Mongolia became the world’s second communist country, after the Soviet Union, on November 26, 1924. In many ways this was a great improvement over the chaos, violence and domination by China that the country had been mired in for years. But after that, for sixty-six years, the country was essentially closed to the west. The door cracked open a little in 1962 when Mongolia became a member of the United Nations. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and his wife traveled to the Land of Blue Skies to see and evaluate the country under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, which published a lengthy article with many photographs. Owen Lattimore also wrote his book about socialist Mongolia, “Nomads and Commissars” around the same time.
In 1990, while most of the world was focused on the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Mongols were carrying out a difficult but ultimately successful non-violent revolution and transition to a parliamentary democracy. The economy collapsed completely once the Soviet Union ceased providing economic support and life became extremely hard in the following years. There is a generation now who has no memory of “socialist times”, but those who are in their late twenties and older remember them well.
The following first-person account was written by Mongol friend who I met a few years ago through Facebook. We have also met in person in Ulaanbaatar. He asked for my assistance on a project that involved an essay. Once I read it, I asked his permission to share it on my blog. History, as time passes, can wander down some odd roads as the people who were actually a part of an historical event pass away. I think that first person accounts like this are extremely important. So, thank you my friend (bayarlala minii naiz) for allowing me to share your story.
I was born in 1987 in Zavkhan Aimag, western Mongolia, to an ordinary family. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a typist. They were both necessary and important jobs back then but they did not require a professional degree. My father used to work for a State furniture factory. During his free time, at night and on weekends, he used to make furniture to sell in order to feed his family because his salary was not sufficient. My mother raised five children and while she was working she told us that sometimes she just wanted to lay down on the sidewalk when walking home because she was so exhausted. In the Soviet era, if you were not the son or daughter of someone influential you had very little chance to go to university and receive a higher education. My mother applied to university three times but she was always pushed back by children whose parents were of good background, even though her grades were acceptable.
In 1990, when Mongolia made the transition from communism to democracy, both my parents lost their jobs as did so many others. Almost everyone had to find some way to survive. Many people started small businesses by purchasing various items (mostly clothes) from China, which they would then sell in Russia. They also brought goods from Russia to Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian railway. This was how many survived. Some Mongols spent months on the train, never going home. My mother worked in one of these businesses and after a few years our life started to improve a little. Unfortunately, within a few years these small businessmen and women were pushed aside by large companies that had also started to import goods. Because these small businesses were not as profitable anymore, my sister and brothers began helping our parents by purchasing goods from the black market to sell on the streets. It was a difficult time in our lives.
In 2007, I began my studies in the School of Foreign Service at the National University of Mongolia, majoring in International Relations. I have always enjoyed interacting with people from different cultures, perhaps because a couple of times I traveled to Russia on the Trans-Siberian train to help my mother. In my second year in 2009, I was selected for the Undergraduate Exchange Program, which was funded by the Open Society Foundations. This program allows students to participate in a one year educational program in the United States.
In 2011, after I received my degree from the School of Foreign Service, I was hired by a mining company. I was initially hired as a translator but since then I have been promoted three times and am now the Manager of the Government Relations Department.