by Alexander Berzin
The Division of
Mongolia by Foreign Conquerors
The Manchus, Chinese, Russians, and Japanese have long competed for
control of Northeast Asia, particularly of the Mongol regions. Since
the days of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries, all the nearby regional powers saw the
Mongols as a potentially dangerous military force. It needed to be
either neutralized by preventing Mongol unification or harnessed by
promoting that unification.
The Manchus created the division of Mongolia into Outer and
portions in 1636, when they captured Inner Mongolia and used it as a
base for their conquest of China and establishment of the Qing
Dynasty (1644-1911). After winning control of Outer Mongolia in
1691, the Manchus maintained the artificial division of Outer and
Inner to prevent the Mongols from uniting against them. In 1729,
Russia conquered and annexed Buryatia, the Mongol region north of
Outer Mongolia, near Lake Baikal, further weakening Mongol
Start of Chinese-Russian-Japanese Rivalry in Northeast Asia
With the progressive decline of the Qing Dynasty in the second half
of the nineteenth century, various powers sought to take advantage
and expand their political and commercial empires. They included not
only European nations such as Britain, France, Germany, and
Portugal, but also Asian powers. Let us look at the struggle between
Russia and Japan over Manchuria, Mongolia's neighbor to the east.
Manchuria occupied a strategic position not only because of its
ice-free ports on its southern coast along the Bohai Gulf, but also
because it served the Qing emperors as a base for controlling
The Japanese gained the Liaodong
Peninsula of southern Manchuria, with Port Arthur (Dalian, Darien)
at its tip, with their victory in the Sino-Japanese War of
1894-1895. In 1896, Czar Nicholas II forged an alliance with China
against Japan and won the right to extend the Trans-Siberian railway
through northern Manchuria to connect with the Russian Pacific port
of Vladivostok. In so doing, Russia gained nominal control of
northern Manchuria. Subsequently, through intense pressure from
Russia and China, the Japanese withdrew from southern Manchuria.
At the other side of the mouth of the Bohai Gulf, opposite Port
Arthur, lay the Shandong Peninsula. After Germany seized its major
port, Qingdao (Tsingtao), in 1897, Russia demanded further
concessions from the Chinese Government. She was given control of
Port Arthur and its Manchurian hinterland in 1898, and promptly
connected it by rail to Vladivostok. Japan looked on uneasily,
anxious to reestablish a power base on the Asian mainland.
The Russo-Japanese War broke out over Manchuria in 1904. When the
Japanese won in 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth granted to them a
long-term lease to Port Arthur, similar to what Britain had secured
over Hong Kong and the New Territories with the Second Convention of
Peking in 1898. The Japanese and Russians both agreed to restore
Manchuria to Chinese control, but looked on for any opportunity to
take it once more. In 1910, Japan seized and annexed Korea, which
bordered the Liaodong Peninsula to the east.
Start of Mongolian-Japanese Friendship
In 1911, on the eve of the Chinese Nationalist Revolution that
overthrew the Qing Dynasty, the Eighth Jebtsundamba declared the
independence of Outer Mongolia from China. The Jebtsundambas (Bogdo
Khans) were the traditional Buddhist spiritual and political leaders
of Mongolia, found through reincarnation in the same manner as the
Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Pressure from Russia and China, however,
forced the Jebtsundamba to accept autonomy under the new Chinese
Nationalist Government in 1912, with Russian assistance to maintain
Taking advantage of the new situation in China, the Japanese soon
extended its control of Port Arthur and Korea to southern Manchuria
and eastern Inner Mongolia. In 1914, Russia allied with England
against Germany and Turkey in the First World War. Preoccupied in
Europe, Russia signed the Khiakta Treaty of 1914-1915 with China,
reaffirming Chinese suzerainty over Outer Mongolia, and acquiesced
to Japan's expansion on the Asian mainland.
Meanwhile, Japan joined the war on the Allied side and seized the
German holdings on the Shandong Peninsula. In the Twenty-one Demands
signed between Japan and China in 1915, China acknowledged Japan's
takeover of Shandong and recognized Japanese authority over southern
Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin tore up the noninterference
treaties concerning Mongolia that the Czar had previously signed
with China. He hoped to spread Communism throughout Asia. The
continuing world war and the outbreak of civil war in Russia,
particularly in Siberia, prevented his immediate move.
The Jebtsundamba disliked both the Chinese and the Russians. He
wished, instead, to establish a Greater Mongolia that would extend
from Buryatia in Siberia to Inner Mongolia and northwestern
Manchuria. Of the military powers in the region, the Jebtsundamba
preferred Japan as the patron and protector of his envisioned state.
Japan, after all, was a Buddhist country. The Japanese, in turn,
were anxious to extend their sphere of influence in Northeast Asia
to all of Mongolia. Thus, in 1918, the Japanese founded a
Japanese-Mongol Buddhist Association and supported the plan for a
Establishment of Communism in Mongolia
At the end of 1919, several Mongol princes, under intense pressure
from the Chinese and without the consent of the Jebtsundamba,
renounced the autonomous status of Outer Mongolia and submitted
themselves to Chinese rule. Subsequently, Chinese intervention
increased in Mongolia, on the pretext of protecting it from Soviet
aggression and from the Japanese-supported pan-Mongolia movement.
Two Mongol groups asked for Soviet help in ousting the Chinese and
establishing some form of Mongolian autonomy.
One was the Mongolian
People's Party led by Sukhe Batur. It wanted to establish a
Communist government in full alliance with the Soviet Union.
other was the conservative faction of the Jebtsundamba.
just recently proclaimed its independence from Japan. Since the
Japanese military was preoccupied with repressing the Korean
independence movement, the Jebtsundamba could not turn to Japan for
help. Eventually, the two Mongolian groups compromised, with Sukhe
Batur accepting the Jebtsundampa as a constitutional monarch.
Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a German nobleman whose family had
settled in Russia, had interest in Buddhism from his youth. He was
also notoriously cruel and a fanatic anti-Bolshevist. In late 1920,
after fighting the Bolsheviks in Siberia, he invaded Outer Mongolia
with a White Russian (Czarist) army, with the encouragement of the
Japanese. The Chinese had imprisoned the Jebtsundampa in the
Mongolian capital, Urga (Ulaan Baatar), and Ungern went on a holy
mission to free him.
Ungern supported the idea of a Greater Mongolia, backed by the
Japanese. Thus, after taking Urga in early 1921, he restored the
Jebtsundampa to the throne. The Mongol ruler declared his liberator
the incarnation of the wrathful protector Jamsarang (Jamsing).
Ungern then proceeded to slaughter all Chinese, collaborator
Mongols, Bolshevik Russians, and Jews he could find. He believed
that all Jews were Bolsheviks.
Sukhe Batur established the Mongolian Communist Provisional
Government while still in Buryatia and led a Mongol army against the
so-called "White Baron," also known as the "Mad Baron." Exploiting
the Mongols' faith in Kalachakra, he rallied his troops by twisting
its teachings and telling them that by fighting to free Mongolia
from oppression, they would be reborn in the army of Shambhala. With
the help of the Soviet Red Army, Sukhe Batur took Urga in late 1921
and severely limited the authority of the Jebtsundampa.
Subsequently, Soviet troops stayed in Urga until 1924. The Japanese
were forced to keep their distance, but only for the moment.
Ungern was killed by his own troops in 1922. Sukhe Batur died in
1923, Lenin early in 1924, and the Jebtsundamba later in 1924. The
declaration of the People's Republic of Mongolia followed shortly
thereafter. The regime continued Sukhe Batur's policy of exploiting
the Shambhala legend for eliminating any rivals for power. Thus, the
Mongolian Communist Party Congress of 1925 announced that the
Jebtsundampa would not incarnate again with the same religious and
political status as before. Rather, he would be reborn as General Hanumant in
Shambhala. For verification of their claim, they said
they would consult with the Dalai Lama, though it is doubtful that
they ever did.
At first, the Mongolian Communist regime tolerated Buddhism, since
monastic leaders such as Darva Bandida advocated a return to early
Buddhist principles of simplicity. Similar to the Revival of Faith
Movement led by the Buryats in the Soviet Union, the Mongol monk
tried to reconcile Buddhism with Communist theory. The Buryat
scholar Jamsaranov supported the Bandida (Pandit) in his efforts
and, from 1926, the Pure Buddhism and Renewal Movements gained
impetus in Mongolia.
Stalin took control of the Soviet Union in 1928. When he began his
collectivization and anti-religion campaigns in 1929, the Mongol
Communist regime followed suit. In 1929, the Seventh Party Congress
condemned the Buddhist reconciliation movements and formally forbade
the installation of a ninth Jebtsundampa, although the reincarnation
had been found in Tibet. Inspired by Stalin's example, the Party
went even further and, from 1930 to 1932, enforced a policy of
fanatic collectivization and persecution of religion. Many monks,
supported by Buryat intellectuals who had fled to Mongolia to avoid
Stalin's policies, rebelled. Some sought the help of the Panchen
Since 1924, the Ninth Panchen Lama had been in China because of a
dispute with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama was
insisting on relative autonomy from Lhasa, exemption from taxes, and
the right to have his own armed forces. The Chinese Nationalist
Government had provided him with soldiers, but the Dalai Lama would
not let him return to Tibet, suspicious of Chinese intentions. The
Mongol rebels asked the Panchen Lama to invade Mongolia with his
Chinese army, liberate their people from Communism, secure their
northern border against the Soviets, and, under Chinese suzerainty,
install the Ninth Jebtsundampa. They likened the Panchen Lama and
his Chinese troops to the King of Shambhala and his brave army, who
would defeat the barbarian forces. Although the Panchen Lama sent a
letter approving the revolt, he never went to Mongolia or sent
military support. Nevertheless, the rebellion and ensuing savage
battles took the name "The Shambhala War."
Meanwhile, Japan attacked northern China in 1931 and, in 1932,
established Manchukuo from the territory it had been controlling in
Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia for many years. Stalin was
paranoid that Japan would use Buddhism to penetrate further in Asia
by making a common cause with the Buddhists in Buryatia and Outer
Mongolia. Thus, he dispatched the Soviet army to Mongolia in 1932,
not only to quash the rebellion and end the Shambhala War, but also
to correct the "leftist deviation" of the Mongolian Communist Party.
Under Soviet direction, the Party enacted a New Turn Policy from
1932 to 1934, easing off on its persecution of Buddhism. They even
allowed the reopening of a number of monasteries. Stalin felt that
if he alienated the Buddhists too much, they would turn more readily
to Japan. Buddhism in Mongolia, however, did not recover.
Efforts to Woo Mongolia
In 1934, Kirov, Stalin's second-in-command, was murdered. His
assassination led to the Great Purges of 1934-1938 to eliminate all
anti-Stalin elements. The purges extended to Mongolia and to the
Buddhists there. When border skirmishes broke out in 1935 between
the Japanese forces in Manchukuo and the Soviet troops in Mongolia,
Stalin accused the high lamas in Buryatia and Mongolia of
collaborating with the Japanese.
To win the support of the Mongols, the Japanese were using the
time-proven method of claiming that Japan was Shambhala. They
proposed to reinstate the Ninth Jebtsundampa in Urga, with sanction
from Lhasa, so that he could act as a rallying point for a
pan-Mongol movement that would include Buryatia. In 1937, Japan
captured the rest of Inner Mongolia and northern China. Stalin
accused the Buryat and Mongol high lamas of spreading the Japanese
propaganda about Shambhala and carried out even further-reaching
purges and destruction of monasteries.
In 1939, the Japanese invaded Outer Mongolia, but suffered defeat by
the combined Soviet and Mongolian armies. From that time onward, the
Japanese turned their attention southward to Indochina and the
Pacific. Stalin was now unchallenged in completing the repression of
Buddhism in the Soviet Union and Outer Mongolia. When the Soviet
forces "liberated" Manchukuo from the Japanese in 1945,
extended his persecution of Buddhism there as well. Thus, long
before Communist Chinese rule, Stalin already had destroyed most of
the Buddhist monasteries of Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia.
Buddhism never recovered in the area.