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Perspectives on the unrest in the Altai region of the USSR

H. B. Paksoy, 1990

First published via "Report on the USSR" over the SOVSET computer network by Radio Liberty, Munich, on 10 September 1990; subsequently published in hard copy in Eurasian Studies (Ankara), Vol. 2, no. 2, Summer 1995

In a recent article on the potential dissolution of the USSR, Russian nationalist Eduard Volodin included historically non-Russian lands (the Volga-Urals, Siberia, the Altai) in his picture of a "new Russia." Concerning the Altai Turks, he wrote, "The peoples of the Altai... preserved for themselves, for us, and for humanity, one of the most ancient cultures of the world."1 The implication of this statement, in the context of authors' arguments, is that Altai is now considered a part of "Russia" and "Russian territory" to be preserved in case of dissolution of the Soviet Union.2

The designation "Altai," as Uzbek and Kazakh, are primarily geographical, tribal or confederation names, not ethnonyms.3 Those names were taken from geographic reference points, by early explorers or ethnographers and mistakenly or deliberately turned into "ethnic" or "political" classifications. Early in the 8th century, the Turks themselves provided an account of their identity, political order and history. These were recorded on the scores of stelea, written in their unique alphabet and language, and erected in the region of Orkhon-Yenisey.4 The designation "Turk"5 and its variants are encountered centuries earlier, in the Byzantine and Chinese sources, the Turks' Western and Eastern neighbors, respectively. Most mountains, cities, lakes, deserts, rivers in this region, from early historical times until the Soviet period, carried Turk- origin names.6 They are being restored in the late 1980s. Turk language and its many dialect groupings such as Orkhon, Kipchak, Uyghur, Chaghatay, constitute a very large portion of the Altaic family. The dialect currently spoken in the Altai region is related to old Orkhon and Uygur. Only since the Soviet language "reforms," especially of the 1930s, have the dialects been asserted to be "individual and unrelated Central Asian languages." They are mutually intelligible. As Denis Sinor points out in his introduction to Radloff's PROBEN,7 in the past 100 years, "new, artificial, names have been created and it is not always easy to establish equivalencies." For example: Altai was known as Kara-Tatar, later changed to Oirot (doubly misleading, since Oirot is a Mongolian dialect), and back to Altai; Tuvinian was originally Soyon and Urinkhai and sometimes Shor; Khakass was called Abakan or Abakan-Tatar; Kachin and Sagay were jointly "converted" into Khakass; Taranchi became "Modern Uyghur"; Kazakh was Kirghiz.

Thus, when it was recently reported that political unrest and ethnic conflict broke out in the Tuva ASSR, that news came as a surprise to some Moscow based politicians.8 This is primarily because, in the Soviet historiography, the Altai region rates only spotty coverage, mostly recording the past 100 years of Russian settlement and exploitation. It can be stated that after the Turk Empire (East and West) of the 4th-6th c., (in the vicinity of the Orkhon-Yenisei stelea), came various Uyghur and Kirghiz political entities. There was a period of Chinese subjugation, which culminated in large scale uprisings by the Turks prior to the 8th c. Between the 9th-12th c., Karakhanid, Ghaznavid and the Seljuk empires were contiguous from the Chinese to the Byzantine Empires. In that era, the Altaians constituted a sub-grouping of the then powerful Karluk confederation.9 During the Mongol irruption, most Turk entities came under Mongol suzerainty (13th and 14th c.). After the dissolution of the Mongol empire, the Chinese (Manchu) asserted control over portions of the previous eastern Mongolian territories in the 18th c. (approx. 1757-1912), including a part of a larger Altai region, the "Tuva" area Altaian Turks became vassals of the Chinese. Tuva was designated a "country" for the benefit of the tsarist government, and in 1912, like Mongolia, gained independence from China. It became a Russian "protectorate" in 1914.10 During 1921, the Tuva People's Republic was created, much like the Mongolian Republic, theoretically not part of USSR. In 1944, Tuva "asked" to join the Soviet Union. The Altaian Turks eventually were incorporated into the Russian Empire, in the Altai okrug, administered directly by the tsarist Cabinet, though counted as "aliens." This okrug was about the size of France and had a total population of 3.6 million, including many Russian settlers. The number of settlers grew, displacing the native population from their land. During 1907-09 alone, 750,000 Russian settlers came to the Altai region, taking land that had been declared "excess." During the 19th c., the railroad had linked Altain towns to Russian markets, thus strengthening the exclusive economic links with Russia. A Bolshevik-dominated soviet took power in the capital, Barnaul in 1920. Thus the greater part of Altai region was incorporated into the expanding USSR. The recent news concerning the economic initiatives by the Altaians, and their desire to establish economic contacts with the outside world independent of Moscow ought to be taken in this context.11

It should be noted that the 18th to 20th century Western authors have produced interpretive volumes on the history of the Turks, some of which are speculative narratives, including assertions pertaining to a certain "Pan-Turkism," ostensibly a movement by the Turks to establish hegemony over the world, or at least Eurasia. This "pan" movement has now been documented to be a European creation, to accommodate 19th century European balance-of-power politics, related to the "Great Game in Asia" between the British and the Russian empires. Accusations of "Pan-Turkism" are still employed today, especially, but not exclusively, in the Soviet Union. It will come as no surprise if Moscow institutions invoke that bogey-man notion once again in connection with the recent outbreak of demands for freedom and independence in the Altai.12


1. "The New Russia in a changing world," LITERATURNAIA ROSSIYA (26 January 1990). For an analysis of the referenced piece, see John Dunlop, RL Reports, February 20, 1990.

2. 50 of the 168 deputies elected in nationalities districts (that entitles them to seats in the RSFSR Council of Nationalities) are high-placed Russian officials who had almost no chance to be elected in Moscow and sought the safe seats in the country. See Julia Wishnevsky, RFE/RL DAILY REPORT, 7 June 1990.

3. See H. B. Paksoy, "Z. V. Togan On the origins of the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks." Presented to the 42nd annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting. (Chicago, March 1990); published in CENTRAL ASIA READER: The Rediscovery of History (NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1994).

4. See T. Tekin A GRAMMAR OF ORKHON TURKIC (Bloomington, 1968). Indiana University Uralic Altaic Series Vol. 69. [Contents dating from the 8th c.]

5. There is no distinction between "Turkish" and "Turkic" in the language of the Turks. Therefore the present article uses simply "Turk."

6. See Kashgarli Mahmud, COMPENDIUM OF THE TURKIC DIALECTS: DIWAN LUGAT AT- TURK, Robert Dankoff (Tr., Ed.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Printing Office, V.1 1982, V.2 1984, V.3 1985) [Original written in 11th c.].

7. (Bloomington and The Hague, 1967)


9. W. Bartold (Fourth Ed.) TURKESTAN DOWN TO THE MONGOL INVASION (London, 1977).

10. For "treaty" details, see J. R. V. Prescott, MAP OF MAINLAND ASIA BY TREATY (Melbourne, 1975).


12. See H. B. Paksoy ALPAMYSH: CENTRAL ASIAN IDENTITY UNDER RUSSIAN RULE (Hartford, CT: Association for the Advancement of Central Asian Research Monograph Series, 1989).