Mongolia in the Twentieth Century

(This text is an abridged, edited version of the Introduction to the Section ‘Twentieth Century’ in The History of Mongolia, D. Sneath and C. Kaplonski eds, Globa Oriental, 2010.)

Much as Eric Hobsbawm dated the start of the ‘short twentieth century’ in Europe to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, we can perhaps date the start of twentieth-century Mongolia to 29 December 1911. This was the day the Eighth Javzandamba Hutagt was elevated to the throne of Mongolia, renaming the country Olnoo Örgögdsön, ‘Elevated by All’. This instituted what is more popularly known as the Autonomous Period in Mongolia, also sometimes known as the Bogd Khaan (meaning ‘Holy Emperor’) period, after the title given to the Javzandamba Hutagt, which stretched from 1911 to 1921.

Untangling the Autonomous Period is one of the more complicated aspects of the often baroque history of twentieth century Mongolia, and highlights the role of the geopolitics that often dominated Mongolian history. We can only sketch the highlights here. Despite the declaration of independence in December 1911, and the institution of a new government, these steps were largely ignored by the international community. Rather than being welcomed into the international community, Mongolia was instead treated largely as a pawn in the game of Asian influence being played out between China and Russia (soon to be the Soviet Union), with Japan on the sidelines nearby, but eagerly seeking to join in.

The Mongolians, with the support of the Javzandamba Hutagt turned to the Russians for backing, who, although seeking to balance China, were equivocal in their support. Nonetheless, the expulsion of the Qing amban (minister), Sando, took place with little violence, and the Mongolians declared independence in early December, 1911. A new government was formed, and telegrams announcing Mongolia’s new independence were dispatched to the US, Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan among others, although these were largely met with silence.

Much of the Autonomous Period was, diplomatically at least, taken up with negotiations over Mongolia’s exact status. Russia and China engaged, in effect, in wrangling over the status of Mongolia, which, after a number of other agreements led to the signing in 1915 of the Tripartite Treaty of Khiakhta, which recognized Mongolian autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, a far cry from Mongolia’s own claimed independence. In the end, China was not to relinquish its claims on Mongolia until a plebiscite in 1946, and even then, the Taiwanese government refused to recognize Mongolia.

While there were reform efforts undertaken in multiple areas, political as well as social – including the building of secular schools, almost non-existent in Mongolia prior to this – scholars generally see almost no substantial change, and protests and court cases from the Autonomous period indicate how little actually changed for the average person in Mongolia. Yet despite this assessment, we should not simply ignore what was accomplished. Along with the new schools, a newspaper and journal were both published, and so people should at least be credited with having made the attempt at reform.

Even the limited degree of independence granted to Mongolia after 1911, however, was crushed in 1919, when the Chinese general ‘Little’ Xu Shuzheng, backed by an expeditionary force, forced the Mongolian leadership to ‘request’ to be taken be under Chinese ‘protection’. Some sources attribute this to an actual request made by certain nobles, dismayed at the direction Mongolia was taking. Whichever may be the case, it is clear that there was dissatisfaction, resentment and splits within the government, with the Upper House of the Mongolian Parliament issuing the request.

At around the same time, and largely as a result, underground groups began to form, which would eventually give rise to the Mongolian People’s Party. (Later to become the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, the leading force of the socialist period.) The two main groups were the Consular Hill group, and the East Hüree group. The East Hüree group was largely composed of low-ranking governmental officials, as well as Sühbaatar, whom under socialism would be portrayed as Mongolia’s Lenin. The Consular Hill group was largely composed of commoners, including Choibalsan, Mongolia’s answer to Stalin. Under socialism, it would be Sühbaatar and Choibalsan who were credited with leading the revolution, but after 1990, this would undergo radical change as previously suppressed or reviled figures were brought to centre stage.

These groups turned to the Soviet Union for assistance against the Chinese, but there is little to indicate that the majority of them were True Believers in socialism. Although some probably harboured socialist sentiments, the Soviet Union provided the only viable opposition to the Chinese. Eventually, the requests to the Soviet Union met with success, and intentionally or otherwise, Mongolia was set on the path towards socialism.

In 1920, the Russian Civil War spilled over into Mongolia, with the ‘Mad Baron’ Ungern-Sternberg invading Mongolia and driving the Chinese out of Ih Hüree in February 1921. The Baron was a White Russian sympathizer, who, with a heavy Buddhist influence, sought to create a state in Mongolia and Siberia. Ungern-Sternberg’s capture of Ih Hüree and the re-instalment of the Eighth Jazvandamba Hutagt as the Bogd Khaan, was the goading the Soviets needed, and a socialist Mongolian army, with strong Soviet backing attacked the Chinese, established a Provisional Government in Khiakhta in March 1921, and drove the Baron out of Mongolia in July of that year, thus paving the way for the eventual establishment of the Mongolian People’s Republic.

With the success of the Revolution, Mongolia was declared a constitutional monarchy until the Bogd Khaan’s death in 1924. This was in recognition of the influence and popularity of Buddhism in the country, as well as the power of the Buddhist church. Later that year, the first socialist constitution was promulgated, the country was renamed the Mongolian People’s Republic, and the name of the capital was changed from Ih Hüree to Ulaanbaatar, meaning Red Hero.

Even the proclamation of the Mongolian People’s Republic did not constitute a decisive shift to socialism. The 1920s and early 1930s saw the country adopt a number of shifting directions, and even some debates on whether Buddhism could be reconciled with socialism. The early and mid-1920s were characterized by a relatively laissez-faire approach to socialism, which saw the development of the economy, but little in the way of progress towards socialism. This was followed in the late 1920s and early 1930s by what was later to become known as the ‘Leftist Deviation.'. This saw the first, unsuccessful attempt at collectivization and the expropriation of the wealth of the nobility. It also represented the first major, if unsuccessful, move against the Buddhist church. The Leftist Deviation came to an end in 1932, after a rebellion against the harsh policies, which was really a civil war in scope and involved lamas as well as herders. Ultimately the revolt was put down with the use of the military, including Soviet tanks and planes.

This led to the ‘New Turn Policy’, adopted in 1932, which encompassed a relaxed attitude towards private property, and those cooperatives that been organized were disbanded. The relaxed attitude also extended to religion. The New Turn, however, did not last long. In the mid-1930s, propaganda and other measures against the lamas and the remaining nobility were again stepped up. Along with propaganda, there were punitive measures such as excessive taxation, and prohibitions on youth joining the monasteries. These were linked with attempts at winning over the poorer lamas through educational drives and other measures.

This propaganda and taxation was soon to be coupled with outright violence, as thousands of Buddhist lamas, political figures, ethnic minorities and others were arrested and executed, mostly over an eighteen month period in the late 1930s. Although the total figures may never be known, the most recent estimates by Mongolian historians give the total at about 36,000, of which nearly half were lamas. Almost every one of approximately 800 monasteries were razed in this period, and other cultural artifacts were destroyed as well. Buriad Mongols, many of whom had fled from Siberia in the 1920s, were also a key target of the killings.

Not coincidentally, the 1930s also saw Japan’s increasing interest in Mongolia and the region more generally, with the establishment of the puppet state of Manchuguo in 1932. There were to be a number of skirmishes between the Soviet Union and Japan in the 1930s as they jockeyed for influence in East Asia, culminating in the battle of Halhyn Gol (Nomonhan), at the Mongolian-Manchurian border, where an encounter between a small Mongolian foraging party and soldiers from Manchuguo eventually grew into a confrontation involving tens of thousands of troops on both sides, as well as tanks and airplanes.

The 1940s in Mongolia are usually more or less glanced over, but in addition to Mongolian contributions to the Soviet war effort, during this period, the Cyrillic version of Mongolian officially replaced the traditional Mongolian script. Towards the end of the 1940s, there was also the beginning of a shift to a more explicitly Marxist view in ideology, with a textbook being recalled and criticized for being insufficiently critical of Chinggis Khaan from a Marxist perspective. Other party resolutions addressed the need for further Marxist indoctrination in literature and other fields as well.

The 1950s saw these initial steps sharpen into a movement against ‘tradition’ and the imposition of a more socialist lifestyle after the relative social quiescence of the 1940s. Even the replacement of the old Mongolian script by Cyrillic in the 1940s did not take full hold until the early to mid-1950s. The 1950s saw, among other events, the banning of the celebration of Tsagaan Sar (the traditional Mongolian lunar new year) in 1952 (following the death of Choibalsan, ‘Mongolia’s Stalin’ on Tsagaan Sar that year), the ‘cultural campaigns’ intended to introduce such things as vegetables and Western/ Soviet concepts of hygiene, and the successful collectivization of livestock in the late 1950s.

The creation of the negdels or collective farms coupled with the cultural campaigns, led a more substantial shift in socialist lifestyles. The negdels did not mean merely that livestock was now the property of the state, but otherwise things continued much as they had before. Rather, although based on previous herding practices, they also were tied to attempts at increasing sedentarization and a more general attempt to instil a new socialist identity in Mongolia.

The increasing tension between China and the Soviet Union in the 1960s spilled over into Mongolia as well, with Chinese workers being expelled in 1962, the same year which also saw a backlash against nationalist sentiment, largely taking the form of the condemnation of a previously approved celebration of the 800th anniversary of Chinggis Khaan’s birth. In fact, these are tightly linked, an important, but often overlooked, point. It was to a large extent the Chinese decision to also celebrate Chinggis Khaan’s anniversary that provoked the backlash against what were after all officially sanctioned commemorations.

The last few decades of socialism saw increasing industrialization in Mongolia, with the founding of the Erdenet copper mine, a joint Soviet-Mongolian venture, in 1975, as well as increasing urbanization with the rapid expansion of Ulaanbaatar. It was also a period of tighter ties with the Soviet Union, and much of the industrial development was geared towards exports to the Soviet Union. Tsedenbal, who ruled from 1952, was dismissed in 1984 at the instigation of Soviet leaders. His successor, Batmönh would help usher in reforms patterned on those instituted in the Soviet Union by Gorbachev. The long-standing practice of sending the best students to study abroad in the Soviet Union or Eastern European countries was to help pave the way for the democratic revolution that swept Mongolia in the winter of 1989–1990. Enabled by the reforms instituted by Batmönh, the exposure of a generation of Mongolians to new ideas and experiences helped bring about socialism’s demise.

The democratic revolution, it is important to note, did not only lead to a change in the political system. Like elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, it was the transformation of an entire way of life and a whole belief system. Privatization, rapid and not very well executed, dismantled the negdels, not only giving herders a small number of animals or perhaps a tractor, but depriving them of institutional support they had come to depend on over the preceding decades. Factories closed as state subsidies disappeared. In-migration into the capital exploded, overburdening an already creaky infrastructure, and giving rise to increasing crime and alcoholism as more people competed for scarce resources in terms of jobs and services. The roughly one-third of the Mongolian GDP that had been provided by the Soviet Union was now being provided by foreign donor countries and international agencies. This has begun to change in the past decade or so, particularly with the increased international interest in mining in Mongolia, but this has brought its own problems, which lay outside the scope of this brief overview.