Holidays in a Pandemic
The Republic of Tuva
Abstract: The Republic of Tuva is a remote and sparsely populated titular ethnic republic in the Russian Federation with an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward its dual ethnic and national identity. Observances of national holidays have adjusted to modernity, including bilingual ways of celebrating, and since the onset of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, have found success with online methods of celebration during the summer of 2020. Celebrations of Victory Day, Russia Day, and Naadym provide examples of how the Republic of Tuva has reinvented the past by consciously updating its distinct ethnic practices in festive and internet-inclusive ways for COVID-19. The necessary push for the live-streaming of holidays in Tuva has forced this republic to update many of its practices, reviving interest and images of a romantic past for such holidays. Celebrations of Victory Day on May 9th, Russia Day on June 12th, and Naadym on September 9-12th mirrored the republic’s trajectory of the epidemic, from strict measures in the spring to relaxed attitudes by the summer, and almost no reference to COVID-19 by the fall of 2020. Videos and hashtags were integral to Victory Day and Russia Day- though the lackluster response to Victory Day matched the increased tensions surrounding COVID-19 and diminishing popularity of the holiday in Russia overall. Citizens turned to social media to air their complaints and even attacked leaders directly on state media platforms in the days leading up to Russia Day. Officials crowdsourced attitudes through a Google Form to capture attitudes to plan Naadym. By September 2020, attitudes about COVID-19 relaxed, and other than decreased in-person spectatorship at the khuresh competition, many events were perceived to resume as usual with little regard for social distancing. Social media served as an effective method of analyzing public communication between leaders and people. Additionally, this chapter explores how state-sanctioned authority figures used social media page Vkontake to share messages with people but also serve as a sounding board for unhappy citizens of the Republic of Tuva during COVID-19.
Keywords: Republic of Tuva, Russia Day, Naadym, holidays, pandemic, COVID-19
Tuva: Simultaneously Central Asian and Russian
The Republic of Tuva in the Russian Federation is the geographical center of Asia, home to an endemic ethnic and linguistic tradition, and has seen numerous changes in its methods of nation-building and production of national identity due to its geopolitical relation to Russia. Inter-ethnic relations have morphed as Tuva’s relationship with Russia changed; beginning as trade partners, then protectorates, and Tuva is currently a federal autonomous region in Russia. Regarded as an ancestral homeland of the Tuvan ethnic group and a current population of little over 300,000 inhabitants; 82% of the population of the republic’s landmass currently identifies as ethnic Tuvan. Russians have been living in the region as early as the nineteenth century. The remote state borders the Altai, Khakassia, and Buryat Republics; both Russian and the indigenous language of Tuvan are spoken. Education and governing are conducted in both languages. Tuvan is classified as a Northern or Siberian Turkic language and is part of the Altai-Sayan ethnic subgroup. (Proshina, 2016, p. 251) Tuvan has Mongolian, Tibetan, and Russian influences, and is currently classified as vulnerable, as most of the native speakers live within the boundaries of the republic.
The first Russian presence in Tuva were gold miners in the 1830’s, who acknowledged Chinese jurisdiction over the territory. It was not until 1911, with the collapse of the Chinese empire, newly found Mongolia independence next-door, and installment of a spiritual head of state, did Russia begin to develop a colonial interest in Tuva. Under Tsar Nicholas II, Tuva was brought into the empire as Uryankhay Krai. A period of rapid transition followed when the land was recognized as the Tuvan People’s Republic from 1921 to 1944. As a protectorate of Imperial Russia, Tannu Tuva received financial backing and state protection in border disputes with Mongolia. In 1918, the first congress of both Tuvan and Russian representatives met, which concluded with a treaty formally giving Russia the land they technically already held, and recognized Tuvan independence. In 1927, joint Russian-Tuvan trade unions and cooperatives were created, and Tuva attempted to build a Stalin-style socialist economy within the state. However, the result was similar to the rest of Central Asia, broadly rejecting a Stalinist administrative-command economy. As a country of predominantly nomadic cattle herders, state ownership and socialism did not take well, as seen in the trajectory of initial Central Asian statehoods. Private trade was reintroduced in 1934, a private banking system was created, and monasteries re-opened (Alatalu, 1992, p. 885-886).
In 1939, the Politburo of the Tuvan People’s Republic received letters from nomadic herdsmen with a plea for incorporation into the Soviet government. By 1941, the 16,000 Russian colonists within Tuva were given citizenship. Russian language education began being introduced in Tuvan schools and the Tuvan Latin alphabet began transitioning to a Cyrillic writing system. In 1944, Tuva was admitted to the USSR as an autonomous region (Alatalu, 1992, p. 888). Within Tuva, Tuvans consistently retained a numerical majority to the Russians and frequently pushed back in conflicts. When there was a compulsory transfer of cattle-raisers’ children into Russian language boarding schools, inter-ethnic clashes ensued. Tuva has also been the location of several Soviet prison camps, and those released were permitted to settle within Tuva, instead of returning home, causing territorial and land-rights disputes. This parallels other post-Stalin migration conflicts seen in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Despite Tuva’s rocky start in the Soviet Union and initial reputation as a puppet state, Tuvans have expressed a general sense of pride in their role within the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union equipped the Tuvan People’s Revolutionary Army for involvement in World War II. Tuva also transferred gold reserves to Moscow, and donated livestock and winter supplies to the Red Army (Baliyev, 2010). In 1939, the Tuvan Central Committee was instructed to fully equip the Tuvan People’s Revolutionary Army to raise combat readiness within the following few years. The Soviet Union assisted with technical development. At the beginning of the war, there were 489 Tuvans in ranks. By 1941, there were 1,136 Tuvans enlisted, consisting of a tank platoon, communications platoon, machine-gun half-squadron, musical platoon, and a quartermaster platoon (Mongush, 2010). This robust war effort and legacy is honored in current Tuvan education, holidays, at cultural centers, and in national imagination. The Tuvan State Museum has an entire exhibit to its World War II heroes. Many Tuvans returned to their homeland highly decorated. Tuvans continue to celebrate Russian state holidays, such as Victory Day and Russia Day.
Tuvans are well aware of their remoteness and have pride in their natural environment, on a personal level, and in state-sanctioned ways. They practice state identities through a variety of cultural products, including festivals that honor their pride for the Russian Federation, often consciously utilizing their ethnic identity as a parallel or even as a pedestal for Russian state pride. A holiday that celebrates the natural environment is Naadym. It celebrates Tuva's nomadic past with a focus on animal husbandry practices that have existed for centuries. However, it has been revived and “taken away” based on the interests of those in power at the national level. The boundaries between nationalism and the official religion of Buddhism get blurred in annual celebrations of Naadym.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, Tuvans converted to Buddhist ideologies for the first time as part of the Mongol Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, mainstream Tibetan Buddhism gained popularity. A 2013 study found that 64% of Tuvans self-identify as Buddhist, while 30% reported that they practiced both Buddhism and Shamanism (Purzycki, 2013, p 176). In both the collective history and reality of modern life in the Republic, Tuvans have observed a nomadic lifestyle, herded a wide range of mammals, lived in yurts, and cherished customs of khoomei (throat-singing), khuresh (wrestling), and cuisine. Over time, these cultural markers have become synonymous with Buddhism and general Tuvan identity. Post-sovietisation, many of these cultural practices have remained intact, at times expanding to invite bilingual ways of participation. To keep up with modernization in the 20th century, sacred sites have become nationally protected and ethnic festivals have expanded to include the dual Tuvan-Russian national identity. The lama plays a role in officiating events. The Head of State often makes blessings on official holidays. State communication often happens in Tuvan, and is frequently not translated into Russian. Holidays are a celebration of Tuvan past, and include elements of Tuvan statehood in the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation. Holidays and celebration practices frequently get new meanings to include modern Buddhist identity. Aspects of ethnicity and religion are often synonymous in Tuvan national identity.
Critics of Tuva’s cultural policies go as far as to imply that Tuva’s late inclusion to Russia indicates its status as an “’unfinished state’ of the cultural creation model…. Many elements of which have never been realized.” (Karelina, 2018, p. 220). However, this imperialist critique is projected onto many other so-called underdeveloped Central Asian states. It is unclear if it is a Russian-centric critique or rather, measuring only through the extent of commercial development post-Soviet Union. Regardless, their celebration of holidays is certainly an established tradition, which is worth examining in order to truly understand the effects of COVID-19 on Central Asia.
Holidays are the front-facing display of nationalism and solidarity for its people and to outsiders, and a time when citizens of the Republic participate in mass. It is also an example of when people mirror their governing bodies, in attitudes and desires. Holiday planning is also a site of nationalistic thinking as it pertains to future celebrations. At times, holidays morph to fill a gap or dissatisfaction with the state of the nation. With the pandemic as a new obstacle for nationalism, the following sections examine how three holidays have contributed to “realizing” the modern Tuva in 2020.
The beginnings of COVID-19 in Tuva
In February of 2020, The Moscow Times began cataloging the events surrounding COVID-19. Starting February 2nd, Russian officials began to restrict the entry of foreigners and imported goods arriving from China. Chinese trade with Russia dropped by 1 billion rubles; 2,500 passengers that have arrived in Moscow from China were ordered to self-isolate; and 144 Russian nationals were evacuated from the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in China and sent to Tyumen for a 14-day mandatory quarantine. By the beginning of March, over 51,000 COVID-19 tests were conducted nationwide. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic as the number of cases surpassed 112,000 in 113 different countries. Large gatherings and school-related events were banned. By mid-March, all entry of foreign nationals was prohibited, though a majority of COVID-19 cases in Russia were restricted to Moscow and St. Petersburg (The Moscow Times, 31 December 2020).
A stay-at-home order was issued by Chairman of Tuva, Sholban Kara-ool, on March 30th, limiting movement between regions in Russia. Those who were able to telework are advised to do so. All shopping centers remained closed except for pharmacies and factories that produced protective equipment. No more than 30 people were allowed in a grocery store. Anyone caught violating quarantine was subjected to a fine between 15,000 to 40,000 rubles. If the violation resulted in harm or death of someone , the fine increased, depending on the importance of the person infected. If an official is harmed, the fine is up to 500,000 rubles and imprisonment of up to three years. Policemen formed over fifty groups to perform daily searches of people violating quarantine. A hotline was set up for any COVID-19 related calls (Tuva Media Group, 1 April 2020).
Businesses affected by the loss of income received reduce tax rates. An entrepreneurship Support Fund was created to provide microloans to small businesses. Rent was delayed up to six months. Insurance premiums were reduced. The capital, Kyzyl, began disinfecting daily, including trash cans, pedestrian areas, benches, handrails, traffic lights, and playgrounds. Two hospitals in Kyzyl, Infectious Diseases Hospital and Republican Hospital No. 1 prepared a total of 327 beds in preparation for the epidemic. However, no cases had been reported in the republic in March (Tuva Media Group, April 6, 2020; Tuva Media Group, 7 April 2020).
On April 8th, Chairman Sholban Kara-ool confirmed in a press briefing and social media post that there were eight cases of COVID-19in the village of Yrban, in the Todzhinsky district of Tuva. This came just two days after the first diagnosis in Krasnoyarsk. The Krasnoyarsk man was visiting family in Yrban days before his positive diagnosis, and had been working in Moscow prior to the trip. Though the eight cases were asymptomatic, the entire town was ordered to self-isolate. All roads leading up to Todzhinsky were blocked, and entry and exit were prohibited for all citizens (Tuva Media Group, 9 April 2020).
The first death from COVID-19 was a 68-year-old woman at Hospital No. 1 in Kyzyl on May 18th, more than one month after the first diagnosis (Tuva Media Group, May 15 2020). The Official Portal of News in Tuva did not begin reporting on COVID-19 cases until April 15th of 2020, a noticeable two-month delay from Moscow. By June 10th, two days before Russia Day, Tuva reported 2,027 cases total. The 44-year-old Supreme Lama of Tuva, Dzhampel Lodoi, was diagnosed with COVID-19 and died June 23rd (Tuva Media Group, 9 June 2020). In August, the Chairman Sholban Kara-ool was tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time. His previous hospitalization lasted a little over a week in Kyzyl. The second time, he was hospitalized in Moscow (Tuva Media Group, 25 August 2020).
By the beginning of September 2020, masks and gloves were still mandatory. Festivals remain “officially” canceled but the second stage of reopening began August 31st – shopping centers, cafes, restaurants, health offices, libraries, children’s camps, salons, fitness centers, and hotels were able to resume business with increased safety measures. Despite classification as a festival, Naadym resumed on September 3rd. Sporting competitions proceeded as normal during Naadym. Contact wrestling and crowds resumed despite medical advice. Mask-wearing requirements faded quickly.
Tuva reported that since the first diagnosis, 6,531 people had recovered from COVID-19 on September 5th. From May 22 to October 22, Tuva recorded a total of 120 deaths (Official Portal of the Republic of Tuva, 1 November 2020). Infection rates in Tuva continued to increase for the rest of 2020, with no plateau nor vaccination until 2021.
Victory Day, held annually on the 9th of May, is the largest patriotic holiday in Russia. 2020 marked the 75th anniversay of the celebration of victory over Nazi Germany.. Tuva contributed to the war effort and has always found importance in the celebration of Victory day. Over one thousand Tuvans served in the Second World War, a sizable part of the population. On the morning of May 9th, 2020, Victory Day opened up with a solemn ceremony of raising the republic and national flags. Few notable leaders were present at the flag-raising. These events were televised and live-streamed, as usual, but with no crowd recorded on camera. News media praised the new online format as a necessary precaution to the pandemic.
On May 9th, a video of Chairman Kara-ool performing alongside three musicians at the Center of Asia obelisk monument on the banks of the Yenisei was released on social media. Kara-ool, with three well-known musicians Andrei Mongush, Igor Koshkendey, and Stanislav Iril performed “Victory Day” in Tuvan language with khoomei accents. However, the solemn chant-like Soviet tune remained intact in their translation. They were accompanied by the traditional Tuvan instruments: a bowed igil, guitar, and accordion. Kara-ool sang without an instrument. Three were in national dress and traditional hats. The video they produced was high quality, aesthetically beautiful, had numerous long shots with close-ups of musicians’ faces, and let each musician shine in their own light. The most popular recording of this performance on Youtube, uploaded by V. D. Polenov Russian State House of Folk Art, and had over six thousand views by the end of 2020. Telechannel Tuva 24’s upload on Youtube had over four thousand views. The most popular upload on Vkontake was a private user and the video amassed over 28,000 views. These figures show just how adaptable Victory Day celebrations are even in the pandemic as well as how eager the people were ready to celebrate, even if “public” celebration was limited to viewing a video.
State news remarked that there was “practically no preparation for the performance,” instead, that it was some spontaneous idea between the musicians and governor (Official Portal of the Republic of Tuva, May 9, 2020). It is clear from the video that Kara-ool possesses singing talent though this is the first time he has performed publicly. Even more notable is the caliber of talent of the musicians he performed alongside– three ordained national heroes. Perhaps this display of traditional singing talent mirrors Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “spontaneous” fitness displays or Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s numerous working out and judo videos on social media. Neither are spontaneous but rather efforts to assert the leader as simultaneously a regular person and a strongman leader. Kara-ool’s performance magnifies him as a traditional leader connected with their ethnic practices. He stands on the same stage as the beloved art heroes of Tuva with their unquestioned authority over Tuvan cultural practices. As will be discussed in the Russia Day section, Kara-ool has faced harsh criticism online for his handling of COVID-19 in Tuva. His role changes from being a local face in Russian politics, to one representation of the shortcomings of the small republic.
Another reason this performance was not spontaneous because it was a state-coordinated flash mob project. This project was implemented as a joint venture by the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs, Rossotrudnichestvo, Rospechat, Russian Historical Society, Russian Military Historical Society, Russian Union of Veterans, and the Victory Volunteers movement (Borontsova, 2020). Exactly one hundred languages were represented on the pobeda-2020.ru website with the hashtag #VictoryAnthem (#ГИМНПОБЕДЫ). The site boasts that over one million singers participated and over sixty thousand videos were uploaded as part of this campaign. “Choose your native language or another language you like. Sing the heart-warming verses in any language presented. More than a hundred translations into different languages of the Russian Federation and other countries of the world are available here on this website. This campaign is a symbol of the multinational union of our people,” the website states. Interestingly, the site can be only translated to English and Russian.
The first recorded record of singing Victory Day in a language other than Russian on social media was in 2015, starting with Tatar, English, and French. By 2020, there was an effective online marketing push that resulted in a hashtag campaign and translation of Victory day in one hundred languages, including the most remote languages outside of the capital. The online-only environment that COVID-19 generated was conducive to a larger virtual celebration than ever. The large number of views can be attributed to several factors. At this point, absolutely all public celebrations are banned, so the singular video of Kara-ool’s musical number amassed a record number of views. No in-person celebration could be coordinated. People were looking for something in the space of their regular activity. Certainly, a video of their president singing for the first time can replace normal proceedings.
This Victory Day in Many Languages campaign was minority inclusive and an opportunity for ethnic republics like Tuva to shine, showcasing their cultural and artistic practices. With such a big push from Moscow, clever hashtags, and a central site for uploading videos, Tuvan participation in the holiday was streamlined. While painted as spontaneous, it was an efficient and well-planned agreement. At this point in the pandemic, Tuva had not seen a single death from COVID-19. The effective roll-out of the Victory Day video received large numbers of views and echoed the positivity and pride surrounding Tuva’s national satisfaction in the handling of COVID-19 in May. Its popularity corresponds with the popularity of the holiday in recent years. Russian victory over fascism in the Second World War has not become a contested event in any case. It is one of the only unquestioned events that ethnic Russians and Tuvans can celebrate alike, unmarred by controversy.
In 1990, Soviet leaders signed the declaration of Russian state sovereignty which marked the beginning of democratic reforms in Russia. The Russian Federation declared the Day of the Signing of the Declaration of State Sovereignty a national holiday on June 12th, 1994 to reflect the successful consolidation of Russian statehood. When the holiday was introduced, it corresponded with the recent dissolution of the Soviet Union. For many citizens, it was their first public acknowledgment of what the Soviet Union had become, and was immediately viewed as something of a forced holiday- as public attitudes around the time were negative and depressed. In 1997, President Boris Yeltsin renamed it Russia Day, which is how the holiday is currently known. In 2002, the Russian parliament adopted the holiday officially into the new Labor Code. This holiday is remembered as one of the casualties of perestroika as it is artificial in origin and never garnered much organic excitement.
On June 12th, public offices and schools are closed. Surveying public opinion, only 45% of Russians consider Russia Day a holiday (Dinoru, 2012). “In 2018, only 49% polled by the Levada Center research organization remembered the name of the holiday correctly” (Yegorov, 2019). Outside of Russia, it is regarded as the state’s unofficial “birthday” or independence day. Prominent commemorations that come out of Moscow include routine singing of the national anthem, as well as arts and culture displays, although among millennials it is typically seen as a day off. This day is an example of a state-sanctioned holiday Tuvans only honor as a formality. For example, any mention of Russia Day by the Ministry of Information and Communication within Tuva is nominal. This year, deputy chairman Anatoly Partizanovich Damba-Khuurak left a concise message on his personal social media, and neglected to post it on the bureau’s official site:
On this day, I would like to once again express my deep gratitude to our older generation - 76 years ago who decided to voluntarily join multinational Russia, where, with the support of Russia, our republic is experiencing profound positive changes in socio-economic development, we are proud of our involvement in the ongoing changes in today's Russia under the leadership of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin” [Author’s translation] (Novosti Tuvi, 12 June 2020).
Unlike the five lengthy and picture-heavy posts made on the same bureau’s social media page for Victory Day, Russia Day has historically been underrecognized. Kara-ool also posted a Happy Russia Day message on his personal Vkontake page. Most of the message were in Tuvan, though the six sentences he wrote were typical well-wishes of “happiness, prosperity, and good health, fellow countrymen'' and “Forward, Tuva!” While recognition of Russia Day can be found, the relatively new holiday does not instill Tuvan’s with the same sense of national pride seen from Victory Day or Naadym.
In 2020, with security measures related to the pandemic, the commemoration that physically took place in Tuva was televised and participants were encouraged to follow on their televisions rather than in person. The main square in front of the governing building played both the Tuvan and Russian national anthem from speakers and displayed both the Russian and Tuvan banners. A noticeably small number of people were recorded and all were in masks when not speaking. State flags were raised on television (Tuva Online, 12 June, 2020). Absent was a crowd of physical spectators. There were also no live music performances. The flag-raising and short speeches were televised, though there was no stream recorded on Vkontakte or Youtube for simultaneous viewing, perhaps attributed to the holiday’s lack of significance for Tuvan’s compared to Victory Day.
This is a drastic change from the Russia Day celebration in 2015, where the raising of flags was followed by a dance and numerous songs from army, professional, and children’s bands at the Center of Asia obelisk, televised by multiple news stations. In 2017, Russia Day was celebrated with a marathon and a group bike ride, also televised. In 2019, events apparently included a book exhibition at the national library, a chalk drawing contest, workshops at local universities and institutions, summer camp quizzes, “Love Russia” concerts at the Arbat square, an electronic exhibition, and arm-wrestling championship (Official Portal, 2019). These events attempted to include children, as a statewide attempt to indoctrinate Russia Day to younger audiences. However, other than the official schedule, there was no video footage of either of these concerts, electronic exhibition, or arm-wrestling championships, in Russian language on Vkontakte from the celebration in 2019. All content generated was in Tuvan. The same outlets that share the schedule do not have coverage of 2019 Russia Day events. However, Tuva marked its 76th anniversary of statehood in 2020, and in 2019 – its 75th anniversary.
Russia Day 2020 took place three months into the republic-wide quarantine. Public reactions are mixed, as some authorities have praised Chairman Kara-ool’s handling of COVID-19 for this particular holiday. The preparation of hospitals, personal protective equipment, and mechanical ventilation equipment were are all noted as reasons for the “low mortality rate, in contrast to the United States and European nations. In a short time, [Russia] managed to mobilize a large country… through several types of online state payments,” as Kara-ool said in an official statement In the case with 2020, Russia Day just seemed to be another feather in the hat for congratulating themselves in their handling for COVID-19. The low COVID-19 mortality numbers appeared to be a more immediate source of pride than the event that took place 76 years ago. Many Tuvans perceive their statehood in the Soviet Union as a positive step towards modernity. It seems as if in 2020, the Russia day holiday has transformed into a congratulatory celebration on the nation’s COVID-19 progress. Communication from the Chairman himself seems to suggest that is what this year’s Russia day is all about. This is similar to the evolution of Russia Day seen in Moscow as well.
More critical of Chairman Kara-ool was the news site Novosti Tuva+’s pinned a post on social media of the holiday:
Due to the lack of a working plan, lack of professionalism, incompetence, criminal negligence, and stupidity of Sholban Kara-ool, the republic came out on top in the Russian Federation in terms of the COVID-19 incidents per 10,000 population. As of June 10, according to the official data (strongly underestimated) by the government of Tuva, 2,027 people were infected with COVID-19 in Tuva. [Author’s translation] (Novosti Tuvi, 10 June 2020)
Hundreds have interacted with this pinned post within a week of it being posted, mostly in agreement. While most comments were attacking Kara-ool, many turned to xenophobic comments or commentary about other countries. The most upvoted comment read, “this deceitful coward should resign!” on June 9th.
On June 10th, Aleksandr Oorzhak wrote, “compared to our eternal neighbors, the Mongolians, with a population of 3 million and only 184 ill from coronavirus – and how many get sick per day here?” Responses of agreement and also conflicting information about Mongolia are posted – their varying ability to test, their strong government, their population density, all in Russian or Tuvan. On June 15th, Lilia Sana-Shiri wrote:
It’s time to change. We need to follow the example of the Japanese. When a Japanese company is in dire straits, the first person to be cut is its president. If the situation gets even worse, he is the first to resign. In Japan, they do not start by firing rdinary employees. In fact, the Japanese believe that there are no bad soldiers, there are only bad generals. Change starts with personal responsibility! (Novosti Tuvi, 10 June 2020)
111 people agreed with Lilia within a week of her common being posted.
Interestingly, a state-sanctioned TV channel would post this negative attack, just two days before the holiday. However, to say that dissatisfaction is a purely Tuvan attitude towards COVID-19 handling is false, as people all over the world are faced with an unprecedented problem. Many have turned to xenophobia to obfuscate the insufficient state response to contain the virus as countries are constantly pitted against each other in morbid COVID-19 death and vaccination rankings. Blaming other countries and their leaders on social media is hardly a site of nationalistic or group thinking. Much is unknown, so it is typical that people may arrive at xenophobia. It is an attempt to place blame, as so much of the current predicament is outside of one's control and understanding. As Tuvans grew more isolated than ever during quarantine, social media became a sounding board. State news channels became appropriate places for citizens to express their dissatisfaction. As these comments were made either on or two days before or after Victory Day, they could be a reaction to the concentrated COVID-19 centric agenda took place surrounding Russia Day that year.
In the days leading up to June 12th, 2020, there were art, poetry, and music contests; and many homes had decorated windows as part of a “Windows of Russia” campaign. Schoolchildren took part in multiple art contests with nationalistic categories: I Love Russia, Russia is my Homeland, and even a rock art contest where students portrayed symbols of Russia. Given the nature of social distancing, the breadth of participation is not entirely known. However, multiple news outlets online shared images of students with their windows, and a Youtube search shows a video containing a slideshow of over ten children with their decorated windows, participation was at least publicly acknowledged. Tuva is not the only republic that participated in a windows campaign involving school children as it was a nation-wide campaign. The window decoration contest was not in place in years prior. The inclusion of this aspect in this year’s celebration suggests that boredom and lack of in-personal schooling led children to participate in the contest. Schooling had been drastically different, and even taking the form of distance learning, since March. This may be a part of inventing new traditions, though Tuvan youth would have to find out if they would be able to participate in the same way in 2021. Many Russia Day initiatives even the year prior seem to target children with less programming for adults, even in 2019. Children are at the center of this nationalistic programming, especially when it comes to Russia Day.
In the Tuvan regions of Bai-Taiginsky and Barun-Khemchiksky, there were in-home cooking contests of both Tuvan and Russian cuisine.
According to the RCNTD, this year the holiday brought together over 20 thousand users of social networks and instant messengers, where 134 state events were held online. More than two thousand politicians from the House and Cultural Centers took part in this year’s organization of Russia Day [Author’s translation] (Tuva Online, 16 June 2020).
These online contests were laudable efforts in the revival of the once-sleepy holiday. Strangely, outside of state media outlets, there is little mention of the cooking contests, and I was unable to locate any public posts on social media. In an attempt from Moscow to reinforce participation in the new social climate of the pandemic, Russia Day 2020 launched two hashtags “We are Together” (#Мывместе) and “We are Russia''. The Victory Day anthem hashtag found great success, so another top-down social media campaign was attempted for Russia Day. “We are Tuva” was pushed out by various governmental bodies along with the original two hashtags. The creation of the two hashtags was sponsored by the All-Russian People's Front, Coalition of Medical Volunteers, and the Association of Volunteer Centers in March of 2020. Despite its humanitarian origin, the three hashtags were co-opted for (political or governmental purposes?), being heavily advertised as the official Russia Day hashtag (Tuva Online, 16 June 2020). It’s unclear if it is a health-related or Russia Day specific hashtag, though certainly takes on capabilities of cross-fertilization. Online presence of these hashtags with the republic geotagged include state uploaded Youtube videos of Tuvan history with traditional songs playing over images of Tuvan people. Two state agencies: The National Archives of the Republic of Tuva and the National Library of the Republic of Tuva both produced a video on this day. The quality, however, is not as produced as the Victory Day video, nor as interesting. The video from the National Archives only received eight views and the video from the National Library received thirteen – even a year later. These organizations did not add their video to Vkontakte at all, only Youtube. The Tuvan Cultural Center, using the three Russia Day hashtags, live-streamed a video of Tuvan singers, complete with monuments, natural and notable bodies of water, and different ethnic groups holding Russian flags. The stream did not contain any live activity due to the high number of cuts and editing scenes together. Despite this video’s adherence to the three hashtags, it only amassed two hundred views. It has the overall feeling of a presentation rather than video. Although the same top-down hashtag strategy was used, it was not effective since so many Russians in general do not care about the holiday.
Youtube was not utilized in previous years for this Russia Day. The videos produced for the 2020 celebration, though with a small number of views, featured images of singers and dancers in national dress with pointed hats, robes, and belts made of silk. Tuvan language music and throat-singing accompanied the images. Even on a very official state holiday, in this republic, it is celebrated in a way that not only respects their ethnic identity, but brings it to the forefront. However, neither of these videos received more than 300 views, suggesting that they were released as a formality or a production company was paid to produce them. Raising the question: who exactly was the intended audience, if not the Tuvan people? Although hashtags were used for Victory Day, Russia Day hashtags were virtually unrecognized by the public. The lack of reposting and lack of view counts matches the recurring theme with this perestroika-era holiday– disinterest among the populace. Attempting to change the meaning from top-down from Russia’s “birthday” to a celebration of frontline workers muddies the waters yet again for this holiday. Tuvan statehood into the Soviet Union is not remarkable for several reasons. Tuvan and Russian relations began as early as the 19th century. Additionally, fluid geopolitical identities in the 20th century for Tuvans do not provide a simple, coherent narrative of statehood. Ambiguity over perestroika and overall end of the Soviet Union adds to the ambivalence for the holiday. It is clear that when confusion begins, simple ethnic symbols such as singing, national costume, and geographical beauty prevail. The utter lack of Russian symbolism other than the flag and safe reliance on Tuvan ethnic symbols seem to be evidence of government offices simply producing a video for the sake of it. Is it also indicative of a stronger sense of regional cultural pride compared to national identity.
Only in official contexts, Russia Day 2020 was declared the Ecology year. Kara-ool announced that new fire and rescue equipment was purchased as part of the Forest Preservation federal program. This announcement does not have much bearing on a regular Tuvan’s life, as COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution weighs heavier on the minds of Tuvans.
With such little online proof that virtual Russia Day was celebrated in the homes of everyday Tuvans, it implies bare compliance on the state level. While the virtual platform offered many new outlets for this dying holiday, they were not actualized by the people. What people took to more, was bashing Kara-ool over social media. The state push for the holiday to support frontline workers angered Tuvans online even more. Their anger was directed towards the Kara-ool, rather than the pandemic itself. Even state television joined in on the bashing.
Just like how Victory Day and Russia Day are celebrations of a historical past, Naadym is focused on Tuvan cultural heritage rather than national identity. In Tuva, Naadym is combined with the holiday, Republic Day. This was decided while Tuva was still the independent Tuvan People’s Republic, or Tannu-Tuva, in 1922. From 1970 to 1989, the holiday was abolished for ideological reasons, rebranded as a Soviet Farmers’ Holiday, though resumed when Tuva retained status as a state (Samushkina, 2008, p. 110). Nearby Southern Siberian republics of Altai and Khakassia also have their own pan-Eurasian holiday that attempts to revive archaic symbols. During the Soviet period, there were attempts to secularize, politicize and internationalize, as seen in the short period of rebranding as the Soviet Farmers Holiday. In any case, Naadym continues to be a celebration of both Tuvan statehood and romantic past, as seen through the numerous athletic displays.
The holiday follows a similar agenda year after year: The President opens up with speeches and a raising of the seven official flags of the Tuvan state since 1921. After the speeches is a throat-singing concert. Sports competitions of horse-racing, archery, and khuresh wrestling are the main events. These three sports are historically practiced and glorify both the athletic and labor achievements of the people (Samushkina, 2008, p. 110). The winners of such contests get treated like a Turkic hero from an epic, with costumes and prizes symbolizing archaic displays of masculinity. Not only is this a performance of Turkic identity, often new Buddhist stupas get consecrated to accompany a horse or khuresh competition. Since the holiday’s inception, khuresh has been a vehicle “for the celebration of a newly invented, but past glorifying, Genghis Khan cult” (Krist, 2014, p. 434). Embedded in the costumes and victory dance are allegorical connections to eagles and other steppe animals of valor. Victors at khuresh competitions are seen as folkloric heroes. Other minor competitions include the best-horse equipping contest and stone lifting competitions.
Contemporary tourism guides boast that Naadym usually brings athletes and artists, young and old to celebrate Tuvan heritage. Handmade wares, art, and music are typically a part of the festival with an infamous khoomei competition that boasts a repeat international audience. A small, recurring stock-breeding show attracts regional farmers. Part of the festival also includes a “yurt town” and best-decorated yurt contest. The contest acknowledges the cultural differences between historic clans and geographical regions, celebrating differences in architecture and construction practices. Previously resented, Naadym is now a chance to boost localism and celebrate regional differences visible across Tuva (Mongush, 2006). During the Soviet Union, Naadym was branded with an emphasis on sacrifice and livestock, as a celebration of the patrimonial sacrifice to honor the host spirits and ancestors. Mid-August is when area livestock give birth and start migration cycles, ensuring the abundance of dairy yields. This still remains part of the celebration, though sports competitions draw more interest, especially internationally.
One loss this year was the cooking contests. Gastronomy festivals that typically take place during this time, "Kara Mun" and "Ak Chem" were consolidated into one this year and took place in homes, recorded solely through photos submitted for judging. Such contests typically bring tourists from other parts of Russia as well as engagement from more remote parts of Tuva, with satellite celebrations. Similar to Russia Day 2020, there is not much record of these cooking contests on public social media pages, which leads to the belief that they are either only happening in the Tuvan language or another example of state media overhyping the excitement of these local contests. It is a bizarre phenomenon that cooking contests are a recurring theme with two holidays yet there is little to no documentation on social media nor state media coverage other than the announcement.
In the month leading up to the festival, the Ministry of Culture took into account the way Mongolia recently celebrated Livestock Breeders’ Day in compliance with health standards by holding the celebrations far from large cities to prevent crowds and limiting participant numbers in award ceremonies (Tuva Online, 2020). They also drew from their Mongolian neighbor the idea to put out a responsive survey. In July of 2020, the Public Chamber of the Republic of Tuva posted a call on social media for Tuvans to participate in a questionnaire for Naadym 2020. Hosted on Google Forms in both Russian and Tuvan, the questionnaire was comprehensive, and consisted of twelve questions (Public Chamber of the Republic of Tuva, 2020). A link to the Google form was posted on virtually every Tuvan news channel’s website and Vkontakte page. The questionnaire included: whether the now centuries-old holiday should be planned as usual; what safety precautions should take place; should the festival resume; how they participants would adhere to such guidelines; and if they would participate in an online Naadym. Answer choices were not limited, with ample opportunity to explain their rationale. While it is unusual that official government communication is collected and tracked on a Google Form; in such a small republic it may prove useful to iterate transparency.
Open dialogue, even at a preliminary stage with a survey, brings to attention the public and private consideration of why Naadym is celebrated. While the results were not publicly shared, the attempt is a step towards transparency. This year, conversations about the event began publicly as early as April, but by August, many of the restrictions had relaxed. This trend was seen worldwide in the fall of 2020, and it was clear that even Tuvan people sought a break from the quarantine. Chairman Kara-ool posted a promotional video advertising Naadym 2020, containing footage from previous years events on the 13th of August, with no hint that celebrations would be slowed down in any way because of COVID-19. The professionally produced video showed snippets of yurt building, khuresh, traditional instruments, horse racing, children’s games and attractions, dancing, and more, played alongside an upbeat and modern throat-singing tune. It was clear that the careful planning in April was no longer considered in the final Naadym celebration in September.
Accompanying Naadym this year was new online programming, which included a singing video challenge of “Tyva og derilgezi" which is the Tuvan anthem “My Tuva”. Online master classes on felting, wool processing, and leatherwork were available to the public through live-streaming. There were national clothes and cuisine photo competitions that took place online, however, livestock competitions still ensued at Buyan-Badygy hotel, per usual. It seems as if in 2020, online programming was added but in-person celebrations were not halted in any way.
This year, two of the main events of Naadym were also live-streamed on Youtube through Telechannel Tuva 24– the horse race and khuresh competition. There was both a youth and an adult division of the horse race. Unlike Westernized equestrian competitions, the race happens in an open pasture and spans miles instead of repeated laps. Most viewers tuned into the horse race on the 4th of September, the final day of Naadym with thirty thousand total views. All coverage was in Tuvan language, not Russian. The stream lasted forty-five minutes, though the entire race was not covered. There was no recording of a winners’ ceremony, as those events happened in person. There are no Russian language records of the winners online, leading to the consideration that the report is based on an oral tradition or takes on Tuvan instead.
In the months leading up to September, the debate whether khuresh competitions should ensue divided communities online. Athletes had to decide by August 25th whether to compete in Naadym. However, by Naadym, athletes and organizers decided that the COVID-19 situation was stable enough to run their usual in-person wrestling competition. This year there were noticeably fewer spectators in the stands, though athletes still competed with no restrictions to the full-contact sport. Due to the democratic nature in planning Naadym, the return to normalcy is perhaps reflective of other relaxed attitudes towards the virus at all stages of Tuvan life– in leadership and among the people. Other than in-person spectatorship that typically accompanies a large event, not much has changed. The streams revealed just how business-as-usual the 2020 competitions were. In all the streams of Naadym khuresh tournaments, it appeared almost back to pre-COVID times, even spectators did not wear masks.
In the post-Soviet period, wrestling flourished in Tuva, Buryatia, and Mongolia. Wrestling has “always been a part and parcel of such celebrations and still is today, thus was not attached to nor turned to cultic ceremonies, but has always been an integral part of them.” References to wrestling can be seen in the region as early as Neolithic rock paintings, bronze plates, and folk literature (Krist, 2014, p. 426). Wrestling existed before Naadym did, and persisted through Naadym’s many iterations. While programs were added or focus shifted, wrestling remained a staple of Naadym. Perhaps Naadym cannot be celebrated without wrestling at all, at least in the expectations of the Tuvan people. Even modified khuresh does not seem possible with all the technological advances. If COVID-19 worsens in September 2021, time will tell if Tuva could celebrate a Naadym without khuresh.
From an outside perspective, COVID-19 provided zero obstacles to Naadym in September 2020. Diagnoses and hospitalizations did not decrease at this point, in fact they continued to surge. The pride for athletic events is so embedded in the celebration that the Tuvan government could not imagine a celebration without it even in 2020. The magical elements of wrestling add to the implication that wrestlers are somehow immune to COVID-19. This romantic imagining of the role of the khuresh wrestler certainly gives hope to the modern Tuvan.
The summer of 2020 was one unlike any other in the Republic of Tuva and worldwide. Tracing the planning of the festivals is one way to examine the attitudes of the Tuvan people during this unprecedented time. Holidays may be part of the Tuvan tradition, though practices have altered this year to new online formats. In the case with Victory Day, a state-arranged heartwarming musical number from Chairman Kara-ool took center stage on social media. The month of May was an unexpected calm before a storm as Tuva had not observed any COVID-19 related deaths yet. Top-down hashtag campaigns fueled the minority language pride Tuva had within the multicultural nation of Russia, elevating the role this important music video played in the public. By June, citizens responded to their Chairman in a different way, feeling empowered to post critical comments on state-run media pages. This blurs the boundaries between the state and citizen, though the fears are not without conspiracy.
Given its small population, remote location, and lack of worldwide governmental foresight, the state has taken a proactive stance in learning from its neighbors and disseminating information differently for this year’s summer festivals. They looked to Mongolia in the planning of Naadym, and the rest of Russia, for the planning of Victory Day. If this year proved anything, it’s that the older the holiday, the more motivation to celebrate the holiday in wholeness. In September of 2020, the celebration of Naadym resembled the celebrations of years prior, with little regard for a burgeoning worldwide pandemic with no end in sight.
Victory Day, Russia Day, and Naadym are prime case studies for how traditions have adapted to ensure longevity and relevance, even among a growing secular population. Over time the Republic of Tuva has shown that they can be altered, updated, and when necessary— digitatized. Holidays can change meanings. With the case of Russia Day – there was an attempt to turn it into a medical worker appreciation day. With the case of Naadym, it morphed into Soviet Farmers’ Day during Soviet times. The romantic power of the holiday reveals just which events can stand the test of time and pandemics. Hashtags or not, some holidays are so deeply embedded in the nation’s imagination, it may take more than a pandemic to end them.
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