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History & Memory 11.2 (1999) 94-114



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Blame, Guilt and Avoidance:

The Struggle to Control the Past in Post-Socialist Mongolia*


It is senseless to blame past history's mistakes on us. Today is not the [19]30s and 40s. Everything has its own time. We didn't choose this party to repress people. Even MAHN itself was repressed. 1

So ran part of an interview with three young members of MAHN (the Mongolian acronym for the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party) in the party newspaper Ünen (Truth) at the end of November 1997. It was a short comment, tucked in among various other questions about life and politics in post-socialist Mongolia. I had almost missed it when I first flipped through the paper one afternoon. The comment was not followed up, but this was not surprising. Youth defending MAHN on this issue was enough. The interview itself merited front-page coverage, headlined with an excerpt of this quote, and was part of MAHN's attempt to argue for its own relevance in the current political atmosphere.

Once I found this passage, I was not surprised to see it there. The interview was published at a critical time in Mongolian politics for MAHN. Earlier that fall, the ruling coalition government had survived a vote of no confidence demanded by the minority MAHN faction in the Ih Hural (Parliament). Moreover, a law that MAHN objected to, dealing with compensation for victims of political repression, had recently had its [End Page 94] first reading in the Ih Hural. The autumn of 1997 marked sixty years since the beginning of the wave of repressions that had swept across Mongolia, leaving at least 22,000 people dead out of a population of about 750,000 in a period of eighteen months. That autumn, for the first time, government representatives officially visited a memorial to the victims which had been erected at the site where high-ranking government officials had been executed in 1937. A new memorial statue was being built in Ulaanbaatar in front of the history museum, which is next to the main government building. It would be dedicated on 10 December, the official anniversary of the 1990 democratic revolution in Mongolia, as well as the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The president and other officials would be in attendance. Just a year before, the tenth of September, the date when the first mass arrests had taken place in 1937, had been declared a day of remembrance for the victims. In short, the issue of political repression was attracting unprecedented public attention.

It was in this climate that MAHN adopted what struck many people as a rather quixotic position. N. Enhbayar, the newly elected head of the MAHN faction in the Ih Hural, saw no reason for MAHN to apologize for the repressions that had occurred under its one-party rule. 2 In fact, the party launched an offensive against those who suggested MAHN bore responsibility for what had happened sixty years previous. In response, the Democratic Coalition which held a majority of seats in the Ih Hural hammered MAHN for its stance. 3 The banner headline in the Coalition's newspaper Ardchilal (Democracy) in November called for MAHN to halt all its activities and to be taken to the world court. The main photograph on the front page was of MAHN headquarters with a large "X" across it. Other groups quickly joined the fray, urging MAHN to accept responsibility, which it refused to do.

In this article, I want to examine the larger context of this debate as well as the debate itself. Why was MAHN so insistent that it was blameless? Why should this debate occur at this time, seven years after the collapse of socialism? Who indeed bears responsibility for past events? And why should the past matter so much? In the post-Soviet, postapartheid world, such questions are of more than historical interest. In examining the Mongolian case, I hope to shed light on the...

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