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 By early 1924 Japan’s interest was withdrawn and the White Russian Mongol-Buryat Republic collapsed.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: http://www.ixtc.org/2016/04/sledstvennyy-komitet-obyavil-voynu-panmongolizmu/

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.

Epic at Altargana

During June and July this year, on fieldworld for my PhD, I was lucky enough to be in Ulaan Üde in the Russian Federation for the biennial folk festival of the Buryat Mongols, Altargana. Since 2002 Altargana has been held in various locations in Russia, Mongolia and China because of the liminal nature of the diverse ethnicities that identify as Buryat. It is perhaps the only opportunity Buryats as a whole have to come together and engage in the traditional pursuits of Mongolic communal gatherings – competitive sports, dancing and musical performances.

A young performer accompanied by his sister on Morin Khuur. Epic among the Buryats is traditionally a male pursuit (Photo copyright of the author).

The recent rebirth of epic performance among young Buryat reciters is quite an amazing phenomenon, bolstered because of Altargana’s clever grassroots encouragement and arrangement of semi-finals in regional areas to popularise the events and traditions over the past fourteen years. During the Soviet era, increased Russification of Siberian Buryats and the discouraging of the old tales of epic heroes, lead to the breaking of the traditional paths of knowledge transfer between generations. This means that today’s young reciters, most of whom have no reciters in the family, have had to reincarnate their traditions from whatever they have available. Most often this is derived from publications of epics transcribed by historians and anthropologists during the Soviet period. In the tradition of oral epics everywhere, the reciters modify the material they have learned and then fit it to their own skills, style of performance and according to the kind of audience as an improvised art form. Some sing, others declaim, some play the traditional Morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) as they do so, while others are unaccompanied. The results are diverse and the event is no mere showcase. It is a competition as much as sporting events like wrestling, which also form part of the Altargana. The audience know whether what they are viewing is good or bad and can get quite antsy when someone is awarded with a prize when they think the performer should not have been.

Most notable was a performance by sixteen-year-old Rodion Shantanov from rural Irkutsk, whose parents are only thirty two. Seated on a pelt and dressed in a massive fur hat in forty-degree weather, Rodion had the whole audience of the small, Soviet-era concert hall captivated as he conjured up wondrous images of heroes rescuing their horses from a thieving titanic mangadkhai (monster). This is a typical theme in Buryat epic, very much familiar to me from books, but breathtaking to hear and see delivered in person by a talented storyteller. Rodion, who wants to be a theatre director when he leaves school, has performed in a number of Russian dance productions in Moscow and even in Spain. Yet during his whole life, so he told me, he had wanted to come to Ulaan Üde. A very strange dream perhaps, compared with Moscow and Barcelona, or so it seemed to me at the time, until he explained that it is because in Irkutsk Buryats are much rarer than in Buryatia. Ulaan Üde, especially during the throes of an international Buryat cultural festival, felt like a kind of homecoming.

Everything on show as part of the competition was traditional epic. Here a boy and girl take it in turns to tell a folktale while puppeteers act scenes out behind them (Photo copyright of the author).

Rodion holds the audience in this thrall (Photo copyright of the author).

Rodion explained to me that at home his family often switch between Buryat and Russian, as bilingual people often do, a kind of mercurial game perfect for raising a young performance poet. Yet, many in rural Irkutsk no longer have such a luxury because the Western Buryat languages are, as UNESCO has been saying since the early 1990s “nearly extinct”. Among the educated elites in Ulaan Üde it is increasingly common these days to meet bright young metropolitan and well-travelled Buryats who speak English and Chinese fabulously, but not their own language. A Buryat friend of mine who came to Altargana with me was incessantly asked if she spoke Buryat or even Khalkha Mongolian, only to have to embarrassingly answer each time that she did not. Not a jot. The old Soviet program of Korenizatsia (Indigination) from the 1920s onwards made the creation of minority language print and radio media compulsory, encouraging the transcription, study and printing of Buryat oral epics. However, the irony is that for Siberian Buryats, Russian, as the academic and literary language of art and science became the gateway to perceived social mobility. Attempts since the fall of the USSR to rekindle interest in adult learning of the language have not made a great deal of impact and most children know that to get ahead there is little point in treating the local language as seriously as one would do with Russian.

Yet these young reciters, as much as they are dependant upon old texts, are not from this world of Buryat academia. A lot of them are from the countryside, for whom seeing something like a public performance of epic in a local town hall can be a life-changing event. If there is a creative outlet for performing in language like Altargana, this can only be a good thing.

Winners for the three age groups of Altargana 2016’s üligershedei konkurs (competition of epic reciters) (Photo copyright of the author).

Jonathan Ratcliffe is a PhD candidate in Asian History at The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.