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 party.

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 Presidium.

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 States.

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 independent country.

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"