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One year toward freedom

By Helen and Peter Evans
web posted April 19, 2004

Living under tyranny is like living in a cage. Freedom means leaving the cage. However, when the cage no longer keeps you in, it also no longer keeps the wolf out.

This is one of the observations made in an interview with Elbegdorj Tsahkia, the first democratic Prime Minister of Mongolia. We were privileged to spend a few hours talking with him about the evolution of democracy and the problems of transition from a Communist regime to one of freedom. Now, just past the anniversary of our first year in Iraq, we believe these are valuable lessons we should be reminded of.

We tend to forget that it took 12 years in our own country to get from the Revolution to the Constitution. Freedom does not come in a package. By its very definition it must be experienced and we all make mistakes along the way. We may study our own history or that of Mongolia but, simply enough, all we have to do is remember our own first tastes of freedom.

Remember when you first left home for college or a job? You probably wanted the "freedom" of staying out late and making your own decisions, but you still wanted the "security" that you could tap into the family savings account if the going got tough or even go back home, if needed. It was a sort of half-freedom. What was one of the first freedoms you wanted to experience? Could it have been parties or a few of the vices you weren't allowed at home? Whether individuals or nations, it seems we all go through a transition to freedom; it usually doesn't happen in a lightning flash.

What follows is the first segment of our interview with Elbegdorj Tsahkia (whose nickname is EB). In this part of the series we get an insight into the mind of someone growing up within a tyranny and why it is not so self-evident, at first blush, that anything is wrong. Freedom takes vision, courage and time. It requires a long view rather than a search for immediate satisfaction. You'll probably recognize the common problem facing the "elites" who hold or want to hold power; be it a Communist tyranny or our own Leftish Democrats. Living in this nation, where over two-thirds of Americans own their own homes, it is astonishing to contemplate a culture wherein, until very recently, the very desire to own private property was considered an act of treason.

Helen: What was it like living under Communism and what is life like now in Mongolia? It may seem strange, but there are some people who don't know there is a major difference.

EB: I think we all know that Communism is like a dictatorship. One party and one man who rules. The rest of the country works for the Party, for the elite. They confiscate all private property and close all the entrepreneurial ability of the people. That ends competition, which results in no growth and no initiative. Everyone works for the boss, or the elite. The elite makes the decisions for the people. The main headache of the dictators, the elite, is how to control the people. Their main fear is that people will not allow themselves to be controlled. In order to control them they make the people like prisoners in their own society.

To do this they must prohibit free expression, and if people exercise their right to expression; be it ideas, criticism of leadership, or even pursuing happiness in your own life rather than what the party elite want, or any other way that the elite does not approve, you are really punished. If you try to exercise the right of private property, or even your own business, you also will be punished.

Peter: So it's almost like treason to express yourself, own private property or control your own livelihood?

EB: Yes, treason of the Communist or Socialist ideology.

Peter: How long was Mongolia under rule of the Communist party?

EB: You know many people think that Communists of the Soviet Union was the longest-ruling party in the world, but they ruled their country only 74 years from 1917 to 1991. Mongolian Revolutionary Party, the Mongolian Communist Party ruled our country from 1921 to 1996. That means the Mongolian Communist party ruled 75 years, one year longer than the Soviet Communist Party. Yet, in 1996 we actually changed all that.

Peter: Now until 1991 you had actually been a part of the Soviet Union?

EB: Mongolia was an independent country, not one of the Soviets. The Soviet Union consisted of 15 Republics, or Soviets, but Mongolia was not included in that. We did ally ideologically and were a satellite country.

Helen: 75 years is almost four generations. What was it like when freedom broke out?

EB: Communism, Marxism and Leninism was sort of a religion. In fact, they prohibited the exercise of any other religious beliefs. At first, when they came and confiscated property, people fought against them. But the people lost and were killed or escaped from their own country. It was very serious during the Lenin and Stalin times, until maybe 1950, when the Cold War began. But then, in 1954 when Kruschev came into power, the regime became milder toward us; they no longer killed hundreds or thousands of people. They did send them to exile instead or to other countries, to prisons or to mental hospitals.

They also started to make mistakes. For instance if someone from your family was killed, you would have some type of inner rage inside and would pass that along to your future generations. Generation talked to generation and spread the word about how cruel the Communists were. These hurts didn't, and don't, go away. They remained inside the soul of the people.

In the 1980's, when the Soviet's began Peristroika and Glasnost, there were many critics of the Stalin and Lenin times. At that time I was a student in the Soviet Union, in the Ukraine. We read a lot of newspapers and publications and were surprised that these rulers had been really bad guys. After that, people also got the notion that not only were one or two people bad, maybe the whole system was bad. That was the great notion. It wasn't only one or two people who were wrong, the whole system was wrong.

Helen: Does communism actually proclaim to the people that it's a system "for your own good"? In other words, how do they present themselves to the people? And do the people believe them?

EB: Many of the people genuinely believed in the Communist ideology. They present themselves very clearly, in a very good way. They actually hide their shadow and they only show the good things. The highest peak of Communism was between 1970 and 1980.

I was so surprised how everything was available to the elite, of which I was one at that time. You could go anywhere, do anything and get anything and the state paid for it. For example, I was a student and bread was without charge in restaurants. Then we bought soup and ate the free bread with it. Plus, the government paid all our tuition, housing and even gave us some money. The metro was good and ran well. The shops we shopped in had everything we wanted... but it didn't last long. However, it did divert people's attention for a while, to think, "maybe Communism works." Plus, they kept telling us that after 20 or 30 years your life will be much, much better than now. Everything will be free in Communism. When you believe in Communism you don't want to ask such questions so, when they tell us that it's going to happen for the better in 10 or 20 or more years, we want to believe. They would also point to East Germany and say they have almost achieved the perfect state. So we kept waiting for perfection, for the perfect society. Many people truly believed it.

Helen: What about the people who didn't see the good part; for instance, those who had someone in their family killed by the Communists?

EB: In order to kill people, the Communists organized a sort of fabrication. They would charge 'espionage', 'treason' or 'betrayal' against the person they wanted to kill. For example, in America, some CIA agent would be charged with working with the Soviet Union. A very common charge was "betrayal of the communist ideology." It was very difficult to find out what exactly was betrayed. Or another charge was that the individual tried to organize an illegal organization. That would usually mean some sort of non-governmental organization, or a possible opposition party. It was like that. A whole machine worked to prove the guilt of the person charged. In the Soviet Union they had about 7 types of newspapers, for instance Pravda, a children's newspaper, a youth newspaper and others. Plus, only one channel on TV, and that channel was owned by the government and said only what the government wanted people to hear. For instance, programs about how heroically people build Communist villages and how heroically they fought against the bourgeoisie, who had land and property before Communism.

Peter: You grew up with this all around you and you didn't know anything else. So what helped you to begin to see another way?

EB: It was very difficult to see another way. When I was young and a child, we were members of the Party beginning in elementary school. In secondary school we became Pioneers. And then there was another Committee from 16 years up, if you behaved well and had good grades. Then, if you are exceptionally good, you are a member of the Communist Party, the elite. The Communist Party membership opened doors to a good career. Without membership, it is difficult to live with a good job.

I did believe in Communism after graduation of high school. I dreamed to study at university, but didn't ever dare dream of studying in the Soviet Union. I dreamed to become a journalist and to study in Mongolia in our capital city. There were different schools for different professions; for instance, if you wanted to be a doctor you went to one, a journalist, another and so on; but there were only so many slots each year. When I graduated, there weren't any slots open for a journalist. So I decided to go to work in a State company.

This was a big change for me since, for the first 16 years of my life, I lived in the countryside with my parents, far from a big city. They were ordinary herdsmen. So, after I graduated, my parents, who had become old after raising 8 children, myself being the youngest, decided to move to the city. After one year of working in the city in the State company I was recruited into the Army. Every man in Mongolia is obligated to serve in the Army for three years.

I impressed my Commander in the Army and was in charge of the Revolutionary Youths. I was even promoted to Sergeant, with three stripes. Also I had a passion to write poetry and wrote small poems, and I also wanted to be published in our Army newspaper.

It was a big surprise when two of my small poems were published in the Army newspaper. It was also big news for my friends, since it was like being published in the New York Times or Washington Post. Then the commander called me to his office. I thought I had done something wrong! Instead, he told me that the Chief of the Army newspaper wanted to meet me and I was being given 24 hours off to go meet him. He actually didn't believe it was my writing. He asked me if this was really my poetry. I replied, "yes." So he asked me if I could write something while I was there in his office. He gave me about 30 minutes and I wrote a small poem. When I showed it to him he said, "hmm, looks good." Then he asked me if I would like to go study in the Soviet Union for journalism. Well, that was my dream. I said, "yes" and he told me there were two slots, but it was not ordinary journalism, but military journalism. There were also 50 competitors for those two slots.
So I took the exam which consisted of 3 subjects and I was chosen. I served in the Mongolian People's Army for only one year and then I was sent to the Soviet Union.

Helen: How long were you in the Soviet Union?

EB: Five years, majoring in Military Journalism. During that 5 years I tried to publish a student newspaper, but we only published one issue. At that time it was a big deal and they called us and asked us why we were doing that. In those days it was still illegal to publish a newspaper that was not approved of by the government. We told them that is was sort of a journalistic academic assignment and we tried to show to our professors how capable we were since we were not only writing articles, we were publishing them too. However, they closed us down and told us that if we do it again we will be jailed or at the very least be expelled from school. All we wanted to do was show our initiative.

Helen: Was it at this point that you decided you were not happy with Communism?

EB: Not quite yet. It was a small shadow, a small stage, but not complete disillusionment. The most important thing during my disappointment was the soft power influence by America and other western powers. Hard power means military, but soft power means freedom and intangible powers such as influence. The greatest of these was the Voice of America, another was Radio Free Europe As we listened to these we realized that they were telling more truths than the news we were given by the media in the Soviet Union.

Peter: As a student in journalism, were you conscious of the quality of the official media? What was the feeling among the other students about the quality of the government media, the official media?

EB: We thought the newspapers were good and the journalists were of the highest professional quality, but I didn't like the excessive Marxism and Leninist ideology. They taught us that when we write any article we should get some message from either Marx or Lenin, even Engels to prove our argument. Do you know that Lenin actually wrote 110 volumes! Commentaries, letters, everything. Plus we were assigned to read almost all of them.

Peter: Their writings were revered just as our Bible is revered by us.

EB: Yes, like the Bible.

Peter: So Marxism and Leninism were the religion, and their writings were the holy books.

EB: Yes. Then after my graduation I went to work with the Army newspaper as a journalist back in Mongolia. I focused on some critical issues in Army Life. I wrote some big articles about wrong doings in the Army and their achievements.

Peter: Was that taking a risk?

EB: Not really, because it was also supported by doctrine. For at that time in Communism they actually encouraged a kind of self criticism, but there was a limit. But also we started having talks in our kitchens, which we called "kitchen talk." This is where we criticized our leadership and we all felt there was something wrong, but we didn't know exactly what was wrong, nor how to fix it. On thing that Gorbachev gave to the people is that he tried to put make-up on the Communist face. He said he was going to improve Communism and society. Well, he tried for five years, but instead of improving, Communism decayed. Too many people felt it and from that they got the notion that it's impossible to improve the system; there is something wrong with it. Instead of improving it, we needed a complete change. It was one of the turning points in my life. I continued to talk to my friends at home, in their homes... but not in public places.

Then, in late November of 1989, there was a call for a big Youth conference in Mongolia and I was selected to be one of the delegates. Some of my friends were also chosen as delegates. Before this conference I was also a member of the organizers of the conference. One night we talked about what the conference should accomplish. At one gathering of about 100 of us, where we were very critical of the leadership, we decided that we should ask that they support Peristroika and Glasnost more. I suggested that we needed to exchange ideas all over the country, like we were in our small meetings. I even suggested we publish some type of newspaper for this free exchange of ideas. After a day or so my friends called and said it's a very interesting idea and they were talking about it more and more. So the more we talked about it we decided that a newspaper alone was not enough, but we also had to establish some type of non-governmental organization. We needed an organized movement in Mongolia to support Peristroika. We finally decided to use this conference where more than 1,000 delegates from all around the country would attend to announce our idea for a newspaper and a movement. If we used this conference forum we just might succeed. It seemed a one-time chance to succeed, for if we didn't succeed we might be captured and placed in jail or maybe even killed. So this was a very serious issue and decision.

At the conference were not only delegates from all over the county and various youth organizations., but also members of the Politburo. It was a highly publicized event. My friends decided I should be the one to announce our plan at the conference since I was a journalist and in the Military.

So on the first day of the conference I asked the moderator for some time to speak. However, he didn't grant my request and we were running out of time. We did have a kind of KGB [secret police] system in our country and it worked very well. I think they knew what we were planning and tried to block it. So my friends decided they would write my name on a small piece of paper and give it to the moderator and demand that I get a chance to speak. I was in the first row and many, many papers arrived up front with my name. Yet, still he wouldn't let me speak.

So I collected more of the papers and used the excuse of giving the papers to the moderator to approach and get on the stage. Then I said, "Oh, while I'm here, I'd like to use my time (which was 5 minutes) to make an announcement." I publicly asked the moderator to speak. The crowd was clapping and shouting for me to speak, yet the moderator was outraged. He told me to sit down and was yelling at me.

Yet, I stood my ground and spoke. I merely told them that as young people we wanted to establish a non-governmental organization in order to support Peristroika and support our party.

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