Philately Will Get It Everywhere
From Andrew Higgins in Kyzyl, Tuva
It is hardly the centre of the world but, boasts the gold inscription on a forlorn
monument overlooking the frozen waters of the River Yenisei, this lonely land of sheep,
shamans and snow is the ``Centre of Asia'' --- the mountainous midpoint to nowhere of a
continent stretching from the Urals to the South China Sea.
Nor is this Tuva's only claim to fame: it was here, according to the German
ethnographer Otto Manchen-Helfen, that mankind acquired its first domesticated animal ---
the tame reindeer.
Tuva also pioneered throat singing, the art of converting vocal chords into a whining
human bag pipe, and flame-proof footwear --- boots woven from asbestos --- known locally
as ``mountain wool'' and worn by shamans to prove their supernatural powers by walking
across log fires.
More recently, Tuva displayed its inventive spirit by slicing off yak tails to create
bee-hive hair-dos, a Soviet-era fashion imported in the 1960s across the mountains of
southern Siberia to the capital, that was founded in the dying days of the tsarist empire
as White Tsar and renamed since as Kyzyl --- Red.
But, grumbled the President of this remote Russian region of some 310,000 people,
around 20,000 reindeer and many, many sheep, obscurity rather than fame tends to be Tuva's
lot. Even the Kremlin, which considers Tuva, along with Chechnya and 19 other so-called
autonomous republics, an inseparable part of its domain, barely knows where to find it on
``It is no secret that many bureaucrats in Russia, even ministers and deputy ministers,
don't have any idea where Tuva is located. They never come here,'' complained President
Oorzhak Sherig-ool, a former Communist Party apparatchik now struggling to balance timid
demands for greater autonomy with the fact that Moscow provides some 90 per cent of Tuva's
budget - and controls an army that, after Chechnya, leaves no doubt about the perils of
secession. ``Separatism has some appeal among youth and the intelligentsia. Such a word
does exist. But from a practical point of view the republic will not have any such
possibility in the foreseeable future.''
A vassal of China, Mongolia, tsarist Russia and, after a brief period of nominal
independence between 1921 and 1944, of the Soviet Union and then of Boris Yeltsin's
Russia, Tuva has always had trouble making its own voice heard - apart from the
strangulated drone of its throat singers.
A plan is now afoot, however, that may make Moscow and just possibly the rest of the
world pay attention.
While Chechnya took up arms in a doomed attempt to assert its own identity, Tuva has
chosen a rather more modest weapon --- small paper triangles printed in Austria and
decorated with pictures of camels, sheep and wrestlers. Each one is emblazoned with the
same logo: The Republic of Tuva.
Tuva is far from recovering its lost, and never more than symbolic, statehood but, if
the local parliament, known as the Supreme Khural, presses ahead with a meek but still
provocative act of insubordination, it will soon announce the rebirth of its own postage
``You should consider this an example of oriental-style diplomacy. You don't go
straight and beat your head on the wall but make your point in a soft way,'' explained
Becheldey Kaadyr-ool, chairman of parliament and initiator of a philatelic venture already
condemned by the Russian Communications Ministry as an intolerable act of lese majeste,
``We don't need to shout about secession from Russia but we can still show this is a
According to Sanchi Bair chairman of the People's Party of Sovereign Tuva, Tuva's new
stamps mark an ``event of world significance''. In reality, they are intended for use only
inside Tuva - a somewhat limited function in a region where much of the population is
still nomadic, semi-literate and little interested in letter writing. More important than
their postal purpose, though, is the nostalgia link the newly minted but not yet issued
stamps provide with the period between 1921 and 1944 when Tuva, then known as Tannu-Tuva,
existed, at least in name, as an independent state.
Then too Tuva put itself on the map with stamps. In a philatelic frenzy that horrified
serious collectors but delighted children across Europe and America, the world was
inundated by exotic triangles and diamonds with pictures of camels. The new stamps copy
the old design.
Between 1934 and 1936 Tuva issued 70 new sets of stamps --- more than most of the rest
of western Europe and the US combined. (Britain issued only one new stamp during the same
period.) Stanley Gibbons, the venerable stamp dealing firm on the Strand, dismissed the
eccentric Tuvan stamps as a money-making gimmick unrelated to postage and refused even to
list the Tuvan oeuvre in its catalogue.
``They were considered completely laughable and most ended up in children's packets of
10 for sixpence,'' said Steve Matthews, the London firm's current valuer and buyer. ``They
fell outside the scope of the catalogue. But, like most things, they have gained some
respectability with age.''
Among those beguiled by these near worthless but colourful bits of paper in the 1930s
was Richard Feynman, a schoolboy stamp-collector who would later help the US build the
atom bomb, win a Nobel prize for physics and, before his death in 1988, make Tuva the
focus of a minor cult in California.
Turkic in language and a mixture of Mongolian and Turkic blood in race, ethnic Tuvans
today account for around 60 per cent of the population and are only now beginning to
revive a faith in Tibetan Buddhism and shamanistic ritual that Moscow did its best to
obliterate. When Russian fur-traders, gold prospectors and merchants first began settling
in Tuva in the 19th century, local herdsmen coined a phrase that still sums up a
prevailing view of Russia: ``offer a Russian a finger and he takes your whole hand.''
But even more outspoken advocates of greater autonomy worry about asking for too much
back. ``The war in Chechnya has put us on alert,'' said Mr Becheldey, the parliamentary
chairman. ``The people of Tuva, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and other republics are not
stupid. We have all drawn our conclusions from the situation in Chechnya.''
And such is Tuva's dependence on Russia that even its attempt at a philatelic revival
recalls not so much a lost era of self-rule as its complete subservience. The stamps that
ended up in Professor Feynman's album in the 1930s were not the work of a plucky new
nation. They were designed in Moscow, printed in Moscow, franked in Moscow and sold abroad
by a Moscow state trading firm to earn hard currency for Moscow. Their design alone should
have given the game away: one showed a camel chasing a railway locomotive. There have
never been any trains in Tuva.
Return to Friends of Tuva Newsletter Number 12.