From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 26-27:
Into Soviet times this ritual of homecoming quietly continued, a lifeline more profound than simple nationhood. Then the 1930s Terror brought a bewildering dislocation in which the Buryat identity became itself a crime, and people burned or hid their genealogies, erasing their own past in a severance that is even now unhealed. ‘We lost our inheritance.’ He is talking in a sombre monotone. For him, his people’s authenticity springs from the steppelands. ‘But our nomad children go to boarding schools now, where they learn Russian or Chinese curricula. Soon they no longer remember how they enjoyed riding a horse or milking a cow. They probably don’t even know what a cow is.’
I stare at him, at his formal suit and tie, and wonder how many urban dwellers feel their true homeland to be a remote campsite where the earth throbs under them. Yet his grandfather was not a herdsman, he says, but a talented journalist. He was the wrong class from the start.
‘One evening, in 1941, he thought he was among friends and said he hoped Hitler would win the war so that the Reds would stop oppressing Mongolia. That night the KGB took him away. He vanished into the Gulag. In those days Germany was closing in on one side, Japan on the other. No one felt safe. My grandfather returned only with the death of Stalin in 1953. He died three months later, peacefully, at home, as if this was what he’d been waiting for.’
‘Does your father remember him?’
‘My father never spoke of it. I grew up in ignorance. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev’s perestroika, but that all seemed far away to us, not like with you. But we had our own revolution and in 1991 our archives were opened. Then I was able to read my grandfather’s interrogation. And suddenly all that had happened struck home. We were very Sovietized, you know, very brainwashed. And when I read, I broke down and wept.’
In this time of resurgent nationalism people’s anger found its target not in Choibalsan – long promoted as a patriot hero – but in the distant abstraction of Stalin.
‘Yes, some of us hate Stalin. But we don’t mind the Russians, you know. We quite like them.’ He suddenly frowns. ‘I don’t quite understand this either, after everything they did. Perhaps it’s because they brought us culture, European culture. They gave us medicine and education. We started from very low down, you see, started from almost nowhere. A century ago we were at the mercy of the Chinese, and they robbed us . . .’
This still astonishes me. The Russians crushed the Mongolians’ native culture, devastated their monasteries and almost liquidated their elite. Yet it is the Chinese, dominant in the country for three centuries until 1921, who are regarded with visceral loathing and distrust. Their instruments of torture are lavishly displayed in the state museum, beside the account books of their avaricious traders. And it is the merciless usury of Chinese merchants that has endured in people’s imagination. Half the country was said to be in their debt. There are Mongolians even now who believe themselves haunted by long-dead Chinese, warning them away from buried treasure. Neither lamas nor shamans had been able to exorcize them.
Soviet propaganda may have prolonged this old antipathy; but it was the avalanche of Chinese immigration early in the last century that turned the country to violence and at last into the arms of Russia.