Saturday, February 23, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Desperation Behind Self-Immolations among the Chuvash

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – The self-immolation of a Chuvash in Moscow’s Red Square earlier this month has attracted attention to the re-emergence of this form of protest in that Middle Volga republic, an action known as “tipshar” and traditionally reflecting extreme despair and a desire to maintain one’s honor even at the price of one’s death.

            But because “tipshar” is a word with Arabic roots and because the Tunisian revolution began with a similar action, Russian bloggers note that the official media have “preferred not to advertise” his actions, some observers say ( and

            The story of the February 8 action in Red Square is both tragic and soon told.  Vasily Poklakov, a 53-year-old Chuvash veteran of the war in Afghanistan , set himself aflame to protest the efforts of officials there to block his plans to build a sports facility for his fellow veterans and the unwillingness of officials even to respond to his complaints.

            At two o’clock in the afternoon of that day, the former soldier arrived at Red Square, doused himself with kerosene, and set himself aflame.  Fortunately, witnesses to Polklakov’s action called an ambulance and the veteran activist was taken unconscious and covered with serious burns was taken to a hospital.

            One of Poklakov’s friends said he was in despair despite all their help, and his son said that he hoped he would be able to secure support from Moscow for opening the sports center in Chuvashia, soething he had not be able to do in Cheboksary.  The son described his father as a very determined man, adding that now everyone hopes his father will recover.

            On Thursday, in an article posted on “Svobodnaya pressa” about the Chuvash situation, Vitaly Slovetsky said that Poklakov’s action was but the latest example of the revival of the Chubash tradition of “tipshar,” of “defending one’s name and honor even at the price of one’s own life” (

            The “Svobodnaya pressa” journalist provides details about a series of Chuvash suicides since December 2007 and reports that the situation has become so worrisome to officials that the Chuvash Health and Social Development Minister Venera Mullina in December 2011 called for “immediate measures” to stop “the epidemic of suicides.”

            “Considering the high level of mortality of the population of the republic from alcohol-related illnesses and suicide, measures are being considering for completing the formation of the structure of a suicide prevention service” as part of the Chuvash Republic’s psychiatric and narcotics programs.

            She estimated that some 15 to 20 percent of the republic’s 1.2 million people, of whom, two-thirds are Chuvash, a Turkic nation whose members converted from paganism to Russian Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, need “qualified psychological-psychiatric help at the present time.”

            Erbina Nikitina, a media studies instructor at the Chuvash State University, said that in her view, all the recent suicides could be labeled acts of “tipshar.”  That tradition, she continued, has been noted among the Chuvash since the 18th century, and has been continued since that time by men and especially women who feel their honor and dignity have been compromised.

            Sometimes, she continued, entire villages declare that they will commit an act of “tipshar” because the authorities have failed to deliver on their promises.  One village, Moshtaushi near Cheboksary made that declaration because the republic government had kept them without electric power for ten years.

            Chuvash human rights activists argue that such “honor suicides” are certain to grow in number if members of that nation feel as apparently more and more of them do that they are being mistreated by Moscow or by their own government structures, a conclusion others have reached as well (

            In an online report this week, Ilyuza Krivitskaya explained why the Chuvash are reviving this tradition. “In Chuvashia, as is the case in many other national republics of Russia, interest in the national culture and religion of [their] ancestors has been growing significantly” in recent years (

            Chuvash are now regularly talking about restoring a “Greater Chuvashia” and about their ethnc ties with the Huns and Khazars, she continued, and “Chuvash historians and ethnographers are hurrying to connect many actions fro the lives of contemporary Chuvash with ancient traditions,” something tha tis having the effect of promoting their revival.

            That is relatively easy for them to do among the Chuvash who converted from their pagan beliefs relatively recently and who have still not fully integrated Russian Orthodox principles in their lives, especially since Soviet anti-religious efforts limited the impact of the church on them for so many decades.


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