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The Mongolian Devil and the Buddhists

February 06, 2020

For over twenty years, the author has had a close relationship with Mongolia serving as the first Honorary Consul of Mongolia to the United States and receiving a Polar Star from President Ts. Elbegdorj of Mongolia for contributions to the development of Mongolia. The Storys maintain a residence in Ulan Baataar, Mongolia though it is a bit off the beaten path and seldom visited these days. In addition to being one of the pioneer corporate investors in the natural resources sector of Mongolia, the author had a corporate presence in Russia for some ten years following dissolution of The Former Soviet Union. That experience definitely facilitated a transition into Mongolia given their proximity and close historical relationship.

The “Mongolian Devil” referenced in the title is Khorloogiin Choibalsan who oversaw Soviet-ordered purges resulting in the deaths of some 35,000 Mongolians, the majority of whom were Buddhists, until his death in 1952. His intense persecution of Mongolia’s Buddhists brought about the near extinction of Buddhism in the country. Coincidentally, Choibalsan was also a fellow recipient of the Polar Star though any further resemblance with the author ends there. An image of a young Choibalsan causes him to look like a normal guy but that was not the case as, if you look carefully, he has cold, killer eyes.

Strangely, Choibalsan studied as a Buddhist lama before he went to Irkutsk, Russia to become intoxicated with Bolshevism which also led him to become an inveterate drunk. Following his experiences in Russia and continued involvement with Soviet agents in Mongolia, he became totally devoted to Joseph Stalin which ultimately propelled him into a position of power in The Mongolia People’s Revolutionary Party. In the period from 1936 to 1939, Choibalsan was able to consolidate his power through Soviet supported purges and executions. During that period, 30,000 Red Army troops were stationed in Mongolia in light of Japanese military activities in Manchuria. 

When one walks down the hall in the Government House of Mongolia’s capital, the painted images of Prime Ministers prior to Choibalsan, who served as Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1939 to his death in 1952, one is struck by the very short terms of office of his predecessors beginning in 1919. Normally, the incumbent would be summoned to the Black Sea by Stalin’s thug, Beria, and at some time during an undetermined stay, would be executed personally by him. No one ever refused Beria’s visit “request” and all said “goodbye” to their friends and family knowing they would never see them again.

The period from 1936 to 1939 enabled Choibalsan to consolidate his power through Soviet supported purges and executions. The Japanese invasion of Dornad Aimag in the eastern tip of eastern Mongolia and their ultimate defeat by Russian/Mongolian forces created Choibalsan’s finest hour as he is shown below with General Zhukov. General Zhukov went on to become the most famous Russian general in history following his defense of Moscow against the Germans and the subsequent German defeat in Stalingrad.

Most Mongolians candidly admit that the Mongolian troops principally tended to the horses of the Russian cavalry but the image below portrays a more inspirational picture. The provincial capital province of Dornad Aimag was renamed Choibalsan in his honor and a large Russian military base was established there.

The Mongolians say their country has two seasons-three months cold and nine months very cold. Winter on the vast Dornad steppe lands can be very challenging and even more interesting since that was our base of operations following an oil discovery there. Once we were taking a Russian helicopter from our base when we had a technical mishap in a vintage Russian M-23 helicopter and we went down in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the helicopter did not burn upon impact and, though we were shaken up, we were alive but lost. Eventually, some Mongolian hunters came along in a jeep and gave us a lift to Choibalsan where we faced a prolonged stay until spare parts could be shuttled out for the repair of the helicopter.

For the course of one week, we experienced Choibalsan which was a very dismal place to be. When the Former Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the Russian occupants of Choibalsan left everything, including the food on their plates, to return to a confused motherland. Accordingly, dilapidated Soviet-style buildings coupled with an abandoned military base was about all there was which was a tragedy given the surrounding beauty of the endless plains extending forever to the east. It took a few vodka shooters to prepare for the return flight to Ulaan Baatar but life in Choibalsan would have been a fate worse than death.

As the political system in Russia began to crumble, on December 10, 1989, a group of 300 young Mongolians came together and announced the birth of the Mongolian Democratic Union, the first political force to challenge the communist single party system. Our old friend, Ts. Elbegdorj, is shown below addressing the crowd in Sukhbaatar Square demanding that Mongolians create a multi-party system, grant civil rights to Mongolians and enforce freedom of the press in the country. It all eventually happened as democratic elections followed and have continued uninterrupted until the present. 

During the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, the author was asked to host the entire Mongolian Democratic Party visitors to the convention. Seems like an interesting twist to invite Democrats to a Republican gathering but the other Mongolian party was composed of communists. Having no steady income with no entertainment expense budget posed a problem for the host but the delegation was invited into our home for Mexican food and margaritas. After five hours of margaritas and tequila shots, the uptight Republican party handler was trying to herd them back to the convention to no avail. The guests wanted to see shopping malls rather than politicos. All but one of those delegates, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances, remain around and several are still in contact. 

Under the subsequent democratic-elected governments of Mongolia, the footprint of Choibalsan began to disappear. His former tomb, shown below, was removed from the front of Government House which also saw Lenin’s statue disappear. One of the Mongolian democratic revolutionaries said they had been thinking of replacing the Lenin statue with one of John Lennon. 

There has been a resurgence of Buddhism with large Buddhist statutes placed around the country, in part, maybe an apology to their ancestors for having experienced the persecution for their beliefs. Once the author asked a Mongolian friend and government official to join in a tour of the Gandan monastery as shown below. When we walked in, the Mongolian asked for instructions as to what to do. It embarrassed him terribly that a westerner was needed to explain practices and precepts that had been present in his country for centuries.

Over more recent periods, both the Russians and the Chinese have attempted to capture levels of influence in Mongolia to little avail. Mongolians tell a story of two Chinese who fly from China to New York and upon arrival agree to meet up in Chinatown on the weekend for a meal. On the other hand, two Mongolians fly to New York, walk off the plane and say goodbye. They are fiercely independent people who cherish their freedom. It is often difficult for their respective political parties and resulting government to function in a cohesive manner. However, that could be said about many western governments today.

No matter what, if the Soviets had not created a vassal state buffer in Mongolia and sought their recognition as an independent country in the United Nations, Mongolia could well have been swallowed up by its old master, China, as was the case with Tibet. Maybe Stalin and Choibalsan are due some infinitely small measure of thanks for that unintended consequence. In the meantime, Mongolians remain quite keen on expressing their political views as the demonstration shown below illustrates. Skyscrapers have lessened the visual impact of the traditional government buildings but everyone gathers on the square to demonstrate as they did thirty years ago. This particular demonstration attacks collusion between the Democratic Party and the Mongolian People’s Party.

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