The difficult birth of independent Mongolia

“Let every Mongolian, Russian, Tibetan, and Chinese person know that we have heard that the Chinese have revolted against the Manchu and the Qing empire is presently in collapse. Mongolia before the Qing empire was a separate country, and during the Qing empire was a special entity, therefore we have now decided to legislate as independent Mongolia, and will allow no political rights to Manchu and Chinese administrators. This will not affect the Chinese and Tibetan traders and common people”.

from an agitational letter dated 1 December 1911, proclaiming Mongolia’s independence from China, in the National Museum of Mongolia, in Ulaanbaatar.

19th-century map showing Mongolia as part of Chinese empire

19th-century map showing Mongolia as part of Chinese empire

As the Qing (Manchu) empire in China staggered towards collapse in the late 19th century – wracked by economic ruin, suffering stinging military defeats at the hands of Britain and Japan, conceding ports and territory – one of the ways it responded was by trying to strengthen its domination of Mongolia. The ‘New Policies’ of 1901 included a plan for large-scale agricultural settlement of Mongolia by Han Chinese, along with Mongolia’s militarisation and cultural assimilation. This policy greatly intensified feelings of national oppression among the Mongolian cattle-herders, already beset by crippling taxes and interest payments.

Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the eighth Bogd Khan

Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the eighth Bogd Khan

The Mongolians were therefore quick to take advantage of the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911 to fight for their sovereign rights. Tibet also separated from China in 1911. Both Tibet and Mongolia were strongholds of Tibetan Buddhism, and the clergy had aided each other in their conflicts with the Chinese rulers. In Mongolia, Tibet- born Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the third-highest-ranking Buddhist lama, was enthroned as the Bogd Khan (Great Khan, or Emperor) of sovereign Mongolia in December 1911, and the Chinese governor was escorted back to China. Mongolian diplomats began actively seeking recognition of their state from Russia, other European powers, the United States and Japan – with little success.

Britain and Russia encouraged the independence movements in Mongolia and Tibet – as stepping-stones to advance their own expansion into China – but gave little active support. Japan supplied a few thousand rifles in exchange for mining rights.

The Chinese republic that replaced the Qing empire fiercely resisted Mongolian independence, and continued to assert Chinese sovereignty over all of Mongolia. Although the Chinese administration was weakest in the province of ‘Outer Mongolia’ (which roughly corresponds to the territory of the Mongolian state today) there was a greater number of Mongolians living in the province of Inner Mongolia to the southeast, where national sentiment was no less strong. The new Mongolian rulers made it clear that ‘Inner Mongolia’ was part of the new independent state.

Mongolian fighters during 1912-13 war against Chinese Photo: Hermann Consten

Mongolian fighters during 1912-13 war against Chinese
Photo: Hermann Consten

Mongolians in both regions joined to push back Chinese rule. In 1912-13 ten thousand Mongolian cavalry (including about 3,500 Inner Mongols) swept down from the north, defeating seventy thousand Chinese soldiers, winning control of almost all of Inner Mongolia as far as the Great Wall. Four hundred Mongol soldiers and four thousand Chinese soldiers died in this war. But the Mongolian troops were poorly armed, and when the arms they were expecting to be supplied by Russia never materialised, they were unable to defend these gains and withdrew in 1914.

Prime Minister Tögs-Ochiryn Namnansüren in a delegation to St. Petersburg to guard Mongolian interests during Kyakhta treaty conference

Prime Minister Tögs-Ochiryn Namnansüren in a delegation to St. Petersburg during 1913 conference prior to Kyakhta treaty

Tsarist Russia had reneged on its 1911 offers of support to independent Mongolia. In diplomatic meetings in 1912, the Russians made it clear that they opposed full independence and the unification of the two Mongolias, and instead supported only a limited autonomy for Mongolia under Chinese rule.  In 1915 Russia and China imposed on Mongolia the Treaty of Kyakhta (named after the border town in which it was signed) which reaffirmed Chinese sovereignty over all of Mongolia, within which there would be ‘self-rule’ for Outer Mongolia. The treaty was universally regarded as a disaster among Mongolians. However, the turmoil in China prevented it from implementing the terms of the treaty immediately, and the administration in Outer Mongolia managed to retain a de facto independence for a while longer.

By that time, Russia was in the throes of the Great War, and two years later, of revolution and civil war, which weakened the influence of tsarist Russia in the situation. The Chinese republic was also breaking down, replaced by the rule of local warlords. A new wave of nationalist sentiment arose in China in 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles awarded Germany’s former Chinese possessions not to China but to Japan. All of these events impacted deeply on the independence struggle in Mongolia.

Facing relentless pressure from the Chinese government to relinquish its autonomy, the Mongolian government sought other allies in its continuing struggle for independence. When approaches to Japan failed, the Bogd Khan sent his Prime Minister Tögs-Ochiryn Namnansüren to Irkutsk, Russia, in June 1918, where he met with a delegation representing the Bolshevik government.

I know of no other instance where a head of state with the title of “Emperor” asked for, and received, the assistance of the revolutionary Bolshevik government. This reflects both the intensity of the Mongolian national struggle, and perhaps also the low level of class differentiation in that country. Bolshevik support for Mongolian independence was entirely consistent with their policy for all the oppressed nations of Asia.

Cossack ataman and White general Grigory Semyonov

Cossack ataman and White general Grigory Semyonov, about 1920

However, the Soviet government at that time was not in a position to offer much in the way of practical support. It was engaged in a life and death struggle for its own survival, and needed every available weapon for that fight. The territory commanded by the Soviet Red Army did not stretch as far as the East Siberian and Transbaikal regions bordering Mongolia – these regions were largely controlled by various counter-revolutionary White armies and their fanatical leaders, as well as by invading Japanese and US troops sent to crush the Bolshevik revolution.

More than one of these White Monarchists and adventurers was attracted to the historical figure of Chinggis Khan, and entertained the idea of supporting an ‘independent’ Mongolia as a base of operations against the Soviet state. With Japanese support, the Cossack ataman General Grigory Semyonov, assembled a force of Buryats (a Mongolian people living in the Lake Baikal region of Russia) and threatened to invade Mongolia when his proposal for a pan-Mongolian state under his leadership was rejected by the Mongolian leaders. Irrespective of anyone’s wishes, the fate of Mongolian independence was becoming increasingly tied to the outcome of the civil war in Russia.

Mongolian nobles who supported the Chinese invasion pose with Xu 1919.

Mongolian nobles who supported the Chinese invasion pose with Xu 1919.

Taking advantage of both the Russian weakness and Mongolian opposition to Semyonov’s threats, Chinese troops under the command of the warlord Xu Shuzheng invaded Mongolia and occupied the capital Urga in 1919.

Xu Shezheng

Xu Shezheng

The Bogd Khan was forced to kowtow to Xu and sign a declaration relinquishing Mongolia’s autonomy. Some of the troops enforcing Chinese rule were in fact Inner Mongolians, a fact which greatly weakened Mongolian unity.

Damdin Sükhbaatar

Damdin Sükhbaatar

That insult to Mongolia’s sovereignty set in motion the process that would finally succeed in winning its independence. Several organisations and individuals supporting Mongolian independence began to organise underground armed resistance to Xu, as well as a political poster campaign. These forces came together to form the Mongolian People’s Party in mid-1920, with the collaboration of Bolshevik sympathisers among the Russian expatriate community in Urga.

Mongolian revolutionary leaders in Irkutsk, including Sukhbaatar and Dogsomyn Bodoo, the leader of the first MPP government.

Mongolian revolutionary leaders in Kyakhta, including Sukhbaatar (back row, centre) and Dogsomyn Bodoo, the leader of the first MPP government (back row, 3rd right, black hat).

A group of seven of these leaders travelled to Irkutsk, Russia, including Damdin Sükhbaatar, a former soldier in the Mongolian army, who was appointed leader of the Mongolian partisans. There they met with representatives of Soviet government. Having little other than independence for Mongolia as a common goal, one of the first tasks was to  agree on a social programme for the independent Mongolia.

Roman Ungern von Sternberg

Roman Ungern von Sternberg

By this time, the civil war in Russia was running in favour of the Red Army. The forces of the White ‘Supreme Ruler of Russia’ Admiral Kolchak in the Urals and West Siberia had been defeated and dispersed; Kolchak himself was dead. On the other hand, the remnants of Kolchak’s army had fled east, where some were absorbed into the forces of Semyonov and his subordinate, the governor of Dauria, Ungern von Sternberg, temporarily strengthening them.

Ungern was the first to move. In November 1920 he invaded Mongolia from the northeast, leading a force of 1000 to attack the Chinese garrison in Urga. He was repulsed, but laid siege to the city, and succeeded in rallying some support from anti-Chinese Mongolians. In February 1921 he took the city.

Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg presents an interesting case in social psychology – as one of the species of murderous sociopath that often finds its historic moment in a counter-revolution – and a case study in the origins of European fascism. A hereditary baron from a Baltic German family, he distinguished himself from an early age by his heavy drinking and violent rages, his haughty contempt for the ‘inferior races’ – which included the Slavs in whose midst he lived – his intense hatred of Jews, his pleasure in the act of killing with a sword, and his firm mystical belief in the divine right of kings.

He refused to join the White forces of Admiral Kolchak because Kolchak promised to restore the Constituent Assembly after overthrow of Bolshevism, rather than restoring the Romanov monarchy. He gathered around himself a clique of officers of similar depraved character, and subjected his own troops to a dehumanising disciplinary regime, frequently flogging and executing even some of the most loyal, on suspicion of being Jews or Bolsheviks – and sometimes for no reason at all. Many were executed for protesting his wanton violence and cruelty. At least one potential rival for leadership was poisoned. Ungern von Sternberg was also fascinated by Buddhism, and his troops marched under the banner of a yellow swastika, a Buddhist symbol of good luck which had already been appropriated by other anti-Semitic forces among the volkdeutsch in Russia.

Ungern’s base in Dauria had been known as a torture centre. The period of his rule over Urga was a nightmarish extension of that: a mass slaughter of fleeing Chinese and of Jews, together with grisly torture and murder of those accused of Bolshevik sympathies. Even Ungern’s closest Mongolian supporters were disgusted. One of these, the Mongolian prince Togtokh-gun, tried to shelter a group of Jews in his compound; they were discovered, dragged out, tortured and slaughtered in the street. Togtokh-gun was lucky to escape with his own life.

The Bogd Khan was reinstated to the throne, consistent with Ungern’s respect for Buddhism and the divine right of kings.

Meanwhile the underground forces of the Mongolian People’s Party were arming and recruiting with redoubled energy since Ungern’s capture of Urga. In March 1921 under the military leadership of Damdin Sukhbaatar, 400 Mongolian volunteers attacked the 2000-man Chinese garrison at Kyakhta, a key border town. In disarray after the capture of Urga, the Chinese troops fled. The MPP declared the formation of a provisional government.

The MPP army with Soviet support pressed south, battling remaining Chinese forces and Ungern’s troops. One of Ungern’s forces in Western Mongolia mutinied, joined the MPP fighers and helped defeat those loyal to Ungern.

Ungern launched two attacks into Russian Transbaikal in June 1921, but was beaten back by the Red army together with partisan forces, with heavy losses. The brutality of his rule continued to turn his Mongolian allies against him, and his military tactics became increasingly erratic and desperate. Assassination plots against him multiplied.

Sukhbaatar’s partisans and the Red Army continued to press south, reaching Urga in late June, where they appealed for popular support to overthrow Ungern’s government. The first MPP units entered the city on July 6, and a new government headed by Dogsomyn Bodoo was proclaimed July 9, 1921, in which Sukhbaatar served as War Minister and Commander in Chief. The noble who had attempted to shelter the Jews, Togtokh-gun, was also included in the government. The Bogd Khan’s role was reduced to a ceremonial one (and even that role was abolished when he died in 1924.)

Soon after that, Ungern’s own forces turned him over to the partisans. He was tried for his crimes in the Soviet Union and executed in November.

Thus began Mongolia’s history as a modern nation. For better or worse, its fate for the next seventy years would be closely tied to the fate of the Soviet Union.

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2 responses to “The difficult birth of independent Mongolia

  1. Very interesting and to me unknown story.

    Do you know what social programme was instituted at the beginning and whether any sort of communist economic or political structures (of any sort) were instituted? I assume that then and probably since there has been no attempt to instill class consciousness, since the mass of the population are rural herders, a group that usually and notoriously rejects class solidarity.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, the story was totally unknown to me too, until I visited the History Museum in Ulaanbaatar. I am intending to answer your question in a separate piece soon. But briefly, the answer is: apparently very little, even before the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union killed off any possibility.

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