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Tuva and Tuvinians


The Tuva Republic in southern Siberia is one of the twenty-one nationality-based republics within the Russian Federation that was recognized in the Russian constitution of 1993. Previously called the Tuva Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), the constitution recognized it as Tyva, the regional form of the name. With an area of 65,810 square miles (170,448 square miles), Tuva lies northwest of Mongolia and directly east of Gorno-Altai. Tuva's capital is Kizyl, and its other key cities are Turan, Chadan, and Shagonar. Drained by the headstreams of the Yenisey River, the western part of Tuva lies in a mountain basin, walled off by the Sayan and Tannu Olga ranges, which rise to 10,000 feet. The eastern portion is dominated by a wooded plateau. The climate is extreme, with summer temperatures reaching 43º C (110º F) and winter temperatures dropping to 61ºC (78ºF). However, the region's three hundred sunny, arid days per year help the people withstand the summers and winters.

Tuva is inhabited by a majority of Tuvinians (more than 64%); the remainder are primarily ethnic Russians (32%). More than 200,000 Tuvinians live in the Russian Federation, and smaller communities live in Mongolia and China. The Tuvinians are hardy Mongol natives, related to the Kyrgyz ethnic branch. Because it is difficult to specify physical features that are common to all the Turkic peoples, it is the shared cultural feature of language that identifies members of a particular group. The Turkic languages strongly resemble one another, most of them being to some extent mutually intelligible. The peoples of Siberia fall into three major ethno-linguistic groups: Altaic, Uralic, and Paleo-Siberian. The Tuvinians are one of the Altaic peoples, and the Tuvin language belongs to the Uighur-Oguz group of the Altaic language family. Together with the ancient Uighur and Oguz languages, these linguistic groups form the subgroup of Uighur-Tüküi. Even if a special Decree on Languages in the Tuva ASSR had not been ratified in 1991 stipulating that all academic subjects be taught in Tuvinian, the Tuvinian language would

not be forgotten. The indigenous language is most widely spoken in rural areas, where 6770 percent of Tuvinians live. The official lingua franca (Russian) is spoken mainly in Tuva's four major towns.

For roughly 150 years Tuva formed part of the Chinese Empire, and later was subject to Mongol rule. An independent state, called Tannu Tuva, was established on August 14, 1921. Tuva nevertheless voluntarily joined the USSR in 1944 as an autonomous oblast. In 1961 Tuva became an autonomous republic.

Tuvinians are mostly engaged in agricultural activities, such as cattle raising and fur farming. Oats, barley, wheat, and millet are the principal crops raised. Recently, farmers from northern China have introduced the Tuvinians to vegetable farming. Many Tuvinians still live as nomadic shepherds, migrating seasonally with their herds. Those who inhabit the plains traditionally live in large round tents, called gers (yurts), made from bark. The main industrial activity in the Tuvinian Republic is mining, especially for asbestos, cobalt, coal, gold, and uranium. Other Tuvinians are engaged in processing food, manufacturing building materials, and crafting leather and wooden items.

Most Tuvinians were illiterate until the advent of the Russians. Thus, the Tuvinian culture is noted for its rich, oral epic poetry and its music (throat singing). The Tuvinian use more than fifty different musical instruments, and traveling ensembles often perform outdoors. The Tuvinians in East Asia have never been affected by Islam. In the early twenty-first century, one-third of the Tuvinians are Buddhists, one-third are shamanists (believing in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits), and the remaining one-third are non-religious.

See also: central asia; kyrgyzstan and kyrgyz; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam. (1995). Culture Incarnate: Native Anthropology from Russia. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Diószegi, Vilmos, and Hoppál, Mihály. (1998). Shamanism: Selected Writings of Vilmos Diószegi. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

Drobizheva , L. M. (1996). Ethnic Conflict in the Post-Soviet World: Case Studies and Analysis. Armonk, NY:M. E. Sharpe.

Leighton, Ralph. (1991). Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman's Last Journey. New York: W. W. Norton.

Vainshtein, S. I. (1980). Nomads of South Siberia: the Pastoral Economies of Tuva. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wangyal, Tenzin, and Dahlby, Mark. (2002). Healing with Form, Energy and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Johanna Granville

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