Friday, 6 July 2007

Heroes and Villains

The photo shows a statue which is found at the end of an avenue near my apartment, not far from the Indian Embassy. I had assumed from the uniform and jaunty pose that it was the statue of a hero of Mongolia's war for independence from Manchu China. As I recall from what I read at the National History Museum, Mongolians also fought the White Armies during the Russian Civil War, for which many generals were decorated, and this feller looked a likely candidate to be honoured as such.

Not long after I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the statue disappeared, leaving an empty plinth. I asked a few teachers at work if they knew what had happened. Most didn't have any idea, but eventually someone told me that it was 'stolen by the Chinese' to be sold as scrap metal. The winter months went by, I used to sit on the marble step to take a cigarette break from school (no longer - I quit again two months ago). I felt some sympathy for the stolen general, the victim, I felt, of an ambivalence towards the heroes of a past regime.

To my surprise, in the late Spring the statue reappeared. It looked different from how I remembered it, but it didn't seem possible that it would have been recast. I asked another teacher what had happened, and was told that the sword arm of the statue had been cut off by someone, presumably for scrap, and so the general had been sent to China to be repaired. I was reminded of the Victorian worthies who disappeared from Princes Avenue, Toxteth, in the Eighties - Florence Nightingale and some chap sticking a needle into a baby's backside? It's a shame Liverpool can't meet UB's turnaround time on repairs - although the Peltier Monument has been doing a worthy job in the meantime.

The general being back, and having decided to commemorate his return with a small post, I asked my wife the name of the General, for the sake of factual accuracy. "That's Choibalsan," she told me.

Choibalsan was a general, who became the ruler of Mongolia after the communist takeover in 1921, until his eventual execution (or 'disappearance', I am not clear which) in Moscow in 1946. I wrote in my previous posting about the Museum of Natural History that Mongolia's limited involvement in the Second World War caused me to question the extent to which Mongolia was under the direct orders of the Kremlin. During Choibalsan's regime he initiated 'purges' to coincide with Stalin's mass-murderings, and consigned 10% of his populace - 100,000 people - to death or the prison camps, at the clear instigation of his master in Moscow - so perhaps there are other reasons for Mongolia's non-involvement in the Western theatre. There is one book in English on the subject of the purges, "Poisoned Arrows", which you can find a few inter3esting reviews of online. A curiosity thrown up by Yahoo was the news that in 2005 a Mausoleum containing the remains of Choibalsan and the much-loved Sukhbaatar was removed from Sukhbaatar Square, and the remains of both cremated in a Buddhist ceremony. Somewhat ironic, to say the least, as Choibalsan was directly responsible for the murder of at least 30,000 Buddhist monks. My wife told me that at school she was taught that Choibalsan was Mongolia's greatest modern ruler, and only learned about the purges at University.

At work today I showed the picture to a colleague who told me that it is not Choibalsan - it's Lhaugvasuren, a general who fought the Japanese in the Second World War. "So is there a statue of Choibalsan?" I asked. Indeed, his statue is in the city centre, half way down the same avenue, behind the Government building. The persecutor of intellectuals stands rather smugly outside the Mongolian National University, and not too far from the monument to the victims of political oppression outside the National History Museum. There's no name on the plinth, just the year (I assume) of his death, 1946.