Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Museum of National History

I finally got around to visiting the Museum of National History the other day. It’s by far the most modern and best laid out of Ulaanbaatar’s museums, especially the Bronze Age exhibit on the ground floor. The cases are nicely lit and well labeled in both Mongolian and English. The various stages of the nation’s history are well represented on the other floors, although there is perhaps a bit of ‘editorial bias’ in the choice of items shown. The long period Mongolia spent under Manchu rule (from the 17th to the early 20th century) is represented by three display cases of instruments of torture and execution. I am under the impression that people were executed during Chinngis’ reign too, and probably later Khans, and I’m not sure that there’s any evidence that Chinese rule was any harsher – that in fact the centre of government being so far away and fervent Buddhism mostly keeping the populace equable, Mongolians were mostly allowed to carry on their lives as they had for centuries. The infamy of the Manchus is very much taken for granted by the majority of Mongolians today, however, which I think may well have been a version of history strongly encouraged in the Soviet era. This and some of the slant on the Soviet period should be borne in mind of the fact that this building was formerly The Museum of the Revolution.

The hall of Soviet history itself is pretty interesting, although unfortunately a lot of the labels are left untranslated. Mongolia has an interesting place in Communist history – it was the second country in the world to have a Communist revolution. Lenin is still quite fondly regarded in Mongolia, for his support in freeing Mongolia from Chinese rule. There’s a prominent statue of Lenin outside the Ulaanbaatar Hotel. The museum has one display case dedicated to the victims of the purges during the 1930’s – whether these were ordered by Stalin or just inspired by him seems unclear. The justification for the mass arrests at the time was a fabricated Japanese-inspired fifth columnist plot to take over the country. There’s no mention (in English anyway) of the many thousands (30,000?) of Buddhist monks who disappeared at this time, but there are the pocket watches of Minister of Finance S. Dovchin, former Party Secretary O. Badrakh and Minister of Justice D. Dorjpurev’s wife’s handbag: the perhaps unintentional impression that these three items are all that remain of the victims of the mass murder is chilling.

To what extent Mongolia's leaders were under the command of the Kremlin is a question that I would be interested to see historians answer. I believe that there’s evidence that Mongolia had a considerable degree of autonomy. For example, throughout World War Two, Mongolia’s contribution to the fighting on the Eastern front was the loan of a handful of tanks and planes – which Russia had presumably given Mongolia in the first place – and the sale of horses and a few other supplies to the Allies: this when Stalin was sacrificing millions of his countrymen to slow the German advance. Of course, Mongolia’s population was very small at the time (around 1 million? Less?) – and Mongolia was later to fight fiercely against Japan in the campaigns that led to VJ Day. Until the democratic revolution of the 90s, Russia stationed troops and carried out military exercises in Mongolia – but Russia also built apartment blocks, power stations, and factories and indeed provided a degree of security against the country’s other Marxist neighbor.

Anyhow, an interesting museum, with food for these questions and others - well worth a visit. 3,000T admission, I didn’t check how much it costs to take photos. I will try and remember to update this entry with a photo of the exterior, which is a piece of Soviet modernist architecture that is a credit to the city.