At the Сrossroads of Empires

Max Sher on the past and present of Tuva

The Nolevka pass view of the Turan-Uyuk hollow is the first thing those who enter Tuva along the Usinsky tract see. “The Valley of the Kings” is a new name the hollow was given back in 2002 when the burial of a Scythian leader with thousands of gold objects dating back to the 7th century BC was discovered there. The Usinsky tract (or Yenisei Highway) is the main transport artery connecting Tuva with Russia.

In 2016, photographer and artist Max Sher traveled to the Republic of Tuva, a region of Russia where the remote and inaccessible nomadic communities have had the chance to develop on their own, in spite of the constant attempts at colonization by nearby empires. At our request, Max shared his photos from the trip and presented a brief history of a region with a rich heritage of completely different cultures.

Tuva, or Tyva, is one of the lesser-known and inaccessible regions of Russia. Located in the very center of the Eurasian continent, the Turkic-speaking republic is the only subject of the country to have been formally independent (from 1921-1944). Its turbulent political history is a vivid example of what could happen when a small nation finds itself between a rock and a hard place of the age-old struggle of powerful neighbors. The Turkic peoples living on the territory of today’s Tuva came under Mongol rule in the 13th century and for five centuries were part of various Mongolian states. After the final fall of the Dzungar Khanate in the middle of the 18th century, the Tuvinians, together with the Mongols, came under the rule of the Chinese Qing Empire. Having named its new distant territory Tannu-Uryankhay, China ruled it through the Ministry of Outer Mongolia with its governor appointed from the Mongol nobility and granted a seat in the city of Uliastai outside Uryankhay itself. Despite the five-hundred-years of Mongolian rule and the one and a half-century of Chinese rule, Tuvinian nomads constantly rebelled against the Chinese colonialists, their Mongol governors, and their own nobility. The most famous uprising was called Aldan-Maadyr (sixty warriors). Aldan-Maadyr broke out in 1883, lasted for the whole year, and was brutally suppressed. After the Xinhai Revolution (1911-12), the Chinese empire collapsed and Tuvinian rulers turned to “the white king” with a request to accept Uryankhay under a Russian protectorate.

Top: 1931 map of China by Ivan (John) Diakoff that includes Tuva
Bottom left: A map of the Republic of China (1912–1949; currently Taiwan) that includes Tuva (the separated green area at the very top of the map)
Bottom right: 1941 map of the USSR. Current borders of Tuva according to Google Maps

However, Russian settlers—peasants and merchants—began to penetrate these remote Chinese outskirts much earlier, quickly realizing the benefits of colonial trade with the local herders. Back in 1885, the first permanent Russian settlement appeared there—the village of Turansky (present-day Turan), where in the early 20th century when the area was still formally under the imperial power of China, there was already a Russian school and church. When the Russian protectorate was established in April 1914, about 4,000 Russians were living in Uryankhay, while the Tuvinians were more numerous then—about 73,000. Uryankhay Krai remained a part of the Russian Empire for only three years with a number of significant changes taking place. In 1914 a permanent capital was founded—a city with the speaking name Belottsarsk [meaning “of white church” in Russian—Translator’s note], which was renamed a few years later Khem-Beldyr, and then renamed again Kyzyl (“red” in Tuvan). Two years later, the Usinsky tract, named after the Usinsky border district it passed through and the Us River, a Yenisei tributary, was laid from the neighboring Yenisei province across the Sayan Mountains to Uryankhay. To this day,  the tract in fact remains  the only road connecting Tuva with the rest of RussiaRussiaIn the 1970s, another road between Tuva and Khakassia was built—initially used mostly for the removal of asbestos from “Tuvaasbest” plant. After its closure, the road went into disuse.. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, for several years Tuva was alternately ruled by the red partisans, Kolchak’s troops, and Chinese and Mongol armed detachments. 

In 1921, the independence of Tuva, or the Tannu Tuva People's Republic (TPR), was proclaimed—although it was recognized only by Soviet Russia and neighboring Mongolia, which at that point was itself recognized as an independent state, again, by Russia only. Other countries considered both Mongolia and TuvaTuvaMongolia received universal diplomatic recognition only many years later: England recognized it in 1963, France—in 1965, Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany—in 1972, and the United States—only in 1987. a part of China for a long time. However, Tuvan sovereignty was limited. Despite gaining almost all the attributes of statehood, including its own currency akşa, the country delegated its defense and foreign relations to the Soviet Union. In fact, Tuva was completely dependent on the USSR and its political position resembled modern Northern Cyprus or Abkhazia. The first decade of independence was marked by the building of a nation state led by a nation-focused tribal nobility, but in 1932 Salchak Toka came to power, marking the beginning of the period of the fast and violent Sovietization of the republic.

A former farm laborer, Toka (real name—Kol Tyvyky) was sent to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East named after Stalin by the Tuvan government. Armed there with the only correct social doctrine and practices of violent political struggle (the knowledge with which he was indoctrinated there), he returned to Tuva and soon, together with his classmates, staged a coup d'etat. The members of the government, headed by Prime Minister Mongush Buyan-Badyrgy, as well as practically all the Buddhist lamas and shamans of Tuva were repressed, herders were forced into collective farms, and the age-old and self-sufficient nomadic way of life of the Tuvinians was virtually destroyed. On the other hand, Sovietization allowed for improved health care and spread literacy. By the purposeful efforts of its leader, Tuvan Soviet culture was created—“national in form, socialist in content.”

Lieutenant General of the Red Army and Chairman of the Union of Soviet Writers of Tuva, Toka ruled the republic until his death in 1973. In 1944, together with several of his closest associates including his wife Khertek Anchimaa who served as Chairwoman of Little KhuralLittle KhuralThe Little Khural was one of the supreme bodies of power in the Tuva, its delegates convened at least twice a year. At that time, Khertek Anchimaa was the first woman in the world to hold a formally elected public office at such a high level., Salchak Toka made a  secret decision regarding TPR joining the USSR. In Tuva, many still consider this action to be illegal, since neither a referendum nor even a parliamentary vote was held, and in general the details of the circumstances of that fateful step still remain unknown. The new Soviet region received the status of an autonomous region, which in 1961 was “upgraded” to the status of republic. At the same time, the borders of Tuva, soon after its entry into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, underwent significant changes: a large territory of the former TPR, adjacent to Lake Huvsgul, became a part of Mongolia, while some lands south of the Tannu-Ola ridge were cut off from Mongolia and given to Tuva. Some Tuvan territories were recognized as Russian regions and vice versa. Border changes took place later, tootooAt the end of 2020, the head of Tuva, Sholban Kara-ool suddenly brought up the issue of territorial “ambiguities” between Tuva and its neighboring countries.. During the Soviet years, several fairly large enterprises were created in Tuva, mainly associated with the extraction of natural resources: asbestos, cobalt, gold, and coal. This caused an influx of Russian-speaking engineers, workers, intellectuals, and service personnel from other regions of the USSR. The local population meanwhile continued to be  engaged mainly in agriculture and suffered severe discrimination in everyday life and in terms of career opportunities. After the collapse of the USSR, most of these enterprises were closed and those who had come to Tuva from other regions began to leave the country—now it is some of the remaining Russian-speaking residents who complain about discrimination.  

A week after the August 1991 CoupCoupOn August 18-21, members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency, including the leaders of the Communist Party, the army, and the KGB, tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev, the then president of the USSR, and prevent the abolition of the Soviet Union. They were all arrested., the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was renamed the Tuvan Republic. Its constitution included clauses allowing secession from Russia and Tuvan citizenship, however, when Vladimir Putin came  to power they were withdrawn. In modern Russian media, Tuva is often presented in only two contexts—either as the exotic homeland of Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu, or as a dangerous wild land, a hotbed of crime and interethnic tension between the Tuvan and Russian-speaking communities. Although the representatives of both do live in rather segregated conditions, all the problems of Tuva are rather typical for the whole country and are related to the difficult economic situation, unemployment, clannishness, and corruption. The republic remains subsidized and is listed as one of the poorest regions of the Russian Federation. It is interesting to mention that China, which recognized the independence of its former province of Outer Mongolia (Tannu-Uryankhay was a part of) in 1949, did not officially renounce its sovereignty over Tuva. The situation is similar with that of Taiwan: the independence of Mongolia was recognized only in 2002, and the fact that Tuva is now part of Russia is still not recognized there.

Left: The interior that won the competition for the best yurt design as part of the annual national Naadym holiday. On average, yurt construction costs 150,000 rubles (in 2016 prices) and one is assembled in 1.5-2 hours. Inside there are portraits of the Dalai Lama, Sergey Shoygu (Minister of Defense), Sholban Kara-ool (Chairman of the Government of the Republic of Tuva), and President Putin, as well as books by the former Tuvan dictator Salchak Toka, Buddhist symbols, and flags of the Erzin kozhuun (district) this yurt represents.

Right: A fragment of the flag of the Central Committee of the Tuvan People's Revolutionary Party, which was also the state flag of the Tuvan People's Republic in 1921. Kept in the Tuva Republic National Museum named after Aldan-Maadyr.

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

Max Sher
Photographer, artist. His works were shown at personal and group exhibitions at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, ROSPHOTO, Shchusev Museum of Architecture, Triumph Gallery, Calvert22, Mead, the New Tretyakov Gallery, The Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, Yeltsin Center, Museum PERMM. As a photographer, he worked for Afisha, Bolshoy Gorod, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Bloomberg Businesweek and other publications.