300-Year Celebration Fever Hits Siberia's Remote Tuva
By Christopher Hamilton
KYZYL, Eastern Siberia - Most St. Petersburgers would probably be unable to locate Tuva on a map of Russia. Yet the tiny republic on the Mongolian border this week made its contribution to the northern city's ongoing 300th-anniversary celebrations.
Hemmed in on all sides by 2,000-meter-plus mountains, isolated Tuva is one of the most impoverished parts of Russia. On Tuesday, a delegation of politicians, scientists, artists and other luminaries arrived in Kyzyl, the Tuvan capital, from St. Petersburg to give the republic a dose of cultural and scientific programs, exhibitions and goodwill.
"I am happy that I am here to celebrate," Deputy Culture Minister Natalya Dementiyeva, a St. Petersburg native, said at a Tuesday press conference for St. Petersburg Days in Tuva.
"I came to Tuva on several archeological digs [over 30] years ago," Dementiyeva said. "The best days for many scientists and scholars were spent here in Tuva's Sayan Mountains. We are all grown up now, but we still have a special love for the region."
Whereas other cities promoted St. Petersburg's tercentennial by putting on festivals of their own - like the Vivat Peterburg! festival in Baltimore, Maryland - the event in Kyzyl, a city of 80,000, was focused more on relations between two sharply contrasting areas of Russia that, nevertheless, share some strong links. The republic's representative in the Federation Council, for example, is Lyudmila Narusova, widow of St. Petersburg's first mayor, Anatoly Sobchak.
"During my second trip to St. Petersburg, I met with ... Sobchak and we signed a number of bilateral agreements regarding joint projects in archeology and economical development between Tuva and the Northern Capital," Tuvan Prime Minister Sherig-ool Oorzhak said at the press conference.
Oorzhak subsequently asked Narusova, a former State Duma deputy, to represent his republic in the Federation Council. The Ulug Khura, Tuva's equivalent of the Legislative Assembly, confirmed her for the post in 2002.
Narusova said that she had raised the money for the festivities in Kyzyl, home to a monument marking the geographical center of Asia, from private donors in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
"This is not only a cultural event, we are also bringing goodwill," Narusova said at the press conference, while outlining the festival's program, ranging from giving clothing to underprivileged families to a number of advances at tuberculosis clinics in Tuva made possible by cooperation between the two regions.
She also announced that President Vladimir Putin had signed an order for celebrations of Kyzyl's 90th birthday and 60 years of the Tuvan Republic being part of Russia.
"Usually, only round numbers like 50 or
100 are celebrated but, after a long conversation,
Tuva was incorporated into the U.S.S.R.
on Stalin's orders in 1944, after its gentle brand of
independence became too much for the Soviet leadership.
The republic, whose people are ethnically Mongolian, and speak a Turkic language, had declared Buddhism its official religion, and its largely nomadic farming population provided stiff resistance to attempts at collectivization in the late 1920s and 1930s.
The republic's 32 Buddhist temples were all destroyed under Stalin. One is being rebuilt partially with federal money, but is only about 30-percent complete. Even today, many of the about 200,000 native Tuvans who form two thirds of the republic's population follow a traditional, nomadic way of life.
"[The 300th anniversary] was a huge stimulus for investment in Petersburg so I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity," Narusova said. "While you should not expect 42 heads of state, it is still a good chance to get all the leaders of Siberia together."
Tuva's most promising industry today is tourism. The republic is renowned for its tradition of throat singing and as a center of shamanism.
"I prefer developing tourism to reopening the huge factories that used to operate here during Soviet times," said Konstantin Khlymov, the deputy director of the Khoomei musical center, which specializes in throat singing.
"I understand that a railroad means progress and cheaper goods, but the economy isn't everything. ... We are one of the only republics where the ethic people are not a minority. This was largely due to our isolation," Khlymov said. "This is why we were able to preserve so much our traditional heritage. I am all for exchange and tourism, but let them come in small numbers."
Narusova said she hoped that tourism could boost Tuva's economy, and said that she was pushing for improved transportation, including a railroad and improvements to the one highway linking Kyzyl to the outside world.
Between 90 and 95 percent of Tuva's budget still comes from Moscow, which underpinned a local Communist regime during the Soviet era to keep the republic in check.
The last decade, however, has been difficult, as the closure of many factories and a collapse in agriculture caused high unemployment. Kyzyl, the capital, now has a high petty-crime rate, and some of Tuva's population has turned to selling marijuana, traditionally grown in the republic for its oil and for medicinal purposes, to drug smugglers.
Prime Minster Oorzhak, however, expressed hope for the republic's future, and said that much would depend on continuing links with St. Petersburg
"Tuvan interests are represented every year at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Petersburg is our bridge to the European market and the Western world," he said.