The USSR’s legacy in Mongolia

More than two decades after the collapse of communism, the legacy of Soviet rule remains strong in the country.

Mongolians are fiercely proud of their fledgling democracy.

It is, they say, a sign that Mongolia is politically independent, a free nation that will not be controlled by its much discussed neighbours – Russia and China.

The government – seen by many to be failing the poor, the environment, the herders, and other mainstays of Mongolian life – will nevertheless complete its term of office and by voted out “in the right way”.

It is relatively new, this idea of a democratically elected government.

The “democratic revolution” of the 1990s spelled the beginning of the end of seven decades of socialism under the influences of the USSR.

So democracy in modern Mongolia can be traced back to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Seemingly, so can almost everything else.

From traffic jams to the struggle of the LGBT community – the end of the Soviet era in the early 1990s is the cause.

“Ulaanbaatar was not designed for everyone to have their own cars,” my fixer, Ganbat said as drivers honked their horns and to navigate the crammed streets of the capital.

“It is a Soviet city – it is designed for people to use public transportation.”

The Soviet slump

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant Mongolia’s economy collapsed. Nomadic people began flocking from the countryside into UB in an attempt to find work.

Sprawling districts of ger, the Mongolian yurts used by nomadic herders, began to take shape – forming the bones of today’s UB that has 800,000 of Mongolia’s three million residents living in these fringe areas.

The city was growing too quickly for its new government to match.

“Under the Soviets, people became used to the government doing everything for them. Education was all taken care of, for example. When that stopped there was just a vacuum that needed to be filled,” said Gerelmaa Amgaabazar, who works at one of the many education NGOs attempting to fill that void.

Even the lack of understanding of the LGBT community can be traced to Mongolia’s Soviet era.

Previously, the harsh realities of a nomadic lifestyle had meant gender norms were not rigid – men and women were expected to be able to fulfil any and every role, but the arrival of communism in 1921 changed that.

“Homosexuality was criminilised and patholigised,” said the director of Mongolia’s LGBT centre. It was decriminalised in 1961 – but the legacy of fear lived on.

“All trace of what we would now term LGBT was eradicated – it essentially means we have a 70-year gap in our culture and nothing to fill it with.”

Positive relationships

For good or for bad, it cannot be denied that the Soviet Union left its mark on Mongolia – but there is still strong positivity towards Russia.

Despite China making up the majority of Mongolia’s export market – it is Russia that enjoys the bulk of the land-locked nation’s finer feelings.

Altai Dulbaa, a professor of Russian studies, said: “To truly understand the relationship between the two countries you must go back to the 13th century, when Mongolia invaded Russia and brought the tribes together.”

But even this historic relationship was affected by 1990.

“After the collapse, the relationship became cold,” Dulbaa said, “Boris Yeltsin was dealing with many problems as home and did not look to Mongolia.”

But Vladimir Putin, his successor, “is very distinctive because he has visited Mongolia many times”, said Dulbaa.

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