WHY DID THE USSR ANNEX TUVA?
The main question is probably the most difficult to answer. Described by one source as once being “among the most insular and obscure places on earth”, land-locked Tannu Tuva’s area is approximate to that of Greece but it has long been sparsely populated and has extreme temperatures. As to why the Soviet Union wanted it, there are different schools of thought on this as no conclusive evidence has yet emerged. In a recent article, Tuva’s Accession to the USSR: Alternative Opinions (2017), Ivanna V. Otroshchenko says of the annexation:
Many details of this extraordinary event are still unknown. Many
questions concerning its reasons, initiators and circumstances still
The proliferation of versions of Tuva’s accession to the Soviet Union
is in itself a proof of how little we know so far about this
significant historical event.
In short, there are too many ‘versions’ to cover all of them in any detail in this post so the focus will be on the main ideas put forward by academics.
Among Russian historians, the prevailing argument has been that the annexation was predictable, the logical outcome of both historical factors and the ever closer relationship that had developed between Tuva and the Soviet Union since 1932. The key figure in this relationship was Salchak Toka, Prime Minister from 1932 to 1944. Reversing many of the policies of his predecessor, Toka and his fellow Stalin loyalist had come to power in a Soviet-backed coup and, over the following years, moved the country ever closer – in almost all respects – to the Soviet Union. Under Toka’s leadership, Tuva had three times requested annexation by the Soviet Union before it finally happened in 1944.
Among Western academics, the most detailed assessment, until recently at least, is that of Walter Kolarz in The Peoples of the Soviet Far East (1954). He summarizes the reasons for the annexation as:
- An abundance of livestock. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuva supplied the Soviet Union with 600,000 cattle, in addition to 40,000 horses.
- Tuva “forms a national fortress guarding the approaches to the Kuzbass (Kuznetsk Basin), one of the main coal and steel producing centres of the Soviet Union.” Better to have this inside Soviet borders.
- Minerals and metals, including gold and uranium (Kolarz says this may be the most important point).
- The presence of closely related Turkic peoples already inside the Soviet Union; some of those inside the border might argue they should be with their brethren outside the border.
Of the above, the first point seems to be the least convincing. The ruling elite in Tuva was closely linked to the Soviet regime and was already supplying not just cattle and horses but also soldiers; there is no indication in any sources that this arrangement was under threat or about to change.
The third point, on the other hand, may well be the key one and has been espoused by other Western academics. The argument is that, as uranium had been discovered in Tuva, and as Stalin had set up an atomic bomb project following the advice of the Russian physicist Georgy Flyorov who had told him in 1942 that "it is essential to manufacture a uranium bomb without a delay.", Tuvan resources were potentially very important.
This begs the question as to why Outer Mongolia, which also had uranium, was not annexed along with Tuva. Two arguments have been forwarded for this: first, such an action would have been seen as overly-provocative by China and, second, Outer Mongolia – along with Xinjiang – was seen as a useful buffer state between China and the Soviet Union. Xinjiang was, in fact, an area of conflict between the two regional powers; China had taken control of the area from Russia in 1942. Some historians have argued that Stalin’s annexation of Tuva was a warning to the Chinese not to make a move on Outer Mongolia as it had done on Xinjiang (the Soviets supported a rebellion there against the Chinese Kuomintang in November 1944, the month after Tuva was annexed).
DID TUVA VOLUNTARILY REJOIN?
Note: Tuva had been annexed by Russia in 1914, had then changed hands a number of times before the Tuvan People's Republic was set up in 1921 by Bolsheviks
This is impossible to answer with certainty as we cannot know for sure that Stalin didn’t tell Toka: ‘join the Soviet Union or else...’ However, as the Toka regime had requested annexation in 1939, 1941 and 1943 (the requests had been turned down, probably due to bad timing), it seems likely that the 1944 request was, if not initiated by the Tuva leadership, eagerly made by them following a request or suggestion from Stalin.
The reasons for the Tuvan leadership's eagerness were probably (1) a fear of China’s hostile intentions (see below) and (2) the economic reality of being a small, underdeveloped land-locked state which needed strong economic links (as well as aid) from its powerful neighbour. Whether the population at large agreed with the annexation will never be known - they weren't asked as there was never a referendum. Ironically, this effectively meant that the annexation was illegal under the Soviet's own constitution.
The lack of a referendum can probably be attributed to the desire to keep the annexation out of the news and / or to the delay it would cause. As the Tuvan population was predominantly nomadic (82.2% according to the 1931 census), there was unlikely to be much organized opposition anyway - most of them wouldn't even have known about the annexation for quite a while.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN IN 1944 WHEN THE WAR WAS STILL GOING ON?
As Alex noted in his comment, 1944 was actually a good time; the Soviet leadership had more pressing matters to deal with before then while any later could have led to problems with the US and China. In 1944, on the other hand, the tide had turned in the Soviets’ favour in Europe as the Western allies had opened the second front several months earlier. The actual announcement of the annexation was effectively buried by only being made in the local newspaper and at a time when no one was paying any attention.
For other countries, attention was elsewhere – the Chinese, especially, were heavily engaged in fighting Japan. Stalin was certainly aware of China’s claims to Tuva, claims which Chiang Kai-shek mentioned to Roosevelt at the Cairo Conference in November 1943. Stalin would also have had a good idea by 1944 of the likely American reaction to the annexation of territories and would have wanted the Tuvan situation sorted out before the Americans got too interested. Whether the loss of Tuvan independence would have been a major concern is debatable as Tuva had only ever been recognized by the Soviets and Mongols in the first place, but Stalin would have been concerned about American interest in Chinese claims on the territory. Finally, if one accepts the argument that the existence of uranium in Tuva as important to the Soviets, the Soviet atomic program made the annexation of Tuva highly desirable at this time.
Tuva. A State Reawakens
Moscow’s Last Great Territorial Acquisition Before Crimea – Stalin’s 1944 Annexation of Tuva
History of Tuva
Tuvan People's Republic
Soviet Disunion: A History of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR