IN 1986 MONGOLIA CELEBRATED the sixty-fifth anniversary of the revolution that had begun the transformation of a traditional feudal society of pastoral nomads into a modern society of motorcycle-mounted shepherds and urban factory workers. The reshaping of Mongolian society reflected both strong guidance and a high level of economic assistance from the Soviet Union. The relations between Mongolia and the Soviet Union have been extremely close. The ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party has so faithfully echoed the line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that some Western observers have doubted the reality of Mongolia's independence.
From Ulaanbaatar, however, issues of autonomy and the path of social development are seen differently. Of all the peoples of Inner Asia-- Uighurs, Uzbeks, Kirghiz, Tibetans, Tajiks, and others--only those in Mongolia retain any degree of independence. As a small nation of barely 2 million people, caught between two giant and sometimes antagonistic neighbors, China and the Soviet Union, Mongolia has had to accommodate itself to one or the other of those neighbors. Twice as many Mongols live outside the boundaries of Mongolia (3.4 million in China and .5 million in the Soviet Union), as live within it, and the fate of the larger Mongol population of China, who have become a 20 percent minority in the Nei Monggol Autonomous Region--once part of their own country--demonstrates that alternatives to the pro-Soviet alignment might well be less attractive. In the opinion of most Western observers, most Mongolians traditionally have tended to view the Soviet Union as a model of modern society, and the Russian language has been the vehicle for the introduction of science and modern technology and for contacts with the larger communist world.
Mongolia in 1921 was an exceptionally economically undeveloped society in which nomadic herders, illiterate and marginally involved in a market economy, constituted most of the population. They supported some petty nobles and a large number of Buddhist monks. The society's dominant institution was the Buddhist monastic system, which enrolled much of the adult male population as monks. Such limited commerce as existed was controlled by Chinese merchants, to whom the native nobility was heavily in debt. The only avenue of mobility and escape from broad and ill-defined obligations to hereditary overlords was provided by entrance to the Buddhist clergy, whose monks devoted themselves primarily to otherworldly and economically unproductive pursuits. The population appears to have been declining, because of high death rates from disease and poor nutrition, the large proportion of celibate monks, and high levels of infertility caused by venereal disease.
Against such a historical foundation, claims that contemporary Mongolia represents a completely new society are quite plausible. In many ways, the society has been transformed, and in the 1980s rapid social change continued. The ruling party saw the nation as having leaped directly from feudalism to socialism, bypassing the capitalist stage of development. Many of the forms of socialist organization, particularly in the rapidly growing urban and industrial sectors, appeared to be direct copies of Soviet models, with some modification to fit the Mongolian context. The population has nearly tripled since 1920, as the government pursued a pro-natal policy rare among developing nations. Mongolia's herds of livestock, which outnumbered the human population by at least ten-to-one, had been collectivized, and herders in the 1980s worked as members of pastoral collectives that drew up monthly and annual plans for milk and wool production.
By 1985 a slim majority of Mongolia's population was urban, working in factories and mines, and increasingly housed in Soviet-model, prefabricated highrises. Public health and education had been the objects of intense development, which by the 1980s had produced vital rates approaching those of developed nations and nearly universal literacy among the younger generation. Much of Mongolia's industrial development and urban growth has taken place since the mid-1970s and has been so recent that the country was only beginning to recognize the problems attending rapid industrialization, urbanization, and occupational differentiation.
The drive for modernization along Soviet lines has been accompanied by an equally strong, but much less explicitly articulated, determination to maintain a distinctive Mongolian culture and to keep control of Mongolia's development in Mongolian hands. Although the topic was politically sensitive, Mongolia's leaders were nationalists as well as communists, and they aspired to much more independence than was permitted to the "national minorities" of the Soviet Union and China with whom the Mongolians otherwise had so much in common.
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