The Spectre of Pan-Mongolism

Sitting in the reading room at the National Library of Buryatia on a hot Monday afternoon in late June 2016, a burst of song erupts from down in the small city square of Ulaan Üde outside. People are singing the Russian national anthem because it is Russia Day, a national holiday celebrating the new constitution adopted after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s. Russia day is not only immensely patriotic, it is genuinely very popular. Thus, there seemed something uncannily jarring when I came across news that in April 2016 a thirty-three-year-old Buryat-Mongolian man from Ulaan Üde, Vladimir Khagdaev, had been charged for threatening the integrity of the Russian Federation by stirring up political dissent online on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. He had been accused of advocating for something which has not been heard in a very long time indeed. The concept of Pan-Mongolism.

Pan-Mongolism was a term coined in the late nineteenth century by Mikhail Solovyev, a Russian mystic. Channelling the expanse and power of the mediaeval Mongol Empire, Solovyev dreamt of a future Eurasian state “from the Altai to Malaysian shores”. In the early twentieth century Central Asia was rocked by the crumbling of the Qing Empire and the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed. Pan-Mongolism came to take on a very different meaning for educated Buryat-Mongols such as Tseveen Zhamtsarano and Elbegdorji Rinchino. It was reappropriated as a post-colonial, nationalist self-determination towards a state that united all Mongolic peoples. A twentieth century Mongol Empire redux. A progressive nation state channelling the legitimacy of the past through western modernisation and communism. Both Japan and the USSR supported such movements during the Russian Civil War. This culminated not only in support from Moscow and the Buryat intelligentsia to provoke communist revolution in Outer Mongolia in 1921. It precipitated the rather bizarre formation of two competing and confusingly similar Buryat-Mongol and Mongol-Buryat Republics around Lake Baikal in 1923. By early 1924 Japan’s interest was withdrawn and the White Russian Mongol-Buryat Republic collapsed. Thereafter both were united into a shared Buryat-Mongol Soviet Republic.

Soviet authorities never really forgot about this strange Mongolic dream. In the late 1930s the USSR became increasingly inward looking, fearing sabotage, spies and nationalist reaction in its midst. Once again the term Pan-Mongolism returned. However, this time it was as a pejorative for a movement that no longer existed, except in the minds of Soviet elites. Zhamtsarano, Rinchino and many others were imprisoned and murdered in 1937 on trumped up charges for being secret Japanese spies bent on an imagined Pan-Mongolist enterprise. Moscow even went as far as to break up the Buryat-Mongol Republic into three separate states. The largest of these was also compelled to drop the word Mongol from its title in the early 1940s to become merely the Republic of Buryatia.

Photo of Vladimir Khagdaev in IXTC article, April 2016. Source:

Once again, in May 1948 accusations of Pan-Mongolism arose when the secretary of Buryatia, Alexandr Kudryavtsev, invited the republic’s academics, media workers and propagandic arm to a special meeting. This was in conjunction with a touted six hundred year jubilee celebration of the mythological epic hero Geser. Although Tibetan in origin and a very common figure throughout Central Asia, Geser possessed an important place in academic understandings of the history of Buryat history and culture. As the USSR attempted to create national communist cultures in its republics, scholars had to prove that there was a history of proletarian revolt against religious and secular authority embedded in their folk literature. Yet, at the same time, studying the evil feudal past of khans and gods left one open to accusations of idealising reactionary ideas.

According to Kudryavtsev’s logic if the Buryat Geser epic tradition was too close to Khalkha Mongolian versions, it was worthless for a genuine national celebration of Buryat culture. It was pure Pan-Mongolism. If it was six hundred years old, as most scholars at the time estimated, then this dated the Buryat Geser to the period of the Mongol Empire. This would equally make it Pan-Mongolist feudalist nonsense. A popular idea at the time was that Geser might even represent a mythologised version of Chingis Khan. Chingis was the absolute bete noir of figures such as Kudryavtsev. Nothing was worse than this mediaeval, mass-murdering barbarian. But the worst factor was this. The idea that Geser was the Buryat national epic had been developed by Mongolist Nikolas Poppe, who had defected to the Nazis in 1941. Poppe’s intentions were reimagined by paranoid authorities as part of a “Hitlerite spy” network of Nazis trying to provoke nationalist reaction among the Mongolic peoples. Pan-Mongolism once again. Geser was doomed.

It was not until 1989, at the thawing of the USSR under perestroika that Buryat academics began to consider even collective Buryat identity seriously once again. Between 1991 and 1995, during some of the hardest years of the post-soviet transition, a series of Geseriada festivals were held throughout Buryatia and Irkutsk. Pinned to them were appeals for the renewal of Buryat language, culture and of course the reunity of the Buryat-Mongol state that had been cleaved apart in the 1930s. There was a great deal of hopefulness, but after all the celebrations, no Pan-Buryat reunification ever happened. Certainly no one was thinking about anything as ambitious as Pan-Mongolism.

Many Buryat scholars now look back at this Geseriada period very fondly, as a period of nostalgic pride. Yet, Pan-Mongolism doesn’t exist as a serious political movement any more than Pan-Buryat identity might even during the biennial international Buryat folk festival Altargana. Thus, for Pan-Mongolism to reappear once more and to be viewed as a serious threat in 2016 is bizarre. It means that the same old paranoid narratives about Mongol secession from Russia that have coloured the past century continue. Pan-Mongolism as a myth, however fantastical, isn’t quite dead yet.

Image used for the thirteen locations in Buryatia, Irkutsk, Ust’-Orda and Chita in which the 1991-5 Geseriada jubilee took place. Buryaad Ünen newspaper, June 1995.

Part II of two linked blog posts by Jonathan Ratcliffe. Jonathan is a PhD Candidate in Asian History and a member of the Mongolia Institute, ANU.