Historical Memories: Contemporary Perspectives on Choibalsan

By Julian Dierkes, Kenny Linden and Marissa Smith

In a series of tweets Kenny Linden pointed to a puzzle that many of us who regularly interact with contemporary Mongolia, namely what would be termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung in German (coming to terms with the past).

I basically agreed with Kenny, sharing the observation about a continuing commemoration of Choibalsan in the face of knowledge about murders that were committed his time in government leadership.

Mogi then also chimed in.

This exchange promoted more discussion between Kenny and I about how important a dissertation topic this could be.

Dissertation Topics Ideas

Despite all the work that has been done, especially by Christopher Kaplonski (especially his two books, Truth, History and Politics in Mongolia: the Memory of Heroes (2004) and The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, (2014)) and by Sergey Radchenko ( “Choibalsan’s Great Mongolia DreamInner Asia 11, no. 2 (2009): 231–58) have done , it seems like there is a lot of room left for more research.

The biggest question that we’re asking ourselves is: how come that individuals like Kh Choibalsan are still celebrated to some extent in contemporary Mongolia when his responsibility for some heinous crimes against fellow Mongolians is undisputed?

Of course, there are many other individuals who continue to be celebrated. Revolutionary leader D Sukhbaatar remains as the name patron for the square in front of Government House (despite silly efforts to rename this Chinggis Sq), for the central district of Ulaanbaatar, for an Aimag,  etc. I have seen portraits of Yu Tsedenbal and other state socialist leaders in offices and museums around the country. But there is arguably some difference between these individuals and Choibalsan in terms of their direct implication in the murder of Mongolians.

This memory is especially interesting given the criticism, albeit muted thanks to Tsedenbal, of Choibalsan and his activities during the de-Stalinization period from 1956 to 1964. Choibalsan remains the namesake the capital in Dornod aimag, formerly Choibalsan until renamed during the period of de-Stalinization in 1963, where he was born. Furthermore, statue of Choibalsan graces the front of the National University of Mongolia. A common refrain suggests that Choibalsan had no choice but to oversee the execution of 40,000 people, despite the counterexamples of Genden and Amar, who resisted the Stalinist era purges, which ultimately led to their deaths. Genden’s house was turned into a museum of political persecution, though this historical house was removed in the recent destruction of historical buildings in Ulaanbaatar.

So, is this kind of historical commemoration a true blind spot in contemporary Mongolia? Could you document attempts at talking about historical figures like Choibalsan in a more differentiated manner, i.e. acknowledging whatever role he might have played in preserving Mongolia’s independence while also clearly pointing to the massacres carried out under his regime? Who is raising questions around historical responsibility? What about Buddhist officialdom given the victimization of lamas in particular? In what fora are questions raised? Who reacts to such questions? What role are academics and historian in particular playing in this? What are generational elements in knowledge of historical crimes? How does the contemporary memory of Choibalsan compare to current rehabilitation efforts of Stalin or Mao?

Marissa Smith adds that there is overlap and some degree of conflation between memories of Tsedenbal and Choibalsan, especially in recent years.

Tsedenbal has also both been “rehabilitated,” and been controversial in recent years, with his statue appearing in front of the Drama Theatre — directly across from the statue of B. Richen, where Stalin’s statue once stood. Members of the MPP have publicly memorialized him there. In 2016, amid still roiling controversies over the privatization(?)/nationalization(?) of the 49% Russian ownership of the Erdenet Mining Corporation, the EMC was officially named for Tsedenbal by act of the Ikh Khural. In a recent (2012) biopic about Choibalsan and contemporaries, Долоон Бурхан Харвадаггүй, tropes associated with Tsedenbal come into play. Specifically, in one scene Choibalsan has a romance with a blond Russian woman while studying in the USSR, though unlike Tsedenbal, he ends the relationship before returning to Mongolia. The legacy of Tsedenbal and his Russian wife Filatova is also multivalent, however — as demonstrated every year around Children’s Day, when Mongolian social media is filled with tributes to Filatova, who is credited with establishing a children’s camp and a number of other cultural institutions in Mongolia.

It is the same controversy that is at stake in the case of both Choibalsan and Tsedenbal’s memories — how effectively did each pursue and secure the interests of Mongolia in its relationship with the Soviet Union? An essential text to read and engage with in researching this matter would be U Bulag‘s ethnography of early 1990s Mongolia, which deals extensively with controversy around Tsedenbal and Filatova’s legacy in the context of immediate post-socialist reframing of Mongolian national identity. Also, in the 2000s, Yuki Konagaya and I Lkhagvasuren conducted extended interviews with a number of figures close to Tsedenbal, including his own brother, Yu Ayush, and Ts Lookhuuz, who was famously purged (imprisoned and exiled) by Tsedenbal in the 1970s. (These are available in Mongolian also on the online repository of Senri Ethnological Reports). Additionally, Tsedenbal is a figure of interest in Russia, and Mongolians are also part of these conversations — the two volumes of works by Leonid Shinkarev published in the mid-2000s in Mongolian as well as in Russian would also be of interest here.

There would be many different disciplinary perspectives to bring to bear on these questions from history, or anthropology to cultural and media studies, political science and sociology. While Mongolian language skills would be a requirement and some supervision by academics who have specialized knowledge of Mongolia(n history) would be important, related questions arise in many post-state socialist societies.

We certainly look forward to reading the results of such research in the future!

About Kenneth Linden

Kenneth Linden is a Doctoral Candidate at Indiana University. His research is on the environmental and animal history of Mongolia, and his dissertation focuses on the socialist era collectivization campaign.
His Twitter is @Kenny_Linden and his website is https://www.kennethelinden.com/

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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