enactment of a 'soft center' Federal Treaty appended to the new Russian constitution means the nomenklatura and conservative power structure will continue to hold sway in Kyzyl and not likely join hands with radical separatists — Tuva remains Russia's Tibet.

Tuva: The Next Lithuania?

Tuva, like Lithuania and the other Baltic states, emerged from Imperial Russia after World War I to enjoy two decades of independence, only to be resubmerged in to Stalin's Soviet Union. Like the Lithuanians, Tuvans bridled unter Soviet tutelage and, against all odds, kept alive the flicker of hope of renewed independence. Lithuania played a seminal role in the disintegration of the Soviet union and served as the critical flashpoint in the center-periphery relations during the final year and a half of the USSR's existence. Furthermore, Lithuania demonstrated that Union Republics could aspire to — and achieve — independence in the contect of political crisis in Moscow depite the center's overwhelming preponderence of might an dpower. Could Tuva play the role of Lithuania vis-a-vis the Russian Federation?

In 1992 we began to see serios questions being raised as to the survivability of Russia in its present form. Jean Radvanyi, in 'And What If Russia Breaks Up? Toward New Regional Divisions' posits the possibility of a half dozen Kazakhstan-size states emerging from the borders of today's Russia.20 A late 1992 study by Russian scholars concluded that 'in the foreseeable future Russia will not be able to be unified and democratic at the same time'.21 Paul Goble, a leading expert on nationality issues in the former Soviet Union, contends in an article entitled 'The Coming Collapse of the Russian Federation' that 'the Russian Federation is unlikely to survive 1993 in its current borders...'22

Coincidental to these seismic rumblings are indications of rising seccesionist ardor in Tuva itself. In May 1993 the Tuva Supreme Soviet enacted a constitutional amendment granting Tuva the right to self-determination and secession from Russia if so voted in a republic-wide referendum.23 An American official resident in Russia has several times been approached by Tuvans who inquired about the possibility and procedures for US recognition of Tuvan independence.24 Further, Russian media reports in mid-1993 indicate that 'Separatist sentiment has recently bee gaining ground in Tuva... Tuva's withdrawal from the Federation Treaty appears a fairly real possibility.'25

The political intrigue in Moscow pitting presidency against parliament, center against periphery, and the Machiavellian machinations of drafting, ratifying, and implementing a new constitution are likely to go through several iterations before a definitive outcome eventually emerges. During this time of political flux three cases may develop which could lead to serious attempts by Tuva to exit the Russian Federation. The last of these secessionist scenarios, presented below, is most likely, and could very well set in motion dynamics leading to the wholesale disintegration of the Russian Federation in the process. The first case entails a unilateral declaration of independence led by 'nomenklatura nationalists' in the face of a Pinochet-like coup in Moscow staged by authoritarian market-oriented reformers. This secessionist effort by the Old Guard, mounted in the name of 'democracy' and self-determination by the conservative Tuvan (and Russian) nomenklatura in Kyzyl, would certainly be deemed illegitimate in Moscow and elsewhere in the international community and ultimately fail.

A second case arises if the current political conflict at the center generates a paralytic shock to Russia's political system, or worse, civil war, collapse, and/or anarchy. If the center becomes nonfunctional, peripheral peoples would seek to organize society in a way to provide security and life's necessities.26 Conservative and 'national-democratic' forces in Tuva would perhaps close ranks (or fight it out), declare themselves rid of Moscow, and attempt to go it alone. Few states would recognize Tuva in this case (perhaps except Mongolia) unless the paralysis at the center were so deep and continuing that an integral, functioning Russian state was deemed unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The most probable case, however, is one in which Russia's republics auction off their support in a constitutional showdown to the side offering the promise of the largest degree of autonomy. Depending on the desperateness of those bidding for the republics' backing, the bif could easily go as high as the de facto and de jure right to secede. The Federation's 68 other regional formations might demand rights equal to those of the 20 non-Russian republics, setting up a volatile situation in which a single precipitous action could loose a centrifugal maelstrom. Tuva — like Lithuania in the waning days of the Soviet Union — is a prime candidate for first exit as separatist sentiment is high, Tuvans form a majority of the population, and the republic has an external border. Moreover, having been annexed into the Soviet Union under dubious circumstances, Tuva could more easily garner recognition from Moscow and elsewhere than most other contenders.

In early 1990 it was virtually inconceivable that within two years Lithuania would re-emerge as a sovereign stte and in the process help spur the collapse of the Soviet Union along nationalist lines. In 1993 the repetition of this dynamic in the Russian Federation appears much less 'inconceivable'.

Conclusions and Implications

Tuva is not, of course, exactly Lithuania or Tibet. It lacks the developed economy of Lithuania or the extensively preserved cultural foundations of Tibet. In 1931 Manchen-Helfen opined that 'Tuva cannot exist independently'.27 One Russian scholar, bemused by this author's interest, described Tuva as 'the most wretched place on earth'.28 Clearly, Tuva is no Shangri-la, and is of little concern to almost everyone today but a handful of eccentric stamp collectors, geographers, ethnographers, and several thousand armchair Friends of Tuva.

However, 'wretchedness', obscurity, and apparent economic nonviability by no means preclude a people from coming under the powerful sway of ethnonationalism and the drive for self-determination — or, as we have recently seen in Eritrea, from achieving internationally recognized independence.

Tuva as Russia's Tibet will gradually fade from consciousness into the haze of Eurasia's high entral plateau. Tuva as the next Lithuania would set in motion centrifugal dynamics that could shatter the Russian Federation. Such an outcome has the potential to '...transform the international system even more profoundly than did the disintegration of the Soviet Union'.29 Given these potential stakes and the absolutely astounding changes we have witnessed in the former Sovet bloc since 1989, Tuva, as a bellwether for center-periphery relations in the Russian Federation, does indeed, as Manchen-Helfen argued, deserve out attention.


  1. Otto Manchen-Helfen, Journey to Tuva, trans. Alan Leighton (Los Angeles: Ethnographics Press, 1992), p.186.
  2. Walter Kolarz, The Peoples of the Soviet Far East (NY: Parager, 1954), p.163.
  3. Jan Meijer, The Trotsky Papers 1917-1922 (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p.19.
  4. Toomas Alatula, `Tuva - a State Reawakens', Soviet Studies 44/45 (Oct. 1992), p.883.
  5. L.P. Potapov, 'The Tuvans', in M.G. Levin and L.P. Potapov (eds.) The Peoples of Siberia (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964), p.401.
  6. Kolarz (note 2), pp.164-6.
  7. David Hooson, The Soviet Union; oeople and Regions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1966), p.61.
  8. Bohdan Nahaylo and Victor Swoboda, Soviet Disunion; A HIstory of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR (NY: The Free Press, 1990), p.364.
  9. Kolarz (note 2), pp.168.
  10. Adam B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence; Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-73, (NY: Praeger, 1974), p.473.
  11. Potapov (note 5), p.405.
  12. Ibid., p.421.
  13. Paul E. Lydolph, Geography of the USSR, 2nd ed. (NY: Wiley, 1970), p.311.
  14. Alan Sanders, 'Siberian Shakeout; Russians Flee as Tuvans Press for Sovereignty', Far East Economic Review, 30 Sept. 1990, p.30.
  15. Gennadiy Gyplov, 'Tuva's Troubling Winds: Leap from Feudalism into Socialism was a Fall into Poverty and Oblivion', Rossiskaya Gazeta, (Moscow), 13 Sept. 1991, p.3. FBIS, Soviet Union; Republic Affairs, 4 Oct. 1991, p.62.
  16. A. Bursov and Docent G. Smirnov, 'The Heart of Asia is Also Aching', Rossiskaya Gazeta, (Moscow), 5 Dec. 1991, p.3. Soviet Union; Republic Affairs, 27 Dec. 1991, p.51.
  17. Ralph Leighton, Tuva or Bust: Richard Feynman's Last Journey (NY: Norton, 1991).
  18. 'Issue of Regionalism vs Centralized Power Explored', Rossiya (Moscow), 16 Dec. 1992, p.14. FBIS, Central Eurasia, 25 Feb. 1993, p.93.
  19. Vasiliy Danilenko, 'Tuva Constitution Contains Right To Secession', Itar-Tass (Moscow), 11 May 1993. FBIS, Daily Report, Central Eurasia, 11 May 1993, p.47.
  20. Jean Radvanyi, 'And What If Russia Breaks Up? Towards News Regional Divisions', Post-Soviet Geography 33/2 (Feb. 1992), p.73.
  21. 'Issue of Regionalism vs Centralized Power Explored' (note 18), pp.95-6.
  22. Paul Goble, 'The Coming Collape of the Russian Federation', NEFTE Compass (a weekly publication on oil and gas in the FSU and E. Europe), 15 Jan 1993, p.1.
  23. Danilenko, p.47.
  24. John C. Reppert, Army Attaché, US Embassy in Moscow, unclassified interview with the author at West Point, NY, 29 April 1992.
  25. Zhanna Trofimova, 'Report Finds Tuva Leaning Toward Independence', Segodnya (Moscow), 18 May 1993, p.3. FBIS, Daily Report, Central Eurasia, 20 May 1993, pp.48-9.
  26. Ronald K. McMullen, 'Ethnic Conflict in Russia: Implications for the United States', Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 16/3 (Fall 1993).
  27. Manchen-Helfen (note 1), p.226.
  28. Andrei Shoumikhin, President, Inst. for Conflict Resolution (Moscow), unclassified interview with the author at West Point, NY, 25 Aug. 1992.
  29. Goble (note 22).

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