Mongolia, the forgotten genocide: part II
The horrific extermination of Buddhist monks in Mongolia must be remembered and studied to understand other communist attempts to eradicate the religion.
by Massimo Introvigné
Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1.
Documents that have emerged in recent years prove that Stalin viewed depopulated Mongolia as a laboratory for social experiments to be repeated if successful in Russia. Stalin experienced in Mongolia the attempt to reach the utopian phase of communism dreamed of by Karl Marx without going through the intermediate phase of socialism. The attempt required – unfortunately for the Mongols – the physical removal of members of social classes considered structurally incompatible with communism. The wealthiest nomads, a large part of the Muslim minority, many members of the Buryat ethnic minority, the nobles and a significant part of the Buddhist monks were shot. The human cost of the experiment is estimated at between 60,000 and 70,000 human lives, or one tenth of the Mongolian population at the time. It would be as if in Italy today a regime decided to shoot six million people.
The fight against religion was not the only driving force behind this genocide. Stalin’s personal distrust of the Buryats, the majority of whom lived in Russian Siberia, and internal struggles within the Mongolian communist movement, whose factions were trying 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.
In 2014 I read the book The question of the lamas (University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu 2014) by Christopher Kaplonski, a social anthropologist from the University of Cambridge, and in 2015 I attended a discussion of this study at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kaplonski tries to understand the motivations of the communists. His point of departure 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 thirty-six thousand were shot – cannot result from the only irrational evil. He tries to explain the logic of the Mongolian communists, who tried to eradicate Buddhism first by propaganda and then by legal and tax discrimination. In vain, given the extraordinarily deep roots of religion in the country. It is only in a third phase that they decide to resort to extermination, which is not irrational and sporadic, but planned, each person slaughtered being put on trial – however quickly – and condemned. 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 suddenly realized that his anthropology was taking him too far, and that he found himself in the same situation as someone who ” would try to understand why for the Nazis the Holocaust was a reasonable solution. Kaplonski reports writing worried emails to colleagues, wondering what was happening to him and struggling to regain a perspective where the horror can be condemned without dismissing it as simply irrational.
Nevertheless, the description of the regime’s three-stage progression from one anti-religious “technology” to another is still 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 discrimination against Christians in 2011, the year in which I was the OSCE representative for the fight against racism, xenophobia and religious discrimination. According to the model of Rome, the fight against religion descends on an inclined plane, starting from intolerance (cultural), passing through discrimination (legal) and ending inexorably in 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 maintains that this was not the case. Stalin gave contradictory instructions and some of the worst massacres were decided by Mongol communists, who were by no means mere puppets in the hands of the Soviets. Mongol historians replied that it came from the archives explored by Kaplonski, but the archives were manipulated by the Soviets, who also included false documents. Conspiracies aside, the discussion is significant and reminiscent of similar discussions in other countries. It is too convenient to assign all the blame to one person, Stalin. Communist ideological hatred also contaminated the local hierarchs, and they were no less culpable than the Soviets.
When I visited the Memorial Museums for Victims of Political Repression in 2005, I was told the story of its founder, Tserendulam Genden, who died in 2003. A Moscow-qualified doctor, she was the daughter of Peljidiin Genden, the first president of Communist Mongolia between 1924 and 1927, then its Prime Minister between 1932 and 1936. Admittedly, Genden had his responsibilities by cooperating with Stalin, in particular in the persecution of the Buryats. However, he attempted to resist Stalin’s order to exterminate Buddhist monks, which led to the end of his political career and his life. The museum guide, a relative of Tserendulam, told me the family story that when Peljidiin Genden refused for the third time to go ahead with the extermination of the monks, Stalin characteristically replied that he was “concerned by his health” and brought to Moscow for medical treatment generously donated by the Soviet Union. Instead, he was executed in 1937 and replaced in Mongolia by Choibalsan, the ex-monk who vengefully hated religion. The results quickly appeared.
In Mongolia in September 1937 there were 83,000 Buddhist monks, and the number had already been drastically reduced after the 1921 revolution. By the end of 1938 there were less than five hundred. Some had fled or secularized themselves, but many had been killed. In Ulaanbaatar alone there were sixty active monasteries in 1937, none in 1939. The map of monasteries prepared by the regime to organize the repression was lost, but by 1937 more than six hundred survived, reduced to two in 1939, which have been preserved. living primarily to be shown to foreign visitors as evidence of alleged religious freedom in Mongolia. Despite protests from intellectuals, including local and even Soviet communists, many works of art were burned and the majority of monasteries razed, often 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 corresponded with the museum after 2005, but lost contact recently. I hope Tserendulam’s son, who was criticized for allowing the destruction of the historic building, will come out of this his promise to open a new museum with his mother’s collection. There are so many lessons to be learned from the genocide of the Mongol monks.