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‘They’re mostly after loans’ Tuvans, trying to scramble out of poverty, are dying in a foreign war

Source: Meduza

Story by Vladimir Sevrinovsky. Abridged translation by Emily Laskin.

Tuva is one of the most isolated regions within Russia. You can’t reach its capital by train, only by airplane or a single road. The republic leads the Russian Federation in recorded military deaths per 100,000 people. Many residents of these impoverished regions consider contractual military service to be their best hope for pulling themselves out of poverty. On assignment from Meduza, journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky traveled to Tuva to speak with the shamans and Buddhists, to whom soldiers and their families turn for protection, and to anti-war activists taking soldiers off the front lines.

Tuva joined the Soviet Union in 1944, later than other national republics, and to this day remains one of Russia’s most isolated regions. In Kyzyl, the capital, there is a station but no train: the branch line to Krasnoyarsk was abandoned soon after its ceremonial opening in 2011, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin solemnly hammered a symbolic spike into a railroad tie.

About the rest of the country, which is connected to Tuva by only a single road, locals say simply: “it’s beyond the Sayan mountains.” Tuva differs from neighboring national republics in that Russians are a small minority here – only around 16 percent of the population, according to the 2010 census (compared to 80 percent in Khakassia and 66 percent in Buryatia). Their numbers dropped sharply in Tuva immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and have continued to decline.

To this day, the republic is the most dangerous in Russia: in 2020 there were 29.2 murders per 100,000 people. The country’s average was 4.7. However, it’s worth remembering that Moscow had a similar level of crime in 2005, and that crime is declining all over the country. Now it’s safe to walk the streets in downtown Kyzyl, even after dark, and sturdy fences outside of shops have ceased to be an essential feature, though they have not disappeared completely.

Across Russia, Tuva has the highest proportion of the population living below the poverty line, at 34.1 percent, with 6.8 percent of the population living in extreme poverty (in a ranking of Russian regions by income, RIA Novosti ranked Tuva last of 85 regions). According to Rosstat, the average per capita monthly income in Tuva is 20,041 rubles – second to last among all regions of Russia (Ingushetia was ranked lowest). 

In the past six months Tuva has attained a new “record” – the number of soldiers killed in Russia’s war on Ukraine. According to Mediazona on September 9, of 6,219 identified military casualties, 94 come from the republic. In absolute terms this is fewer than the 292 casualties from Dagestan, but Tuva’s population is almost ten times smaller. Per capita, more than three times as many Tuvans died as Dagestanis. For every 100,000 people in Tuva, at least 29 have been killed – and that count doesn’t include those missing in action and those whose deaths were not recorded in public sources. This is the highest index across all Russian regions.

Putin-Genghis Khan and Shoigu-Subutai

In 2015 the republic constructed a firing range and a military town, and formed the 55th Separate Mobile Artillery Brigade, informally known as the Black Snow Leopard. A Buddhist lama was named the assistant commander. “It was the most accessible social elevator,” remembered Eres Kara-Sal, a former member of the Great Khural (the republic’s parliament) from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. “45 to 60 thousand rubles a month in our region is a very decent salary. No one expected an actual war.”

Authorities in the republic promoted the brigade as a way to create new jobs. “They said that [Defense Minister of the Russian Federation] Shoigu, our famous compatriot, would help us,” said Kara-Sal. “He’s the one person who made it out of Tuva and into power – most people were happy.”

Defense Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Shoigu’s business trip to Tuva. The Kyzyl Presidential Cadet Academy. June 6 2018
Vadim Savitsky / Press Office of the Russian Defense Ministry / TASS

Sergey Shoigu is still the pride of many Tuvans. His portrait adorns the sides of multistory buildings and other objects downtown, and the city’s long embankment along the Yenisey River is named in honor of his father, Kuzhuget Shoigu, secretary of the Tuvan Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s authoritarian turn has also entered local lore. In 2021, Meduza correspondents heard Tuvans say more than once that Putin is the alleged reincarnation of Genghis Khan, and Shoigu, his close associate Subutai (whom residents of the republic consider their compatriot).

Boris Myshlyavtsev, a former ethnographer and political strategist, told a Meduza correspondent that he himself had conceived of the Putin-Genghis Khan figure during an election campaign, at the headquarters of United Russia, Russia’s largest political party. (The conversation between Myshlyavtsev and Meduza took place eight months before the invasion, in June 2021.) At first, says Myshlyavtsev, it was a joke, but [Kaadyr-ool] Bicheldey, a prominent local scholar and politician, liked it. “He started to figure it out and implement it,” said Myshlavtsev. “I wonder who they want to win. Ukraine seems like too little for Genghis Khan.”

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‘Our boys go there and die, it’s sad’

In the spring of 2022, the Tuvan government’s official web portal reported deaths of Tuvan soldiers in Ukraine nearly every day. At the same time, the region was conducting “patriotic flash mobs.” On April 6, a group of 34 volunteers were solemnly sent to war by the president of the republic, a brass band, and ranks of Young Army Cadets with the “Z” emblem on their chests (the movement was created by an initiative of Shoigu’s, which Meduza reported in 2017). On May 9, a choir of soldiers’ relatives sang the song “There Is No Rank Higher than a Soldier’s Mother,” alternating verses in Russian and Tuvan.

Three months on, in August, condolences to the relatives of the dead no longer appeared on the government website, replaced by neutral holidays and cultural and athletic events. There are practically no other sources of information in Tuva: the free press disappeared here earlier than in Moscow and other parts of Russia.

“There are no independent, objective publications in Tuva anymore. Our profession has been reduced to the level of service work, we are afraid of even a mention of the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of thought and expression,” the journalist Nadezhda Antufeva told Meduza. Antufeva is the founder of the newspaper Center of Asia, which came out in February 1991, making it the first independent publication in Tuva, even before the fall of the Soviet Union. She closed the publication at the end of 2019 for economic reasons. This year, the journalist gave herself a 67th birthday present, tattooing “freedom of speech” on her arm.

Nadezha Antufeva is the only person who systematically collects information about compatriots who have been killed. She lists each name, accompanied by a bit of information about the deceased or his relatives. For example: “the administration of the city of Chadan seeks Aygul, the former wife of the grenade launcher Aziat Kuular, to pay insurance; her patronymic and surname are unknown.” Or: “National guardsman and the republic’s judo champion, Vladimir Shabalin, was buried alongside his mother, who did not survive the news of her son’s death.”

“They keep [the number of Tuvans killed] quiet, so as not to dampen enthusiasm. It’s easier to publish something joyful – a man in a beautiful, bespoke uniform, but with sad eyes, whom they can take around the republic for photographs,” said Nadezhda. “I think it’s very sad, and very difficult for him.”

The man she has in mind is Mergen Dongak, the second Tuvan after Sergey Shoigu to be awarded the title of Hero of Russia (at the time of publication Meduza had not spoken to Dongak). He has become the face of the “special operation” in the republic. In the official version, in Ukraine Dongak “carried a wounded platoon commander out of the line of fire, took command, and made the enemy flee.” 

Billboards with Dongak’s image line the roads; at official events, he presents awards to fighters alongside the head of the republic, and makes short speeches in Tuvan. There are almost no other reminders of the “special operation.” Even its symbols have disappeared, apart from the occasional “Z” on an ambulance.

The republic has not prosecuted a single criminal case under new “anti-war” laws, which make most forms of protesting the war in Ukraine illegal. Local residents told Meduza this may be related to the structure of Tuvan society. Many Tuvans have relatives in powerful positions who, on one hand, are obliged to fight protest movements, but who can also protect their relatives if necessary.

Arata Square in Kyzyl
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

In March, Gelek Natsyk-Dorzhy, the Khambo lama, or senior lama of Tuva, led prayers and a Buddhist purification ritual for Tuvans fighting in Ukraine. Since then, the republic’s Buddhist clergy have said almost nothing publicly about the war. A monk at the Tsechenling Monastery in Kyzyl explained his reluctance to Meduza: “Our boys go there and die. It’s sad. But when you speak about this, it can harm the souls of their relatives.” But soldiers’ relatives continue to request protection rights from monasteries, and on August 28, a photo of a lama surrounded by “Buddhist warriors” appeared on social media – it was allegedly taken in Ukraine.

New volunteers are sent to the front without ceremony. “I was waiting for a flight, walking near the airport,” Tatyana Vereshchagina, head of the local history museum in the city of Turan, told Meduza. “I saw 40 men marching by. They were being taken not to the airport, but nearby, directly to the airfield. A large plane was already waiting. Onlookers rushed along, waving.” A married couple who were going back to the city from the airport told Vereshchagina, “we’re sending off our brother-in-law. Those are volunteers.”

“I myself, a stranger to those people, cried,” said Vereshchagina. “I understood that not all of them will return. But I seem so delicate compared to the people seeing them off. I told a museum employee and she said ‘That’s the kind of people we Tuvans are. Strong.’”

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‘Nature helps. A shaman is nature.’

Ribbons flutter above the temple in the shamanic center – on one side, white, blue, and red, the colors of the Russian flag, on the other, gold and blue, the colors of the Tuvan flag. Kara-ool Dopchun-ool, the supreme shaman of Russia, sits nearby in an old armchair. He was elected by the first All-Russia Congress of Shamans in 2018 after he made 99% of the delegates vote for him with, in his own words, “mass shamanic hypnosis.” Since then he has been reelected three times. He crosses his arms. His fingers end in long, curved nails. He told Meduza’s correspondent that “with these claws” he “catches cancer cells, viruses, and bacteria and throws them out the window.”

Up until the end of the Soviet Union shamans lived in isolation, often at odds with each other, and so there were no shamanic institutions. Over time, they began to move to large cities, where wealthier clients lived, and to band together. The first official shamanic organization in Kyzyl, Dungur (Tambourine), appeared in 1992. It was founded by Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, a scholar of literature and folklore, who would go on to write a doctoral dissertation about problems with the ethnographic study of Tuvan shamanism. Kenin-Lopsan began to offer shamanic services to clients from the rest of Russia, and to share his experience with international colleagues and researchers. People interested in esoterica streamed into Tuva from around the world. Often they were fairly well-known and wealthy. Kenin-Lopsan has personally hosted both Boris Yeltsin and the Dalai Lama.

Kara-ool Dopchun-ool proudly told Meduza that during the Second World War, Stalin put three shamans, including his grandfather, in a plane “so that they could perform a ritual over Stalingrad and help to win the battle.” The story ended with a generous reward: for a year and a half of service, Stalin gave everyone a bag full of money and canned food and, most importantly, allowed them to practice shamanism freely in their native land. (Meduza could not confirm this story.)

Dopchun-ool passes through his waiting room, decorated with portraits of Putin, Shoigu, and Subutai, and goes into his office. On the opposite wall are animal heads, chaotically arranged – a bear, a wolf, a roe deer. Nearby are stretched skins. Before he became a shaman, Dopchun-ool traded in furs, so he chose the corresponding animals as erens – helper spirits. 

Among the animal figures are various different objects: a sword, wooden masks, a three-stringed instrument called a chanzy. Pinned between them are dozens of contemporary photographs of young Tuvans in military uniform. “Our guys have been fighting in Ukraine since day 1,” the shaman says. “A few have already returned and collected their photos. The protection is very strong! Bullets fly right by them.” 

Dopchun-ul sets fire to a pair of artysh sprigs – a type of juniper – and surrounds the photos first with the flames, then with smoke. “The spirits of their ancestors help. We perform rituals in places of power. We practice shamanism so that no harm will come to them, so they will be invulnerable,” the shaman explains. “Sometimes wives, fathers, or mothers come instead of soldiers.” 

“Genghis Khan and his commander, Subutai, were the first to take Kyiv, they burned it down and left for the west, for Europe,” Dopchu-ul says. In the 1940s, he says, his father’s brother, the captain Kechil-ul, liberated Ukraine and was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. But when the conversation turns to how shamans relate to Sergey Shoigu and current Russian leadership, Dopchun-ul suddenly sounds genuinely offended: “Sholban Kara-ul, the former head of the republic, duped Shoigu. He pulled him to the Buddhist’s side.”

The supreme shaman blames Buddhists for every misfortune. Even Ukrainian nationalism, in his opinion, spread after a visit from the Dalai Lama, after which “they immediately dug up Bandera and overthrew their president.” (In fact, the Dalai Lama has never been to Ukraine.)

“Those who come here [to the shamanic center] will come through the fighting alive. But those who follow the lama will return as corpses,” Dopchun-ul says harshly. “Buddhism is a philosophy. It can’t help a person. But nature helps. A shaman is nature.”

The office of the Supreme Shaman of Russia, Kara-ul Dopchun-ul
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

‘No square meter of land is worth human lives’

The Instagram community Asians of Russia was popular long before the war. According to its founder, Vasily Matenova, it had 123,000 subscribers in February 2022. Then Ukrainians who needed help with publicity started turning to Vasily: they were seeking the relatives of Russian soldiers taken prisoner or killed in Ukraine. The public began to send in personal information, as well as photos of name tags, of soldiers from the Asian part of Russia who had been killed in the war. After new repressive laws concerning “fake news” and “discrediting the armed forces,” were passed in Russia, Vasily was visited by security forces, and was forced to leave Russia for Georgia.

Another online community, New Tuva, which caters to the same audience as Asians of Russia, appeared on June 14; Eres Kara-sal, a former member of the Great Khural from the Liberal Democratic Party became the face of that movement. On February 27 he called on the “leaders [of Russia] to bring the troops home,” to stop the “fratricidal bloodshed,” and begin negotiations. “There is not one square meter of land that’s worth human lives,” he said.

The following day, Kara-sal told Meduza, he filed an application to relinquish his position and leave the party; these requests were not immediately acted upon. But later, Tuvan security forces “tipped him off” about the threat of a criminal case, and Eres Kara-sal also left Russia, later publishing an anti-war speech on Facebook. His photograph has disappeared from the list of members of the Great Khural.

In total, New Khiva has, according to its members, 18 active participants. Half of them live abroad, some in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and only a few in Tuva itself. Their main task, as they have formulated it, is to get information and legal and financial aid to soldiers who wish to terminate their contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense and come home. Of the evacuations of contract soldiers from Ukraine which they have organized, the most difficult dragged on for more than a month.

“At the end of May 3 guys, 18-19 years old, finished their contracts,” the head of the movement told Meduza (he asked us to maintain his anonymity). “They were immediately sent to forward positions. They reported the refusal [to end their contracts], and got an answer: wait a week and we’ll take you back to Russia. But they were deceived, and sent to the front again. Then they tried to run. One had a concussion, he could barely hear.”

According to New Tuva activists, soldiers were repeatedly caught and detained, or sent to strategically important points on the front line from which it was difficult to extract them. Activists helped relatives write appeals to military officials, the human rights commissioner, and legislators in Tuva, which eventually worked, but the soldiers were sent back to Russia without protective gear or documents. It was an ordeal, which didn’t end with the soldiers’ return – now they’re being threatened with a criminal case for “false denunciation.” 

According to New Tuva, activists have helped to bring around 200 of their countrymen home. It’s hard to get an exact number because soldiers talk to their comrades during the process and often end up bringing them along: “It’s been the case that we helped nine people, and then when they sent us a photo from Moscow on the road to Tuva there were 30 of them.”

In all, by Kara-sal’s estimation, from two to 4.5 thousand Tuvans were sent to Ukraine – between 0.6 and 1.4 percent of the population of the republic. Around 600 people have returned home. The wife of one of the soldiers told a Meduza correspondent that she had gone with other Tuvans to the brigade’s location on the Russia-Ukraine border. “I called a shaman from there. I asked about my husband’s fate. He scattered stones and said not to go to war. [As a result] my husband walked away right before departure and returned [home]. At that time, that was possible.”

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‘What was there for him in a foreign country?’

“In Khovu-Aksy, my village, I worked in a store for five years. Every day a boy came in, he’d buy chocolate, bread. Now I see his photograph on the social media channel ChP Kyzyl – killed in the ‘special operation.’ 19 years old,” Ayan, a young lawyer and blogger from Tuva told Meduza (he asked us not to publish his surname). “What was there for him in a foreign country?”

News of the invasion of Ukraine shocked Ayan. He wrote an anti-war post on Instagram and tried to persuade his friends. After the adoption of new repressive laws Ayan removed his public posts but continued to communicate with his compatriots. He explains that he no longer argues with everyone, but focuses on those who are wavering.

Ayan told his story while walking around Kyzyl, and did not lower his voice when passers-by turned around. A few people greeted him – he’s a well-known activist in the city. He didn’t go “beyond the Sayan,” like many educated Tuvans, but instead “wanted to change something in his native republic.”

At the city cemetery in Kyzyl
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

“People didn’t have their own opinion [on Russia’s attack on Ukraine] and so they absorbed the first one that was imposed on them. ‘Denazification,’ ‘preemptive strike,’ – Putin’s formulations. It’s hard to change their minds. People believe what they want to believe – that there are fascists over there who need to be killed, that their kids died for a just cause,” Ayan told Meduza. He believes that a protective mechanism is at work on his compatriots: however undeniable the facts, they’d prefer not to look head on at the truth, that their children were killed far from home in a pointless war.

Ayan doesn’t blame ordinary Tuvans who support the war, whom he considers the victims of propaganda: “When the majority live on the edge of poverty, with no affordable education, where will they develop mass critical thinking?” He lays responsibility on local leaders: “Government officials, educated people, leaders of public opinion who glorify the war and send their compatriots there. I don’t know how they look at themselves in the mirror. I would feel differently if a foreign state seized our territory. But where is our homeland? Where is Tuva and where is Lysychansk? Thousands of kilometers from each other.”

In his youth, Ayan, like many Tuvans, supported the authorities, voted for Putin, and even decided to serve in the army on a contract. But in 2017 he became disillusioned with military service because of the ethnic discrimination he experienced. He has regularly experienced xenophobia even after his dismissal from the army – ethnic Russians harbor negative stereotypes about Tuvans, he says, and often refuse to rent apartments to them in bigger cities. He worries that prejudices about Siberian Asians are multiplying. Now, among other things, they are associated with crimes committed by the Russian army, presented, in Ayan’s opinion, as “the face of the invasion.”

Ayan thinks, at first, that residents of Tuva expected a quick and bloodless “special operation,” but now they’re “beginning to doubt a little bit.” There’s a rift about the war in almost every Tuvan family, says Ayan. “More than once, I’ve heard relatives try to convince some guy not to go to war. ‘What did you leave in a foreign country?’ they’ll say. But then the wives say, ‘we’re up to our ears in debt, credit, microloans. Go to war, earn some money.’”

He thinks that if poverty were not so widespread in the country, many fewer Tuvans would risk their lives for 200 rubles a month. And for those who do earn money in Ukraine, it doesn’t bring joy: “There are guys who come home wounded, get compensation – three million – and don’t know what to do now that they’ve survived a war. They start to drink, they squander the money.”

After the war began, Ayan fell into depression – he considered emigrating, but in the end decided to remain in his homeland. Now he dreams that even if the war doesn’t end, at least Tuvans will stop dying senselessly and will come home.

Relatives of the dead speak out on social media, Ayan says – Tuvans are a small population, and they’re losing brothers and fathers in this war. He adds that there are more opponents of the war, now, but that people are subordinate to the government, which transmits the message that all of Tuva supports the “special operation.” He himself prefers to keep silent in unfamiliar company.

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‘Putin can do anything’

“It will end badly. The war, I mean. Many are dying. All the money will go there, for arms and for medicine. We have little left, us Tuvans. It’s almost like we’re in a zoo,” an elderly village shaman by the name of Aidys (his name has been changed) told Meduza. He sits on the banks of the Yenisey. The feather of a kite and a Russian flag are pinned to his traditional, cherry-colored hat.

The shaman Aidys on the banks of the Yenesey
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

The shaman tells Meduza that it’s not only Tuvans who come to him for help. “One, Dima, came in a wheelchair. He’s Ukrainian, but he fought for Russia. Now he’s disabled. His mother bought him a bear claw from me.” Aidys says that he himself was planning to volunteer, but he changed his mind. Volunteers, he says, are sent “straight to the front, like in World War II.” He says “it’s not only Tuvans there, there are Buryats, Khakas. Asians. My soul hurts, my heart cries.”

The shaman also doesn’t want to let his nephew, who has returned from the war on a visit, go to the front. “What are you thinking, Artur? I tell him, you’re my only nephew. I carried you piggy-back. You have a daughter, your son was born while you were in Ukraine. Don’t go, screw it.” Nothing came of it: his nephew had already extended the contract by five years. “They’re mostly after loans,” says Aidys.

But there’s also another motivation. “One kid was awarded Hero of Russia, and he’s also going back to Ukraine. It’s revenge.” The shaman raises his voice. “For his friends. For their Tuvan comrades in arms. They were alive, healthy, they laughed, they sang about love, about the taiga, about cattle herds. Now they’re nothing. I gave my nephew a wolf bone, and some earth from where he was born, in a red bag. Putin can do anything. If something happens, like Genghis Khan, he’ll push a button. The homes will remain, and all the living things…”

Aidys falls silent and watches the flowing water for a long time.

Vladimir Sevrinovsky, Kyzyl, Republic of Tuva. Translation by Emily Laskin.

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