Today Mongolia commemorates the victims of political repression, who suffered under a brutal regime that remained in power for more than 70 years. Under this communist dictatorship more than 37,000 people died by targeted killings, purges, and revolutions. Every year since 1993 Mongolian citizens have gathered to pay homage to the victims of one of the longest communist regimes in history.
Mongolia’s was the second communist government to be established in the world, after the Soviet Union. Under communist rule, the Mongolian people saw the elimination of religion, private property, and freedom of speech. From the 1920s through the 1990s, Mongolia was entirely transformed, losing its identity, culture, and language, and more than five percent of its population.
Mongolia had been ruled for centuries by the Manchu Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. It was not until 1911, when Mongolia’s aristocracy sought Russia’s help, that Mongolia became independent. However, independence did not last long. Following the chaos brought on by the Russian Revolution in 1917, China deployed its troops to Mongolia, ending Mongolia’s brief autonomy.
To resist Chinese rule and achieve independence again, a resistance group formed—Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPP). Seeking support for a revolution, Mongolians once again looked north. This time, Soviet Russia responded.
By 1921 the Red army and the MPP succeeded in driving out the Chinese occupying forces. Once again an independent country, Mongolia sought change. Under the USSR’s guidance, the MPP founded a new government in accordance with communist principles. On November 26, 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed.
The communist government’s first objectives were to remake the entire country and spread the communist ideology across Mongolia. Land was expropriated and agriculture was collectivized. The party prohibited private property and trade of goods.
Realizing the collectivist turn the government was taking, the people of Mongolia revolted against the party. An uprising began in April 1932 at a monastery, and quickly spread throughout the country. To counter the revolution, the MPP and Soviet troops targeted rebel command centers and leaders. By October, the revolution was completely crushed.
It did not take long before Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge spilled into Mongolia, creating the worst political oppression Mongolia had ever seen. Under Soviet instructions, the communist leader Khorloogiin Choibalsan—known as Mongolia’s Stalin—staged show trials to eliminate those who were not aligned with the party’s ideology. The trials officially started on September 10, 1937, when 65 high-ranking government officials were arrested and later executed.
Lasting from 1937 to 1939, the purges targeted Mongolian aristocrats, religious leaders, and even party members, accusing them of counter-revolutionary acts. The purges also targeted Buddhists, and almost succeeded in eliminating Mongolia’s Buddhist population. More than 10,000 monks were imprisoned and more than 16,000 were killed. Out of the 800 monasteries that existed at the time, 750 were destroyed. The massive show trials resulted in 22,000 to 30,000 deaths—almost 5% of the Mongolian population at the time.
During this time, millions of books were burned. The communist party even tried to suppress the image of Mongolia’s national hero, Genghis Khan, as no leader was supposed to eclipse Lenin’s figure. The oppression continued for decades.
After Gorbachev’s implementation of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the 1980s to reform the Soviet political and economic system, Mongolia followed the USSR’s footsteps into liberalization. Mongolia and the Eastern Bloc countries began their revolutions for freedom. On December 1989, a small group of 200 people in Ulaanbaatar began a peaceful demonstration against communist rule. The protest quickly grew into thousands of people. Finally, on March 9, 1990 the communist government stepped down. This bloodless revolution ended the 70-year dictatorship, allowing the Mongolian people to experience national independence and freedom for the first time.