This Web book is based on public domain material provided by the US government and is available in several versions. See the editorial for more information.


Administrative Divisions of Mongolia, 1989.

Mongolia and the Mongol people have periodically been at the center of international events. The histories of nations - indeed, of continents - have been rewritten and major cultural and political changes have occurred because of a virtual handful of seemingly remote pastoral nomads. The thirteenth-century accomplishments of Chinggis Khan in conquering a swath of the world from modern-day Korea to southern Russia and in invading deep into Europe, and the cultural achievements of his grandson, Khubilai Khan, in China are well-known in world history. Seven hundred years later, a much compressed Mongolian nation first attracted world attention as a strategic battleground between Japan and the Soviet Union and later between the Soviet Union and China. In the 1980s, the Mongolian People's Republic continued to be a critical geopolitical factor in Sino-Soviet relations.

The Mongols arose from obscure origins in the recesses of Inner Asia to unify their immediate nomadic neighbors and then to conquer much of the Eurasian landmass, ruling large parts of it for more than a century. Emerging from a newly consolidated heartland north of the Gobi in the thirteenth century, the Mongols and their armies - made up of conquered peoples - thrust through western Asia, crossed the Urals, invaded the countries of Eastern Europe, and pressed on to Austria and the Adriatic. They also advanced through southwest Asia to the eastern Mediterranean and conquered the Chinese empire. Around the same time, they embarked on ambitious maritime expeditions against Java and Japan. The Mongols were phenomenally hard driving and ambitious for such a small group, and their accomplishments were considerable. Only the Mamluks of Egypt, the "divine winds" of Japan, and the Mongols' own legal tradition - the need to elect a new khan - halted the inexorable Mongol advances.

Resistance to and accommodation of the Mongols had mixed effects on the national developments of some of the "host" nations. European kingdoms and principalities formed alliances to do battle, albeit unsuccessfully, against the Mongol armies. Europeans even combined with the hated Muslims in Egypt and Palestine to oppose the common Mongol enemy. Although the Mongol invasion of Japan was not successful, it contributed to the eventual downfall of Japan's ruling faction. The conquering Mongols brought an infusion of new ideas and unity to China but were eventually absorbed and lost their ability to rule over a people hundreds of times more numerous than themselves.

But Mongol influence did not end with the termination of military conquests or absorption. Their presence was institutionalized in many of the lands they conquered through adoption of Mongol military tactics, administrative forms, and commercial enterprises. The historical developments of such disparate nations as Russia, China, and Iran were directly affected by the Mongols. Wherever they settled outside their homeland, the Mongols brought about cultural change and institutional improvements. Although there never was a "Pax Mongolica," the spread of the Mongol polity across Eurasia resulted in a large measure of cultural exchange. Chinese scribes and artists served the court of the Ilkhans in Iran, Italian merchants served the great khans in Karakorum and Daidu (as Beijing was then known), papal envoys recorded events in the courts of the great khans, Mongol princes were dispatched to all points of the great Mongol empire to observe and be observed, and the Golden Horde and their Tatar descendants left a lasting mark on Moscovy through administrative developments and intermarriage. Although eventually subsumed as part of the Chinese empire, the Mongols were quick to seek independence when that empire disintegrated in 1911.

The lake at the left is Hovsgol Nuur, the right water is the southern end of lake Baykal. The white line shows the border between Mongolia and Russia. Photo courtesy NASA.

The Mongol character has been greatly influenced by the extremes of Mongolia's geography, comprising huge rolling plateaus, rugged mountain ranges, and areas susceptible to earthquakes. On the one hand Mongolia has Hovsgol Nuur - Asia's second largest freshwater lake - and river systems that drain toward the Arctic and Pacific oceans and into Central Asia, and on the other, the Gobi, a vast arid rangeland within which are even less hospitable desert areas. The climate is mostly cold and dry with long frigid winters and short hot summers. Minimal precipitation, temperatures that freeze the nation's rivers and freshwater lakes for long periods of the year, and severe blizzards and dust storms leave only around 1 percent of the land arable and make human and livestock existence fragile at best.

Such an inhospitable land not unexpectedly is home to a relatively small, widely dispersed population. Of the 4 million plus Mongols - only a fourfold increase over the population of the era of Chinggis Khan - just slightly more than 2 million people live in the modern Mongolian People's Republic (the rest are minority peoples in China and the Soviet Union). Except for a concentration of 500,000 people in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, the rest of the population is sparsely distributed: another quarter of the population resides in small urban areas and the remaining approximately 49 percent live in the vast countryside. The population, however, is young and growing rapidly as government incentives encourage large families to offset labor shortages. Ninety percent of the population is composed of ethnic Mongols, making the nation extremely homogeneous; Turkic peoples, such as Tuvins and Kazakhs, Chinese, Russians, and other minorities make up the remainder.

Nomadic peoples of uncertain origins are recorded as living in what is now the Mongolian People's Republic in the third century B.C., and archaeological evidence takes human habitation in the Gobi back a hundred centuries or more earlier. Warfare was a way of life, against other nomadic peoples in competition for land, and in the south against the Chinese, whose high culture and fertile lands were always attractive to the Mongols. China responded with punitive expeditions, which pushed these pre- and proto-Mongol peoples farther north, west, and east and resulted in periods of Chinese hegemony over parts of Inner Asia. The Mongols of Chinggis Khan emerged in central Mongolia in the twelfth century under Chinggis's grandfather. Tribal alliances, wars, clan confederations, and more wars contributed to a new Mongol unity and organization and the eventual conquest of lands throughout Eurasia.

The high point of Mongol achievements was followed by gradual fragmentation. The Mongol successes throughout the first half of the thirteenth century were eroded by overextension of lines of control from the capital, first at Karakorum and later at Daidu. By the late fourteenth century, only local vestiges of Mongol glory persisted in parts of Asia. The main core of the Mongolian population in China retreated to the old homeland, where their governing system devolved into a quasi-feudalistic system fraught with disunity and conflict. Caught between the emergence of tsarist Russia and the Manchus - distant cousins of the Mongols - in the seventeenth century, Mongolia eventually was absorbed into the periphery of the Chinese polity, where it remained until 1911. As the Chinese imperial system disintegrated, the Mongols sought national independence but the Chinese did not willingly give up, and Mongolia continued to be divided into northern (Outer Mongolia) and southern (Inner Mongolia) sections. Russian interest in Mongolia was replaced by Soviet involvement, and the Japanese sought political leverage and applied periodic pressure up through World War II.

Throughout the twentieth century, Russian and Soviet influence over Mongolia has been a predominant factor in its national development. The tsarist government aided Mongolian revolutionaries both diplomatically and militarily against the Chinese, and anti-Bolshevik White Russian military forces did active battle against both the Chinese and the indigenous revolutionaries. The theocratic monarchy established after 1911 was greatly limited by the Mongolian Revolution of 1921 and eventually replaced by a "people's republic" under heavy Soviet influence. This influence continued throughout the twentieth century in the form of political guidance and economic aid. Severe purges of monarchists, Buddhists, conservative revolutionaries, and any other real or perceived opponent of the new communist regime took place throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Extremism bordered on national disaster before evolving into more moderate policies of a new Mongolian socialism characterized by closely planned economic growth. Joint Mongolian-Soviet armies successfully fended off Japanese military advances in 1939. The rest of World War II produced further agricultural and industrial development in support of Moscow's war efforts and made Mongolia a critical buffer in the Soviet Far Eastern defense system. Technically neutral, Mongolia declared war against Japan only in August 1945.

Peacetime brought additional Soviet and East European economic aid (and eventually membership in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance [Comecon]) and a new relationship with the People's Republic of China after its establishment in 1949. Mongolian-Chinese relations resulted in still more economic assistance to and trade with Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia's external policies, however, were founded on those of the Soviet Union, and relations with China, always influenced by suspicions over real or imaginary claims by China to "lost territories," faltered in the wake of the Sino-Soviet rift that developed in the late 1950s. By the late 1960s, Mongolia had become an armed camp, as Soviet and Chinese troops were poised against one another along the Sino-Mongolian border. Tensions between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing lessened only when Sino-Soviet rapprochement began to evolve in the mid-1980s. The issue of Soviet troop withdrawal from Mongolia still constrained Sino- Mongolian relations in the late 1980s.

Some of the same late twentieth-century geopolitical developments that lessened tensions with China also brought Mongolia farther into the mainstream of world affairs. Mongolia participated more actively in international organizations and improved relations with a growing number of Western countries, including the United States, which established diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1987.

Traditional Mongolian society was affected heavily by foreign influences: commerce was controlled by Chinese merchants and the state religion - Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism - was simultaneously bureaucratic and otherworldly. Modern society has been shaped by the continued foreign - primarily Soviet - influence. But despite increasing urbanization and industrialization, nearly half of the population lives either by the traditional methods of pastoral nomadism - moving their herds (sheep, horses, cattle, goats, and yaks) from one area of temporary sustenance to another - or in a close symbiotic relationship with the nomads. Despite its hardships, the nomadic life provides Mongols with national values and a sense of historical identity and pride.

However, traditional values and practices have made modernization of society a difficult task. Once they had eliminated the "feudal" aspects of society, Mongolia's communist leaders still had to take radical steps to modernize their country. Scientific methods were applied to animal husbandry and agriculture and new industries, such as copper and coal mining, were developed. Herding and agricultural collectives, mines and factories, and educational institutions became the focal point of a social organization controlled by state administrators, most of whom were members of the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. Modernization inevitably brought greater differentiation and mobility in Mongolian society as party functionaries, white collar administrators, factory workers, and increasing numbers of urban residents (who typically have larger family units than those in the countryside) surpassed in numbers and opportunities the once self-sufficient pastoralists, who remain at the bottom of the social system.

The development of the economy has been closely associated with social modernization in Mongolia. Beginning with the 1921 revolution, the government took increasing control over the economy. Mongolia has a planned economy based on state and cooperative ownership. Annual planning began in 1941, and five- year plans began in 1948. The plans have been closely integrated with the five-year plans of the Soviet Union since 1961 and with Comecon multilateral plans since 1976. In the years since 1921, Mongolia has been transformed from an almost strictly agrarian economy to a diversified agricultural-industrial economy. Economic reforms in the Soviet Union inspired similar efforts in Mongolia under Jambyn Batmonh, premier between 1974 and 1984 and general secretary of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party since 1984. The acceleration of economic development, greater application of science and technology to production, improved management and planning, greater independence for economic enterprises, and more balance among individual, collective, and societal interests were the target areas of reform in the late 1980s.

Underpinning society and the economy are the government and party. Mongolia has a highly centralized government run by a cabinet (the Council of Ministers), with a unicameral legislature (People's Great Hural, and an independent judicial branch overseeing the courts and criminal justice system. Provinces and provincial-level cities and counties and town centers comprise local administration. As in all communist-run states, at the pinnacle of control is one-party rule. The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, with a membership of nearly 90,000, operates with quinquennial party congresses and an elected Central Committee. The party's Political Bureau and Secretariat provide standing leadership and carry out day-to-day business. Local party administration coincides with government offices and production units at each level.

Mongolia's national security is intimately linked with that of the Soviet Union. The armed forces have a rich historical tradition in the legacy of the great khans - an era of Mongolian history still resented by the Soviets - and their more immediate revolutionary forbearers of the 1910s and 1920s. The Mongolian People's Army was established in 1921, when the new provisional national government was proclaimed. As in all aspects of modern Mongolian organization, Soviet influence has predominated. Soviet Red Army troops remained in Mongolia at least until 1925 and were brought back in the 1930s to help quell anticommunist rebellions. They have had a major military presence since then, first poised against the Japanese and later against the Chinese threat. Up through the 1940s, Mongolian troops had had fighting experiences against White Russians, Chinese warlord armies, Mongolian rebels, the Japanese, and Chinese Guomindang (Nationalist) forces.

In the 1950s, serious efforts at military modernization took place, but it was the Sino-Soviet rift that brought about the most dramatic changes. Increasingly close ties developed between the Mongolian and Soviet armed forces in accordance with a succession of mutual defense pacts. Open hostilities between Soviet and Chinese forces in the late 1960s further strengthened ties and led to still greater modernization of the ground and air forces. By 1988 the armed forces numbered 24,500 active-duty personnel - most organized into four motorized rifle divisions and a MiG-21 fighter regiment - and some 200,000 reservists and paramilitary personnel.

Military training for able-bodied civilians - both men and women - and universal military conscription are key elements in a country with a tradition in which all men were considered warriors. Additionally, all citizens are obliged to participate in civil defense preparedness activities. Close ties between the military establishment and the civilian economy have existed since the 1930s, with many industries producing both military matériel and civilian-use goods. A demobilized soldier normally has greater technical skills than those who did not serve in the military and thus contributes significantly to the economy upon completion of military service. The military also plays an important economic role through numerous military construction projects for the civilian sector.

In sum, the Mongolian People's Republic, as it reaches the 1990s, is a small, economically developing country that has made great strides since it emerged from centuries of Chinese domination. The measure of progress is controlled by a one-party, highly centralized system that has long been influenced by Soviet mentors. With a foreign policy coordinated with that of the Soviet Union and closely integrated with and heavily dependent on Soviet and East European assistance, the degree to which Mongolia is able to conduct its own affairs is questionable. As it has for several millennia, Mongolia will continue to be geopolitically important.

June 30, 1989

Last Update: 2010-12-07