Hard Road for Children of Genghis Familiar Face of the New MongoliaNew Mongolian Order Looks Much like the Old but the Economy Is Stricken without Soviet Support

By Poole, Teresa | The Independent (London, England), January 15, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Hard Road for Children of Genghis Familiar Face of the New MongoliaNew Mongolian Order Looks Much like the Old but the Economy Is Stricken without Soviet Support


Poole, Teresa, The Independent (London, England)


WHEN the democracy movement took to the streets in Mongolia five years ago, soon to be followed by free elections, it was only a matter of time before attention turned towards the monuments to the old regime. Foremost among them was the Museum of the Mongolian Revolution in the capital Ulan Bator, which was shut for "renovations".

Now reopened - and renamed the Mongolian History Museum - it boasts a new section devoted to the years since 1990 when old-style Communism peacefully gave way to democratic rule in one of the world's most remote and impoverished countries.

Officially the world's second communist state, in reality Mongolia was for almost 70 years a Soviet fiefdom. In the museum's reorganised displays, Soviet triumphalism has been edited out. Yet the reassessment of Mongolia's past is less wide-ranging than

might have been expected.

A discreet veil remains drawn over the worst crimes of the former regime. No place has been found in the exhibition for the tens of thousands of innocent Mongolians who died during the purges of the 1930s. No mention is made of the extermination of most of the country's monks during that period. No charge is levelled at "Mongolia's Stalin", a dictator called Marshal Choibalsan who died in 1952, with the blood of perhaps 100,000 Mongolians on his hands.

Around Ulan Bator, many relics of the Soviet era can still be seen. Lenin stands just off the main square, and one central city crossroads is dominated by a big metal sculpture of the entwined Mongolian and Soviet flags. Choibalsan's statue remains on its pedestal in front of the city's main university, and his corpse still lies in a replica of Lenin's mausoleum in front of the Hural (parliament) building. Only monuments to Stalin himself have been removed.

The one person who has been fully rehabilitated comes from a much earlier period of Mongolia's history. His face stares out from vodka bottle labels, stamps, carpets, and he has even given his name to the swankiest, unfinished hotel in Ulan Bator - the Genghis Khan Holiday Inn.

The scourge of Russia and much of eastern Europe up to his death in 1227, Genghis Khan was downgraded to the status of "reactionary" during the Soviet domination. These days, the most famous Mongol has been reclaimed as a symbol of restored national pride - and never mind his record-breaking achievements in human slaughter.

Genghis evokes memories of an era when the Mongol empire stretched as far as Hungary. In sharp contrast, Mongolia in the Nineties is a bankrupt nation. When the Soviet Union suddenly withdrew its support in 1989-90, Mongolia's economy collapsed. Soviet aid had amounted to one-third of the country's GDP, and when it evaporated there was little to take its place.

By any measure - imports, exports, the shrinking economy, inflation, wages - the country was in shock. The harsh climate and the demography of Mongolia - half the size of India but with just 2.2 million people - made the situation critical, particularly with the dilapidated power stations threatening to break down at any moment.

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