Vienna, June 29 – Tuva, a republic wedged between Russia, China and Mongolia that is known mostly to stamp collectors and admirers of the late American mathematician Richard Feynman, continues to have a strongly separatist national movement, in large part a response to the brutal way in which Stalin absorbed it into the Soviet Union during World War II.
In an article posted online last week, commentator Iskander Amanzhol surveys the history of Tuva, devoting particular attention to its relationships with Moscow and Ulan Bator and to the views of the still influential national front whose leaders would like to see their republic become an independent stat (www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=38801).
Part of China until 1912, Tuva was declared a protectorate of the Russian Empire two years later, but in August 1921, at the end of the Russian civil war, Tuva declared itself independent, an action that Amanzhol did not settle as much as it might appear from this distance in time.
On the one hand, the Tuvin people themselves were divided, with the feudal elite believing that their land should be part of Mongolia and the population, more than 80 percent of whom were nomads, committed to the idea that Tuva should remain a completely independent country.
And on the other, both the Soviet Union and its client state Mongolia – the only two countries to recognize Tuva in the 1920s and 1930s -- had their own views on what should happen, with the former wanting to introduce communism there and the latter seeking control of a portion of the territory that the Tuvins and Moscow believed was properly part of Tuva.
After long negotiations, mediated by Moscow, Mongolia accepted at least provisionally a compromise on the border. But the Soviet Union never accepted the social-economic status quo within Tuva, dispatching graduates of the Communist University of Toilers of the East (KUTV) to attack Tuvin Buddhism, settle the nomads, and tightly integrate Tuva within the Soviet orbit.
In 1929, there were 25 Buddhist monasteries and 4000 lamas and shamans in Tuva; two years later, thanks to the KUTV graduates’ actions, there was only one monastery, 15 lamas, and 725 shamans. And in the same period, Moscow’s agents purged the local ruling party, installing among others Salchak Toka who remained in power until his death in 1973.
Moscow carried out purges in Tuva throughout the 1930s, killing more than 1200 members of the earlier political elite in the process – their mass graves have recently been uncovered – to ensure that the Tuvin government was entirely loyal not just to the USSR but also to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the Tuvin government entered the war on the side of the USSR, ultimately providing the Red Army 50,000 horses as well as a small number of soldiers and hosting Soviet military factories Moscow had evacuated from places occupied or threatened by the Germans.
In the spring of 1944, Moscow informed the Tuvin authorities that it would act favorably if Tuva requested to be included within the Soviet Union. In August of that year, the Tuvins did so, and the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution making Tuva an autonomous oblast directly subordinate to Moscow.
It is indicative, Amanzhol writes, that this decree “was published only in the local press,” a restriction apparently dictated by negotiations at Yalta over Moscow’s efforts, ultimately successful, to secure international recognition for Mongolia. Soviet gazetteers did not minute and outsiders did not learn about this change for more than a year.
After Tuva was included within the borders of the USSR – first as an autonomous oblast and then as an autonomous republic after 1962 – Moscow declared that Soviet border with Mongolia in the Tuvin sector would follow the provisional border that its negotiators had secured for Tuva in 1932.
Ulan Bator was not happy about that and called for new talks. Only in 1957-58, following four months of talks in which Vyacheslav Molotov, then Soviet ambassador to Mongolia, was an agreement reached. Under its terms, Moscow transferred 2,000 square kilometers to Ulan Bator, far less than the 16,000 the Mongols had sought.
That has become a problem in recent years because Tuvins consider that “the USSR did not have the right to make concessions to Mongolia” and want “the restoration of the territorial integrity of the republic within the borders of 1932,” a position that continues to generate problems for Moscow, Ulan Bator and Tuva itself.
Indeed, these disputes were far more intense than most outsiders know, Amanzhol points out. In 1992-92, there were a series of armed clashes on the border between Tuvin and Mongol nomads. And in the same period, a Tuvin popular front emerged committed to independence for that republic at “the center of Asia,” as it styles itself.
Since the mid-1990s, Amanzhol says, Tuvin national organizations have become less active but support for the idea of eventual independence continues to animate many people in that republic. And he quotes one Russian journalist as saying that “in the Tuvin national movement there [still] exist strong separatist tendencies.”