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Regular version of the site

Socialism on the Steppe

How Soviet specialists changed life in Mongolia


‘We tried to give them a bright future.’ These are the words of engineers, construction workers, geologists, doctors and other specialists from the former Soviet republic regarding the years they spent in Mongolia. The scope of the project stretched from earth to heaven — from cultivating the virgin Mongolian soil to conquering space. Enthusiasm initially drove the establishment of socialism on the Mongolian steppe, the desire to earn a living kept it going, and the decision to deconstruct it all ended the project. Those Soviet-era specialists are still united by the memory of trying to build something on such a grand scale and then seeing the whole project collapse. More than 100 members of that community agreed to be interviewed in-depth by political scientist Alexei Mikhalev. Here, he shares information from their collective memory with IQ.HSE.

Building a new life

Many Soviet specialists who worked in Mongolia between the 1960s and 1980s returned to their homes as wealthy people. They could buy things their compatriots could not: apartments, cars, elite furniture sets and household appliances. However, their predecessors, the pioneers of Mongolian socialism, travelled to what was then the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) for another reason. They were driven not so much by pragmatic considerations as by enthusiasm for building socialism — literally from the ground up. These Soviet specialists built schools, clinics, and communications infrastructure. Thy improved industry and agriculture and developed science in Mongolia. They were there to build a brighter future for the country. Each felt like a new Prometheus, an agent of progress, and all had the bounty of witnessing firsthand the success of their mission.

Sukhbaator Square, Ulaanbaatar. Harrison Forman, 1970

According to the political terminology of the time, Mongolia stepped out of feudalism and straight into socialism, bypassing capitalism. Put more simply, the Soviet specialists who laboured in Mongolia from the earliest days of the Soviet Union’s formation until the period of reform in the 1990s were responsible for most of the country’s modernization projects.

‘We left behind roads, buildings, airfields – many things,’ said one Soviet-era specialist. ‘We left them a new life.’

A showcase of success

From the earliest days of the Soviet Union, there was a significant number of ‘oros’ (the word Mongolians used for ‘Russian’ but that, in fact, meant ‘someone with Soviet citizenship’) in Mongolia.

Alexei Mikhalev explains: ‘In the 1920s-1930s, Soviet specialists were often brought in as volunteers to work at Mongolian enterprises implementing Soviet projects….Russian personnel worked at most Mongolian enterprises. They built factories and developed infrastructure. Russian farmers founded one of the first state farms in Mongolia to earn more than 1 million rubles per year.’ The result was a massive influx of Soviet specialists, with their ranks swelling to the tens of thousands in the 1960s-1980s.

There was a kind of romanticism to this mega-project, like settling virgin territory in the Soviet Union

‘After I arrived, I was struck by the beautiful untouched nature of the region,’ recalled one woman who had worked as an engineer. ‘I still remember the taste of the tea we prepared out in the middle of the steppe.’

But, above all, these people were inspired by their sense of carrying out a higher mission, as the bearers of progress and culture. As a political, economic, and cultural project, building a new life ‘in the middle of the steppe’ was seen as an irrefutable argument in favour of socialism.

According to well-known Orientalist Sergei Panarin, Mongolia served as a showcase of mutual assistance among Soviet countries, ‘a visible manifestation of effective planning and cooperation aimed at lifting these “brothers” to the same level.’ This showcase was intended primarily for the developing countries of Asia and Africa and demonstrated ‘the possibility of building socialism successfully while bypassing capitalism.’

Mongolia as a shield

A different type of geopolitics applied here. The MPR served as an important buffer between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Soviet-Chinese relations soured in the 1960s and devolved into a confrontation. The first stage of that dispute was connected with events on Damansky Island in 1969 and the Soviet-Chinese conflict. The second stage arose over the Chinese-Vietnamese War of 1979 in which the Soviet Union sided with Vietnam. It is no surprise, therefore, that starting from the mid-1960s, Soviet Army forces maintained a significant presence on Mongolian territory and that the Chinese presence declined sharply.

Prometheus and agents of progress

In Mongolia, the Soviet specialists hailing from different republics felt like members of a single, very tightly-knit community. ‘We were all united by the same goal: to bring life in Mongolia up to modern standards and to rescue it from its backward past,’ recalls one engineer. Hardships of climate and conditions brought them closer together. At times, as one respondent recalled, they lacked ‘necessities and a regular supply of water.’ For many, the MPR was like ‘another planet’ that needed assistance and, like the bearers of progress from the works of the Strugatsky brothers, help in developing.  The science-fiction boom of that time that included books by the likes of the Strugatskys and Ivan Yefremov served to deepen that enthusiasm.

Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Jugderdemidiin Gurragchaa, inet.mn

The scope of the socialist construction project reached as far as space, the highpoint coming with a joint Soviet-Mongolian space shot. In March 1981, a space crew led by Vladimir Dzhanibekov included Mongolia’s first astronaut, Jugderdemidiin Gurragchaa.

In fact, Soviet specialists helped Mongolia to not only build its future, but also to reconstruct or, to a certain extent, piece together its collective past. From 1960 through 1989 — and, in some cases, even earlier — Soviet specialists joined their Mongolian counterparts for major historical and cultural expeditions. Archaeologists from the two countries recorded thousands of significant sites: settlements, graves, petroglyphs, ancient inscriptions, and stone sculptures dating back to prehistoric times and the Huns and the Great Mongol Empire.

The Russians of Ulaanbaatar

The Soviet presence in the MPR expanded from the late 1950s onward. According to archival data, ‘the number of Soviet [specialists] in Mongolia grew from 990 in 1961 to 2,624 a year later, and to 3,770 one year after that.’ The great majority worked in agriculture, as veterinarians, livestock specialists, and agronomists.  Others laboured to build power plants and railroads, and some worked in coal mines, wood processing, the food industry and so on. A wave of ‘oros’ showed up to help with geological exploration and to staff scientific institutions, government ministries, schools, hospitals, etc. There was even a Russian quarter of Ulaanbaatar full of Soviet citizens.

The scale of their presence in the city was impressive. Sergei Panarin recalled: ‘When I first walked down the [capital’s] main street Enh tayvny gudamzh  (‘Prospekt Mira’ in Russian or ‘Peace Avenue’ in English), at times it seemed there were more of my countrymen than Mongols. At the same time, it was so uncommon to encounter anyone from the other socialist countries that if I did run across one, they immediately caught my eye.’

Prospekt Mira, Ulaanbaatar, Harrison Forman, 1970

Most of the Soviets arrived with their families. Schools, clinics, kindergartens, stores, clubs, and science and technology centres were built for them. ‘Ulaanbaatar was dotted with buildings that had been taken from Mongolian jurisdiction,’ stated one respondent’s memoir. ‘In just one example, the complex belonging to the 39th Army included 354 structures. It was all handed back to the Mongolian side in the early 1990s.’

More than one generation of children of Soviet specialists grew up in Mongolia, remember that time with nostalgia, and stay in touch with each other now.

Mongolia’s Communist International

Relations between Soviet specialists and the local population were subjected to oversight. The former served as ‘older brothers’ (friends, helpers), and the latter as ‘younger brothers.’ Economic planning was carried out jointly by the Communist Party organizations of both countries and, of course, in the spirit of communist internationalism. ‘Imperial’ arrogance was not allowed.

The following is an excerpt from instructions to a certain Comrade Okhtin, the authorized representative of the Communist Party Central Committee to the Mongolian People’s Republic, dated April 23, 1932: ‘The plenipotentiary must very decisively...punish the least manifestation of great-power chauvinism and attempts by Soviet workers in the MPR to take over and replace the Mongolian senior staff.’ The document instructs Soviet citizens to ‘remember that they are assistants and advisors to the respective heads of Mongolian institutions.’

The community of Soviet specialists in Mongolia called themselves ‘kompans,’ As one specialist recounts, ‘All the Soviet specialists…were sure that the word was Mongolian, while the locals thought it was Russian.’ Later, it was learned that the term was first used in the country in 1938-1939 when a Red Army detachment again entered Mongolia for its defence. Among those troops were volunteers from the Soviet Union who had fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the international brigades. They had borrowed the local name of ‘compañero’ or ‘comrade.’ Considering themselves the successors of the Spanish internationalists, the Soviet specialists brought the word with them to Mongolia. There, it transformed into ‘kompan.’

Interestingly, the term ‘kompan’ applied only to the Soviet builders of socialism. Representatives of the other countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) — Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia — were separate. The foreign policy agenda still had a presence, Mikhalev explained. Many remembered and were part of the Soviet forces in Budapest in 1956 or, later, in Prague in 1968. It is also interesting that specialists from the other CMEA countries were something of a luxury: they demanded more amenities and their salaries were much higher than comparable Soviet specialists. But both groups were attracted to the lucrative Mongolian work contracts.

Fraternal inequality

Before going to Mongolia, Soviet citizens were interviewed by the Party organs and the KGB. It was inadmissible to discredit the high reputation of the Soviet people and impeccable behaviour was required. Anyone who violated that code of conduct was severely reprimanded.  

‘Anyone who did not live up to the moral standard of the community of Soviet citizens was called out…,’ said one engineer. ‘We used to joke about it between ourselves, but we were afraid also. Things did not always go well with the Mongolians, and in most cases, relations were based on the exchange of goods. The Soviet authorities did not approve of this.’

Mongolians characterize those times in different ways. Some speak of it as an era of upliftment. Others speak in colonial terms. Mikhalev is convinced that the second interpretation is unfair. The Soviet specialists were far from ‘colonial’ concerning Mongolia. ‘They taught, encouraged, eliminated epidemics. A great deal of money flowed into the country. Many Mongolians received higher education in Irkutsk,’ explained Mikhalev.

As one Soviet-era construction worker recalled, ‘The MPR was not something unfamiliar to me. In the Soviet Union, I studied alongside Mongolians and had some idea of their daily lives.’ A geologist who was interviewed explained it this way: ‘We lived separately from the Mongolians, but many families of both groups were friends.’

Bearers of progress — with an agenda 

The workers who went to Mongolia in the 1970s and 1980s were more pragmatic and less prepared, and the economic disparity between them and the local population grew larger. According to Mikhalev, by the 1990s, that inequality helped put an end to the idea of a commonwealth of two nations.

People came to Mongolia for 2-3 years to earn money for an apartment and other things back home.

Visiting workers were paid in what was called ‘foreign currency rubles,’ and what Mongolians referred to as ‘bichik,’ said one former construction worker. An engineer who also responded said, ‘To be honest, I went for the sake of the paycheck [‘bichik’]. I wanted to earn money for a car.’

On average, Soviet specialists earned the equivalent of 800-900 Mongolian tugrik — as much as a deputy government minister was paid.

The inequality between Soviet specialists and the locals was evident in terms of consumption. ‘For its level of commodity poverty, Mongolia markedly surpassed the European CMEA countries and even the Soviet Union,’ writes Panarin. However, there were elite stores in Ulaanbaatar with extraterritorial rights that were off-limits to the locals and that sold excellent Soviet goods and delicatessen foods made for export. Even Soviets had difficulty finding such products at home: sturgeon, caviar, elite cheeses and sausages, fruits, wines, etc. Only Soviet citizens and the families of Mongolian officials were permitted in such establishments. In time, Soviet guards were posted at the entrance to prevent ordinary Mongolians from trying to get in. ‘Coming as this did in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were shortages of everything in the MPR, it gave rise to an anti-Soviet sentiment that escalated into ethno-nationalistic statements,’ noted Mikhalev.

Among the local products available, visiting Soviets liked sheepskin coats, rugs with ethnic designs, and colourful postage stamps printed in the CMEA countries, according to Panarin. Many items — from antiques to fur hats made from steppe fox — could be purchased at a large flea market on the edge of town.

Flea market, Ulaanbaatar, 1972

One aspect of this elite consumption pattern was ‘Western’ bars such as the pub in the Bayangol Hotel. The opening of this establishment during the low point of the country’s stagnation was seen as an ‘earthshaking event’. Panarin writes: ‘It was a “real” bar staffed by two young Mongolian barmen who worked in shifts and made cocktails using drinks from “outside.” The lighting was also appropriate — flashing lights or else intimate and muted — and popular Western music played over the speakers. There were also pretty young local women who were ready to satisfy a foreigner’s hunger for sex — for a fee.’

Imaginary enemy

A special chapter in the life of Soviet specialists in Mongolia had to do with the ‘local Russians’ who belonged to various social groups but who all shared negative perceptions of the Soviet authorities. They included the descendants of White Russian émigrés, Russian colonists from tsarist times, Old Believers, and dispossessed peasants. They had been living in Mongolia before the arrival of the Soviet specialists. Every political conviction requires an enemy, and the ‘local Russians’ turned out to be ideal candidates for this role.

‘One teacher who went to Mongolia told us,’ said one respondent, ‘that before making the trip, every person underwent a briefing in which they were discouraged from getting acquainted with or befriending the local Russians.’

‘It was said that they were descendants of the White Cossacks, Semyonovs [named after the Cossack ataman Grigory Semyonov]. I can’t say whether that was true, but they behaved very aggressively and didn’t like the Soviets. Still, sometimes we exchanged great home-brewed vodka with them.’

With the international situation heating up, the ‘local Russians’ came to be viewed as a probable fifth column: their exclusion from society became more severe. They were not admitted into the Communist Party, the Komsomol or other Soviet organizations that facilitated vertical mobility. In fact, it was not until 1979 that Moscow granted members of this group the rights and status of Soviet citizens, including the right to hold Soviet international passports.

The trauma of leaving

 After the collapse of the Soviet Union and in response to mounting economic, ethnic, and social pressures, many Soviet specialists and ‘local Russians’ decided to leave Mongolia. This was especially traumatic for Soviet citizens, said Alexei Mikhalev. ‘They lost their status and superpowers as the bearers of progress. They felt like outsiders.

The democratic revolution of 1990 changed almost everything, he noted. Mongolia began shaking off its Soviet past and deconstructing the ‘older brother’ narrative. Nationalism gained ground. Genghis Khan became the new national symbol, and monuments, public squares and the like sprang up in his honour. He had been resurrected to remind Mongolia’s ‘older brother’ of the Tatar-Mongol yoke and to cast doubt on the idea of Soviet superiority.

‘The portraits of Genghis Khan in the hands of demonstrators were a form of protest against the Soviet understanding of the country’s history and path,’ explained Mikhalev. The political change in course resulted in pressure on the Soviets living there. ‘People were practically pushed out of the country,’ he said.

The inertia of social memory

As one geologist recalled, ‘The early 1990s were very tough. We never ventured into other parts of town unless it was really necessary. Then everything calmed down somehow and Russians were treated with at least tolerance. Life returned to the usual routine,’ he concluded.

The influx of Russian specialists to Mongolia intensified again in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the political vicissitudes of the times, ‘people remained [in the country] and, thanks to them,  the community of Ulaanbaatar’s Russian quarter retained its social memory,’ Mikhalev concluded.



Author of the study:
Alexei Mikhalev, Director of the Center for the Study of Political Transformations of Buryat State University; Associate Fellow of the Center for Civilisational Analysis of Global History of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 06, 2019