Mongolia’s dark days of Stalinist repression on display

The skulls of individuals executed during the Soviet political purge

By Allyson Seaborn

The murder of tens of thousands of Mongolians by communist leaders from the 1930’s to the mid 1950’s was chronicled by a Mongolian woman named Tserendulam, who opened the humble Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum in Ulaanbaatar in 1992. She did this partially in remembrance of her father, former Prime Minister P.Genden, who was executed by the KGB in 1937 for resisting directives from Stalin.
The museum is dwarfed by UB’s sea of building construction sites and unfortunately, the wooden building is in a state of disrepair with cracked windows and creaking floorboards. It is eerie and melancholy – suiting the tone of the displays which detail the bloody communist purges aimed at eliminating counter revolutionaries. The small, dimly lit rooms are filled with photos, posters, letters and other personal items of those terrible first years of the Soviet repression, the slaughter of thousands of Buddhist monks and anyone who opposed Moscow.
During this campaign, intellectuals were arrested and put on trial, sent to Siberian prisons or shot. Mongolia lost nearly all of its top writers, scientists and thinkers. The Soviets and their Mongolian subordinates killed anyone who might stand in their way. Thousands more were killed by firing squads in the countryside who were desperate to fill quotas. It’s been said that herders were grabbed randomly and shot point blank in order to fill such quotas.
I’ve never in my life been to a museum like this before – not a soul is there, except for the caretaker who lets shiny, new SUVs and government cars park in the convenient grounds for a small fee. It’s in a prime location and parking around here is scarce.
Downstairs is a dank room, slightly larger than a closet, with an old TV and a bed where the caretaker rests. Narrow corridors are lined with locked doors, which I try unsuccessfully to jiggle open to have a peek. I wonder if the security cameras are working? Nobody is coming to scold me and show me the way out. The only thing watching me are the haunting eyes of the people in black and white photographs. I gaze at a photo of a young Mongolian man who looks no older than 20 – he reminds me of so many Mongolians I love and admire today. Who is this? What was his crime against the state?
Prime Minister Genden was, of course, an outspoken and leading communist at the time, but not hardcore enough for the Soviets, who banned religion and private property altogether. Genden, on the other hand, allowed

Portrait of Surmaajav, Permanent Member of the MPRP’s Central Committee Council and Chief of the Central Statistical Authority

Buddhists keep their temples and nomads their livestock.
Tserendulam was only nine years old when Genden was dismissed as PM in 1936, after rejecting Stalin’s demands to disband the Buddhist clergy and give Moscow more control. Genden’s family was exiled to the Soviet Union, where they were held for over a year near the Black Sea. Tserendulam last saw her father one day in 1937, when police whisked him away after lunch and later executed him. But it wasn’t until 54 years later that she actually received confirmation of his execution via a letter from Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992.
I’ve been in Mongolia for over three years and am embarrassed I hadn’t visited the Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum before. Better late than never. The entry fee is 2,500 MNT, and well worth it. On the ground floor of the museum is a replica of Genden’s office, with his desk and other personal effects. The museum is almost always empty and quiet, but it’s worth a visit as the pictures tell so many stories.

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