In the midst of today’s bustling and modernizing
Mongolia, it is easy for visitors to overlook -perhaps not even know about –
the country’s grim history during the 20th century. Cut off from
most of the world, Mongolia suffered nearly seven decades of Communist rule.
But Mongolians have certainly not forgotten, even if many prefer to remember those
days as “the socialist period” and the purges and destruction of monasteries as
“Stalinist”. More vividly- and always great conversation starters-they
personally remember the dramatic end of the Communist Era in 1990 and the hard
adjustment that followed. But do not expect any deep or nuanced introspection.
Many say quite simply that the agony, pain and loss of those days were the
harsh price that Mongolia had to pay for today’s cherished independence. Like
their cousins next door in Inner Mongolia, they could have well ended up as
part of today’s China.
The early days of the Mongolian People’s Republic
were marked by continued power struggles between the right and left wings of
the Communist Mongolian People’s
Revolutionary Party (MPRP). But the Soviets ran every aspect of Mongolian
life. Following the Stalinist model, the deeply entrenched feudal system and
Buddhist Lamaist monasteries were only targets. The Moscow-dictated 1928 Party Congress expelled thousands
of rightists and executed its leaders. Hundreds of feudal and religious
properties were seized, with 700 killed or imprisoned. Nomadic herders were
collectivized, private enterprise abolished and trade turned into a state
monopoly. One-third of Mongolian’s adult males were lamas and crackdown on
Buddhism was particularly fierce. Lower-ranking lamas were forced into the army
or economy, middle-rankings to prison and the highest simply executed.
Thousands fled into China and Manchuria. Forced collectivization caused
widespread food shortages.
In 1932, public resistance exploded into a
full-scale and bloody revolt – some say civil war – which quickly spread
throughout Mongolia. Beginning at a Hovsgol monastery in April, its hundreds of
lamas were soon joined by nobles, ordinary civilians and even party officials.
Armed with antiquated or captured weapons, the so-called Yellow Soldiers went on an angry and often vicious rampage across
the country, destroying schools, cooperatives and killing government workers.
Both sides engaged in harsh brutalities; the government crackdown was fierce
with Soviet-operated aircrafts, tanks, artillery and even soldiers used against
the rebels. Thousands were killed and any captives executed. By October, the
rebellion was crushed.
The first attempt by the Communists to radically
transform Mongolian society and economy had clearly failed. Now, Stalin and
Politburo imposed a more relaxed regime allowing a ‘’capitalist democratic
society’’. Seemingly unaware of the tragedy that followed Lenin’s similar New
Economic Policy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Prime Minister Butachiin Genden fervently reserved
policies on private enterprise, collectivization and religious beliefs.
Refugees returned and were granted herds and land. Livestock production rose.
Enterprise flourished with new power stations and other industries. For the
only time in the entire Communist Era, government was more important than the
But the Soviets had other motives, of course. Japan
was now a serious worry after declaring its puppet state of Manchukuo in 1931. At the same time,
the Japanese were making a special point of treating the Inner Mongolians
sympathetically, accepting refugees and promoting pan-Mongolianism. (Inner
Mongolia would later become the puppet state of Mengkukuo, recognized only by
Japan in Manchukuo.) More than ever, Mongolia was an important buffer state for
the Russians. To preoccupy the Japanese and keep them away from the Soviet Far
East, Stalin provided the Nationalist Chinese with massive shipments of arms
and equipment which arrived through western Xinjiang province.
But Stalin’s relaxing of his grip on the Mongolian
people was just a ploy while he planned his next move. In a foretaste of what
was to come, the Lhumbe Affair of
1934 exposed a supposed pro-Japanese ‘’plot’’ in which hundreds were executed,
imprisoned or exiled. Then came Genden’s turn. After refusing to follow
Stalin’s instructions to ‘’destroy the lamas’’ and famously insulting the
Soviet dictator at a Moscow reception, the popular prime minister was stripped
of his power in 1936. The net year, Genden was forced to the Soviet Union for
‘’medical treatment’’ where he ‘’admitted’’ being a Japanese spy and counter-revolutionary,
and was then executed.
The time was now ripe for Mongolia’s very own
Stalin: Horoloogiin Choibalsan was a
docile time-server of a peasant background who had trained as a lama and been
around since the early revolutionary days of Bodoo, Sukhbaatar and Danzan.
Never destined for much, he’d headed the commission to confiscate feudal
property in late 1920s, and was then Minister of Livestock and Agriculture
under Genden. In 1934, he was picked from obscurity by Stalin himself and made
Deputy Prime Minister. Two years later, the now Marshal Choibalsan was named
head of newly created Ministry for
Internal Affairs, Mongolia’s KGB or secret police. In an oft-heard story,
Stalin then sent Choibalsan a gift of four rifles and 30,000 bullets. Mongolia’s
Great Purge would now begin – and
close to that same number would be killed.
Planned and directly the Soviets, the Great Purge –
coinciding with a similar one in the Soviet Union – would last from 1937 to
1939 and leave an indelible stain on Mongolian society, with some estimates of
dead as high as 100,000 ( a more widely accepted estimate ranges between 22,000
and 35,000 or three to four percent of population). The common accusation was
spying for Japan and began with the arrest, show trial and public execution in
downtown Ulaanbaatar of a group of Buddhist lamas. Next came the death by
poisoning of Mongolia’s popular Minister of Defense, Demid, by Soviet agents
while en route to Moscow. In this deliberately created atmosphere of crisis and
tension some 30,000 Soviet troops arrived, supposedly to protect the country
from Japanese invasion. Purges and executions then swept through government
ranks, the army and party, with Choibalsan the only surviving member of the
But the main thrust of the purge was against the
Buddhist clergy and their monasteries. With Soviet help, over 15,000 lams were
persecuted, mostly shot. In an orgy of looting and destruction, including the
burning of ancient texts and religious art, all but a handful of Mongolia’s 700
monasteries and temples were totally destroyed – their battered-down walls and
foundations now grim tourist attractions. Kazakh and Buriats who’d fled the
Soviet Union into Mongolia were tracked down and killed. The notorious Rinchino, the Buriat who’d helped the
Communists to power in the 1920s, was taken to Moscow and executed. Not
trustful enough of Choibalsan and his cronies to conduct a show trial in
Mongolia, the independent-minded Prime Minister Anandiin Amar was taken to Moscow in March 1939, tortured and
finally killed in 1941.
By 1939, Choibalsan was fully in charge and would
rule Mongolia until his death in 1952.
Never charismatic, he’s proved the perfect ‘’yes-man’’ for Stalin. Minor
purges would continue, but the last act of the Great Purge was elimination of
purges themselves, with Choibalsan elevated into a national hero who stopped
the excesses of his underlings. Frightened and docile, the population was now
easy to control, manipulate and regiment, such as the 100,000 men – out of a
population of only 900,000 – press-ganged into the massively expanded,
Soviet-equipped and trained Mongolian Army.
The extent of Pro-Japanese ‘’plotting’’ among
Mongolians was clearly exaggerated for the Great Purge. But Japan was indeed a
looming military threat all through the 1930s, with Stalin’s worst nightmare
and invasion of Mongolia to cut the Trans-Siberian Railway to the north,
necessitating a two-front war. Just how far Japan was prepared to go is a
questionable, but with World War 2 looming, both sides were certainly testing
each other out.
Starting in 1935, a string of border skirmishes –
including along Manchurian-Siberian border – took place between the Soviets and
Japanese and culminated in the massive but little-known Battle of Halhgol (also Khalkhin Gol) along the
Manchurian-Mongolian border in 1939. The Soviets came out decisive and
devastating winners in the five-month-long battle on Mongolia’s eastern steppe.
Japan signed a non-aggression pact that allowed Moscow to focus on its western
front, and Japan to shifts its own towards Southeast Asia – and the United
When World War II broke out shortly afterwards,
patriotism ran high and Mongolia became part of the Soviet Union’s
all-important rear, providing constant shipments of meat, sheepskin, clothing
and other supplies. Public Contributions funded a Revolutionary Tank brigade
including a couple of T-34 tanks that took part in the battle of Berlin (one of
the tanks is now on a monument on the south side of Ulaanbaatar). An air
squadron was also formed. The Soviet-Japanese non aggression pact held up until
near war’s end, when Moscow finally declared war against Japan and launched a
massive invasion of Manchuria and Korea. To assert its own independence from
China, Mongolia also declared war and under Soviet command its 80,000 troops
invaded Inner Mongolia where, at the Battle
of Jachuugijn, they lot 10men.
During the war, Mongolia’s independence was always
on the table at allied conferences in which China also took part, such as the
one of in Teheran in November 1943. Finally, to guarantee the Soviets would
join in the attack on Japan and return Manchuria, the Chinese Government of
President Chiang Kai-shek abandoned
its long-held suzerainty claims and accepted Mongolia’s full and legal
independence, but subject to face-saving referendum. In October 1945, Mongolia
voted overwhelming in favor and was finally – de facto and de jure – an
In the post-war period, Mongolia moved rapidly to
modernize its economy – including massive industrialization – with economic
assistance from the Soviet union and, after the communists won power in 1949,
from China as well as. Using gulag labor, including German POWs from the Battle
of Stalingrad, a railway link- today’s Trans-Mongolian
Railway - was connected from the Soviet Union to Ulaanbaatar in 1949 and
extended to the Chinese border in 1956. Collectivization was resumed and
completed in 1959 with 390 cooperatives, or negdels.
Virgin lands were opened up for broad-scale agriculture, including
self-sufficiency in wheat. New educational institutions were created, and a
simplified Cyrillic version of Mongolian saw literacy improve markedly.
Hospitals and other health programs were established, including veterinary
programs for herders.
Choibalsan was now the object of a Cult of
Personality and feted by Moscow and Beijing alike. When he died on 26 January
1952, the nation mourned and a Kremlin-style mausoleum overlooking
Ulaanbaatar’s Main Square built for his remains. His body was joined by that of
Sukhbaatar, now elevated to national hero status. Choibalsan was replaced by Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal who, just as
Nikita Khrushchev did with Stalin in the Soviet Union, launched a similar
denunciation of Choibalsan’s excesses in 1956. The move was followed by a
smaller purge of his supporters.
Relations with China were smooth and Mongolia
played off Beijing’s burgeoning rivalry with Moscow to boost aid. China also
provided generous assistance, built power stations and even imported workers to
build public housing in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia joined the Non-aligned Movement in
1956 and the United Nations in1961.
But as the Sino-Soviet rivalry intensified in the 1960s, Mongolia stayed firmly
at Moscow’s side and relations with China froze, including the departure of
over 12,000 workers. The Soviets moved troops into Mongolia, building a string
of massive military bases, missile sites and airfields along the Chinese
border, peaking at 120,000 men in 1979. (Now abandoned, these too make an
interesting tourist sight in eastern Mongolia.)
But the huge subsides required for Mongolia’s
“socialist modernization” and the simple cost of running the country were a
constant source of friction between the Soviets and their Eastern European
satellites. By 1984 and with Moscow now
working toward a rapprochement with Beijing, Tsedenbal’s continued anti-Chinese
rhetoric had become increasingly embarrassing, while at while at home the
constant interventions of his Russian-born wife were deeply resented. He was
ousted by the Kremlin and replaced with Jambyn
Batmonh. With the coming winds of change now blowing through Eastern Europe
and the Soviet Union, Batmonh would be Mongolia’s last Communist leader.
Resource: Carl Robinson "Mongolia Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky"