- The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia by Christopher Kaplonski
In The Lama Question, Christopher Kaplonski tackles one of most pivotal and sensitive questions in the modern history of independent Mongolia: how the government of one of the world’s most Buddhist countries wiped out the sangha, or Buddhist monastic community, as an institution. As Kaplonski notes, in September 1937 Mongolia had 83,203 monks resident in monasteries out of a total population of roughly 745,000. Less than a year later, only 562 were left in the monasteries. Over 40,000 had fled and laicized; 17,000 still considered themselves monks but lived in the countryside; and 5,000 joined various fledgling collective enterprises. Of the rest, almost 20,000 had been convicted of crimes and about 18,000 were executed.
This crescendo of violence and the fifteen-year campaign of government pressure and intimidation that led up to it could be approached in many ways. In writing the first archivally based book on the topic in English, Kaplonski could have easily confined himself to what journalists call the “tick-tock”—who did what and when during this campaign that wiped clean the slate of Mongolia’s society and made it ready for socialism. Indeed, the archival work on which this book is based is [End Page 212] careful and accurate, and it is often enlivened by vivid vignettes and details. More so than any other offering in the still-slim bookshelf of English-language books on the revolutionary era in Mongolia, The Lama Question offers a satisfying picture of how the machinery of control, discrimination, and ultimately legal and extralegal repression actually worked from 1924 to 1938.1 In addition to providing fairly full coverage of the abundant Mongolian published literature,2 he accessed extensive archival material from the National Central Archives, the Supreme Court Archives, Party Archives, and the Foreign Ministry Archives. The contrast with Larry Moses’s Political Role of Mongol Buddhism is stark.3 Writing at the height of the Sino-Soviet Cold War and Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal’s enforcement of a regime of Brezhnev-style philistinism and conformity, Moses was unable even to do research in Mongolia and had to base his work entirely on secondary published work.4 Unfortunately, however, the archives of the Mongolian Central Intelligence Agency, the successor of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which actually carried out the purges, are still not open to researchers, a point to which I will return.
But instead of just “telling the story,” Kaplonski aims to use this story to describe what he, following Giorgio Agamben, calls the “exception”—a suspension of normative and juridical powers by metajuridical authority that in fact establishes the sovereign’s power in the very act of “instituting a threshold of undecideability between the authority to suspend the law and the power to implement it” (p. 31). Ultimately, Kaplonski finds that Agamben’s conceptualization needs to be nuanced, and he offers instead of just “exception” a concept of multiple “technologies of exception” (p. 30). These technologies consist [End Page 213] of three different broadly chronological, but also overlapping, ensembles of laws and exception to laws that played out from the mid-1920s to the final denouement in 1938. The first technology, salient from 1926 to 1934, was one of nonphysical violence and accommodation. The second technology of exception, salient from 1934 to 1937, introduced class-based discriminatory and confiscatory taxation regimes. Finally, in 1937 began the third technology of exception—show trials, an extraordinary plenipotentiary commission, dehumanizing rhetoric, and mass executions. Yet, alongside it, the two earlier technologies continued, separating lamas by class and putting on regular trial lamas convicted, for example, of poisoning the people through Tibetan medicine. Through all of his story, Kaplonski underlines the fragility of the Mongolian state—the great difficulty it faced in making its normative and juridical powers seem convincing—which led paradoxically, he argues, to a sustained effort to delay as long as possible the turn to the...