- Socialist Revolutions in Asia: The Social History of Mongolia in the Twentieth Century by Irina Morozova
In contrast to Genghis Khan’s exploits, a subject of numerous academic and not-soacademic investigations, Mongolia’s contemporary history has been relegated to the Gobi Desert of informed scholarship. In that wilderness, only occasionally traversed by wandering historians who are mostly on their way somewhere else, Mongolian history lies buried in the sand, already petrified, and rarely remembered either by the reading public of the world or even by the Mongols themselves. Irina Morozova has done a service to scholarship by shedding light on Mongolia’s socialist path. Her book is a rare and valuable addition to the still negligible literature on contemporary Mongolia and a brave attempt to open up the somewhat incestuous field of Mongolian studies to a wider audience.
The book claims to recount Mongolia’s history in the twentieth century. However, only the 30 years from the early 1920s through the early 1950s are discussed in any detail. The rest is given only a fleeting afterthought. Morozova explores the dynamics of Mongolia’s socialist “revolution” in the 1920s, the mass repressions and collectivization in the 1930s, and the consolidation of Communist party rule in the 1940s. The book is filled with great anecdotes about the challenges of imposing socialist modernity on a pre-modern nomadic country. How, for example, does one build a farming collective when its roaming members live a hundred miles apart? What does it take to drag a nomad off a horse and into a party meeting? Or to replace popular beliefs in the Buddhist Shambhala with the Marxist-Leninist Shambhala? These are the sorts of questions Mongolian revolutionaries and their Communist International advisers pondered as they set the course for taking the world’s second socialist country out of its primordial simplicity into a Communist utopia built on the corpses of those who disagreed or who had to be killed to fulfill the statistical requirements of political repressions.
Morozova’s key argument is that the Mongolians should come to terms with their past and accept at least some responsibility for what happened rather than blame the Soviet Union for all the problems Mongolia encountered during its painful encounter with the twentieth century. The argument is not without merit, for it is striking to what extent contemporary historical discourse in Mongolia has succumbed to the portrayal of the Mongolians as innocent victims of Soviet commissars in leather jackets. Mongolia is hardly unique in this respect. A great deal of finger-pointing has taken place across the former socialist bloc, and Moscow has rarely fared well in the assignment of responsibility for atrocities of the Communist era.
Nevertheless, Morozova takes this argument a few notches too far. She does not provide any evidence for her claim that the Mongolians have a “latent tendency” (pp. 9, 102) for personality cults, collective violence, and terror. Her occasional references to Genghis Khan fail to explain why the patterns of violence and terror in Mongolia so closely followed the Soviet example and why these patterns were repeated in [End Page 224] Eastern Europe after it was occupied by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. Morozova’s assertion that Russia merely returned to Mongolia in the twentieth century what it had learned from the Golden Horde in the thirteenth century, although at one level fascinating, is not based on any substantive proof in the book, and probably cannot be proven. Given Morozova’s excellent command of the Russian sources, it is a pity that she did not put more effort into fleshing out the dynamics of the relationship between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar to show who made those terrible decisions and why. A historian’s instinct suggests that the truth must be somewhere in the middle.
Morozova’s book is not an easy read. Not only does it assume the reader’s familiarity with Mongolia’s history but it even expects a certain fluency in both Russian and Mongolian. This means that only...