Controlled from the 6th century by a succession of Turkic empires, in the 1750s Tuva became an outpost of China, against whose rule the much-celebrated Aldan Maadyr (60 Martyrs) rebelled in 1885. Tibetan Buddhism took root during the 19th century, coexisting with older shamanist beliefs; by the late 1920s one man in 15 in Tuva was a lama.
With the Chinese distracted by a revolution in 1911, Russia stirred up a separatist movement and took Tuva ‘under protection’ in 1914. The effects of Russia’s October Revolution took two years to reach Tuva, climaxing in 1921 when the region was a last bolt-hole of the retreating White Russians, swiftly ejected into Mongolia by ‘Red Partisans’. Tuva’s prize was renewed independence as the Tuvan Agrarian Republic (Tyva Arat Respublik, TAR), better known to philatelists as Tannu Tuva. However, to communist Russia’s chagrin, Prime Minister Donduk’s government dared to declare Buddhism the state religion and favoured reunification with Mongolia. Russia’s riposte was to install a dependable communist, Solchak Toka, as prime minister, and later to force Tuvans to write their language in the Cyrillic alphabet, creating a cultural divide with Mongolia.
Having ‘voluntarily’ helped Russia during WWII, Tuva’s ‘reward’ was incorporation into the USSR. Russian immigration increased, Buddhism and shamanism were repressed, and the seminomadic Tuvans were collectivised; many Tuvans slaughtered their animals in preference to handing them over. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Tuva was one of only two republics (the other being Chechnya) that looked to secede. Many Russians left for the motherland and most still regard Tuva as a hostile place, with one notable exception – President Putin, who has made several trips to the region, one of which involved his (in)famous bare-chested photo shoot.