By Paul Goble
Tuva seldom gets much attention except from stamp collectors who prize its triangle-shaped postage stamps that were issued when it was nominally independent before 1944 and from admirers of the late Richard Feynman, whose passion for it was described in Ralph Leighton’s 1991 book, Tuva or Bust.
It did attract the interest of some when during perestroika, violent clashes between Tuvans and ethnic Russians led to the departure of many of the latter. (At present, Tuva, located on the Mongolian border, has approximately 320,000, 80 percent of whom are ethnic Tuvans, according to the 2010 census.)
But Tuva’s obscurity may soon be about to change because an activist there has resuscitated earlier calls to restore the name the region had when it was part of China before 1917, the Uryankhai, calls that have alarmed some Russians who see this as a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.
Earlier this month, Igor Irgit, a Tuvan activist, published a long article in Tuvinskaya Pravda calling for the change, arguing that it was a matter of simple justice to ensure that people there know their long history and thus that it would represent something similar to what the Sakha have done in Yakutia (tuvapravda.ru/?q=content/vernyom-nazvanie-uranhay).
“No one knows from where or even when we took the name Tuva or Tyva and what this means. I have nothing against it,” he continued, “but Uryankhai is closer to my heart.” Some Tuvans, like Sholban Kara-ool in 2014, have called for this change but not gotten enough support to allow it to happen.
But “perhaps now,” Irgit says, “this idea has matured and it is time finally to return the true name of the republic to it and to us.”
The very idea has outraged some Russians who see in it an effort to mobilize those in Tuva who would like independence or a move by forces in Mongolia or China to reacquire a territory they lost a century ago. These objections are highlighted in an article by the Regnum news agency’s Siberian editorial staff this week (regnum.ru/news/polit/2323276.html).
Boris Myshlyavtsev, a Russian ethnographer, says there is no good reason for renaming Tuva. The name, which derives from local toponymy, is ancient; and no one calls the place Uryankhai now except for the Republic of China on Taiwan. More important, no one in Tuvan calls himself or herself a Uryankhai.
But the lack of obvious support for the idea does not mean that it should not be nipped in the bud, Anatoly Savostin, a Russian political scientist says. Such “initiatives,” he argues, are designed to “group together definite forces inclined to greater independence in the framework of the state.”
“It is not excluded,” he continues, “that after renaming it Uryankhai, some will begin to speak about the need to shift [from the Cyrillic] to the Latin script and so on.” At the very least, all such things will introduce splits within Tuvan society, and such dangers should be a matter of concern for the security services.