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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.