The Chinese Revolution which overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and 2000 years of imperial rule – was still playing itself out when Mongolia proclaimed its independence on 1 December 1911. The Manchu amban, or representative, was sent packing back to Beijing. Elsewhere, particularly in the western region, Mongolians took up arms against the Manchus and Chinese, most dramatically around Uliastai, their military headquarters, and Hovd, an important commercial centre, in battles lasting into the following year. The head of Mongolian Buddhism, the Eighth Javzandamba Hutagt, was named the Bogd Khaan, or “Holy Leader”. (Although a Tibetan, his wife was Mongolian and he was strongly anti-Manchu.) Now formally a theocracy, the state’s new ministers were secular nobles who answered directly to the Bogd Khaan.

From the start, there were attempts to create a Pan-Mongol state to include Inner Mongolia, Urianhai in the northwest and other nearby regions. The Mongolians argued they’d been vassals of the Manchus and did not owe any allegiance to the new regime in China. Ironically, their only diplomatic recognition came from Tibet, in turmoil itself as it sought – ultimately in vain, of course – to make the same argument.

The change began. Most of Mongolia’s then 600.000 population lived in a pre-20th century “time warp”, running livestock and living a nomadic lifestyle. With its heavy overlay of superstitious beliefs, Buddhism Lamaism was deeply entrenched. Some 100.000 men and boys were lamas living in 700 temples and monasteries around the country. Apart from Hovd and Uliastai, the only town was Ih Huree, or Urga (Orgoo) as the Russians called it, which was the seat of the theocratic leader and home to over 60.000 lamas. Known today as Ulaanbaatar, this monastery town had only developed in 1779 after drifting its way east over two centuries from Karakorum. In the 19th century, Ih Huree / Urga grew into an important trading centre in the Tea Road between China and Russia, with several thousand residents from those two countries.

Secular life was very limited, however, with reforms frequently opposed by high-ranking lamas jealous of losing their power and privileges. Despite this, Mongolia did progress quickly toward a modern army, local industry, secular education and journalism, plus creation of the country’s first parliament. Russian and European influences were strong, especially from the Buriat Mongolians of Siberia. Those first involved in these reforms would drive the period ahead.

But any hopes of full independence for Mongolia – much less a Greater Mongolia – were quickly dashed by its stronger neighbors. In addition to China and Russia, Japan was the third important player back then, especially after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 when the defeated Russians secretly granted them Inner Mongolia as their “sphere of influence”. Russia wanted Mongolia and China – the whole lot. As we shall see this three-sided game would continue for decades. But the end result was the permanent splintering of the Mongolian people. At the Treaty of Hiagt in 1915 between Russia, China and Mongolia, the latter was forced to accept a rather tortured status of “autonomy under Chinese suzerainty”.

With post-revolutionary China now torn apart by warlords vying for control, little happened until Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 sent violent ripples eastwards through Siberia to the Far East of the Tsarist empire. As the Communists, or Reds, fought against pro-Tsar remnants, or Whites, hostilities flared all along the northern borders of Mongolia and China. (Japan, too, was involved in supporting the White forces in Siberia, occupying Vladivostok and providing sanctuary on Manchuria.)

Ostensibly to protect Mongolia from Bolshevik intrusions, three divisions of Chinese troops led by a notorious soldier-adventurer named “Little Xu”, or Wu Shuzeng, occupied Ih Huree in November 1919. But his real agenda was to abolish Mongolia’s autonomy, which he did by publicly forcing the Bogd Khaan and his ministers to prostate themselves repeatedly before a portrait of the Chinese President. Little Xu then locked up the government, disbanded the local army and took power. Backed by Russian Communist agents, underground resistance networks of middle-class intellectuals formed, including what would become the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the country’s Communist Party, in June 1920. They approached the Soviets for help in defeating the occupying Chinese but were stalled.

Then came one of the more fascinating episodes in modern Mongolian history with the appearance of the Mad Baron”, a renegade Tsarist officer named Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. On the run from the Reds now rapidly consolidating Siberia, the Baron and 800 men of his well-armed “Asian Cavalry Division” slipped into Mongolia in October 1920. The Mongolians welcomed the Whites as their savior from the Chinese, provided supplies and joined up in droves. Pledging to expel the Chinese and restore the Bogd Khaan, Ungern attacked Ih Huree bur was turned back after a fierce battle. He embraced Buddhism, donned a traditional deel with general’s insignia and vowed to restore the empire of Genghis Khan.

In early 1921, Ungern staged a surprise attack on the capital, freed the Bogd Khaan and sent the Chinese troops fleeing to the northern border. After installing a new government, his megalomania soon earned him the name “Bloody Baron”. Helped by a sadistic colonel, he launched a ruthless reign of terror, singling out Bolsheviks and Jews, and sending thousands of foreigners and Mongolians fleeing. When “Little Xu” moved relief force up from the Great Wall, the Baron’s force slaughtered thousands of Chinese troops in the southeast, their bleached bones and tattered uniforms visible on the desolate steppe for decades.

Quite perversely, this Russian madman had now rid Mongolia of the Chinese, a move Moscow had been reluctant to take out of respect for Peking’s “suzerainty”. But with Mongolia now a dangerous sanctuary for the White Russians, the Bolsheviks began moves which determined Mongolia’s future for the remainder of the 20th century. A “provisional government” of Mongolian sympathizers was formed. Then, a large Red Army force crossed the northern border where they joined a small Mongolian military force headed by Damdiny Suhbaatar and advanced on Ih Huree, where they installed a new government on 11 July, now celebrated as Mongolia’s National Day. (Although Suhbaatar is still hailed as a national hero with a statue and square in downtown Ulaanbaatar, the role of his forces was minor, only the expulsion of demoralized Chinese troops around Hiagt on the northern border and whom the Soviets soon repatriated to china. The bulk of the fighting was by Red Army troops.)

Meanwhile, Ungern and his forces had already fled the capital. Eventually turned over by his own Mongolian troops, the Mad Baron was tried and executed in Siberia a couple of months later. The Chinese allowed more Red Army troops to transit through western Xinjiang Province and fierce fighting between the two Russian sides continued all over western and northern Mongolia until early 1922, when the Whites were finally defeated. (Tales and locations of those battles are still heard of today.) Now, and still somewhat reluctantly, the Soviets were the new power brokers in Mongolia.

A power struggle broke out inside the new People’s Government between moderates and Communists. At first, the Soviets were prepared to allow a nationalist government, even paying lip service to Chinese suzerainty, but that soon changed. Once again, the now-blind Bogd Khaan was head of state but was quickly undermined by Soviet-backed radicals who arrested and executed his 50-man bodyguard. Tacitly backed by the Soviets and a notorious Buriat Mongolian named Rinchino, Mongolia’s long years of “red terror” began. By the end of 1922, the moderate Prime Minister Bodoo, 15 of his ministers and many nobles were executed for allegedly conspiring to reinstate an autocratic government. Commander Suhbaatar, then aged only 30, dead mysteriously in February 1923.

Soviet advisors – including many Buriats from Siberia – took on an increasingly powerful role in running the government. At the same time, any hopes for a Greater Mongolia were dashed as the Soviets annexed Urianhai in the northwest, remaining it Tannu Tuva. Interestingly, the only concession was the Darhad (Darhat) region west of Lake Hovsgol home of Mongolia’s Reindeer People. (The status of Buriata east of Lake Baikal was not even discussed and Inner Mongolia remained under Japanese hegemony.)

In May 1924, the Bogd Khaan died and orders were issued banning the reincarnation of a Javzandamba to lead Mongolian Buddhism. Following the signing of a Treaty of friendship, Mongolia on 26 November 1924 officially declared itself a Soviet-Style republic and became Moscow’s first “satellite state”. Outer Mongolia ceased to exist. One of the first acts of the new Mongolian People’s Republic was the execution of another prime minister, Danzan. The capital was renamed Ulaanbaatar, or Red Hero, after Suhbaatar. Mongolia’s 70-year-long “Communist Nightmare” was under way.