Seventy years ago, on October 20, 1945, Mongolia held a referendum on independence from China. The Chinese had by then lost all effective control of what they then called “Outer Mongolia.” The last Chinese forces in Mongolia were chased out by the anti-Bolshevik general Roman von Ungern-Stenberg in 1921 (who was in turn defeated by the Bolsheviks later that year). Mongolia soon became the “People’s Republic of Mongolia” – the first Soviet satellite, even as it remained, de jure, a part of China. In February 1945, at Yalta, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin asked his wartime allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, to consent to Mongolia maintaining its “status quo” after the war, and obtained their agreement to this innocuous proposition.
It was only later, in the summer of 1945, that it became clear what Stalin meant by the “status quo,” when he told the Chinese – who had not participated in the Yalta conference and were not consulted about its decisions – to recognize Mongolia’s independence. In the course of drawn-out, bitter talks in Moscow between Stalin and the head of the Chinese Executive Yuan T.V. Soong, the Soviet leader raised the prospect of Mongolian nationalism: “If this [China’s recognition] does not happen Outer Mongolia will be rallying point for all Mongolians. It’s to the detriment of China and us.” Stalin pulled out a map to show how Mongolia was strategically important to the USSR. He cited Lenin’s parting with Poland and Finland in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution as an example for China. He referred to the Yalta agreements, arguing that China, in the end, simply had no choice. With northern and northeast China poised to be overrun by Soviet troops – who were on the verge of entry into war against Japan – the Chinese knew that this was not an idle threat.
Under pressure, China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek gave in, cabling Soong to make the “greatest sacrifice” on the condition that Stalin would abandon his support for the Chinese Communist Party and the Uighur independence movement in Xinjiang. Stalin agreed. With the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance on August 14, 1945, China promised to recognize Mongolia’s independence but only after a plebiscite. Both sides realized, of course, that the referendum was just a show but Chiang wanted it for domestic political reasons, and Stalin was happy to oblige.
Stalin’s insinuation to T.V. Soong concerning the power of Mongolian nationalism was not just talk. The Soviet leader knew that his Mongolian client Marshal Khorloogiin Choibalsan, was actively working with Mongolian tribes in Manchuria and what would later become China’s Inner Mongolia, advocating their accession to the Mongolian state. Soviet operatives in Ulaanbaatar reported to Moscow that Mongolian elites already imagined the creation of a Great Mongolia across much of northern China, extending as far south as the Great Wall and as far east as the sea. Choibalsan shared these sentiments. He also disagreed with some of the younger leaders, like his eventual successor Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, that Mongolia should itself become a part of the USSR. Despite being a Soviet client, Choibalsan attempted, within permissible limits, to maintain a degree of autonomy from the Soviet Union. As for his southern neighbor, Choibalsan privately vowed in July 1945 that “we will not have friendship and friendly cooperation with the Chinese. These are very, very bad people.”
October 20, 1945 gave Choibalsan an opportunity to prove how much Mongolia wanted independence. Preparatory work began a month beforehand. From October 3, the ruling Communist Party (the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) held a total of 593 party cell meetings, 409 Youth Communist League meetings, and 295 meetings of party activists. Tens of thousands of participants in these meetings were treated to propaganda concerning the great achievements of socialist Mongolia and the importance of the referendum. Subsequent Soviet reports indicated that the Mongolian populace on the whole appreciated the significance of the vote, and only a few participants asked “provocative” questions, such as whether the Soviet Union planned to annex Mongolia after the plebiscite.
The actual day of voting became something of a great national celebration. Soviet observers reported:
From early morning the voters in large groups set out for the polling stations. The majority dressed up in festive clothes. Having arrived at polling stations, [they] presented the [referendum] commissions with letters, statements, greetings, well wishes, and also with valuable gifts. There were more than 85 thousand letters and statements of this type. Many of the polling stations witnessed spontaneous mass demonstrations, and the voters arrived at the stations with flags, banners, and portraits of comrade Stalin and the leaders of [Mongolia].
The official results of the referendum showed that 98.6 percent of eligible voters – 487285 people – took part in the voting. Soviet observers secretly informed Moscow of multiple voting irregularities, including instances of the local referendum commissions “without asking the voters, marked their opinions in the voting lists and even faked signatures to prove the 100% participation of the voters in the plebiscite.” It transpired that there were 1551 duplicate entries in the voting register, and that 2437 people were left out altogether. Among those who voted were 98 foreigners who were not supposed to vote and – oh, horror – two people who were eligible to vote, blatantly refused to do so. The central referendum commission, according to these Soviet reports, did not show the slightest interest in the numbers that were coming from below and “tried to write up the protocol on the results of the plebiscite without checking any documents.”
But all of these unsavory details were kept out of the public eye. According to the official results of the referendum, a full 100 percent of the voters voted for independence from China. Even the Soviets, for all their reservations about the methods of this referendum, commended the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party for their ability to “succeed in any political campaign.”
It is hard to imagine that even if an honest referendum was conducted in October 1945, the outcome for Mongolia would have been any different. The majority of the Mongolian population would still have voted for independence from China. But, skilled in the art of Communist political manipulation, then-rulers of Mongolia did not hesitate for a moment before trying to forge the results of the referendum, even when they did not have to.
True to Chiang’s earlier promise, the Republic of China recognized Mongolia’s independence in January 1946. This recognition was rescinded some years later when Chiang accused Stalin of violating the agreements of 1945 by supporting the Chinese Communists in the Civil War. For decades afterwards, the maps of the Republic of China, published in Taiwan, featured Mongolia as a part of the Chinese territory.
The Chinese Communists, who came to power in the Mainland in October 1949, also briefly hoped to regain Mongolia. Mao Zedong raised the issue with Stalin in February 1949 but the Soviet leader demurred, arguing that Mongolia had already “tasted independence” and would not let go of it. After Stalin’s death in 1953, which was followed by de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union, the Chinese probed Moscow again, suggesting that Mongolia’s independence had been one of Stalin’s mistakes. These probes were again rebuffed. As late as 1989 then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was still complaining to the Americans that Stalin had “severed” Mongolia from China. “Those over 50 in China remember that the shape of China was like a maple leaf,” Deng told then-President George H.W. Bush. “Now, if you look at a map, you see a huge chunk in the north cut away; the maple leaf has been nibbled away.”
In present-day Mongolia, the 1945 referendum is remembered as a case of self-assertion of national pride and patriotic spirit. Although for all intents and purposes Mongolia was a Soviet satellite then and did not become a fully independent country until the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, the referendum forms an important part of the narrative of statehood rooted in the ancient exploits of Genghis Khan but expressed, as in 1945, in the collective outpouring of the nationalist sentiment.
But from the Chinese perspective, Mongolia’s independence was not so much a result of Mongolian nationalism as of Soviet manipulation. China’s is probably a fairer assessment, because no matter how much the Mongolians aspired towards independence, these aspirations would probably come to nothing were it not for Stalin’s dogged insistence – for his own, very un-altruistic, reasons – on Mongolia becoming an independent state. The Chinese leaders would not have given in to people’s sentiments – China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet is a case in point – but they did bow to the realities of power. In 1945, China was weak, and Stalin had his way. The results of the Mongolian plebiscite were therefore predetermined, and not so much in the happy meeting of the enthusiastic referendum committee, but in the dark recesses of Stalin’s mind.
Sergey Radchenko is Zi Jiang Distinguished Professor at East China Normal University, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, and Reader in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, Wales.