In Tuva, Tradition Abides As
Conquerors Come and Go
Mountain people inch cautiously
away from Russia
By Kathy Lally
Moscow Bureau of the Sun
KYZYL, Russia - First they appear to be only clouds of dust clinging to the foothills
of the dry brown mountains, then they become three small boys on horseback. galloping in
the afternoon sun, driving a herd of wild horses before them.
In the Russian autonomous republic of Tuva, near the frontier where Russia, Mongolia,
China and Kazakhstan converge, these 9- and 10-year-olds are living the life they were
born to --- taming horses, herding sheep and cattle, riding as if carried by the wind that
blows so fiercely across the steppe.
Life would seem to be following the rhythms it has for thousands of years, but change
is at hand.
The Tuvan people have clung to their identity through centuries of rule by outsiders
--- Manchurians, Mongols, the Russian czars and then the Soviets. And now the aftershocks
of the Soviet Union's collapse are rumbling closer. The Tuvans are hoping this upheaval
will not be as traumatic as the last one.
When Tuva entered the Soviet empire in 1944 --- as the last republic to join --- the
territory gave up its economic freedom and became subservient to Moscow.
``Here, national sentiment is very strong,'' said Kaadyr-ool Bicheldey, chairman of
Tuva's parliament. ``We remember very well being an independent state. After 1944, the
course was changed. All the money came from the center.''
``Now Tuva is seeking its place in the civilized world.''
In their hearts, the native Tuvans would like independence from Russia. Their heads
tell them they are too poor to live apart, and the specter of Chechnya --- where Moscow
has brutally crushed a breakaway republic --- reminds them that any move toward
independence might come only at terrible cost.
So Tuva is hoping for a relationship with Russia that allows Tuva to continue accepting
handouts from Moscow even as the region tries to become more nearly self-sufficient.
For now, though. Tuva is a dependent; it generates only 18 percent of its budget. All
the rest -- 82 percent --- comes from Moscow.
The average income per person is $33 a month, compared with $68 in the rest of Russia.
``If we manage to decrease the subsidy by 5 to 6 percent a year,'' said President
Sherig-ool Oorzhak, ``we will end our complete dependence on the center.''
Then our people will feel more of a sense of their national identity.''
Tuva has been a colony for Russia, providing coal, asbestos, cobalt and gold. Thousands
of settlers were sent here. Russians now account for a third of the population of 300,000.
``The raw materials were taken away,'' said Mr. Bicheldey. ``It was much easier in
previous days to send food for 300,000 people than to invest money for the development of
Tuva's future will be written by the young, like the boys who are bringing In the wild
horses, 20 miles to the west of Kyzyl at the herding settlement called Plok Kok-teski.
They rush headlong into the wind and sun. But their fathers feel only uncertainty.
``Under the Soviet system, we had stable salaries,'' said Maxim Kirgiz, the head of one
if the two families living at Plok Kok-teski. ``We were paid twice a month. We were sure
of life here.''
They raised cattle and sheep, as their forebears had for thousands of years. But they
didn't have to worry about finding buyers. The state took what the herdsmen raised, and it
paid them salaries.
The Soviet system exacted a heavy toll for this security. It forced most Tuvans onto
collective farms, nearly ending the nomadic way of life. And it made them dependent on the
pay envelope, rather than on themselves.
``Now we have big problems,'' Mr. Kirgiz said. ``We have to look for markets ourselves,
and no one wants to buy.''
And now that the iron controls have relaxed and the salaries have disappeared, many
Tuvans find themselves adrift.
Sergei Mongush, who as Tuva's interior minister is its top policeman, says the crime
rate in Tuva is the highest in Russia. Much of the crime is traditional, but gone wild.
Cattle rustling is the most common offense. In the past, one or two cattle would be
stolen at a time. In the past three years, thieves have begun taking entire herds.
There are also many more murders --- 251 last year, nearly three times the figure of
five years ago.
Mr. Mongush blames the crimes on a deep dislocation and reliance on drinking to
ameliorate it. ``None of the murders is premeditated,'' he said. ``They all involve
``Traditionally in our society, men never drank until after they were 30 years old.
Women never drank at all. And now they're starting to drink as teen-agers.''
Even those Tuvans who didn't go to the collective farms were irrevocably changed.
The Soviets instituted mandatory secondary education, which meant that children from
nomadic families or those who lived in remote settlements were taken from their families
and sent to schools in the city to live. And children living at schools could not become
But even after 50 years of Soviet control, Tuvan traditions didn't die out entirely.
In 1944, Tuva's population included 75,000 nomads, and 6,000 nomadic families remain
like the two living at the Plok Kok-teski outpost.
The boys herding horses there, Sholbon Khovalig, 9, Aibek Ondar, 10, and Azim Drandol,
12, go to school in the winter while the families live in wooden houses on the steppe. In
the summer, the families will move a half dozen times or more, seeking higher, cooler
elevations and greener pastures.
In summer, home is a yurt, a large, round felt covered tent. The walls are made of
wooden lattice, opening like an accordion and closing up tight for moving.
Tuva is 80 percent mountains, the surface ranging from desert to subarctic evergreen
In the south, the herdsmen raise camels. In the north it's reindeer (some historians
suggest that the Tuvans were the first people to domesticate reindeers). And in the center
they raise cattle, sheep and horses.
At 14, Akhmed Mongush is already a man. He has finished school. And when the men take
turns breaking wild horses, he is among them.
He is thrown by a horse. and so are the adults. Each time, there is long, hilarious but
not unkind laughter.
Everyone lends a hand; friends and neighbors share a deep intimacy with each other and
They don't notice, either, that their government is deeply grateful to them for
preserving some of the nations traditions. The government is also encouraging a revival of
Buddhism, which was eliminated by the Communists.
Mr. Bicheldey, the chairman of parliament, keeps a statue of the Buddha in his office.
``I'm a believer,'' he said, ``within the limits of common sense.''
Tuva's situation, he said, is complicated by growing nationalism mixed with the
economic dependence on Russia.
But he suggests that Tuva can continue to exist as a part of Russia --- as long as Tuva
retains its status as an autonomous republic, which permits it to have its own parliament
and some authority over its own affairs.
The Russian nationalists, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who talk of dissolving ethnic
republics, make Mr. Bicheldey uneasy.
Such a change would mean rule by a governor appointed from Moscow.
``If such steps are taken,'' Mr. Bicheldey said, ``it will be taken as destroying our
statehood... This would mean destruction for Russia and Tuva.''
He expresses gratitude to foreigners who have found their way to Tuva: he suggests that
every visitor is a witness to an always fragile culture.
``If something bad happens,'' he said, ``we want the world to know where Tuva is, and
who we are.''
Though life is poor and the work unremitting, the families share the joy of deep
accomplishment. Children and adults, relatives and neighbors, rely on each other to
survive. They live with zest.
``I couldn't live anywhere else,'' said Dashdyn-ool Sholbon, looking out of the window
at a landscape that never ends. ``Here we live with nature. I can go wherever I want. We
have open space, and horses, and nature.''
Outside, the wind is blowing furiously. A sheep has been killed in honor of several
guests. The feast, such as it is, is about to be served.
The sheep has been boiled in the traditional way and is served with blood sausage and
bread --- the meat tough and stringy.
After the meal, musicians fill the air with the distinctive sounds of throat singing
--- a mysterious, enchanting art handed down from father to son.
The men and boys drift in and out, looking after the animals. The women, who have
stayed in a back room cooking and don't eat with the men and guests, enter to listen to
Their lives are busy. Maxim Kirgiz and his friends don't have time to worry about
independence. ``We are not here to decide that,'' he said. ``We will obey the decision
that is made at the top.''
Return to Friends of Tuva Newsletter Number 12.