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Changing Lifestyles : Living in Fear in a Siberian Enclave : In Tuva, a native people called Tuvinians were kept under the Russian boot for decades. But now the tables have turned, and many Russians are moving on, fearing for their safety.

November 13, 1990|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ELEGEST, Soviet Union — When Polina Anuchina went to draw water recently from the well in this remote village near the Soviet Union's border with Mongolia, she found a note on the pump warning her and other Russians to flee--or else.

"I wouldn't have believed it could happen, but I saw one of the notices with my own eyes," said Anuchina, 63, sitting on a wooden bench outside her log cabin. "The note said, 'Russians, get out . . . a war has begun.' "

Russians feel, in fact, as though they have been living through combat here in the Tuva region of Siberia, about 3,000 miles east of Moscow. The native Tuvinians, a Mongol people, were kept subordinate to Russian pioneers for decades. But now the Russians see themselves as targets.

A Russian home was burned down, and windows were smashed in more than a dozen other log-and-plank cabins one night here in Elegest, which lies in a mountain valley. One resident said a bullet was fired into his home. Another said a gasoline bomb was thrown through his window. No one was injured.

"A few extremists are responsible," said Galina Ondar, chairman of the village council and a Tuvinian. "We are not chasing away Russians. We try to persuade them to stay."

Nevertheless, the result of the violence, and similar ethnically motivated attacks elsewhere in Soviet Central Asia, has been a Soviet equivalent of "white flight" as panicked Russians seek safer locations.

New waves of migration from Tuva--a Washington state-size region north of Mongolia cut off from the rest of Siberia by the bald Sayan Mountains--have been set off with each report of violence against Russians and each political victory for the nationalists.

This year, more than 8,000 Russian adults have fled cities and villages in the region, according to Soviet Interior Ministry statistics. The number of children who accompanied them is unknown.

In all, more than 200,000 people will probably flee Central Asian republics this year, the liberal weekly Moscow News reported, and last year, 94,000 people left the republic of Uzbekistan alone.

About 23,000 Russians moved out of Tadzhikistan in the six months after ethnic riots in February that claimed the lives of 18 people. In the first half of 1990, 40,000 non-Kirghiz fled ethnic tensions in the republic of Kirghizia, according to press reports.

This exodus has left industries crippled because most managers and skilled workers were Russians sent east by the Kremlin to industrialize these underdeveloped areas.

Power plants across Soviet Central Asia are reported to be dangerously understaffed now, and a cobalt mine in Tuva has all but stopped working because the Russian director and most of its skilled workers have fled.

During the last year alone, 30,000 college- and university-educated specialists aged 22 to 33 left Uzbekistan, according to Moscow News, and most of their jobs are unlikely to be filled.

The native peoples have long resented the Russians for taking over their land and snatching all the good jobs and apartments, but they were silenced by the fear of the repressive regimes of the past. Since President Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power five years ago and liberalized the political system, the voice of dissent has grown steadily.

"There is a definite growth of our national consciousness," Boris, 25, a Tuvinian firefighter who refused to give his last name, said. "But Russians want everything to be as it was before; when we constantly praised our Russian older brothers for everything.

"How do you think you would feel if you could not live well in your own land, but others lived very well?" Boris added. "We can't get good work because for decades the Russians have been the bosses; they never let us have the good jobs. They live well while we live in poverty. I have a one-room apartment, and I share it with my wife and two kids."

But many Russians, and even some Tuvinians, say most Tuvinians are not capable of taking over jobs Russians have traditionally filled.

"I don't know what will happen without the Russians," said Larisa Mongush, 35, a Tuvinian bookkeeper from Elegest. "We Tuvinians do not want to work--we're not accustomed to working."

Although Russians who live in Tuva say their lives are now in danger, ethnic Tuvinians say Russians exaggerate the risk.

"When we say we want to be independent, more Russians leave," Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, a Tuvinian and member of the Russian Supreme Soviet, or legislature, said. "And when we say we move to make Tuvinian the official language, more Russians leave.

"We cannot say the situation is normal," Bicheldei, a nationalist leader, conceded. "The crime rate is very high, but there is no nationalist problem."

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