Springtime for Hitler in Mongolia?: The Dayar, Mongolian Identity, and Last Impressions of Ulaanbaatar

Posted on May 28, 2012


NOTE: See some of our photos, especially of things we don’t get to mention in our blogs, on this public Facebook album.

So two white dudes walk into a Mongolian Nazi bar. No, but seriously. That’s what we did two days ago. We’ve been fascinated by the swastikas one finds all over Ulaanbaatar: as decals on cars, as graffiti under bridges, and as names … more on that later. To pre-empt what some might be thinking, yes, the swastika was lifted by the Nazis from Indo-Tibetan religious symbology, changing the color and swirl of a life-empowering emblem into a sign of death. But no, this is not that Indo-Tibetan swastika. This is a full-out, wrong-direction, red-and-black Nazi swastika that’s taken over the imagination of a vocal minority of young Mongolians.

Swastika graffiti.

Swastika graffiti.

We have seen the peace-love right-way swastika. If you look closely at some of the pictures I’ve been uploading of monasteries here, you might see them lacquered in blue on some of the temple doors. One was present on the doors of Ganden monastery, a large, Tibetan-influenced structure on a hill overlooking the urban sprawl of Ulaanbaatar. But as of now, the Nazi swastikas are equally if not more visible in the daily life of the nation than their Buddhist counterparts.

(As a sidebar, the monastery dates back to the origins of the city and before and is the home to the Bogd Khan. To put it in a crass but relatable phrasing, the Bogd Khan is the Dalai Lama of Mongolia, although driven out of his nation far earlier than, and subsequently in exile with, the Dalai Lama, he was only allowed to return to Mongolia in 2010 and soon thereafter suffered a stroke, but is still hanging on. This is good, as typically the Bogd Khan reincarnates in Chinese-controlled Tibet, which, as I’ll talk about below, would have some serious repercussions for Mongolian national and identity politics and home … although fittingly the Bogd Khan has hinted that he may, for the first time to my knowledge, reincarnate in Mongolia instead of Tibet.)

Getting back on track: Mongolian Nazism. We saw our first swastika on our second day here, and we were fascinated. We immediately inquired about our little observations with M.M., one of the few people we met in Ulaanbaatar who speaks English (actually, M.M. is an expat, originally from New Orleans). Yes, M.M. informed us, Nazism is an active cultural and political movement here, with several Mongolian Nazi parties in existence, the most prominent of which being the Dayar Mongols. No, he clarified, this was not European style Nazism, and those who started the parties seem to have little conception of the origins or meaning of the symbol beyond the general concept of ethnic purity and superiority, which they have transferred away from the Aryan and towards the Mongol. As such, they’re not particularly anti-Semitic or anti-anything (although they do target the very small LGBT/Pride movement, itself restricted, as are most of the Nazis, to Ulaanbaatar). They’ve just been known to scream whore at Mongol women walking with foreigners, deck the occasional non-Mongol in the face while walking down the street, and congregate in their bar, Tse (across from the Wrestling Palace, where Mongol and Sumo wrestling takes place—they’re the best wrestlers, they stress), and talk about how awesome Mongols are compared to all other ethnicities.

Zaisan, a communist monument to dead soldiers. Still popular.

Zaisan, a communist monument to dead soldiers. Still popular.

Naturally, we wanted to check out Tse to see what it was all about. A slight problem: there are 1,001 bars named Tse and many of them clustered around the same main avenue of Ulaanbaatar. Indeed, there’s much redundancy here, with a Cafe and Karaoke VIP Room Lounge on every block, and almost every restaurant serving the exact same fare of buuz dumplings, and various combinations of meat (often lamb even if it’s billed as beef), potatoes, onions, and carrots in broth. (The only and most consistently used term for Mongolian food is: hearty.) But find Tse we did. It was not the Bavarian beer hall full of eager conspirators we were expecting, but rather a dim place with red wall paneling and intricate swastika tile working (a sure sign that they’re serious about this thing—as Mike points out, you can find most Nazi paraphernalia wholesale somewhere or other, but commissioning Nazi mosaic tiles for your bar is a whole different level). And we did not get decked in the face. For the most part, no one cared that we were there, or that there walls were covered in, aside from the occasional red drape, pictures of American cities. And that’s somewhat emblematic of what it is to figure out Mongol identity in Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia has had a very unique experience of post-Soviet nation building. The USSR used this nation as a buffer state with China, so while they did install a communist regime and prop it up with subsidies and military support, unlike in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan or other such nations, the Soviets limited the extent to re-write what it meant to be Mongolian. Indeed, the Mongolian puppet rulers attempted to assert their independent identity again and again, although they were often stifled in this quest. As such, the nation remained largely nomadic, free on an everyday level, and confused as to how much it should Russianize, Sovietize, and nationalize itself in the middle of the 1900s.

(A good example: One of Mongolia’s Prime Ministers visited Stalin and attempted to stand up for the nominal independence and autonomy of the Mongolian state and people. While drunk, an enraged Stalin kicked out the PM’s cane from under him, and in turn the PM slapped Stalin across the face. He was subsequently jailed and murdered as an accused Japanese spy—ridiculous, as Mongolians to this day harbor some love for the Russians for liberating them from Chinese nationalist and Japanese expansionist rulership. Immediately after independence, there was no huge anti-Russian backlash, but there was a new museum constructed, right next to the Chojin Lama Buddhist monastery-museum, dedicated to the prisoners of political repression, i.e. the Stalin-slapping Prime Minister.)

Ghengis Khan watches over Ulaanbaatar.

Ghengis Khan watches over Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia since 1990’s independence seems to be a confused place, or at least Ulaanbaatar. Sitting in Sukhbaatar Square, the center of town, you’ll see men and women, young and old, wearing anything from traditional Mongolian deel woolen robes with silk sashes tied about their waists ala Genghis Khan, to tight jeans, aviators and Ed Hardy t-shirts, to some hodgepodge mixture in between. It’s hard to tell if there is any national standard or even if anyone really cares what others do, how others dress, and how one chooses to define one’s self as Mongol. Likewise, one of the biggest and best kept buildings in downtown Ulaanbaatar is the headquarters of the Communist Party, still a major player, the main political power throughout the last decade, and currently in a coalition with the Democratic Party. That coalition only came about when, after probably fairly (although accused of rigging) the 2008 elections, their headquarters was destroyed—they offered an olive branch to the Democratic Party just to pragmatically solve the problems of the nation. Nor are the Communist or Democratic Parties very firmly defined. They are pragmatic, as is much of the country, and more interested in systematically and practically fixing the infrastructure and developing the resources of the nation than they are with defining what it means to be Mongolian and where they stand in the world. So in that vacuum of top-down identity construction, people like the Dayar Mongols have had a field day with competing identities. And for the most part, average Mongols don’t seem to care.

Perhaps that’s the one commonality of note, at least in Ulaanbaatar, is a calm acceptance and lack of deep concern for the pressures of top-down politics or the views of the outside world. Mongolia does what it sees best for Mongolians and they don’t really mind what the rest of us do, so long as we don’t infringe on Mongolia. We stick out here, quite a bit—we’ve seen a few other Westerners, but not many. Yet only two Mongolians have showed any interest or concern in us (M.T., our host in Ulaanbaatar, and a young man driving a milk truck around Zaisan Hill). The rest glance at us, look a little puzzled, and then mutter “eh” and walk away unconcerned. Very few Mongolians bother to learn a second language, as there’s just no need.

(Sidebar: The only ones who seem to notice us at all are small children. We are currently in Tsetserleg, on the edge of the Siberian Taiga, on a high reach of the Steppe. We are wandering around a town of 20,000, mixed Gers, Soviet buildings, ramshackle houses, and log cabins. On the way up, two toddlers in our 2-to-1-seat van expressed great terror and fascination, pointing and gawking, much to the amusement of the other passengers. One young woman seemed to be trying to scare them. I think I caught her pointing to us and using the Mongol word for “eat,” perhaps trying to convince them that if they were bad, we would eat them.)

The one thing the Mongolian zeitgeist seems to care about is China. As M.M. tells us, even the most worldly and travelled Mongolians he has met still tell him: “Perhaps one Chinese person in a million has talent. But every Mongol has talent. This is why China is inferior. China needs Mongolia. China needs us.” And that’s because China gets into their space. Gets into Mongolia’s collective face and challenges their autonomy, while it still consumes their resources greedily.

Ganden monastery.

Ganden monastery.

That’s the point of the Dayar Mongols. Their worst violence is directed against the Chinese. But against a white person, the violence is limited and rare, usually only activated in times of upheaval or when one sees a white man drunk and walking down the street with a Mongol girl. Most of Dayar’s membership is composed of young men in their 20s from rural herding families who lost their flocks and came to the city, only to find the great influence and wealth-accretion of foreign companies at play. They’re angry young men who feel Mongolia is being taken away from the Mongols, I suppose. And they lash out, although it’s not always to clear if there’s a constructive idea of Mongolian nationalism or direction, save the pragmatic one that asserts autonomy and allows Mongols to define themselves.

(Sidebar: Speaking of globalization, the one great marker of it we have observed is the Irish pub. We found five in Ulaanbaatar, along with one Scottish pub and a German brew-pub. And even here in little Tsetserleg, we have found one Irish pub, right next door to our current digs.)

I suppose that’s all that I ought to mention about Ulaanbaatar for now. I’ve rambled incoherently enough for today. Continue to check out pictures (see the link above), as they will show some aspects of our journeys that I haven’t found the right frame, the time, or the space to talk about. Now we’re on to freezing Tsetserleg and will post some pictures and blog updates about life in the countryside, on the Steppe-proper. Expect some notes on religion, Buddhism, Shamanism, nomadic culture, the split between Ulaanbaatar and the rest of the nation, and everyday life on the Steppe, coming soon.

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