I find places that no longer exist and unusual places highly interesting. I also am intrigued by the stories of women who defy the odds to find themselves in positions of power.
This story, that I’ll tell briefly, has both.
While reading about some of the first elected women to enter positions of prominence I came across the name Khertek Anchimaa-Toka.
This is a name I felt more people should at least have heard of given she was the first woman in the world to become a non-royal head of state. Despite this I’d never heard of her before either, and I was also unfamiliar with the nation she rose to prominence within – The Tuvan People’s Republic.
Before learning more about this leading lady it is important to understand the story of the Tuvan Republic.
The Country - The Tuvan Republic (1921 - 1944)
Located within present day-Russia, along the border of Mongolia, Tuva was originally part of the Chinese Empire. With the rise of independence movements across the world, Tuva and neighbouring Mongolia declared their independence in 1911 however by 1914 Tuva had established itself as a Russian protectorate.
During the Russian Civil War, Tuva was used as a staging post for the Russian attempt to claim Mongolia. Russia was unsuccessful in this endeavour and with the rise of the Russian Soviet State (USSR) in the early 1920s a new ruling order was established in Tuva. In the simplest terms, a puppet Soviet state was established in Tuva however the Tuvan people were allowed to administer their own state.
In 1920 Mongol forces entered the state, ejecting the Russian rulers. This was met by Society force and by March 1921 Soviet rule had been reinstated. This time the Soviet’s maintained stricter control and oversaw the creation of the Tannu Tuvan People’s Republic.
The new nation was established to be anti-capitalist and independent of the USSR who laid no claim over the independent nation (so long as friendly relations remained in place). This led to a burst of Tuvan nationalism which resulted in a new flag, currency and identity. The Prime Minister Donduk Kuular worked to form closer bonds with neighbouring Mongolia and took steps to make Buddhism the national religion.
These steps were all met with alarm by the USSR who came down hard on the Tuvan Republic, staging a coup in 1929 killing Kuular. All of his policies were reversed, and any nationalism was supressed, though the country remained independent (albeit as a satellite state) of the USSR.
During World War Two the relative independence of the Tuvan Republic would begin to dwindle with an intense Russification of the nation taking place. This ultimately led to the Republic being annexed by the USSR in 1944.
The declaration of the Tuvan Republic that they were happy and wanted to join the USSR was read by Khertek Anchimaa-Toka on 11 October 1944. At this time, she was the Tuvan Head of State. As the Republic transitioned into the Tuvan Autonomous Oblast of the USSR, she effectively wrote herself out of a job while her husband basically became head of state as the General Secretary. She would take on the role of deputy-chair of the executive committee.
So who is Khertek Anchimaa-Toka?
Khertek Anchimaa-Toka was born into a family of Tuvan peasant farmers in 1912 against the backdrop of great instability. She grew up in a time when education was becoming more universal as a result of the move towards Communism. She was able to capitalise upon this and in a time when few Tuvan women were able to read and write she excelled. This brought her to the attention of the local Communist Branch which assisted her in attending one of the communist universities in Moscow.
Having developed her knowledge and skills at the communist university she had also made very important political connections where many in power within the USSR came to trust her. In 1935 she returned to the Tuvan Republic where she was placed in control of the propaganda department. It must be noted that her studies kept her away from Tuva during the period of nationalism which meant that she had greater ties to the USSR than her home of Tuva. She took on various key positions within the local communist party branch and became an advocate for the education and economic conditions of women.
In 1940 she was appointed to the position of Tuvan Republic Head of State, becoming the first female head of state in the world to not inherit the title. During the same year she also married Salchak Toka, the General Secretary of the local communist branch. Thus, the two most powerful political figures in the Tuvan Republic were now married.
The couple remained in politics as a duo until she retired in 1972. While her husband died the following year in 1973, Khertek Anchimaa-Toka lived to the age of 96, dying in Tuva on 4 November 2008. She witnessed the fall of the USSR and the transition of Tuva into a Republic within the Russian Federation in 1992, albeit she did not play any role within this transition.
Today Tuva is one of the approximately 21 Republic’s within the Russian Federation. The rights of these republics were significantly restricted and, in some cases, almost removed in the last few years by Vladimir Putin.
The Tuva Republic is home to just under 308,000 people of which approximately 82% identify as being Tuvan with the Tuvan language more dominant than Russian. Half of the people still maintain a rural and agriculture existence with the majority of people adhering to Tibetan Buddhism.
Tuva Online (translated from Russian), <https://www-tuvaonline-ru.translate.goog/2012/07/19/dostoprimechatelnosti-tuvy.html?_x_tr_sl=ru&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc>
"Tuva", Encyclopaedia Britannica, <https://www.britannica.com/place/Tyva>