ULAN BATOR — G. Tserendulam remembers the year Josef Stalin detained her father and his family during a trip to Moscow and sent them to the Soviet Union’s Black Sea. It was 1936, and the pro-Soviet government of Mongolia told the people that Prime Minister Genden had felt the urgent need for a holiday.
She remembers the day she went to her father’s study to call him for tea and found him surrounded by secret police. He started to say something. An officer shouted, “Don’t speak Mongolian.” Then on second thought, they ordered her to translate for her father’s interrogation — until her mother intervened. Genden was taken away. This was the last time Tserendulam saw her father.
“Not long ago, I went to the archives of the KGB and found the file on my father,” Tserendulam, now 72, recalled recently. “There were 29,800 people executed in that purge, 17,000 of them [Buddhist] lamas. And it all started with the death of my father.”
Tserendulam, a retired physician who now heads the Memorial Museum for the Victims of Political Persecution, is a leader in a movement that is demanding a reckoning — both historical and financial — for the crimes the state committed in this former Soviet satellite, wedged between China and Russia. With a determination unheard of in Russia to the north, Mongolia’s democratic government is attempting to battle the legacy of repression — starting with cash reparations to repression victims and their descendents.
Officials are offering $925 apiece to those whose lives were destroyed or families shattered by the repression. The payment so far, $4.6 million, is a huge sum in a country whose annual per capita income in 1997 was $395.
In compensating the victims, the government has fought a distortion of history espoused by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which seeks to recast itself as a victim of the maelstrom it unleashed. The former ruling party now eschews the term “communist,” and denies responsibility for the purges. But democrats in Mongolia say that addressing these crimes honestly is essential for the survival of an open society.
“The communists have not yet apologized to the people of Mongolia and to the world for the things they have done,” said Altangereliin Dashnamjil, a Parliament member from the ruling Mongolian National Democratic Party and secretary of the Mongolian Association of the Victims of Political Repression. “In most of the cases, they would blame the Russians for what was done. But although there was guidance from Russia, all these repressions took place on Mongolian soil at the hands of Mongolians. And a party that has not yet apologized for its criminal acts means a party that has not yet reformed.”
Dashnamjil knows the price paid by victims of repression. Now 70, he was arrested as a young man and sent to work in a salt mine near the Chinese border. Upon his release, he was allowed to travel no more than 20 km from his home for the next 25 years.
Shiyleg Batbayar, a parliamentary deputy from the People’s Revolutionary Party, says it is unfair to blame the party for the evils of the Soviet era. He says the current leadership in Parliament endorsed the reparations to victims.
“The party suffered the most,” Batbayar said. “From 1930 to 1940, there were no initial members of the Politburo left except for Choibalsan,” a drunken and illiterate puppet of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
Mongolia fell under Soviet domination early on. In 1921, the nation was embittered by poverty and governed by corrupt nobles, Chinese warlords and a counterrevolutionary Russian leader known as the Mad Baron. Mongolian revolutionaries called on the Red Army for help, and together they took the capital. But it was a devil’s bargain, for Mongolia became the first Soviet satellite state, and it would remain in the Soviet orbit the longest of any nation, only breaking free with the resignation of its government in the face of street protests in 1990.
From the beginning, Soviet Mongolia embraced Lenin’s precepts of state terror against the people’s perceived enemies. The first constitution, in 1924, divided the nation into two classes: citizens, who nominally had the right to vote, and those regarded as parasites, such as noblemen, nomads with more than 200 head of livestock, Buddhist lamas, and those who traced their ancestry to the medieval Mongolian leader Genghis Khan.
People’s Revolutionary Party leaders mirrored their Russian masters. The most notorious was Choibalsan, who liked to sit in on and direct torture sessions. Using a book published in 1931 to commemorate the Mongolian revolution, Choibalsan would mark an “X” through each of the faces of his old comrades as he had them shot.
As in the Soviet Union during the Great Terror or China during the Cultural Revolution, Choibalsan’s Mongolia was seized by a state-induced psychosis. Party thugs leveled hundreds of monasteries. They executed tens of thousands of lamas. In 1920 there were 100,000 lamas in Mongolia; by 1990, 80 were left.
Tserendulam remembers those days. When she and her mother returned to Mongolia after her father’s arrest, they were not allowed to live in their house and the government seized all their possessions.
So it is fitting that Tserendulam has now returned to the old Genden house, as director of the repression museum that is located there.
Tserendulam is a short, grandmotherly woman with one askew eye, and she will point the visitor to the former dining room, which is filled with memorabilia relating to Genden. It is now believed that he sealed his fate during the trip to Moscow because he quarreled with Stalin and refused an order to liquidate the lamas.
In one large room of the museum, the dark walls are covered with the names of 12,500 people — political leaders, military officers, Buddhist lamas, ordinary citizens — whom the People’s Revolutionary Party murdered. They are only a fraction of the known victims, but there was only so much room on the walls; the rest are printed in a book. Upstairs, a dummy KGB interrogator sits at a table before a slumped mannequin. The battered wooden door behind them is an actual prison cell door.
Nearby is a chilling diorama: On a field of dirt sit two skulls with bullet holes in their foreheads — the remains of real victims. There are places around Mongolia where one can still find such skulls half buried in the sand.
Like many victims, Tserendulam has tried to make peace with the past by remembering the victims. But many who suffered are left with a legacy of consuming anger.
Some victims are demanding the return of property that was seized by the state. Such demands may be beyond the ability of the government to carry out, but there is a hope that even $925 will provide some victims with a sense of vindication.
“However difficult the situation, we will manage to do it,” said Munkhdalain Rinchin, head of the Scientific Research Center of Political Repression. “If we step back from this commitment, we will be stepping back from the constitution and democracy.”
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