A Mongol History: Здравствуйте, товарищ!

If there has been one country that has influenced Mongolia the most, its Russia.

Which tends to be a surprise to most people. Wouldn’t China make the most sense? A glance at the history books however would show lots of animosity towards Chinese people, from everything to the Manchu ‘oppression’ and current unfair trade agreements, most Mongolians look at China unfavorably. In comes the Russians in the 21st century and so a great friendship was born… sort of.

In the 1920s most of Mongolia was undeveloped and for a culture that really didn’t build (or make) things ( “your palace might be great, but my ger can go anywhere” ) … socialism seemed like a good deal. Russians came and helped people collectivize into soums or villages. They built wells in the middle of nowhere for herders and their livestock to decrease overgrazing on common grazing routes. They built schools , hospitals, factories and created an economy , pretty much out of nothing. Russian was taught in schools and still is for the most part. Heck, the entire Mongolian alphabet is composed out of the Cyrillic alphabet, replacing the ‘traditional’ Mongolian script ( though there is pressure to revert back to the vertical Mongolian script. I don’t know if that will happen or not). This friendship continues today. Mongolians can travel to Russia visa free and there are many exchanges between Russian and Mongolian universities.

Despite the progress and shiny friendship, there were some things that… weren’t so nice. The Russian brand of socialism really didn’t like religion, so a thriving Buddhist culture in Mongolia went into hiding. Scores of lamas and monks were either forced into exile or just plain ‘disappeared’ in the religious purges that occurred in the 1930s and 40s. Since most solid structures of that time period were monasteries, and the majority of those were also destroyed. Most monasteries you see today were either rebuilt or renovated in the 1990s after the fall of their friend, the USSR. Though you do have the argument that many Mongolians were in charge of implementing these policies, and it should be ackknowledgeed that as much as the USSR influenced policies and government, there was also lots of bad things that Mongolians did to Mongolians. Just sayin’.

The “socialist times” came to an end in the 1990s and at that point Mongolia transitioned into a good ol’ democratic and capitalist society. Lets just say the transition was a little rough. Many of the businesses and operations set up by the USSR had Russians in the upper echelons of management, so once they went home, there weren’t many Mongolians with the skills to replace them. In larger cities this proved to be problem as the managers of electric companies packed up and went home, leaving these places with little infrastructure management skills or much of anything else. So began an entire new world of capitalism, which proves to be much more challenging then socialism ever could be. Not to mention much of Mongolia was behind the times when it came to technology, even the basics. I once heard a story of an early Peace Corps Volunteer , sometime in the 90’s, saving up his living allowance so he could have a 10 minute conversation with his family on the only landline available in the capital, at the Ulaan Baatar Hotel. In the 90s! Volunteers used to send transliterated messages through post offices telegram offices to each other on the regular. So my cell phone is looking pretty fancy ain’t it ?

Glib anecdotes aside the transition was rough, and still is for many people. You have an older generation remembering a time when there was a lot of support (ie money) coming in from their Russian friends. You have a much younger , larger generation that is now exposed to many different cultures, ideas and the wider world outside of Mongolia. There is often a lot of talk of Mongolia being remade into a ‘new society’. While the change is difficult, its by no means insurmountable.

I do ask people why they like Russians so much better then their Chinese neighbors. I get a lot of answers , but there are several reasons that sound good to me. Most importantly is a history of oppression and persecution from Chinese annexation in the 1700s to 1800s. Many Mongolians are sore that there are Mongolians living in Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region in China) that haven’t been able to learn their culture… though some remark they are as good as a different ethnic group now. A more tertiary reason is that Mongolia tends to get sold the lesser quality Chinese imports, emphasizing that they are not to be trusted, not even in business. A reason that makes the most sense to me though is that many Mongolians were exposed to Russia and Russian people for most of their lives, not so to their southern neighbors. “We grew up playing with Russian children whose parents were Russian language teachers or business men” said one friend. “We didn’t play with Chinese children”. Even in my town there was a “Russian Village” an area built for Russian families, out in the now defunct manufacturing district. Now Mongolians live there, but people remember being taught Russian by Russians, much in the way I’m sure people will remember being taught English by Americans.

To see remnants of Russia is kind of like seeing ghosts of a time gone by. Institutional memory is little to nonexistent, so when I ask about what that abandoned factory used to be or that old building, most people shrug and say I don’t remember. A once defunct factory is now a slaughter house. Another building was renovated into a dairy recently. People are moving on and forward.

I have enjoyed interacting with my Mongolian Russian teacher counterparts, and hearing their experiences. Dashka, a Russian teacher that retired last year, shared with me her experiences living in Leningrad for a language exchange in the1970s. She remembers going to university parties where people exchanged vinyl records and listened to what she called ” Wind , Fire , Earth music… do you know this?”. Basically she is the coolest person I know, just sayin’.  Currently there is a Russian Teacher in town whose language skills are the best in Mongolia. A visiting delegation of Russian businessmen came to visit her school, and after conversing with her for a bit, they turned to the American volunteer and told him “Her Russian is better then most Russians”.  As the saying goes, the ties are no longer as close as they once were, but yet the cord is never cut.

In the mean time, I hope by the time I post this, I will *Finally* have my COS date and be starting to plan my next adventure… traveling on the Trans Siberian 🙂 Since this country has been so consistently in the background, I’m excited to experience it for myself. Not to mention its been a dream to do that trip, and hopefully I can have the organization to continue writing about it as I travel this coming August. Till next time! – V.

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4 comments

  1. Al Chandler · · Reply

    Enjoyed learning your thoughts. My first trip to UB was in 1992, for a week during Nadaam Festival (I was supposed to be teach mining law).
    Love, Dad

  2. genevievia · · Reply

    Love the photos!

  3. Laura Everett · · Reply

    Interesting. Some of the older professors and teachers we met in China back in the 80’s had grown up striving hard to learn Russian. They were left stranded in the dust when English became the gold standard.

    1. To some extent that’s happening here as well. Since there is more infrastructure developed to travel to Russia, many people still have business relationships up there, and there are also Russian schools in the capital city. That being said, the Mongolian government declared English as the official second language, and my one Russian teacher that retired ? My school hasn’t replaced her. So I don’t think it will completely disappear…but we will just have to wait and see 😛

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