Urban fabric and political ideals – Sukhbaatar Square (I) (1948-1952) – Soviet-style communist public square in Ulaanbaatar

Aldo Rossi believed that the city should be understood in terms of both space – architecture, and time – historical transformation; and in two scales – the collective, and the individual urban artefacts. [1] By studying a “primary element” over time, one could understand that part of the city thoroughly. Sukhbaatar Square is a “primary element” of Ulaanbaatar under Rossi’s definition. It has been the key administrative and political centre of Ulaanbaatar since the communist era, functioning as the “nuclei of aggregation”, where the public gather to celebrate and demonstrate against the rulers. It “participates in the evolution of the city over time in a permanent way”. Changes in the buildings and monuments were made to the Square whenever there was a major political paradigm shift. The Sukhbaatar Square will be investigated in the coming narratives in two periods – 1948-1952, under the First Five-year plan by Choibalsan; and 1990-2000, under democratic transition. By studying the spatial transformations of the Square, we could see how the approach towards the city changed from the communist era to the democratic state.

Sukhbaatar Square (I) (1948-1952)

The design of the Sukhbaatar Square followed the formula of typical communist public squares. The monumental public square ending in the Peace Avenue, the main boulevard of the city, formed a gigantic stage for military parades and mass gatherings. (Fig.1) These vast urban spaces were inserted to the socialist states and satellites as spaces for the crowd to worship their rulers. The Government Building constructed in 1951 faced the open space of the Sukhbaatar Square. The location of the ruler’s office suggested the direction people were supposed to face and cheer. They are considered as “anti-agoras”, where the people were only allowed to show support to the communist leaders, leaving no room and no way for democratic discussions. [2]  Every year, huge public festivities were held at the Sukhbaatar Square to celebrate 1st May and commemorate the October Mongolian Revolution. Military parades and public marches were conducted in the huge urban space (Fig.2) , in front of the mausoleum, where the communist leaders stood and watch the crowd. (Fig.3)

Fig.1 Poster depicting central Ulaanbaatar, late 1940s. Sukhbaatar Square and its axial relationship with the main roads could be seen.
Fig.1 Poster depicting central Ulaanbaatar, late 1940s. Sukhbaatar Square and its axial relationship with the main roads could be seen.
Fig.2 Aerial view of the Sukhbaatar Square during 1st May Commemoration activities, mid 1960s.
Fig.2 Aerial view of the Sukhbaatar Square during 1st May celebration activities, mid 1960s. Teenagers and the army marched in front of the Government Building.
Fig.3 State leaders standing on the Mausoleum to watch the parade, 1st May Celebration, mid 1960s.
Fig.3 State leaders standing on the Mausoleum to watch the parade, 1st May Celebration, mid 1960s.

The mausoleum built to house the bodies of Sukhbaatar and Choibalsan in 1952 (Fig.3) was regarded as an imitation of Lenin’s Mausoleum at the Red Square.[3] The Lenin mausoleum was the first symbolic centre of the Soviet regime created in Moscow in 1924. The stone structure sat in front of the Kremlin wall, where the martyrs of the revolution were buried.[4]

The Sukhbaatar Mausoleum took after its Soviet precedent in siting, architectural form, and concept. The site of the Sukhbaatar Mausoleum was in the civic square, right in front of the Government Building. This followed the choice of location of the Lenin’s Mausoleum in the Red Square, where the Kremlin Palace was located. The erection of this public memorial turned the Red Square into the monument of the Soviet Union, the key location which gathered the public for celebrations and commemoration of the communist party. The construction of the Sukhbaatar Mausoleum reinforced the intention to turn the civic square into a socialist urban space. The stepped profile and the materiality resembled the architectural language of the Lenin’s Mausoleum.[5] (Fig. 4)

Fig.4a Lenin Mausoleum at the Red Square in Moscow, Victory day, 1945.
Fig.4a Lenin Mausoleum at the Red Square in Moscow, Victory day, 1945.
Fig.4b Sukhbaatar and Choibalsan Mausoleum at the Sukhbaatar Square, 1st May Celebration, mid 1960s.
Fig.4b Sukhbaatar and Choibalsan Mausoleum at the Sukhbaatar Square, 1st May Celebration, mid 1960s.

 

The public mausoleum programme was directly borrowed from the Soviets communist ideologies. The concept of public burial was alien to Mongolia in 1952. Under traditional Buddhist beliefs, bodies were not buried, even gravestones were not erected. There was no reference to local culture in the erection of a public memorial. The permanent public commemoration of Sukhbaatar and Choibalsan was a direct imitation of the Soviet propaganda. [6] Sukhbaatar took lead of the liberation of Mongolia in 1921. He was remembered as the “Father of Mongolia’s Revolution and was often compared to Lenin in the Russian Revolution. Choibalsan was a supreme leader of the MPRP from 1936 to 1952, also known as the “Stalin of Mongolia”.  The mausoleum for these communist heroes were selected as an instrument imposed to the urban environment to reinforce the power of the MPRP, just as how Lenin was used as a figure to gather the crowds in the Soviet square.

Reference

[1] Aldo Rossi. Architecture of the City. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982.

[2] Mariusz Czepczyński.Cultural landscapes of post-socialist cities : representation of powers and needs. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 2008.

[3] Balazs Szalontai. “From the Demolition of Monasteries to the Installation of Neon Lights: The Politics of Urban Construction in the Mongolian People’s Republic,” in Sites of modernity: Asian cities in the transitory moments of trade, colonialism, and nationalism, ed. Wasana Wongsurawat. Berlin : Springer-Verlag, 2016, 161-179.

[4] Graeme J. Gill. Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[5] Diener, Alexander C., Hagen, Joshua. “City of felt and concrete: Negotiating cultural hybridity in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar” Nationalities Papers, Vol.41(4), 2013, 622-650.

[6] Balazs Szalontai. “From the Demolition of Monasteries to the Installation of Neon Lights”, 172.

Image Reference

British Library. Endangered Archives Programme. EAP264/1 Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950s]

2 Comments on “Urban fabric and political ideals – Sukhbaatar Square (I) (1948-1952) – Soviet-style communist public square in Ulaanbaatar

  1. The interest in political manifestations through Sukhbaatar Square is clear here. The time frame suggested here is very broad though. Are you suggesting that the politics of Ulaanbaatar is relatively stable during the course of these five decades? And that there is not much change towards the Square and its adjacent urban fabric not too abrupt? Maybe a more productive method of inquiry is to key into the specific moments of change (either of political regime or of spatial quality of the Square) and build a story around them?

    • Thank you for your advice! I have updated the two posts on the communist period by narrowing down the time frame to 1936-1952. This was the time when Choibalsan, the extreme communist leader, carried out the mass destruction of local religious architecture from 1937-1939, followed by the mass construction projects of Soviet-style modern buildings from 1948-1952. I divided the case study of the Sukhbaatar Square into three parts, looking into two specific moments of paradigm shifts – Choibalsan’s rule in 1948-1952 (Part I), democratic transition and economic reform in 1990-2000 (Parts II and III).

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