In Tuva, tradition abides as conquerors come and go

April 16, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

KYZYL, Russia -- First they appear to be only clouds of dust clinging to the foothills of the dry brown mountains, then they become three small boys on horseback, galloping in the afternoon sun, driving a herd of wild horses before them.

In the Russian autonomous republic of Tuva, near the frontier where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan converge, these 9- and 10-year-olds are living the life they were born to -- taming horses, herding sheep and cattle, riding as if carried by the wind that blows so fiercely across the steppe.

Life would seem to be following the rhythms it has for thousands of years, but change is at hand.

The Tuvan people have clung to their identity through centuries of rule by outsiders -- Manchurians, Mongols, the Russian czars and then the Soviets. And now the aftershocks of the Soviet Union's collapse are rumbling closer. The Tuvans are hoping this upheaval will not be as traumatic as the last one.

When Tuva entered the Soviet empire in 1944 -- as the last republic to join -- the territory gave up its economic freedom and became subservient to Moscow.

"Here, national sentiment is very strong," said Kaadyr-ool Bicheldey, chairman of Tuva's parliament. "We remember very well being an independent state. After 1944, the course was changed. All the money came from the center.

"Now Tuva is seeking its place in the civilized world."

In their hearts, the native Tuvans would like independence from Russia. Their heads tell them they are too poor to live apart, and the specter of Chechnya -- where Moscow has brutally crushed a breakaway republic -- reminds them that any move toward independence might come only at terrible cost.

So Tuva is hoping for a relationship with Russia that allows Tuva to continue accepting handouts from Moscow even as the region tries to become more nearly self-sufficient.

For now, though, Tuva is a dependent: It generates only 18 percent of its budget. All the rest -- 82 percent -- comes from Moscow.

The average income per person is $33 a month, compared with $68 in the rest of Russia.

"If we manage to decrease the subsidy by 5 to 6 percent a year," said President Sherig-ool Oorzhak, "we will end our complete dependence on the center.

"Then our people will feel more of a sense of their national identity."

Tuva has been a colony for Russia, providing coal, asbestos, cobalt and gold. Thousands of settlers were sent here. Russians now account for a third of the population of 300,000.

"The raw materials were taken away," said Mr. Bicheldey. "It was much easier in previous days to send food for 300,000 people than to invest money for the development of industry."

Tuva's future will be written by the young, like the boys who are bringing in the wild horses, 20 miles to the west of Kyzyl, at the herding settlement called Plok Kok-teski.

They rush headlong into the wind and sun. But their fathers feel only uncertainty.

"Under the Soviet system, we had stable salaries," said Maxim Kirgiz, the head of one of the two families living at Plok Kok-teski. "We were paid twice a month. We were sure of life here."

They raised cattle and sheep, as their forebears had for thousands of years. But they didn't have to worry about finding buyers. The state took what the herdsmen raised, and it paid them salaries.

The Soviet system exacted a heavy toll for this security. It forced most Tuvans onto collective farms, nearly ending the nomadic way of life. And it made them dependent on the pay envelope, rather than on themselves.

"Now we have big problems," Mr. Kirgiz said. "We have to look for markets ourselves, and no one wants to buy."

And now that the iron controls have relaxed and the salaries have disappeared, many Tuvans find themselves adrift.

Sergei Mongush, who as Tuva's interior minister is its top policeman, says the crime rate in Tuva is the highest in Russia. Much of the crime is traditional, but gone wild.

Cattle rustling is the most common offense. In the past, one or two cattle would be stolen at a time. In the past three years, thieves have begun taking entire herds.

There are also many more murders -- 251 last year, nearly three times the figure of five years ago.

Mr. Mongush blames the crimes on a deep dislocation and reliance on drinking to ameliorate it. "None of the murders is premeditated," he said. "They all involve alcohol.

"Traditionally in our society, men never drank until after they were 30 years old. Women never drank at all. And now they're starting to drink as teen-agers."

Even those Tuvans who didn't go to the collective farms were irrevocably changed.

The Soviets instituted mandatory secondary education, which meant that children from nomadic families or those who lived in remote settlements were taken from their families and sent to schools in the city to live. And children living at schools could not become herdsmen.

But even after 50 years of Soviet control, Tuvan traditions didn't die out entirely.

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