Changes in the Mongolian Countryside

 

This year I spent some valuable time filming in the countryside during the Mongolian spring, from March until May. Changes in the Mongolian countryside are not as immediately evident as the rapid development of infrastructure and the polluted and clogged roads of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. When we drove into the river valley I had come to know so well, there were still ger (yurts) dotted in the same sheltered locations, while herds still grazed near the icy riverbanks.

When I was conducting fieldwork in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia during 2005 and again in the spring of 2007, it was complicated to get into and out of remote herding encampments. The occasional herder had access to Russian motorbikes but they relied primarily on horses to visit neighbouring encampments, to ride to local Naadam festivals during the summer, and to herd the sheep, goats, cattle (including yaks) and horses. I relied on one of the herders with a coveted Russian jeep to get in and out. Often as many as twelve people would pack into the jeep with me, alongside dairy products and animal hides. Upon my return, the driver of the jeep joked about how many people would come along with me for the ride. Now almost every encampment has some form of motorised transport, making them less reliant on their horses.

I felt a stab of nostalgia when I found that the hand-made wooden carts that were used for moving peoples’ belongings during seasonal migrations were now only used as drying racks for dairy products, or left discarded and broken. I was told that Ulaanaa was the last ox used by one of the families I lived with. Ulaanaa, a large red ox, was remarkably complacent (nomkhon) and I would often lead him, with the wooden cart and water barrel, to collect water from the river. Ancestors of the family would have worked with oxen, just like Ulaanaa, for such tasks for centuries, possibly even thousands of years.

With such marked changes within ten years, I realised it was important to record herders riding about on horseback. The communication of a person on horseback is remarkable, as the horse intuitively knows to respond to a herder’s body language but not to the lasso-pole (uurga) held in front of its head, or to vocalisations directed at the herd. For Mongolians that still predominantly herd on horseback, much of the day is spent with an individual horse, following the tracks, signs and occasional vocalisations of the roaming herds across the mountainous landscape.

Spring snowstorms can be lethal for newborn animals. It is important for herders to check the herds and to make sure none are snowbound, or too far away from shelter. The video segment above (see: https://vimeo.com/228131918) was filmed using a GoPro camera fixed onto a young herder’s hat. Monkho must have forgotten his uurga, so uses an improvised stick from a nearby tree to signal to the herd. The calls and whistles differ depending upon whether he is communicating with the yak or horse herd, whether he is vocalising to the herd as a whole, or an individual animal. He says ‘chu, chu’ softly to a young foal when trying to redirect it back to the rest of the herd.

Just as has occurred throughout much of the world, people turn to the ease of motorised transport in favour of working with horses. If Mongolian herders increasingly rely on motorbikes to herd in future, some of the unique modes of communication with their herd animals will inevitably change, and the depth of knowledge relating to such close daily contact with horses may be lost.

Dr Natasha Fijn

Fejos Fellow in Ethnographic Film, Wenner-Gren Foundation (2017)

Mongolia Institute, The Australian National University

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.

International workshop ‘One Health: health and wellbeing on the grassland steppes of Mongolia’

Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn's presentation.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn’s presentation. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.

Informal life politics in Mongolia

Resource development projects have brought severe contamination and destruction to the ecological environment across the grasslands of Mongolia. The everyday life and livelihood of local residents, including herding communities, is under excessive threat. Grassroots action to protect the grasslands and livelihoods have become increasingly strident in response to this escalating environmental pollution. My research focuses on case studies of informal life politics in Mongolia, including the country of Mongolia (Outer Mongolia) and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China (Inner Mongolia). Both regions have experienced rapid industrialization over the past decade, which involved a huge number of large-scale resource development projects

Along with environmental degradation in Inner Mongolia in the late 1990s, grassroots environmental protection activities have gradually emerged and developed. It expanded slowly to fight against industrial pollution on the grasslands and to protect herdsmen’s rights on their own land. This is an open network which involves people from different walks of life, such as local herdsmen, educated youth from Beijing, young ethnic Mongolians living in cities, professors, people from environmental NGOs and public interest law firms. The network plays an important role in linking environmental activities in diverse forms and various locations.

horse
Educated youth in Eastern Ujimchin grassland in the 1970s

From here, I would like to introduce a story of educated youth. The situation of industrial pollution in the grasslands and the plight of local herdsmen have caught the attention and sympathy of educated youth, city dwellers sent to live on the rural Inner Mongolian grasslands during the cultural revolution between the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them were from Beijing and therefore returned to Beijing after the Cultural Revolution.

When they saw the beautiful grassland where they lived being polluted, and their old friends and local herdsmen suffering from these changes, many educated youth stood up and actively involved themselves in grassland protection activities. One of them is Chen Jiqun, who is an artist living in Beijing. Over ten years, he travelled multiple times between Beijing and Eastern Ujimchin grassland, one thousand kilometers to the north of Beijing, to engage in a range of activities to help the herding community to win their case. He created and operated the website ‘Echoing Steppe’, to release information on the situation of industrial pollution in Eastern Ujimchin through photos and videos. Through the website, he also reports the functioning of surveillance on environment issues by the Eastern Ujimchin government. In addition, he provides herdsmen with legal assistance and helps them to conduct independent investigations. For instance, Chen Jiqun offers to help herders to contact lawyers, organize the translation of law books from Chinese to Mongolian, and distribute these books among the local community.  Meanwhile, he has facilitated collaborations between scholars from Beijing, Outer Mongolia and Korea, as well as Eastern Ujimchin local herdsmen to conduct independent investigations on industrial pollution and desertification of the grassland.

Mongolia has its own cultural and historical background, distinct from other cultural groups in the region. A study of grassroots action in Mongolia requires interpreting case studies in their historical context. Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia bear different and distinctive historical footprints. Inner Mongolia has adopted an economic development strategy focusing on resource development since the 1990s. Development projects in Inner Mongolia were often accompanied with a huge influx of Han immigrants into the grasslands, which has brought not only tangible damage on the environment but also intangible pressure on Mongolian language and culture.

Post by Wuqiriletu. Find out more about Wuqiriletu’s research work.