skip below to images
One doesn’t often associate Mongolia with communism. So little known to the outside world is Mongolia’s socialist period that it is often left out of many histories altogether. This is understandable in light of the role that Mongolia has taken in 20th century international affairs (i.e., a minor one), but becomes almost comical when one examines Mongolia itself and realizes that the 70 years spent with Soviet-style communism has done more to shape modern Mongolian life than almost any other period in the country’s history.
Until the early part of the twentieth century, the Mongolian landscape remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Indeed, in the years before its communist revolution in the 1920′s, Mongolia appeared much as it did in the days of Genghis Khan, with little development in the years between (at least not of the quantifiable, material variety): vast expanses of bleak desert and patchy grassland stippled, sparsely, with the white dots of ger, the circular tents of nomadic people, eking out an existence by herding animals across an inhospitable landscape. With a nine-month winter, nature itself prevented a transition to settled agriculture while the arm of history didn’t reach far enough to bring with it the Industrial Revolution.
So little was the change over time, that if one were to step into the capital city, Ulaan Baatar, in the early 1900s, one would find fulfilled few of the qualifying criteria that we think of today as defining a city: paved roads, running water, sewer systems, and, most importantly, permanent structures. Outside of a handful of temples, the city of Ulaan Baatar was comprised not of houses, apartments, and various commercial buildings, but of ger, the same tents as the nomads of the countryside reside in. Ulaan Baatar was a tent city – thousands upon thousands of tents, pitched in the dusty, packed or frozen earth, combined into clusters and neighborhoods, winding, narrow pathways between them serving as roads, water drawn by bucket from the nearest river. Such was the state of development that after their communist revolution, one can easily imagine the first civil planning delegation to arrive from Moscow, sent in to help develop Mongolian infrastructure, disembarking from their convoy, looking around and sighing heavily.
Indeed, it was only then, with the arrival of help from the Soviet Union, that the face of Mongolia began to change. On the one hand, as seems to be the case in most communist countries, there was a dark side to Mongolian state-socialism. An anti-religious purge left some 30,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks dead and saw the demolition of nearly all the country’s temples and shrines, a loss to history of art and architecture made even more tragic by the fact that these temples represented almost all pre-industrial Mongolia had to offer the future in terms of cultural preservation. At the same time, socialism brought with it a kind of industrialization and modernization that meant a drastically improved standard of living for those in cities and large towns as well as a social safety net for Mongolia’s rural population, who livelihood and safety were dependent on the caprices of nature.
As a brief aside, we in the developed world often recoil at the sound of the words industrialization and modernization. We associate them with failed attempts at forced integration of natives in South America, with people trading simple-but-happy lives in an untouched rural setting for abject urban squalor. And it’s no wonder we do. History is replete enough with examples of urbanization gone awry to explain the almost Pavlovian response among the ethically concerned of us. In the case of Mongolia, however, I urge the reader to think not of these associations, but to think of what the realities of life are for a nomad living in a tent in a climate where winter spans most of the year. Think about what kind of difference running water, heating, a home with cement walls and glass windows means for someone living under such conditions. Modernization may have its dark side, but one can’t overlook its undeniable benefits when done right.
These were among the positive changes that an alliance with the Soviet Union brought. Among others were the building of roads and railroads, setting up complex government institutions, modern medicine, hospitals, schools, literacy, universities, collective farming systems and a national livestock insurance for Mongolia’s nomadic herdsmen. Also, and perhaps most importantly for a country pulling itself for the first time into the modern world, the alliance brought the knowledge and expertise Mongolia needed to perpetuate these systems on their own. It was for this reason more than any other, I found that when I asked Mongolians about their history with the Soviet Union/Russia (not always a rosy one), that they explained the kinship they felt with their northern neighbor. The Soviets may have built mines and taken Mongolia’s copper, they may have built military bases and missile silos, but, in the eyes of many modern Mongolians, they also gave plenty back. This type of reciprocal relationship stands in great contrast to the trade that has occurred with the new China in the last few years – wherein resources are sold off for minimal cost and processed out-of-country, with little resulting benefit to the average Mongolian. Or, as one passionate yet English-impaired young man summarized astutely on a train journey through the Gobi dessert, shaking his fist in the air for emphasis, “Russia, our brother! Fuck China.” It did seem, in the eyes of many, a fairly accurate precis of the situation.
Whatever the narrative that most accurately tells the story of Mongolia’s complicated relationship with its neighbors and itself, one can’t deny the indelible mark its complicated history has left.