This article was written by Karina Pronina for Lyudi Baikala (Baikal People). An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement.
In 1924, a Buryat family fled to Mongolia from the village of Bada in the present-day Transbaikal region in eastern Russia. The Buryats did not want to stay because of famine. One of the women was carrying a small daughter in her arms. She was so tired at some point that she left the baby on a hillock.
“Soon, her relatives asked: ‘Where is your child?’ She answered that she left her daughter, and they forced her to go back and take her daughter. Otherwise, I wouldn’t talk to you,” Yumzhavyn Tsevelmaa, the granddaughter of that same woman, told Lyudi Baikala (LB).
The Buryats left the Soviet Union for Mongolia in three waves in the beginning of the 20th century. It started when Russian settlers occupied Buryatia en masse, and the indigenous population had less pasture for livestock. The second wave took place during World War I after Buryats were mobilized for war-related work, and many died due to difficult conditions. The third wave came after 1918. “The civil war became an accelerating factor [for resettlement],” notes Ivan Peshkov, head of the Center for Central Asian Studies at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poland in an interview with LB.
The main Buryat villages appeared in the northern Khenti and Dornod aimags (regions) of Mongolia. These areas are located along the border with Russia. In 1934, Peshkov emphasizes, there were already 35,000 Buryats living in Mongolia. Their descendants still live in Mongolia, having found a new home in this country.
New home in Dadal
Tsevelmaa was born and lived all her life in the Mongolian somon (village) Dadal. It is called Buryat since 70 percent of its 3,000 inhabitants are descendants of Buryats refugees. She says,
The Buryats worked a lot in Dadal. They were handy. Everything they earned was stored in chests. There were jewelry, Chinese silks, corals, and leather. Then, in the 1930s, during the [Stalinist] repressions in Mongolia, everything was shaken out of the chests and taken away. The Buryats were called traitors and enemies, they allegedly betrayed the Soviet Union because they fled from there.
Tsevelmaa, like other residents of Dadal, knows that the repression of the Buryats in Mongolia took place on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Although Mongolia was not a part of the Soviet Union, it was still a satellite socialist state under the influence of the Soviet leadership.
Dadal is located in northeastern Mongolia. The border with Russia is just across a few hills. It doesn’t look like Mongolia with its usual endless steppes and herds of sheep. Around Dadal there are lakes, rivers, meadows. There are no typical yurts, everyone has wooden houses.
Seventy-seven-year-old Gelegzhamsyn Purev and his wife, 70-year-old Dugarjav Dolgormaa, live on the outskirts of Dadal. Purev does not speak Russian, only a mixture of Buryat and Mongolian, which belong to the same group of languages.
The Purev family keeps 1000 sheep, 100 cows and 200 horses. Purev does not call himself a farmer, but modestly introduces himself as a pensioner. His relatives moved to Dadal from Buryatia in 1924. The settlers walked with children, livestock, and other things loaded onto a cart. When they crossed the state border, they tied rags around the dogs’ muzzles and the horses’ hooves, so that there would be no unnecessary sounds that would give them away to border guards.
Stalinist repressions travel across the border
“According to official data, 36,000 people were repressed in Mongolia. But these are those who went through the trial. If we take into account everyone who was undocumented, there will be about 100,000 people. That is, approximately every fifth resident of Mongolia at that time,” says Dashnamzhilyn Tsogtbaatar, head of the Mongolian Association of Victims of Political Repression in an interview with LB.
As in the Soviet Union, the peak of repressions in Mongolia occurred in the 1930s. First, Buddhist lamas were arrested in the country. Second, the Buryat migrants. Peshkov explains that the Buryats in Mongolia were perceived as a dangerous minority associated with Japan with whom the Soviet Union was at war at that time. Stalin imposed on the Mongolian authorities an aggressive policy of exterminating all dubious groups in border zones, including the Buryats.
Of the two thousand residents of Dadal, more than 600 people were arrested in the 1930s. Three women were shot, one of them was five months pregnant. The rest of the 600 Dadal residents who were subjected to the Stalinist repressions were men. Some of them were shot, some were exiled to Siberia. After the end of their term, those exiled to Mongolia were not allowed to return. Many of those who faced the Stalinist repressions were sent from the Soviet Union to the WWII to “wash away the guilt with blood.”
The owner of the local Yaruuna cafe, Tsyrendorzhi Yanzhima, leads LB journalists to the local datsan, a Buddhist university monastery. Several years ago, stupas, sacred objects, were erected there in memory of the repressions in Dadal. The names of all those repressed from the village are engraved on the drum. Yanzhama tells LB:
All the men were taken away from us; all the men’s work was done by women and boys. They mowed the hay, chopped the wood, and slaughtered the cow. It was a difficult time, but it strengthened Dadal. We have become even more hardworking. Many people want to marry a Buryat man or marry a Buryat woman because they are very efficient. And they don’t complain about life.
Anti-Putin and anti-war
When asked about how she feels about Russia, a 63-year-old Dadal resident Tsyrendorzhi Monbish replies: “I have a good attitude towards Russia. But the war with Ukraine? I am against war! The name of Russia has fallen so low now. I want him [Putin] to die! I know that Putin is sending the Buryats to war. We are against this.”
Another resident, 78-year-old Magsar says: “Putin is bad. War is bad.” He adds: “In a war, seven out of nine Buryats die. We all know about this in Dadal, we read it on the internet.”
One of the ardent critics of the Russian government is the former head of the Dadal administration, Galsangiin Dorzhsuren:
Buryats in Russia go to war because they live very poorly.
‘Fear Sits Inside’
Mongolian authorities arrested Purev's father twice. Both times he was imprisoned for 10 years — for being a Buryat and for being a Buddhist lama. After the second imprisonment, his father returned to Dadal and lived there until the end of his life.
Purev calls Mongolia his homeland. He does not like to discuss sensitive political issues. When his wife Dolgormaa, in a conversation with LB, says that in the war “the destruction of the Buryat people is underway,” Purev clicks his tongue, and she falls silent.
“He’s afraid,” Dolgormaa sighs when her husband leaves after the interview. “Fear sits inside him. Do you understand? Here it doesn’t matter what your nationality is: Buryat, Mongolian or Russian. You can’t eradicate fear that easily.”