Communism in a Single Country

There is a unique value in leisurely leafing through various historical atlases and old geographical atlases, as sometimes, an unexpected leaps up to your face. It happened to me some years ago, when I was enjoying the third volume (entitled Neuzeit, or ‘Modernity’) of the Grosser Historischer Weltatlas (1957), edited by Josef Engel for the Bayerischer Schulbuch-Verlag in Munich, West Germany. On the map depicting the world in 1926 (pp 180-1), I spotted, marked in distinctive blue, the polity of Tannu Tuva, squeezed between the Soviet Union and Mongolia. It does not feature on any maps of the postwar period, which is worrying, as one tends to believe that states the size of Greece should not disappear without anyone noticing. Leaving no trail of protests. Without a whimper.

Tannu-Tuva Coat of Arms
Tannu-Tuva Coat of Arms

But I may be wrong. Who cares about the 600 odd polities of the Holy Roman Empire or the same amount of these in the British Raj India. Human attention to detail is fickle in the West, unless changes brush off directly on the very West: as reflected in statements delivered by its politicians, and reported in newspapers of wide circulation.


Having spotted Tannu-Tuva I could not let it go. Most Western textbooks of history when commenting on the interwar period, tend to brand the Soviet Union the ‘sole communist state’ on the globe’s face then, making the distinction sound as a blemish. But contrary to this piece of received knowledge, between the two World Wars, three communist states existed; apart from the aforementioned Soviet Union, also Mongolia and our forgotten Tannu-Tuva.

Where is it now? An explanation lies in the law of unexpected parallels. During the First World War, Montenegro was a member of the Allied camp. The Allies won this war, and duly, Montenegro was erased from the map by the Serbia-led Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The Montenegrins did not even make it to the novel kingdom’s name.

When victory means demise, the story is similar in the case of Tannu-Tuva. The Tuvans valiantly offered to assist the Allies by sending the country’s army to fight alongside the Red Army against the Wehrmacht. From the Tuvan capital of Kyzyl (or ‘Red’ in the Turkic language of Tuvan) the state’s gold reserves were despatched to Moscow for bolstering the Allied war effort. And again, the Allies won the war, but Tannu-Tuva was gone. In 1944 the polity was annexed by the Soviet Union. No one batted an eyelid in the West. Jstor offers four or five short English-language articles on the history of Tannu-Tuva, but not a single one on the history of this essentially interwar polity. Not a single monograph has been devoted to it yet.

The topic is for grabs, and may yet transform a PhD student who gazes the direction of Tannu-Tuva a famous historian of the short-lived nation-state. A risk worth taking, because disappeared states have a tendency to pop back up onto the political map of the world. The case of Montenegro shows that it is far from impossible.

March 14, 2014

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