Monday, April 28, 2008

Window on Eurasia: 20th Century’s Generational Divides Shaping Tuva’s Future

Paul Goble

Baku, April 28 – The rapidity of social and political change in the traditional societies of Eurasia has created something none of them had experienced in the past: the simultaneous co-existence of radically different generations that not only struggle among themselves but also compete for influence over younger age cohorts who will form the future.
Not only does that alter the effectiveness of inter-generational transmission belts that had kept these societies stable, but it makes their future course more difficult to predict because they face both the usual problems of fathers and sons and the more complicated one of grandfathers, uncles, fathers and brothers, on the one hand, and sons, on the other.
This complexity and its consequences, more often the subject of novels than scientific research in larger and more modern societies, have now been studied in detail in Tuva, a republic “at the center of Asia” as its residents proudly say but one little known elsewhere except to specialists in geographic curiosities, stamp collectors and admirers of the late Richard Feynman.
Few traditional societies have been marked by so many transforming experiences over so short a time as the Tuvan. In 1911, it escape Chinese rule. In 1914, it became a protectorate of Russia. Between 1921 and 1944, it formed the basic population of the Tannu-Tuva Republic. And in the latter year, it was absorbed by the USSR and subject to its subsequent vicissitudes.
Not surprisingly, these changes have transformed the members of ever narrower age cohorts into radically different generations, disrupting that traditionally agrarian Buddhist society and making it ever less clear which of the possible vectors it will follow in the course of the 21st century.
The impact of these changes has now been investigated by local scholars and by researchers at the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Some results of this multi-year effort have now been published in the Tuvan republic newspaper, Tsentr Azii (
And while most observers may be inclined to dismiss this research because of the small size and remoteness of the Tuvans, this study, especially in the form of this initial journalistic report, provides some useful insights into what is going on in other and larger communities in this part of the world as well as elsewhere.
The article suggests that there were five very different generations who were formed by and in turn informed the nature of social change in Tuva during the 20th century: the “first key generation,” born in the 1880s and 1890s, was drawn from the traditional Buddhist elite but broke with it and shifted Tuva’s orientation from China to Russia.
The second, according to this research, consisted of those born in the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike the first, its members came from the lowest social strata and adopted a “nihilistic” attitude toward “everything old and traditional” including the generation before it. In this, the scholars say, it resembled Russia’s revolutionary generation.
The “third key generation,” which included those born in the 1930s and 1940s, was “completely a product of Soviet times.” Its members worked closely with ethnic Russian arrivals to modernize and industrialize their agrarian society. For them, the Party’s directives were law, and for many of them now, this period of “mobilization” was “a golden age.”
But this generation was deeply split between those in urban areas who were able to move up quickly without completely losing their ties to the parental generations and those in rural areas whose lives were more thoroughly disrupted both by collectivization and by inclusion in boarding schools, an experience which cut them off from their parents and their society.
Out of this latter sub-generation, the scholars say, emerged some of the most extreme nationalists of the post-Soviet period who felt that the Soviet system, by means of these schools, had stolen not only their childhoods but also in important ways their very “Tuvanness” – even though many of them have little direct knowledge of what that means.
Still younger were the last two generations of the 20th century: the fourth, whose members were born in the 1950s and 1960s, who accepted the Soviet system, entered its ranks with ease but saw their advancement destroyed by the collapse of the USSR. They are among the most angry and alienated of Tuvans today.
And finally, the fifth generation, born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whose members were forced to compete for jobs rather than having positions waiting for them, who suffered serious unemployment and who are the most insecure. Those who made it financially are “the new Tuvans;” those who did not are increasingly marginalized.
The first generation of the 21st century, a group born between the 1970s and 2000, now forms approximately a third of the republic’s fast-growing population. Because of the speed of changes, it consists of three distinct sub-groups: those aged 25 to 29, those ten years younger, and the very youngest whose members may be designated “Generation X.”
Despite their closeness in age, these groups find it difficult to talk to one another. They “do not understand their older brothers and sisters let alone their parents. They had different childhoods. Different toys. Different movie and comic book heroes. Some still talk about Lenin but others do not even understand” who that Soviet leader was.
The oldest of these sub-groups had to make their basic life choices just as the Soveit world was crashing down around them. Some focused on getting money, but others turned to separatist and even extremist groups, some of which supported their “lack of adaptation” to change – their “unwillingness to work,” criminalization and marginalization.”
The middle of these sub-groups, consisting of those now in their 20s, were entirely formed by the post-Soviet changes. They do not remember Soviet stagnation, and they find it difficult to imagine any situation different than the one they now find themselves in. They can thus be called, as they call themselves, “the children of the post-Soviet crisis.”
The most characteristic feature of these people, the research that Tsentr Azii” reported shows, is their skepticism about all assertions by officials or politicians and their deep pessimism that anything much can be done to improve either their personal situation or that of the republic as a whole.
And the very youngest group, “Generation X,” is growing up with the broadest “assortment of cultures” available to any Tuvan generation I history – from nationalism to nihilism, from pragmatism to idealism, from the highest forms of human nobility to the worst forms of cruelty and viciousness.
Despite these subdivisions, the reserarchers found, the first Tuvan generation of the 21st century stands out on three measures. First, its members define themselves in terms of Tuva rather than any broader identity. Second, they see themselves as being “the creators of the history of Tuva,” rather than just the product of the actions of others, including outside powers.
To that end, they are prepared to study in Moscow or other Russian cities but have no plans to remain there after they have gained enough knowledge and money to return home and help build their own republic. (Ethnic Russians who leave Tuva for these cities, in contrast, do not plan to return, the study found.)
And third, members of this generation, while professing their modernity, often make use of the most traditional family connections to gain access to educational institutions and jobs, an approach that does not promote the expansion of their knowledge but does make them more sensitive to clan and regional identities.
How all this will play out, of course, is impossible to say. But this study is important not only because it describes the divisions within older members of Tuvan society but also because it makes it clear that younger Tuvans will be constructing an identity not based entirely on the experiences of their elders but also one not cut off from those experiences either.

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