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Mongolia’s Future

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

But the revisionists have been at work on Genghis Khan. The modern version of the legend of the man now comes to us expunged of its extreme cruelties. Certainly, the mass murders committed by Stalin and Hitler in the 20th century have made Genghis Khan appear a moderate.

This may come as a relief to Mongolians. For certifiable heroes such as Genghis Khan seem to act as glue for a national identity that has fragmented since 1990. Poverty and deprivation during the Communist era had united Mongolia; stagnation had ensured a degree of stability. But, as in Russia, the transition to a free-market economy since 1990 has caused much confusion and distress.

According to the foremost American scholar of Mongolia, Morris Rossabi, the country may have had a successful transition to multiparty rule, but economic disparities continue to widen between those few who can take advantage of the foreign presence in Mongolia and the many more who can’t. The crime rate has tripled since 1990 in Ulaanbaatar, and pawnshops have flourished.

In the suburbs, former employees of state enterprises languish in dingy Soviet-era apartment blocks, or, even worse, in gers without running water or sanitation. Ulaanbaatar’s smog, which I had attributed to rapid industrial growth, is largely the result of the coal-burning stoves of the suburbs.

It is hard to see how things could improve soon. The country’s economy is still heavily dependent on foreign aid and investment—which is why it chose to send its troops to the U.S.-led coalition in distant Iraq. And it needs even more foreign assistance in order to exploit its apparently large deposits of coal, iron, tin, copper, gold, and silver. Mongolia’s neighbor China, which is perennially in need of raw materials, could help, but relations between the two countries remain cool.

In recent years a mini gold rush has attracted foreign businessmen and adventurers; it has also excited some local greed. A Buddhist monk I was introduced to turned out to be a gold miner. Since 1990, Mongolia has also hosted the kind of foreigner who offers economic sustenance as well as cultural identity: the Christian missionary from the United States. I had been reading about the American churches that, denied the opportunity to evangelize in populous but rigidly closed China, have turned their attention to other parts of East and Central Asia, particularly Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Almost all the major denominations and sects are represented in Mongolia, and, although no reliable census figures are available, they have apparently found many "rice Christians" among the Mongolians—people eager to convert in exchange for food and shelter and the possibility of travel to the West.

Agizul Sosor, program manager of the Tibet Foundation, which works for the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia, told me that "the new generation of Mongolians is very consumeristic. They want cars, jeans, stereo systems, and satellite TV’s, and they will go to whoever gives it to them. But very few people can have these things; the rest can only watch with envy and malice."

One Sunday morning I went to a service at a Mormon temple on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar—one of many in the city. The temple’s white steeples rose cleanly out of the usual roadside cluster of apartment blocks streaming with clotheslines. Mongolians wearing fake brand-name jeans, sneakers, and anoraks filled the austere chapel. "They are good kids," one of the very young Americans sporting a crew cut and an extremely earnest expression informed me.

It turned out that he was from Utah and had just returned from two years in the Mongolian countryside—"without heating," he added. The other American Mormons there seemed equally virtuous. They denied that they were in Mongolia to convert people; they were there rather to educate and train Mongolians into economic self-sufficiency. The Mormon Elder, a bald, severe-looking man, complained that their church often got a bad name because of the Seventh-day Adventists and Baptists, who use cash inducements to convert Mongolians to Christianity.

Buddhism, which encourages a suspicion of desire, might seem the perfect antidote to such materialistic practices, particularly because it was once woven into the fabric of everyday life in Mongolia, its rituals and mantras ever present during marriages and funerals.

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