Courtesy Reuters

The Sovietization of Mongolia

In November 1920, after Bolshevik armies had smashed White Russian forces in eastern Siberia, three young Mongolians went to Moscow to ask help against the recently reimposed Chinese control of Outer Mongolia. Vladimir I. Lenin received them. He advised them that the Soviets would help establish a separate state of Mongolia and it should be a Marxist one. "With the aid of the proletariat of advanced countries," Lenin had recently told the Comintern and paraphrased to his visitors, "backward countries may make the transition to the Soviet system and ... to Communism, bypassing the capitalist stage of development."

Few places were more backward than Outer Mongolia, or less touched by capitalism. Once a remote province of China, it had been allowed to fall into decay after modern firearms reduced the importance of its mounted warriors to the Manchu empire. Chinese merchants, living in the nearest thing Mongolia had to a city, the monastery settlement at Urga, and traveling among the herdsmen, provided the only commercial interests in a practically self-sufficient, low-level subsistence economy. Most Mongolians, who totaled perhaps 550,000 sharing more than 600,000 square miles with some 100,000 Chinese settlers, lived from the livestock that they followed in seasonal migrations, fearing the blizzards and pasture icing that every four years or so cut back the herds' natural increase and sometimes brought famine to men and beasts. Some 40,000 men were directed to the monastic life.

Since Tibetan Buddhism was established in Mongolia in the sixteenth century the lives of lamas and laymen had changed little. Neither modern medicine nor modern agriculture had penetrated the roadless range. Diseases were rife and life short, but malnutrition was not a problem. Some travelers thought the nomadic Mongolians more prosperous than the average Chinese farmer, but it was a rugged life based on an economic pattern established before the time of Genghis Khan, seven centuries earlier. A Russian traveler, Ivan M. Maisky, found "a decay-fostering spirit of resignation and indifference."

The contrast with the Mongolian People's Republic of today is sharp.

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