These images of luxury seemed far away when I woke up every morning in my room at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel and saw a statue of Lenin dominating the view from my window. With its high ceilings, chandeliers, marble staircases, and generally unresponsive staff, the hotel itself seemed to conform to a Soviet idea of luxury. Neoclassical buildings ringed the massive Sukhbaatar Square, a wilderness of cement named after the Mongolian nationalist who rid his country of Chinese influence in 1921, only to saddle it with the Soviets. One building in garish pink stood out in particular. This was the State Opera and Ballet Theater, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in St. Petersburg, part of a Russian fantasy of Europeanness.
Much of this, I learned, was the work of the Mongolian Communist Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal and his Russian wife, Anastasya Filatova, who together ruled the country from 1952 to 1984, consolidating Soviet influence with an iron fist, especially in the Communist-style command economy where the government owned all the means of production and restricted private business. They further cleansed Ulaanbaatar of Chinese influence.
Even before their reign, the Soviet Union had cast a dark shadow on Mongolia—Communism had managed to re-create here the cruelties and absurdities it had inflicted on people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One afternoon in Ulaanbaatar I wandered into the Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Persecution. It had been set up soon after 1990, when Mongolia rid itself of Communism and embraced democracy. I was shown around by Bekhbat Sodnom, the director of the museum, who turned out to be the grandson of Peljidiyn Genden, Mongolia’s prime minister in the early 1930’s.
Genden was shot dead on Stalin’s orders after he repeatedly defied the Soviet dictator’s orders to purge Mongolia of allegedly anti-Communist and rightist elements, such as the Buddhist clergy. More Mongolian leaders would be executed before Stalin found those who were prepared to follow his instructions. The museum contained much evidence of the terror Mongolia had known in the 1930’s. The first floor had photos of some of the thousands of Mongolians killed during that time. On the second floor I was abruptly confronted by a display case housing a pile of skulls pierced with bullet holes. I winced; my host looked unperturbed.
Sodnom felt, he told me later, that visitors needed to face the true scale of the tragedy inflicted on Mongolia’s Buddhist culture and identity by the Soviet Union and its Mongolian allies. Death squads traveling around the country had executed more than 20,000 monks and destroyed more than 700 monasteries. They had also wiped out the country’s entire fledgling intelligentsia.
Given that almost every other ethnic nationality between Russia and China—Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tibetans, Uygurs—was absorbed into one of the two Communist empires, Mongolia’s uninterrupted existence as an independent state cannot but be considered an achievement. Still, walking around Ulaanbaatar, I marveled at the evidence of an extraordinary historical reversal: how Russia, which once feared the Mongol hordes, had later managed to completely dominate Mongolia.
The Mongols, known to the Russians as Tartars, either ruled or threatened Russia for much of the second millennium. Mongols lived in many Russian towns and intermarried with Russians. Many famous Russians, such as Boris Godunov, Gogol, even apparently Lenin, were said to have Mongol blood. The Russian state itself, as it began to develop in the 16th century, was a successor to the empire created by Genghis Khan’s conquests. (Soviet Communists and their Mongolian supporters reviled the great Mongolian hero.)
Since the collapse of Communism, Genghis Khan has made a triumphant comeback. Many statues of Lenin and Stalin have been taken down, and Genghis Khan now stands everywhere in Ulaanbaatar; his bearded face is on currency, billboards, matchboxes, and shop signs.
I was in Ulaanbaatar when Mongolia’s president spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York, upholding Genghis Khan as a model of efficient and humane governance. As I read the speech in the UB Post, Mongolia’s English-language weekly, I imagined representatives of the Central Asian republics, as well as Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, rising in protest and reciting the names of cities—Samarkand, Herat, Kandahar, Nishapur—devastated by the Mongols.