Staunton, September 10 – This week, the Republic of Tuva or Tyva as it is also known marked the 100th anniversary of “the union of the republic with Russia,” an event that sparked various events including academic conferences and the erection of a new monument to the center of Asia as well as attracting various Russian leaders including Vladimir Putin.
But it is important to recognize what has been celebrated: not the inclusion of Tuva into the Soviet Union, something that happened only in 1944, but rather the acceptance of that land by Nicholas II as a Russian protectorate in 1914, three years after tsarist agents had created a separatist movement there to detach the Uryankhay district from China.
Except for a brief period during the Russian civil war when control over what is now Tuva passed among the Bolsheviks, a Chinese warlord, and Admiral Kolchak’s anti-Bolshevik White Russian forces, Tuva was formally an independent country for 30 years, known if at all to the outside world for its postage stamps.
But its independence from Moscow was only nominal. In August 1921, the Bolsheviks set up a Tuvan People’s Republic and took complete control, purging opponents of the party line and establishing a communist regime. Moscow did not move further at the time, apparently out of concern that to do so might trigger a Chinese response.
In his speech in Tuva, Putin passed over this complex history largely in silence, noting only that relations between Tuva and Russia really began when Russian diplomats gave Tuvans certificates of their status as subjects of the Russian Empire as early as the 17th century, thus allowing “Russia to take Tuva under its wing… and the Tuvans to retain their culture.”
And as is his custom on such occasions, the Kremlin leader sought to link Tuvans with the Great Fatherland War that he has made the centerpiece of the Russian national experience: “We will never forget the contribution of Tuva to victory” in that conflict” and “of course, we will always remember those who revived out country and the republic” after it.
But if Putin ignored these complexities in his public presentation, his comments and even more his presence suggest that at least some in the Kremlin leader’s entourage see Tuva as a precedent for other “unrecognized” states, entities that have to retain an indeterminate status possibly for years but then absorbed as part of a Russian empire.
And to the extent that is true, what happened in Tuva between 1914 and 1944 perhaps says more about how Putin and his regime will approach all the other so-called “frozen” conflicts and “unrecognized” states than anyone has imagined. Indeed, in the future, Tuva may be remembered for that even more than for its stamps and for Richard Feynman’s obsession with that republic.