Khorloogiin Choibalsan – Stalin of the steppe

Stalin's lieutenant oversaw communism in Mongolia, becoming – like his mentor – a ruthless cult-leader.
Khorloogiin Choibalsan c.1925. Public domain.
Khorloogiin Choibalsan c.1925. Public domain.
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There used to stand, right in the central square of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a tomb, similar in appearance to Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. Set against the façade of the Government Palace built by the Japanese prisoners of war in the early post-Second World War years, the red-marble mausoleum housed the remains of Mongolia’s one-time leader, the little Stalin of the steppe, Marshal Khorloogiin Choibalsan.

In August 2005 the mausoleum was dismantled, and Choibalsan was quietly reburied in the Altan-Ulgii Cemetery on the outskirts of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s democratic government had little to gain by close proximity to Choibalsan’s corpse; not only was he a brutal tyrant but he was also a Soviet puppet, and so an unwanted burden on Mongolia’s glorious history. Where the mausoleum used to stand, the government has erected a larger-than-life statue to the founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan. Choibalsan was quietly relegated to the forgotten past.

Yet Choibalsan played a key role in the consolidation of Mongolia’s statehood. Although he acted at Joseph Stalin’s behest, he was also a nationalist whose anti-Chinese sentiments ran deep. In the uncertain final months of the Second World War, Choibalsan made a bid to unite disparate Mongolian speakers, extending Mongolia’s reach all the way to the Great Wall in the southeast and the Tibetan plateau in the southwest.

Stalin played along – for a time. In the end the Soviet dictator curbed his client’s ambitions. The Mongolian leader, it turned out, was only a pawn in his great game for Asia.

In the early twentieth century, the last Chinese Empire, the Qing, battered by decades of foreign encroachment and internal turmoil, tried to reimpose imperial control across its vast territorial domain. Outer Mongolia, which had hitherto enjoyed a considerable degree of economic and cultural autonomy from China, saw its privileges eroded. An awakening of nationalist consciousness followed, leading to its declaration of independence in 1911.

The Mongolian nobles sought foreign support, but only Russia evidenced any interest in the fate of the landlocked nation. In 1915 the Russians brokered an agreement between Mongolia and China restoring China’s suzerainty but providing for Mongolia’s substantial autonomy. The Russian revolution gave the Chinese a short-lived opening for re-establishing control in 1919. The Chinese were forced out – this time for good – by the Russian anti-Communist warlord, Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg who invaded Mongolia in 1920, but just months later Ungern’s forces were in turn routed by the Communists. He was captured and executed. Mongolia soon fell under the Communist sway, becoming the first Soviet satellite twenty years before the same fate befell Eastern Europe.

Choibalsan was an active participant in the process. Born in 1895, he witnessed the decline and collapse of the Qing Empire as a young man. He never knew his father, and spent his early years in destitution, living with his mother, Khorloo. She wanted her son to become a Buddhist monk – a common aspiration for poor nomads in a deeply religious country. But Choibalsan escaped the monastery and travelled to the capital city of Ikh Khüree (later Ulaanbaatar), eventually becoming involved in one of two Marxist circles active there. After the establishment of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, he gradually moved up in rank as his comrades in the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party succumbed to back-stabbing, assassinations, (made-up) espionage plots, and Soviet-inspired blood-letting.

In 1934 Choibalsan had a close call when he was brought to Moscow to be interrogated in the infamous Lkhümbe affair – which led to the arrest and execution of the party leader Jambyn Lkhümbe, whom the Soviets accused of illicit connections with Japanese spies. Choibalsan reportedly cooperated with Stalin’s secret police; having escaped their clutches, he returned to Mongolia as Stalin’s trusted lieutenant and was soon appointed as the deputy to Mongolian Prime Minister Peljidiin Genden.

Genden and Stalin did not get along, partly because of Genden’s unwillingness to unleash anti-Buddhist repressions. The prime minister famously quarrelled with Stalin and, so it is said, once even grabbed and smashed the dictator’s pipe during an altercation at a drink-infused embassy reception. Whether the story is true or not, Stalin had had enough of Genden; he had him purged in 1936. He was then sent to the Soviet Union, where he was arrested and executed. Genden was replaced by Anandyn Amar who too was sent to Moscow,  tortured and executed in 1939.

It was in these dramatic circumstances that Khorloogiin Choibalsan climbed to the pinnacle of political power in Mongolia, becoming prime minister in 1939. Choibalsan had two advantages over his predecessors. First, he was an obeisant follower of Stalin’s line. It was he who, as minister of interior, presided over the murder of Mongolian intelligentsia and the Buddhist clergy (many thousands were massacred in the great purge of the late 1930s), the destruction of hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, and the burning of religious books. 

Second, he could be relied upon to help keep the Japanese at bay. Japan’s growing power in northern China was one reason Stalin was so interested in Mongolia as a strategic buffer, protecting the soft underbelly of Soviet Siberia. In the mid-1930s the Japanese began to cannibalise parts of Inner Mongolia. In the summer of 1939, in a series of incursions, they probed Soviet-Mongolian defences in Eastern Mongolia. The resultant undeclared war of Khalkhin Gol saw Mongolian and Soviet forces fight side-by-side. The Japanese were beaten back. Choibalsan proved his worth as Stalin’s indispensable client and comrade-in-arms. He was now an important piece on Stalin’s grand Asian chessboard, playing a key role in helping the Soviets foment separatism in Xinjiang, the vast, mineral-rich province in northwest China, in 1943-45.

Xinjiang’s non-Chinese peoples, the Uighurs and the Kazakhs, successfully rebelled against Chinese rule, drawing on Soviet military support, much of it channelled through Mongolia. In the depth of winter in 1944, Choibalsan travelled to the Western aimag [province] of Khovd to establish contact with the anti-Chinese Kazakh bandit-turned-rebel Ospan, to whom he would provide weapons and training in the struggle against the Chinese authorities. The Soviet-Mongolian-sponsored revolt in Xinjiang could well have succeeded at ousting the Chinese, but in 1945 Stalin had a change of heart and pulled the plug as a part of a broader settlement he signed with China in August 1945.

Mongolia was a part of this settlement. The Republic of China, which had succeeded the Qing Empire, never recognised its independence, even though it had exercised no control over what it still deemed its province of Outer Mongolia since 1921. In the February 1945 Yalta Agreement, Stalin acquired President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assent to Mongolia maintaining its ‘status quo’ after the war, which the Soviet dictator single-handedly interpreted as independence under Soviet tutelage. Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek – who was not a party to Yalta – now faced the unpleasant prospect of bowing to the pressure of the greater powers. ‘It’s an insult,’ he fumed in his diary. ‘They really see China as their vassal.’

Chiang had little recourse. After drawn-out, brutal negotiations with Stalin in the summer of 1945 (conducted by Chinese Prime Minister T.V. Soong), Chiang gave up on Mongolia, promising to recognise its independence after a referendum confirming the people of Mongolia wanted it. During these negotiations, Choibalsan was flown to Moscow, where Stalin received him as the head of state – to show the Chinese just how tenuous their claims on Mongolia were. Stalin showed him a draft of the Sino-Soviet declaration on Mongolia’s independence. ‘Yes, this is what we want,’ Choibalsan later confirmed to the Soviet envoy to Mongolia. ‘But we will not have friendship … with the Chinese. These are very, very bad people.’

Later that October, Choibalsan organised a national referendum on independence. 98.6 per cent of eligible voters took part, and an incredible 100 per cent voted for independence from China, so incredible, in fact, that even Soviet observers (who had never been advocates of ballot-box fairness) reported back to Moscow that the numbers were basically made up. This did not matter. China recognised Mongolia’s independence. Chiang gave up on Mongolia in return for Stalin’s promise not to support separatists in Xinjiang and Mao Zedong’s Communist government in Yan’an.

Although now the ruler of an independent domain thanks to Stalin’s geopolitical scheming, Choibalsan set his sights on something greater. In the uncertainty of the first post-war months, he looked across the border to Inner Mongolia and Xing’an, which his army helped ‘liberate’ from the Japanese in August 1945, as the next target of his state-building efforts. Party propaganda played up pan-Mongolian unity. Choibalsan sought to bring the disparate Mongol tribes in China under the one roof of his Mongolian People’s Republic, even if that meant enlarging Mongolia at China’s expense. It was Stalin who vetoed these plans, telling Choibalsan in February 1946 that his scheme would ‘require a new war with China,’ which neither of them needed. Choibalsan pleaded to at least be allowed to conduct separatist propaganda in the Mongolian-speaking areas. ‘Quietly, you may,’ assented Stalin.

Choibalsan’s aspirations were dealt the final – decisive – blow by the Chinese Communist revolution. Mao Zedong sought an alliance with the Soviet Union, and Stalin could not undercut him by helping Choibalsan help himself to parts of northern China. In fact, it was Mao who in February 1949 pushed the other way, asking Stalin’s envoy Anastas Mikoyan to surrender Mongolia to China. From Mao’s perspective, Mongolia’s independence was unnecessary in the age of Communism: it was only old China that exploited Mongolia; now, there would be fraternity and friendship between the two peoples. The Soviets refused. Mongolia, Stalin responded through Mikoyan, ‘has long understood the taste of independence and will hardly ever voluntarily renounce independence.’ In the end, according to Mikoyan, ‘Mao Zedong laughed and stopped defending his opinion.’ But this was no laughing matter for Chairman Mao. In fact, he continued pressing Moscow on the subject even after Stalin died, calling Mongolia’s independence one of Stalin’s mistakes, and trying to revoke it, all in vain.

By the late 1940s Choibalsan became more than a leader of Mongolia. He was worshipped like a demi-god. There was a Choibalsan personality cult in the country modelled on the Stalin cult. But the blood-curdling drama of his years in power, the incessant intrigue and power struggle, and his drinking – endless drinking – all took their toll, fatally undermining his health. Choibalsan died in 1952, age 56, still an infallible leader, Mongolia’s ‘Beloved Helmsman’; its little Stalin. His brutal rule left deep scars, but it also marked Mongolia’s emergence as a modern state upon the treacherous landscape of Inner Asia. Choibalsan was a pawn in Stalin’s great game but he, too, had an agency, with far-reaching ambitious of his own.

The Great Mongolia that Choibalsan sought to create remained a pipedream, but Mongolia’s statehood survived the turbulent twentieth century. The country freed itself from Soviet domination in 1990, if not from the presence of its two inescapable neighbours, China and Russia.

Unlike them, though, Mongolia is a democracy, a circumstance for which the murderous Choibalsan can claim zero credit. With his mausoleum now gone, his stock has been marked down. But a statue of him still stands around the corner from the Government Palace, at the entrance to the National University, a reminder of Mongolia’s ambivalent relationship to its tumultuous history.

Sergey Radchenko

Sergey Radchenko is Professor of International Relations at Cardiff University and an historian of the global Cold War. He is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, The New York Times and other publications.

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