Heroes of Sukhbaatar Square

Mongolian history is very interesting; all the more because most of us have only heard a one-sided view of their history. For example, Europe teaches that Mongols were raiding savages from the East that raped and plundered the poor European serfs.   The Chinese tell of the building of  the Great Wall to keep out the Mongol barbarians from despoiling the cities of the great civilization of the Middle Kingdom.  However, as in all things, there are two sides to the stories and people are usually more complicated than the one-dimensional labels that we give them.

The centre of Ulaanbaatar is where one will find Sukhbaatar Square; a focal point for the people to gather and a place to give tribute to the heroes of Mongolian history.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar and Sukhbaatar Square From My Hotel Room
Government House from across Sukhbaatar Square

At the northern end of Sukhbaatar Square is the impressively modern Government House (the Mongolian Parliament) where a statue of Chinggis Khaan holds court, flanked by statues of two of his famous light horse-archers.

Chinggis Khaan Oversees the Square

The world often remembers Ghengis Khan as a vicious and merciless leader of an army of nomadic warriors bent on destroying civilization.  The Mongolians know him as Chinggis Khaan or Qagan who united their warring tribes, put an end to their internecine fights, brought them to greatness and forged an empire stretching from northern China to the gates of Europe by the early 13th century.  His military achievements were truly amazing. Considering that he led a nation of less than one million people and mustered an army of just 100,000, he subdued many larger armies and several hundred million people.

However, it may be less well known that the Mongolians consider him the Great Law-Giver.  He outlawed the kidnapping of brides and the stealing of livestock which was a common cause of inter-tribal fighting.  At the same time he declared religious freedom since religious differences were another source of conflict.  He standardised the taxing of goods throughout the empire, eliminating multiple taxes, thereby creating the world’s first international free trade zone.  He also set up an international chain of post offices which also doubled as hostels for traveling merchant.   He was also the first leader to assure the protection of ambassadors saying that they were messengers of peace, thereby establishing the concept of diplomatic immunity and international law.  Until then, ambassadors were often sacrificial lambs that were held as hostages and often executed.

The Rapid Light Calvary Archer that Shook the World

The Mongols success on the battle field  was not only due to great leaders but the Mongol light horseman with his unique bow design made him the high tech weapon of his time.  Their enemies could not counter their effectiveness.

Sukhbaatar - Hero of the 1921 Revolution

After many centuries under Chinese control, the Mongols once again became independent in 1911 under the rule of their national Buddhist leader, the Bogd Khan.  However, their independence was assured primarily because Russia and China faced off against each other.  The Chinese took advantage of the 1917 Communist Revolution which put Russia in turmoil to invade and cruelly subjugate the Mongolians.  The hero of the day was Damdin Sukhbaatar who smuggled out a letter from the Bogd Khan asking Bolshevik Russians for help.  It was hidden in his hollowed out horsewhip.  He returned at the head of the Mongolian Army with Bolshevik Russian allies to liberate Mongolia in July 1921.

Mongolia's Future Heroes

Mongolia then went through a very rough period during the Stalinist purges in which many tens of thousands were killed, especially Buddhist monks.  However, the Soviet Union did give substantial financial support to their communist satellite state.  When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the Mongolian people turned to democracy following protests in 1990-1991 .  Without Soviet support,the country’s economic situation took a frightening free-fall and many people could not even afford basic necessities.

Today, Mongolia is on the verge of a new economic boom fueled by coal and copper mining.  The financial situation for many will greatly improve.  However, many fear that with this wealth comes the specters of corruption and environmental damage.  Mongolia’s leaders today and the children of their future has a chance to be the new heroes of the nation.


10 thoughts on “Heroes of Sukhbaatar Square”

  1. Copper – that rings some bells. A small market with few players. And heavy on the environmental side, isn’t arsenic used? Chile. If its done well, responsible from the start, they can really prosper on this: China can and will gladly use whatever is digged out.
    Good to see that you came back, in one (living) piece 🙂

  2. Great stuff! This is why I read you. You have a unique perspective on places and things that I could never encounter elsewhere. I love reading pieces like this. Thanks for this and for all the great stuff you have put out there. I hope you had a great trip.
    (By the way, I’m in another one of my Buffy frenzies. Almost at the end of season 5. I did skip the episode where Dawn tries to bring back their mother. That one grosses me out. If you ever come to Texas we will watch all our favorite episodes together.)

  3. Mago,
    I don’t know much about copper mining but potentially, this could be the world’s largest copper mine and Mongolian landscape is very fragile and sensitive. Water is very scarce here and already existing mining is threatening the water in some major rivers. I am glad to be back too. As much as I liked visiting, the air pollution was too much for me.

    🙂 Wow. Thanks for the affirmation. I had a great trip marred only by nightmare flights there and back. Buffy…..Buffy….Buffy……going into a fan trance. I wonder which are my favorite episodes? Certainly Tabula Rasa was one of them.

  4. That was a fascinating read LGS i indeed Ghengis Kahn was indeed a clever man and had a good side as we all do. Good that they are doing well at the moment especially that kid, he has a fancy car and I love clothes

  5. Great post! Mongolia is an intereresting place with a fascinating history! It does appear that Ghengis has been demonized by his enemies.

  6. This was utterly fascinating. I am an anthropologist at heart, and Mongolia is not a place I have ever been. (Yet.) It’s a shame that Ghengis Khan’s reputation as a barbaric monster persists because he truly passed many innovative and humanitarian laws.

    The driving sounds like Cuba, at least during the revolution which brought Castro to power in 1959. There were no traffic signals (or rules) — everyone converged on intersections at the same time and whoever got there first won.

  7. Pauline,
    I do think it is an interesting bit of history. These Mongols played a big part in shaping our world as we know it and yet most of us know little about them. Still, I don’t want to go overboard with Genghis Khan being a nice guy……he was also very ruthless and merciless with his enemies. One reason he was successful in uniting the rival clans is that he killed all the clan leaders and their family to ensure there was no further rebellion.

    Well, he wasn’t all monster but he was also capable of very ruthless and merciless acts as well. Genghis killed all his rival leaders and their families to unite the clans. Yet he could also adopt young children found abandoned in his enemy’s camps. Anthropologically speaking, I found it interesting that the Mongols had their own script which is so different from their Chinese neighbours.

  8. These last few posts make fascinating reading! My sons were very interested to read about Mongolia too. Ghengis Khan was one of my husband’s heroes. He knew about all the good he did and all the innovations he was responsible for. Who knew a Squirrel could hold an audience so enthralled!

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