A few days ago, I found something I believed I had lost — a portrait of the 8th Bogd Khan of Mongolia, who was born in 1869 and died in 1924.
The Bogd Khan, or Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, is the chief of the Buddhist Gelug lineage in Mongolia. The Gelug lineage is the same of the Dalai Lama, and the Bogd Khan is the third ranking person in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
The 8th Bogd Khan, like the Dalai Lama in Tibet, was also the political ruler of Mongolia. He lost his power under Communism, and after his death no Bogd Khan was enthroned until the fall of the Soviet Empire. At that stage, the Dalai Lama announced that he had recognized in 1936 a four-year-old boy as the reincarnation of the Bogd Khan, but had kept his name secret for security reasons. The ninth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu was enthroned privately in Dharamsala in 1992 and publicly in Mongolia in 2011, one year before he died in 2012 at age 80.
The magazine I edit, Bitter Winter, has reported about the political pressures exerted by China to prevent a tenth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu to be officially recognized, although many believe that he has reincarnated, and the Dalai Lama knows his name.
I bought the portrait of the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu in Mongolia in 2005 as an icon of deep sadness and a testament to an enchanted world that was no more. I am happy I found it, for one reason in particular. If we want to understand the deep hatred of Chinese Communists for the monastic Buddhist society of Tibet, and the nomadic or post-nomadic Buddhist society of Inner Mongolia, a starting point is to study what Communism did to (Outer) Mongolia in Stalin’s times.
Terrible events of the 1930s
In Mongolia where the memory of these tragedies is still very much alive, I also visited in 2005, in the capital Ulaanbaatar, a Memorial Museums of the Victims of Political Repression. It was a private enterprise, which most unfortunately was shut down in 2016.
In order to understand the terrible events of the 1930s in Mongolia some historical elements are necessary. Mongolia has a very ancient tradition of shamanic religiosity which still survives today.
When Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan, and the son of a Nestorian Christian mother) converted to Buddhism in 1242, the monks who came from Tibet suppressed some shamanic elements but largely incorporated shamanism into Buddhism, giving Mongolian Buddhism its unique flavour.
Despite Kublai Khan’s conversion, Buddhism did not become a majority religion in Mongolia until the 16th century, when a Mongolian army secured the victory of the Gelug “system,” one of several competing Buddhist “systems,” in Tibet and gave its leader the title and power of Dalai Lama.
Between the 17th and 18th century Zanabazar—philosopher, sculptor (among the greatest in Buddhist history), politician, and descendant of Genghis Khan, and the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, reinforced the hegemony of Gelug Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.
A great figure in Mongolian history, Zanabazar remains controversial because he summoned the Chinese army for military help, which eventually made Mongolia a province of China, a status it kept until 1911.
Zanabazar gave great impetus to monastic life, especially in the great monastery of Erdene Zuu, founded by his grandfather in Karakorum. Between the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th, the male population of Mongolia came to be composed for more than a third of monks — which did not displease the Chinese too much because monks did not fight, did not rebel, and did not ask for independence.
In December 1911, taking advantage of the situation in China, Mongolia declared itself independent.
The eighth Bogd Khan became the king of Mongolia and settled in a royal palace in Urga, present-day Ulaanbaatar. But China, Russia, and Japan threatened the independence of the new state. In 1920, in an extremely confused situation, the anti-Communist Russian aristocrat Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg occupied Mongolia at the head of a personal army. Tolerated by the Bogd Khan, he proved to be a capricious and cruel dictator.
Two pre-existing groups of Mongolian independentists, one non-Communist and one led by the ex-lama turned Marxist Choibalsan fought against the Baron’s regime. In 1921, they proclaimed independence for a second time, with the Bogd Khan remaining on the throne. But this time they called upon Soviet troops, who remained in Mongolia for another 70 years.
In 1924, when the last Bogd Khan died, the Soviets declared that he had no reincarnation and proclaimed a Communist republic.
A Communist utopia in Mongolia?
Few could have predicted the horrors of the subsequent decade, which witnessed one of the bloodiest anti-religious genocides in human history.
Documents discovered in the last few years prove that Stalin considered the unpopulated nation of Mongolia a laboratory for social experiments to be repeated, if successful, in Russia. Stalin experimented in Mongolia with the attempt to reach the utopian phase of Communism dreamed of by Karl Marx.
The attempt required—unfortunately for Mongolians—the physical suppression of members of social classes considered structurally incompatible with Communism. The richest nomads, a large part of the Muslim minority, many members of the Buryat ethnic minority, the nobles and a substantial portion of the Buddhist monks were shot.
The human cost of the experiment is estimated to be between 60,000 and 70,000 human lives, one tenth of the Mongolian population of the time. It would be like shooting six million people in today’s Italy.
The fight against religion was not the only motivation for this genocide. Stalin’s personal mistrust of the Buryats, the majority of whom lived in Russian Siberia, and internal struggles within the Mongolian Communist movement, whose factions tried to exterminate each other, also played a role. But it is certain that the anti-religious element was decisive and that, proportionally, it was the Buddhist monks who paid the highest price.
Extermination as a policy
In 2014, I read a book, The Lama Question (University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu 2014), by Cambridge University social anthropologist Christopher Kaplonski, and in 2015 I attended a debate on that study at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kaplonski tries to understand the motives of the Communists. His starting point is that a massacre of this magnitude—Kaplonski deals almost exclusively with the period 1937–1939, the worst, “an orgy of almost unimaginable violence,” when 36,000 were shot—cannot result from irrational evil alone. He tries to explain the logic of the Mongolian Communists, who tried to eradicate Buddhism first with propaganda and then with legal and fiscal discrimination. To no avail, given the extraordinarily deep roots of the religion in the country.
Only in a third phase did they decide to resort to extermination, which was not irrational and sporadic, but planned, with every person shot subjected to a trial—however hasty—and sentenced. According to Kaplonski, the strength of Buddhism in Mongolia was such that, if Communism had not destroyed religion, religion would have destroyed Communism.
In the last lines of the book, the anthropologist reveals how he realized all of a sudden that his anthropology took him too far, and he found himself in the same position as someone who “would try to understand why for the Nazis the Holocaust was a reasonable solution.” Kaplonski reports writing concerned emails to his colleagues, wondering what was happening to him, and struggling to regain a perspective where horror can be condemned without dismissing it as simply irrational.
Nevertheless, the description of the regime’s progression in three stages from one anti-religious “technology” to another remains interesting, and reminds me of the “Rome Model,” adopted, at my suggestion, by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the Rome conference on the discrimination of Christians in 2011, the year in which I served as the OSCE Representative for combating racism, xenophobia, and religious discrimination.
According to the Rome model the fight against religion moves downwards on an inclined plane, starting from (cultural) intolerance, passing through (legal) discrimination, and arriving inexorably at persecution.
A salient aspect of Kaplonski’s work is the critique of the myth, which I also encountered in Mongolia, that everything was decided and planned by Stalin and that the Mongolian Communist authorities tried to stop or at least mitigate the repression.
The anthropologist argues that this was not the case. Stalin gave contradictory directions, and some of the worst massacres were decided by Mongolian Communists, who were by no means mere puppets in the hands of the Soviets. Mongolian historians have responded that this theory is based on the archives that Kaplonski explored, but the archives had been manipulated by the Soviets, who also included false documents.
Conspiracies aside, the discussion is important, and is reminiscent of similar ones in other countries. It is too convenient to attribute all the blame to one person, Stalin. Communist ideological hatred also contaminated local hierarchs, and they were no less guilty than the Soviets.
When I visited the Memorial Museums of the Victims of Political Repression in 2005, I was told there the story of its founder, Tserendulam Genden, who died in 2003. A medical doctor who graduated in Moscow, she was the daughter of Peljidiin Genden, the first President of Communist Mongolia between 1924 and 1927, and later its Prime Minister between 1932 and 1936.
Genden cooperated with Stalin, most notably in the persecution of the Buryats. However, he did try to resist Stalin’s order to exterminate the Buddhist monks — and that led to the end of his political career and his life.
The guide to the museum, a relative of Tserendulam, told me the family story that, when Peljidiin Genden refused for a third time to go on with the extermination of the monks, Stalin characteristically replied that he was “concerned about his health” and had him brought to Moscow for medical treatment.
Instead, in 1937 he was executed and replaced in Mongolia by Choibalsan, the ex-monk who hated religion with a vengeance. The results soon became apparent.
In September 1937, there were 83,000 Buddhist monks in Mongolia and this already was lower than before the revolution of 1921. By the end of 1938, there were fewer than 500. Some had fled or self-reduced themselves to the secular state, but many had been killed.
In Ulaanbaatar alone, there were 60 active monasteries in 1937 — and none in 1939. A map of monasteries prepared by the regime to organize the repression has been lost, but in 1937 more than 600 survived, reduced to two in 1939. And these were kept alive mainly for the benefit of foreign visitors as evidence of religious freedom in Mongolia.
Despite protests from intellectuals, including local and even Soviet Communists, many works of art were burned and most monasteries were razed, often by using them as targets for bombing or artillery tests.
The cultural genocide was certainly part of a larger, physical genocide. The numbers fully justify calling it that.
I had some correspondence with the museum after 2005, but lost contact recently. I hope Tserendulam’s son, who was criticized for allowing the historical building to be destroyed, will make good on his promise to open a new museum with his mother’s collection.. There are so many lessons we can learn from the genocide of the Mongolian monks.
This essay has been republished with permission from Bitter Winter.