Urban fabric and political ideals – Soviet-style modernisation in Ulaanbaatar under Choibalsan’s rule (1936-1952)

The urban landscape of Ulaanbaatar was predominated by European and constructivist style buildings in the communist era. The construction of the uniform fabric began under the extreme communist leader, Khorloogiin Choibalsan’s rule. To reinforce the communist power, Choibalsan initiated the mass destruction of local religious architecture from 1937-1939, followed by the mass construction projects of Soviet-style modern buildings from 1948-1952. From 1936-1952, Ulaanbaatar was transformed from a religious town to the administrative and political centre. These permanent changes made in the urban fabric violently removed indigenous culture from the city, and replaced it by symbols of communist political ideals. The city centre was especially sensitive to political changes as it represents the focus of the city’s development.

The cityscape was largely dominated by wooden religious buildings when Ulaanbaatar was a Buddhist monastery-town. (Fig. 1) This was the time before the communist party rose to power in 1921, when the city was a religious centre. The rest of the land was occupied by traditional gers surrounded by wooden walls. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, foreign investment was welcomed to the city. Institutional buildings and factories were built in European constructionist and modernist style by merchants and technical experts from Russia, China, Germany, Hungary and many other European countries. This suggested a shift of focus of the city – from purely religious to administrative and industrial development.[1]

Fig.1 Wooden temples in Ulaanbaatar in the 1930s
Fig.1 Wooden temples in Ulaanbaatar in the 1930s

From 1921-1990, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state, with the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) as the single party in power.  Urban construction in the city was solely controlled by the state, following the Soviet political model. The urban fabric was ruthlessly destroyed and replaced when Khorloogiin Choibalsan rose to power from 1936-1952. The dictatorial leader carried out an anti-clerical campaign from 1937-1939 under the Soviets influence. Mass arrests, trials and executions of lamas took place. The National Theatre was used as a stage for Soviet-style show trial for lamas. Monasteries were demolished, burnt down. Some stone buildings survived, yet the programme was changed to prisons, hospitals and warehouses.[2]

Fig. 2 Destruction in Choijin Lama Monastery in Ulaanbaatar in the 1930s
Fig. 2 Destruction in Choijin Lama Monastery in Ulaanbaatar in the 1930s

Under the terrifying political movement, the architectural past of the city – Mongolian monastery buildings – was abandoned. Mass construction projects were introduced by the state to develop new buildings, replacing not only the old structures, but the entire religious centre. Clerical forms were naturally avoided by architects in the mass construction projects after the campaign. [3]The first large-scale urban projects were introduced along the First Five-year plan (1948-1952), in which the state allocated 64.9% of the budget to socio-cultural services.[4] (Fig.3) In this period, a good number of administrative and cultural buildings were constructed. (Fig.4) This included the Government Building, the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (Fig.5) and the State Library.  These projects followed the Stalinist neo-Classicism trend advocated by the Soviets. The monumental forms with strict proportions, Ionic and Corinthian capitals demonstrated deliberate imitations of European architecture. This gave a brand new appearance to the city – one which was alien to the local residents, with no reference to Mongolian architecture and culture.

Fig.3 Budgetary Expenditures of the Mongolian People's Republic for the First Five-year plan, 1946-1952.
Fig.3 Budgetary Expenditures of the Mongolian People’s Republic for the First Five-year plan, 1948-1952.
Poster featuring the construction activities in Ulaanbaatar in the 1940s
Fig. 4 Poster featuring the construction activities in Ulaanbaatar in the 1940s
Fig.4 Poster Advertising the opening of the Opera House in Ulaanbaatar, mid 1950s
Fig.5 Poster Advertising the opening of the Opera House in Ulaanbaatar, mid 1950s

From the monastery-town to the communist administrative centre established by Choibalsan, physical forms were used as tools to promote political ideals in Ulaanbaatar. By tearing away the old fabric and inserting the new ones, the identity of the city was forcefully removed and re-established. These permanent and visible changes in the urban fabric were considered as symbols of control of the Soviets over Mongolia, as well as the ideologies of the communist regime. The neo-Classicist style buildings were symbols of modernity, thus proof of the country’s effort to catch up with other socialist states. The city centre was converted from a religious-oriented town to an administrative and economic centre.

Reference

[1] 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.

[2] Baabar, and C. Kaplonski. Twentieth century Mongolia. Cambridge: White Horse Press, 1999.

[3] Balazs Szalontai. “From the Demolition of Monasteries to the Installation of Neon Lights”, 167.

[4] Murphy, George Gregory S. Soviet Mongolia: a study of the oldest political satellite. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

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]

 

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