National Public Radio ran a story today on the Lenin Statue of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Originally erected in 1954, the statue stood in front of the Ulaan Baatar Hotel, a bygone (albeit with modern luxury hotel prices) relic of the socialist past. Next door is the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (they have since dropped the “Revolutionary” bit) headquarters. The statue, removed on Sunday, in many ways served as a useful visual metric for the health of Ulaan Baatar and Mongolia (A similar Stalin statue that loomed over the entrance to the National Library building went missing soon after the democratic change, and its whereabouts were a subject of some conjecture in Ulaan Baatar for over a decade before it turned up as a go-go dancer prop at the Ismuss Club in 2006).
From its beginnings as a doctrinal reminder for diplomatic guests at the Ulaan Baatar Hotel, the Lenin statue witnessed firsthand the burgeoning democratic protests of 1990 only a few hundred meters away in Sukhbaatar Square. One of the democratic leaders, S. Zorig, was mysteriously murdered in 1998, and a statue and foundation in memory of him were erected almost across the street from Lenin (Zorig, like many of the democratic leaders, had Russian blood, had lived in Russia, and studied Leninism). After the first democratic elections in 1990, and the end of Soviet aid (which at one point was thought to make up a third of Mongolia’s income), Mongolia went into a post-socialist economic tailspin, and the statue became a gathering point for prostitutes in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Despite the statue’s prominent location in Ulaan Baatar, the area became somewhat sketchy after dark.
The last spasm of violence central Ulaan Baatar witnessed, in 2008, was the product of contested elections and resulted in five deaths and the destruction-by-arson of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party headquarters (since rebuilt). This generated an enormous amount of bad press for a nation hungry for foreign investment, and national leaders took steps to make sure it didn’t happen again (the elections this year saw a very heavy security presence on the street). Since then, Mongolia has accelerated its economic development, (witness the “Minegolia” meme) and the area around the statue has been transformed. Two large glass buildings, with offices, hotels, and shops have sprung up near the statue, one of which has hosted the iconic Louis Vuitton store since 2009 (in a country where, according to the UNDP, roughly one in four live on less than €1 a day).
As in many formerly socialist nations, there are still citizens of Mongolia who are nostalgic for the socialist era. Education was steadily advanced for the majority of Mongolians, income disparities were negligible compared with today, and the most violent purges of the socialist era largely died out with Marshall Choibalsan (often regarded as Mongolia’s Stalin) in the early 1950’s, and are today almost beyond living memory. The country has fared better, economically and politically, than most Central Asian states, and as long as corruption can be kept under control and the nation doesn’t fall victim a resource-curse, will continue to do so. But the new economy has seen growing income disparities, greater displacement as economic migrants move to Ulaan Baatar from the countryside in search of work (something tightly controlled during the socialist era), and from Mongolia to neighboring countries in search of greater opportunities. Many of the older Mongols I’ve spoken to miss the previous adherence to ‘Lenin Bagsh’ (‘Teacher Lenin’).
Current Ulaan Baatar mayor E. Bat-Uul isn’t that kind of Mongol, though. An ally of S. Zorig in the 1990 democracy movement, he became mayor after this summer’s election and is keen to show Ulaan Baatar is moving forward. Some have suggested this could be better displayed through road or electric grid improvements rather than attacks on statuary, but the message is clear; the sleepy backwater of socialism is gone. The picture of the Lenin Statue at the top of this post was taken in 2009, but it could just as easily have been from 1989 or 1969. There aren’t many places like that in Ulaan Baatar anymore.