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Tragic SpiritsShamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia$

Manduhai Buyandelger

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226086552

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226013091.001.0001

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Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories

Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories

(p.67) Two Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories
Tragic Spirits

Manduhai Buyandelger

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 2 discusses state-enforced forgetting during socialism and its persistence after socialism’s collapse. Repeated cycles of purging and rehabilitation blurred the boundaries between victims and perpetrators, discredited individual memories, and allowed the state to be perceived as less violent. More indirect technologies of forgetting, which are enmeshed with other forms of power, include the routinization of state-sanctioned narratives, undermining the framework of collective remembering, erasing the contexts for remembering, the manipulation of emotions, and silencing. The author argues that in addition to the forced altering of the content of memories, the state impaired confidence in memory and led to self-imposed forgetting. She uses Benjamin’s emphasis on the separation between progress and history to illuminate the estrangement of people from their past, which takes the form of forgotten or unknown origin spirits. After the collapse of socialism, state agency has been embodied by individual citizens who impose the silencing of the past on their fellow citizens. Further, there is an eerie link between the shamanic and the state: the forgotten and identity-less souls of the dead echo the unidentified bodies in hidden mass burials, and both are repercussions of state violence and forgetting.

Keywords:   memory, state violence, forgetting, mass burials, rehabilitation, power, silence, propaganda, Walter Benjamin, purges

This chapter is about state-enforced forgetting—its technologies and representations—and the repercussions of forgetting on shamanic practices, different generations, and individual relationships during and after socialism. I trace the ways in which forgetting influenced the local politics and discourses that shape the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities. State-enforced forgetting is different from noninvasive forgetting as a part of the dialectic of remembering and forgetting through which societies sort out their collective memory. Not only does forced forgetting erase parts of the past and prevent their transmission to newer generations; it also creates anxiety about the loss, which weakens individuals’ confidence in their own memories. It is this profound sense of loss, a belief in endless oblivion despite the proliferation of memories, that led me to question the state technologies of forgetting.1 What did the state do to create a sense of endless forgetting in addition to the acts of erasing and suppressing the past?

I concentrate on social forgetting, which I define as techniques and procedures that the state uses in order to undermine social remembering. Social remembering consists of the culturally specific and dynamic systems and practices that communities rely on to keep in touch with their past. It features, for example, group membership (Halbwachs 1992 [1925]), commemorative rituals (Durkheim 2001 [1912]), physical habits (Connerton 1989), and a memoryscape—the spatiotemporal terrain on which memories are distributed, such as landscape, buildings, and roads (Cole 2001). The Mongolian socialist state enforced forgetting through at least three processes: destruction; the erasure and suppression of the memories of that destruction and suppression (the forgetting of forgetting); and, finally, the construction of new memories intended to substitute for those that were eliminated. In practice, these processes were not isolated and categorized. (p.68) It is done here in order to highlight the fact that state-enforced forgetting was a systematic and continuous process that extended far beyond the initial destruction and killing. In order to erase the memories of its own violence, the state, for instance, buried purge victims in unmarked mass graves, closed and controlled archives, and silenced individual stories. The new memories and remembering practices it created were meant to distract from, override, and substitute for actual memories. Many of them took the form of grand public rituals designed to compel acceptance of the state’s narrative as unquestioned truth.

Of course, I cannot access forgetting (individual and social) that is beyond representation, so I focus on the technologies of forgetting, for they are visible. I forgo examining individuals’ memories that remain beyond representation, though not because I wish to isolate individual memories from societal ones. I agree entirely with Bloch (1996) and Cole (2004) that the individual and society shape remembering and forgetting dialectically, and that in some cases individuals are fully dependent on the society for maintaining memory (Halbwachs 1980 [1950]). However, the state’s long-term, systematic, forced forgetting altered the dynamic between individual and social memories and created certain gaps and omissions.2 Given the Buryats’ enduring and creative resistance to the state’s policies of suppressing the past, it is possible that a great many unarticulated and unshared individual memories lie outside social representations of remembering and are beyond our grasp.3 Hidden rituals, healing disguised as physical therapy, and the use of “evocative transcripts” (Humphrey 1994:22) that purposely multiply and confuse meanings all indicate that memory was very much alive in certain private and semiprivate domains. We already know from the scholarship on memory in socialist and postsocialist contexts that oppressive regimes never “precluded the active construction and transmission of unofficial pasts” (Watson 1994: 2) and that state socialism was a weak and disorganized institution (Mueggler 2001).4

But the secretive nature of the resistance also suggests that confronting the state openly put too much at stake. Of special interest are the techniques and processes used by the state toward the end of socialism, which created anxiety about forgetting and a loss of confidence in individuals’ remembering. The concern here is not what has been objectively and quantitatively lost, but the ways in which the technologies of forgetting created among the people specific feelings and convictions about their losses, and how such feelings influence their understanding of the present-day remaking of the past.

(p.69) Indeed, as Kaplonski (2004) illustrates, anxiety about the past was one impetus behind the democratic movement that came at the end of socialism. Elites and intellectuals expressed an almost nationwide questioning of the past and urged that the suppressed past of the early years of socialism be brought up publicly. The Buryats’ angry spirits, who have returned to exact revenge for having been forgotten and abandoned, are a culturally specific part of this unofficial frenzy about the past. The Buryats’ attempts to calm these spirits and thus remake their past have exploded into a seemingly endless proliferation of them. On one hand, the Buryats suspect that there are additional memories waiting to be revealed. On the other, weighed down by the extent of the destruction and erasure, they are also skeptical about the possibility of retrieving credible memories. In order to understand these anxieties about the loss of the past and the problems that have arisen while remaking it, we need to understand what it meant to live under a totalitarian regime that suppressed memories and engineered history. For that, we need to examine the state technologies of forgetting and their implementation.

Our analytical tools for the study of forgetting, however, are limited. Despite the proliferation of research on memory at the turn of the millennium, forgetting has received little attention in the social sciences. Only recently have scholars emphasized forgetting as an integral part of memory (Cole 2001, Fabian 2003, Connerton 2009, Vivian 2010). Far from being merely a failure of biology and neurology, forgetting is socially constituted within the contexts of power, agency, and resistance. For instance, in post-colonial Madagascar forgetting is one way communities have dealt with traumatic events (Cole 2001). In the European and American urban world, according to Connerton (2009), forgetting is an inevitable outcome of the postmodernization of architecture and the lack of continuity and connection in public spaces.

Some philosophers have advocated for the potential uses of forgetting for humankind. For instance, Nietzsche regarded forgetting as a moral impulse “in the service of the future and the present” (1983:77), as a remedy for the malady of history, which he said no longer knew how “to employ the past as a nourishing food” (1983:120). Ricoeur (2004) has argued that forgetting is a precursor as well as a result of forgiving. Some scholars suggest that structured forgetting is necessary to maintaining national unity and building democracy after violent conflicts (Misztal 2005, 2009). I see these arguments as critical and humanistic engagements with making history. They advocate omitting violence in making history in order to prevent (p.70) future hostilities. Yet they do not ask what forgetting entails, what methods and technologies have been used, and what its impact might be on individuals and communities. I raise these questions because forgetting has been the cause and a part of generating violence, establishing domination, and oppressing others. The Mongolian socialist state, for instance, induced forgetting in the Nietzschean sense: to serve the future and present, to maintain national unity, and, as Misztal suggests, to prevent future bloodshed in the form of revenge. The state also strove to achieve “a dramatic and unprecedented break between past and present” (Appadurai 1996:2–3) in order to build a modern socialist state in which all individuals benefited from the progress of modernity. Yet what seemed to be good intentions and correct measures has led to the suffering, to various degrees, of most of the nation and to the consolidation of the totalitarian state.

It is not surprising that historians’ attempts to understand the circumstances and power relations that led to the erasure of history led them to attend to the larger ideological contexts of racism, colonialism, slavery, and social evolution. For instance, Brundage (2000) questions the paucity of black historical narratives, and Vidal-Naquet (1992) explores the contexts of Holocaust denial. Trouillot (1995), for instance, argues that the Haitian Revolution of 1790—the first slave revolution—received almost no coverage in Western media and histories because European and American journalism and scholarship were dominated by eighteenth-century racism and invalid ideas about social evolution. Deeply held convictions about the inferiority of black people prevented them from recognizing the Haitian Revolution (Trouillot 1995:72).

I join Brundage, Vidal-Naquet, and Trouillot in exploring the larger ideological, geopolitical, and national circumstances behind forgetting. As an anthropologist, I also examine the state techniques of forgetting and the ways in which some of them became a part of everyday life and acquired values and meanings that invade social and individual memories. I show that in Mongolia, forgetting in general involves three processes. First, there is destruction and killing; the new socialist state in the 1930s destroyed about 8 percent of its population and almost all material objects that were, in the state’s view, related to the past. Secondly, the state suppressed memories of its own violence while continuing to suppress the past. And thirdly, the socialist state created new memories to substitute for the ones it had destroyed. The new postsocialist state maintains the past under its control, but in indirect and less visible ways.

(p.71) Technologies of Forgetting

First, Extermination of the Past

Mongolia’s political cleansing began in the late 1920s and peaked in 1937–1940. The socialist state labeled the Buddhist clergy, the intelligentsia, the upper class, wealthy nomads, and the Buryats “enemies of the people” and began prosecuting them. Sources give the number of those killed as being between 50,000 and 100,000—in a country with a population of less than 800,000 at the time. The exact figure will probably never be known, because many records of the period were lost or destroyed.5 The state also destroyed material objects related to the people it purged and exterminated, among them eight hundred Buddhist monasteries with their libraries, religious objects, and artworks.6

The Buryats were one of the state’s primary targets. Stalin took revenge upon them for their flight to Mongolia, for joining Ungern-Sternberg, and for their pan-Mongolist aspirations. He labeled them antiproletarians, traitors to the Bolshevik Revolution, and White (czarist) allies. He sent the Mongolian prime minister, Khorloogiin Choibalsan, thirty thousand bullets as a birthday gift, implying his support for the extermination of the Buryats (Kaplonski 2002). The purge was further fueled by suspicions that the Buryats were allies of the Japanese during the 1935–1937 Soviet-Japanese border wars. About fifteen thousand Buryats—half of the adult population—were killed.7 In some Buryat settlements, all of the able-bodied men were arrested, leaving women and children to fend for themselves; there were no men left, I was told, to slaughter a sheep—strictly a man’s job—for provisions. This cleansing was carried out not only in order to secure the country’s independence but also out of loyalty to the Soviet Union, because it offered protection from outside intrusion and economic assistance.

In addition to the destruction and killing, the socialist government also used interpretation, through which it altered the meanings of events that took place in the past. The interpretation of history, as Foucault (1977) calls it, is a conspicuous form of domination. One particular Buryat case at the turn of the twentieth century constitutes a vivid example.

In 1920, after being defeated by the Bolsheviks, the czarist general Ungern-Sternberg went to Mongolia. At that time Mongolia was fighting the Chinese, who were trying to annex Mongolia to China. Internally, Mongolia’s political leadership was fractured into multiple groups, the most active ones being the new revolutionaries who fought against the theocratic (p.72) monarchy. Ungern-Sternberg sided with the monarch and fought against the Chinese troops. He recruited many Buryats (voluntarily and by force) to fight the war that was to liberate Mongolia from the Chinese. This was an important victory for Mongolia in its march toward independence.

Until Ungern-Sternberg went to Mongolia and began making military movements, Bolshevik Russia ignored Mongolia and its requests for assistance. But Ungern-Sternberg’s proximity to the Siberian and far eastern borders of Russia worried the new Bolshevik government in Moscow. In order to protect its recent victory, it promptly sent Red Army troops to help the Mongol revolutionary forces defeat Ungern-Sternberg’s army and establish socialism in Mongolia. The Buryats, who had fought the Chinese with Ungern-Sternberg, were now fighting revolutionary Mongol and Bolshevik forces. The Bolsheviks prevailed and established a socialist government in Mongolia. The Buryats who had joined Ungern-Sternberg and fought against the Chinese, and then against the Bolshevik Russian and revolutionary Mongol troupes, were cast as enemies of the Soviet and Mongolian states. The Buryats’ negative image was based on their fight against the Russians and the Mongolians, while their contributions to Mongolia’s independence were selectively suppressed until after the purges of the late 1930s.

Silencing Individual Stories

Since the dead do not talk, the stories of those who were arrested and killed were silenced even before they could materialize. Because their deaths went unwitnessed, their last moments remain surrounded by mystery and guess-work. Strangely, the narratives of the living seem to struggle to break free from the silence of the dead. In Bayan-Uul, when I asked people about state violence, their answers were often vague and distant. Most people with whom I spoke were born after the violence. The ones who were alive during the 1930s only witnessed or heard about the arrests, which took place in the dead of night or in pastures, where there were few witnesses. Family members expected those arrested to return home, as did the detainees themselves, convinced of their innocence. Many women waited in vain and died without ever learning the whereabouts of their male relatives.

Most people dwelled on the magnitude and spread of violence, hardly questioning why the state engaged in violence to begin with. The Buryats explained the magnitude of the violence by the fact that once it began, it took on a life of its own, became embedded in local life, and transformed into a self-perpetuating, uncontrollable force. Purges and local denunciations (p.73) were used as a tool for settling accounts from previous struggles during revolution and collectivization and turned into a chance for have-nots to take revenge on their former dominators. Another reason violence was widespread was because of the quota laid on each perpetrator: failure to meet it resulted in punishment. And “some perpetrators wanted more power and did their job to perfection,” while “others used their power to settle existing interpersonal conflicts.”

While these remarks gave me a nuanced understanding of the circumstances that led to the proliferation of violence, they also made the state’s role in the violence ambiguous, distant, and insignificant.8 Most of those with whom I spoke refrained from blaming the state, saying such things as, “Once it began, the state had little control over the purging.” They also emphasized the impossibility of identifying victims and perpetrators in the state’s repeated cycles of violence: “Everyone was a victim at that time. There was no escape. People who carried out the arrests one day became the victims the next morning.” It seems that people chose to accept and endure the violence as an uncontrollable force because there were no losers or winners, and because the suffering was communal. Only a few individuals assigned the state any responsibility for the violence. While it is clear that for the Buryats the local politics behind the spread of violence was much more understandable and traceable, it still puzzles me why and how the state got away with little, if any, blame.

For one thing, the state dissipated the notion of victimhood through repeated cycles of purges and rehabilitations. Throughout socialism, Mongolia had at least three cycles of state violence, each followed by rehabilitations of the wrongly accused and purges of the perpetrators.9 A historian of twentieth-century Mongolia whose acquaintance I made, Munhdalain Rinchin, describes the cycles of state violence and the rehabilitations that immediately followed them—all of which help us to understand the confusion, terror, and uncertainty that people were living under during socialism, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. The violence of the 1930s aimed to eliminate the enemies of the socialist revolution. In the 1940s, during the second cycle, the state targeted remnant antirevolutionaries, especially within the MPRP. The third cycle, in the 1960s, combined internal cleansing with the suppression of intellectuals (Rinchin 2000). Following each cycle of violence, the state acknowledged that there were some aspects that went wrong in the process of eliminating enemies—individual officers’ misconduct, internal power struggles, bureaucratic confusion, and the like—and would rehabilitate those whom it found to have been falsely accused. Then it would purge some of the perpetrators on the grounds that (p.74) they committed crimes during the violence or for some other reason. Thus we can see how the purgings of the perpetrators and the rehabilitations of the accused following each cycle of violence blurred the boundaries between innocent and guilty, and between perpetrators and victims. It turned almost everyone into a victim, either real or imagined, either from the time of the purge or during its aftermath. The repeated cycles of purging and shifting of targets partly explain why the Buryats told me that there was no escape from the violence. It was not always clear what criteria were used to arrest individuals, or how someone who was correct today could be wrong tomorrow. None of the rehabilitations were publicly announced or commemorated, nor did they ever enter local historical lore.

The repeated cycles of persecutions and rehabilitations, as well as the fact that persecutions were publicly known while rehabilitations were handled privately, contributed to the silencing of individual stories. Public accusation gives the victim a public identity as an enemy of the state. But private rehabilitations remove individuals’ identities as victims in the private realm without necessarily rehabilitating them publicly. Some people experienced all three cycles of repression and rehabilitation, while others suffered only repeated repressions; yet others were repressed and rehabilitated once, only to be repressed again in the next round and remain a victim. The obliteration of the boundary between perpetrator and victim owing to the repeated cycles of persecution and rehabilitation creates the impression that everyone has been a victim. It is no coincidence that even after the collapse of socialism, the postsocialist state fashions the political violence as a national tragedy, not an individual one: that way, victimhood becomes part of a common experience and a common narrative, and individual memories become secondary. At the local level, remembering violence is often reduced to discussions about the equal distribution of suffering. The memories of individual experiences are often subsumed under a communal narrative, which renders them silent or insignificant.

In the following section I unpack some of the techniques through which the state was able to hide its agency in the violence while perpetuating a positive and benevolent image.

Exploiting the Fear of Outside Domination

The fear of outside domination, especially by China, has the strongest influence on Mongolian nationalism in the twentieth century. When Soviet/ Russian influence diminished in the 1990s, for the first time since the 1920s, and Mongolia was opened to the outside world, many older individuals (p.75) expressed fear that the country had lost the protection of its “Soviet brothers” from foreign takeover. Fear and hatred of the Chinese in particular spanned generations. The aggressive tactics of the late Qing Dynasty and the new Chinese republic in assimilating Mongolia into China in the late nineteenth century spurred Mongolians to vigilance and lasting nationalism. The state advocated strengthening itself in order to withstand intrusion from without and eliminating enemies, traitors, and perpetrators of violence in order to protect ordinary citizens. Violence for the purpose of protection renders the state’s wrath tolerable and justifiable. State violence is perceived as “good” if its goal to protect the innocent and target the enemy. The state devised its own narrative justifying violence as necessary to protect itself from its enemies. In one popular discourse, which was spun off from history textbooks and literature, Stalin was the savior of Mongolia’s independence from China. The purges of the clergy, the intelligentsia, the upper class, and the Buryats were depicted as part of the revolutionaries’ struggle to defend the nation-state against counterrevolutionaries, reactionaries, and terrorists.

For instance, in films about the 1921 socialist revolution, aristocrats were represented as exploiters and as the allies of Chinese politicians.10 Buddhist lamas were represented as eserguu—terrorists skilled in the most horrific tortures. In a film called Into Hiding, a counterrevolutionary head lama nicknamed Dambiijaa pulls the heart from the chest of a captured revolutionary while he is still alive. The camera pans to a hand raising the still-beating heart while blood splashes on a ceremonial banner. The scene, which is accompanied by Buddhist ceremonial music rhythmicized with cymbals and drums, was meant to provoke a visceral reaction of terror and hatred. In the Mongolian Revolutionary Museum the exhibits of the early twentieth century displayed the instruments of torture and illustrations of people being tortured under the orders of Qing officials, Mongol landlords, and clergy. Schoolchildren in the city of Ulaanbaatar from kindergarten on up often made class trips to the museum.

We see here a parallel to Taussig’s concept of colonial mimesis. The Mongolian state mimicked the cruelty it attributed to the enemies it yearned to destroy, just as Spanish colonizers in the Americas mirrored in their own behavior the savagery they imputed to the Indians they colonized. In fact, the colonists themselves actually devised the tortures of which they accused the natives (Taussig 1987:134). In Mongolia, the state’s representation of its enemies as more cruel than itself was one of the ways in which it justified its own violence against its enemies. In so doing it strengthened its image as a rescuer of the people and vindicated itself of any charges of (p.76) gratuitous oppression. “The importance … of fabulation extends beyond the nightmarish quality of its contents,” writes Taussig. “All societies live by fictions taken as real…. The epistemological, ontological, and otherwise philosophical problem or representation … becomes a high powered medium of domination” (1987:121) that renders the dominators capable of anything (1987:122). Mimicry and storytelling justified the violence of the Mongolian state. Mongolia’s revolutionaries themselves raised their enemies’ hearts to salute ceremonial banners. A film about the military commander Khatanbaatar Magsarjav represents the ritual not a gruesome and sickening act of bloodthirsty torture, as it was in the hands of the lamas, but as part of a respected leader’s victory celebration.

Repression, fear, and uncertainty kept individual memories from being articulated, and the constant repetition of the state’s narrative robbed people of confidence in their own memories. “When you repeat something a hundred times, it starts becoming the truth,” a friend in Bayan-Uul said of the state’s rhetoric. The omnipresence, repetition, and routinization of state narratives through media, party meetings, and political celebrations “creates an uncertain reality out of fiction, giving shape and voice to the formless form of the reality in which an unstable interplay of truth and illusion becomes a phantasmic social force” (Taussig 1987:121).

Unconditional Love and Selective Forgetting

Many Mongol leaders resisted Stalin’s despotic plans in the 1930s. Stalin assassinated seven who refused to implement his plans before he finally promoted Choibalsan to head of state, in which role he carried out state-sponsored murders.11 As Baabar (1999:345) suggests, the remaining leaders were forced to accept direction from Moscow for a number of reasons. For one, the Soviet Union warned Mongol leaders who disagreed with Soviet policies that the Soviets had no obligation to help Mongolia maintain its independence from China. The popular and scholarly discourse continues to emphasize that Stalin was the only leader in the international arena who recognized Mongolian independence, so the violence he imposed had to be carried out lest he follow through on his threat to withdraw essential Soviet support for Mongolia’s independence from China.12 Stalin’s violence was seen as the inevitable fate of what the Mongolians called themselves jijig uls (a small nation); there was little the Mongolian state could have done to withstand ih gurnii deerenguy uzel (the domination of the great empire). Although people are aware of Choibalsan’s role in the violence, most view him as a leader who saved Mongolia’s independence (p.77) during its fragile years. He influenced Stalin to continue defending Mongolia’s independence against the Chinese. Based on popular narratives, Stalin, as the leader of a powerful empire, wielded more leverage over the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong than did Choibalsan. By the latter half of the twentieth century, Soviet domination was seen as preferable to the possibility of Chinese colonialism. For this independence, as many people told me, some sacrifices might have been necessary. In other words, the memories of state violence were refracted through the prism of nationalism, which was, in turn, shaped by cold war geopolitics.

In addition to building a narrative with a persuasive content, the state strived to disseminate it as widely and deeply as possible, so that it would substitute for and suppress individual narratives. It intended to engrave its narrative in people’s minds and to that end utilized various representations, methods, and delivery channels that targeted different areas of cognition and emotion. Starting in 1925, every town or settlement built a ger called the “red corner,” and bigger towns built imposing soyolin tov (culture centers) for concerts, shows, films, and meetings. These red corners were the houses for the state screens on which were projected to the people the ideals they were to adhere to as they were socialized and entertained. In those spaces, people were subjected to uzel surtlin ajil (ideological workings) in ways both subtle and overt. A number of museums, national radio broadcasting stations, newspapers, magazines, and theaters were established during that period.13 These were the state’s nonrepressive, constructive forms of power, meant to entertain and educate the nation. As Foucault wrote, “What makes power hold, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no; it also traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (1994:120).

The propaganda representations were meant to create some very specific states of mind in the populace. The state narrative represented the nation as vulnerable, fragile, and alone in the geopolitical arena, but also stoic in its struggle to keep outside domination at bay. This was intended to generate feelings of altruism in citizens, the impulse to protect the nation, and, if necessary, acceptance and perhaps even forgiveness of the state’s violence against its own people. The state claimed a higher priority on the spectrum of love and dedication than people’s family members. In one well-known poem, a young soldier announces that he is burning with love for a special someone. Not only are these his first deep emotional stirrings, but this is also the first time he verbalizes his feelings in the words “I love you.” And then the audience learns that the soldier “had never yet uttered such words (p.78) to anyone, including his beloved spouse”; the object of his affection is his country. Socialist poems such as this pledging the speaker’s life and unconditional love to the motherland also made the threat of military conquest as real as possible.

The Buryats occupy a complex position in this discourse. They share other Mongolians’ feelings of nationalism and desire for national independence. Yet unlike the dominant Khalkhas, the Buryats feel Mongolia’s state oppression and their own marginalization more acutely. They dealt with two domineering actors that also opposed each other: the state and the larger geopolitical powers that dominated it. Many Buryats I know privilege belonging to the Mongolian state and resist larger powers’ efforts to dominate the country. At the same time, their emotions about their country conflict with the resentment and grief, among other things, that they feel about the violence of the state.

Undermining the Contexts for Remembering

The socialist state strove to make memories of the past irrelevant to the present by undermining their contexts. After the socialist government was established in the 1920s, it began renaming public and historical spaces, streets, rituals, and celebrations were changed to reflect the goals of the present. For instance, the capital city, Da Hüree (Big Monastery), was renamed Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero). The Mongolian Lunar New Year was renamed Herders’ day, and its celebrations were basically prohibited. In Ulaanbaatar (and the next-biggest city, Darkhan) the state built wedding palaces, thus making marriages and the establishment of families matters that came under state control. The alphabet, personal names, food, hairstyles, consumer goods, clothing, and fashions also changed due to the revolution. All this meant that the younger generations had little reference in everyday life from which to inquire about the past. When the memories of those belonging to an older generation contradicted the national narrative, there was little chance they would be heard by succeeding generations, whose ideological training and values conflicted with those of the past. “The erasure of socio-political context … allowed for the absorption of the particular (memories) into the general” (Steedly 1993:131), and furthered the homogenization of history and the nation. In a homogenizing society, to be a misfit, a reactionary, was not only a source of shame and public alienation, but also invited the threat of state intervention.

Jambal worked as a researcher at the state Academy of Science in the sections on religion and history in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also trained (p.79) as a Tibetan medical practitioner by his grandfather and secretly practiced for a clientele who found him through underground networks. Once he was riding a crowded city bus at the end of a workday, wearing a Western-style suit and carrying a briefcase, to all appearances a proper white-collar employee of his time. A schoolboy of about ten, however, shouted to the entire bus, “I can smell lama in this man!! This man smells of lama!” Everyone stared at Jambal silently, and he experienced the most unbearable feelings of shame and exclusion. Since then, he made sure always to wash his hands and face and air out his suit after his Tibetan medical practices in order not to provoke remembering in public. He performed forgetting by erasing the marks of his practice in order to enter the public space.

Although the “old” knowledge was remembered, despite its repression, by a young child, this story also points out its lack of context and potential to cause trouble. His memory of the smell is inherently politicized. He is alarmed at the smell of a Tibetan medicine not because of its pungency, but because it was dangerous, deserving of abhorrence and denunciation. The child’s memory was the official (and thus politically correct) public memory—and he demonstrated it well. Jambal’s was the individual memory that needed to be (and was) repressed.

So far I have discussed some of the state’s technologies of forgetting: physical destruction; public repression combined with private rehabilitation, which led to confusion about memory; and the processes of suppression, substitution, repetition, and monopolization of memory. There is also the production of knowledge, manipulation of emotions, exploitation of a fear (i.e., of domination by a foreign power), and the erasure of context by means of the alteration of names and customs. The weakening of existing social frameworks along with the building of new ones, as well as the labeling and denigration of the past—these too were among the technologies of forgetting. The list could go on and on, and each item on it can be expanded upon: forgetting takes multiple guises and sometimes infuses life in the most subtle and taken-for-granted ways. Therefore, forgetting consists not only of markers that indicate the erasure of knowledge, but also the habits, routines, and physical movements that lead one to present and practice detachment and hiding. It includes hiding the outward indicators of one’s religion. It is taking care when choosing one’s words in public, or even when speaking among family, so that the children will not learn what is supposed to be forgotten. Practicing these habits until they become ingrained and no longer require conscious attention makes forgetting a part of everyday life. The very fact that the state had to pursue a long-term campaign of forgetting implies that remembering persisted. However, (p.80) even when all the remembering and resistance are taken into account, it is crucial not to underestimate the force of forgetting. In the following section I discuss forgetting across generations and the impact of forgetting on social and kin relations.

Generations of Forgetting and Remembering

Mapping the distribution of forgetting and remembering during socialism across different generations is a conceptually problematic task. For the sake of clarity and convenience, I loosely define at least three generations based on the ways in which people in Bayan-Uul defined them and compared their own knowledge of the past to that of other generations. The first generation lived through the political violence of the 1930s and 1940s. Their personal experiences and memories were directly silenced. The few elders with whom I spoke in Bayan-Uul were meticulous about separating their personal opinions from the official narrative and about distinguishing what they considered to be the state’s bad actions from its good ones, with different explanations for each. Members of this generation accommodated a range of contradictory emotions and beliefs.

Those of the next generation were born in the 1940s and 1950s, after most of the political massacres had been carried out. They grew up with socialist propaganda and were removed from the past, owing to the silencing of their parents’ memories and the dominance of the state’s narrative. The past seeped through to them accidentally, against the will of their parents. Tegshe, a woman in her fifties, remembers that she and others secretly observed a shamanic ritual when they were children, even though their parents had forbidden them to play around the ger where the ritual was taking place. Later the adults caught them imitating the ritual while playing and punished them by making them stand against a wall for a long time with their hands raised. This generation is radically different from the previous one. Their majority constitutes the core of the socialist state, the loyal party cadres, who believed in the state’s narrative. Enthusiasm for and belief in the glorious socialist future led members of this generation to pour their energies into building socialism. For many, their family experiences of violence and death do not undermine their belief in state propaganda. After socialism, they were surprised to learn not only their estranged past, but the fact that they knew very little about their family history and kin. When I spoke with them, they usually told me the official narrative first before starting on either their own, rarely articulated memories or the newly learned knowledge of their past.

(p.81) Members of the generation born in the 1960s and 1970s claim that they grew up with even less knowledge about their past. For them, unlike their parents, belonging to the state is less of an outcome of enthusiasm and propaganda and more a result of being encompassed within its bureaucratic matrix. They see the state as a resource to benefit from rather than an entity that spurred enthusiasm. The circumstances of and motives for the third generation’s silence are different from those of earlier generations. The third generation embodies some specific sentiments that could be called ideological fatigue. They were born into the routinized bureaucratic state, as opposed to being part of (or witnessing) large-scale events such as political violence or collectivization. Thus many have taken the socialist state for granted and feel bored with the system overall. Some look outside the state for an identity. Overall, this generation has a strong desire to learn about the past, but individuals often become discouraged by its inaccessibility and the amount of work required to uncover it. Many of those whom I interviewed saw themselves as the last generation that had some connection to the past and told me that if socialism had not collapsed, then without doubt the next generation would have faced the obliteration of their ethnic identity and the end of shamanism and of memories of the past.

As socialism continued, each generation thought of the previous one as having endured a more oppressive regime than they themselves were experiencing. The 1930s are known as a time of arrests, fear, and suspicion, when “one had to be afraid of one’s shadow.” It was the time of the worst oppression, and memories of it are murky at best. It is possible that the technologies of forgetting became less obvious and less coercive, or that individuals became desensitized. At the same time, each generation thought of themselves as knowing less than the others. In particular, those born in the 1950s and 1960s claim that they were the most tightly controlled and thus knew even less than those who were born later and have better access to their past. Those in the third generation, however, also feel that they are even further removed from their past than their parents. Despite all these differences in remembering and forgetting, the anxiety about the loss of the past and a profound uncertainty about the newly discovered past spans all the generations to differing degrees.

Potential Memories and Uheer

Forgetting is immeasurable: no one can tell what and how much is being lost. There is no end to forgetting, for it is “like an endless abyss” (Ricoeur 2004:414), (p.82) and there is “no accurate measure to destruction” (Düttman 1993:54). Studying forgetting is tricky because it implies loss and absence. As soon as forgetting is mentioned, it can be considered remembering.14 If something is really forgotten, then, does that mean that no one knows that it ever existed? While extensive deliberation on these questions is beyond the scope of this chapter, one answer lies in the possibility of representations of forgetting through culturally specific symbols or media. Measuring the amount of memory does not help to determine or represent forgetting. It all becomes remembering. It is not a matter of volume, but of different categories: sets of symbols, entities, representations, and relationships that mark forgetting and distinguish it from remembering. And these forgetting-based categories influence social and cultural practices in ways different from the categories of remembering, which also shows that forgetting is a process, not an event.

As discussed in the previous chapter, to remember is to know the spirits’ identities: names, kinship ties, huudal buudal, titles and social networks, and other identifications. Sung as poetic evocations, such descriptions are the origin spirits’ verbal memorials. Further, upon possessing a shaman the spirits relay the narratives of the past through his or her body, thus expanding the memory representations of the past among the living.

The Buryats represent forgetting, as opposed to remembering, through incomplete spirits with partial identities, associations, and belonging. Incomplete spirits are partial or even “empty” memories. Depending on the degree to which their identities have been forgotten, they do not make their appearance through possession of a shaman’s body to tell stories. The more forgotten they are (and the less people know about them), the less chance the shamans have to summon them. Forgotten and having thus fallen out of touch, such spirits inform the living of their existence by inflicting misfortune. The Buryats associate crimes, premature deaths, repeated illnesses, severed relationships, violence, and impoverishment with the revenge of forgotten spirits.

Because forgetting is a process, it does not produce homogeneous spirits, but infinite kinds from whom various characteristics are missing. The spectrum from almost completely forgotten to partially remembered spirits is wide and ranges from uheer on one end and well-remembered ongon and ug garval on the other. For these spirits, the Buryats also use the generic word for spirits, ongon. They are neither fully established ug garval in the celestial world, nor are they uheer—obscure, “empty,” angry creatures who roam the earth.15 Overall, most Buryats describe their ug garval (origins, which is more understandable if imagined as shamanic genealogies) as du-tuu (p.83) (incomplete). Thus many are in a perpetual mission to ug garvalaa guitseekh (complete their origins), which means that they need to identify every single origin spirit of their lineage and complete the worship of them. Thus the families must reveal their forgotten origin spirits and their identities and huudal buudal. Although forgotten spirits can to some extent be seen as unsettled memories that keep erupting into the present from the past, the Buryats meticulously distinguish remembering from forgetting by varying their representations.

Uheer are the most pervasive representation of forgetting. Although they are not new in the Mongolian spiritual imaginary, the political violence of the 1930s and the state suppression of memory, including shamanic practices, created additional uheer. The mass killings, burials of the dead in secret in unmarked graves, and absence of rituals of mourning caused the souls of the victims of state violence to remain trapped on earth and turn into uheer. One detail that must be provided in order to make a soul into an origin spirit is the place of the person’s death. The souls of those who die without witnesses to remember the place of their death and make the necessary evocations do not become origin spirits. As seen through the lens of shamanism, mass executions, secret mass burials, and the erasure of individuals’ identities create uheer, not only from the souls of deceased and unremembered shamans, but from the souls of ordinary non-shamans as well.

In a culture where most people live with family members, dying without witnesses and loved ones is seen as especially tragic. Victims of political violence who were arrested and subsequently executed died in a spiritual wilderness, without sympathetic witnesses, and with no one to remember their place of death. Such a death is not only physiological, but also social. The erasure of identity and uncertainty about the time and place of a person’s death prevents proper mourning rituals. If the victim was a shaman, the kin and family would have needed the name of the place where he or she died in order to memorialize it in poetic evocations. Not only did the souls of purge victims turn into uheer, but so did the souls of many people who died of natural causes but were not mourned and buried properly. Importantly, and eerily, this abundance of uheer coincides with a lack of official records about the victims of violence. Kaplonski, who studies the purges of the 1930s, indicates that there are almost no traces of violence against Buryats in a number of archives in which he has been working, including the national and historical archives and those of the internal ministry (personal communication, 2008).

Even the souls of some ordinary people who died nonviolent deaths (p.84) became uheer because they did not receive proper mourning and burial. With the state suppression of religion, the transmission of shamanism became risky, and younger generations had little or no exposure to it before the end of the socialist regime. Throughout socialism the Buryats were unable to create new origin spirits out of the souls of their dead. They also lost touch with most of their existing presocialist origin spirits. Many of the souls of the people who died during socialism and some of the forgotten origin spirits turned into uheer. While some Buryats did sponsor occasional shamanic rituals, as I discuss in chapter 4, they were not public or communal. Sporadic, hidden, and condensed, they were one-to-one consultations effected to appease the spirits, explain to them the harsh state politics, beg them not to come back, and send them off as far away and for as long a time as possible. These rituals were as much about remembering as about forgetting. Owing to the prohibition of shamanic practices, only a few individuals were initiated as shamans.

Uheer constitute the opposite of the Buryats’ intention to memorialize deceased shamans in their families and turn them into origin spirits. Only shamans can become origin spirits, and then only if after death their souls have been propitiated through the appropriate rituals. Everyone else is reborn in the Buddhist manner. If something goes wrong, then anyone can become uheer, shamans and ordinary people alike, regardless of their shamanic or Buddhist background.

When I lived in Bayan-Uul, most Buryats searched for the huudal buudal of their origin spirits, who floated along the spectrum of remembering and forgetting. In addition, some people struggled to tame the uheer, who have the smallest chance of becoming origin spirits. The ways in which the Buryats imagine uheer demonstrate the fact that they are indeed empty memories and entities without identities. They exist in stark contrast with the origin spirits, who are made up of layers of identification and encompass history. Uheer are imagined as deformed figures roaming in packs, wearing drab rags, and screaming in their suffering. Most shamans refuse to be associated with them and claim that Buddhist practitioners exorcise them. But Buddhist practitioners are only able to darah (suppress) them temporarily. Yet uheer become even more harmful after suppression withers. The older the uheer (that is, the more generations they span), the more potent they are—hatuursan (hardened) by their battle with suppression, but also more distant, obscure, and harder to tame. Since their identities are forgotten, they cannot be evoked by shamans and appeased through rituals. At the same time, they cannot be sent into oblivion, because that is done only through a ritual, which in turn requires the same information (p.85) about the spirits as is needed to evoke them. But once some information about the uheer becomes known, they are no longer uheer, but potential memories.

The only way to destroy uheer is to turn them into origin spirits—an act of turning forgetting into remembering. To do that the shamans must locate the identities, clan and kin affiliations, and huudal buudal of the uheer. Once an uheer begins to turn into an origin spirit, the members of the celestial court need to be contacted and given appropriate gifts and sacrificial livestock so that they will bestow titles on the new origin spirit and allocate him or her a job and place, enabling the new member of the celestial world now to leave the Earth. Shamans and their origin spirits are the main agents who, by contacting and negotiating with the members of their networks in the celestial court, strive to accomplish the process. There is no guarantee, no matter how much time and effort have been invested, that an uheer will turn into an origin spirit and stop harming the living.

Uheer, as empty memories, are conceptually the opposite of origin spirits, who are verbal memorials. The Buryats’ representation of forgetting through uheermute and elusive spirits who cannot tell narratives about their pasts—neatly captures the intentions behind the state’s technologies of forgetting, which were meant to homogenize the populace by stripping away their ethnic and gender identities as well as the networks and kinship affiliations that tied them to their past. One of the state’s projects for making a complete break with the past was to destroy or confiscate families’ genealogical records; another was to force people to drop their family name and adopt their father’s patronymic instead (the mother’s name if the child was born out of wedlock). Separated from their families, removed from their genealogies, and stripped of their identities, the uheer join similar entities to create a society that metaphorically mirrors the human world.

Origin spirits, unlike uheer, are brimming with markers of identity as historical personages and are recognized through their social networks in the spiritual realm. State violence created a virtual army of uheer. Yet some impromptu encounters with the mass burials of the victims of political violence from the 1930s led me to see uheer as having a peculiar material representation as well. Dr. Rinchin told me that every province in Mongolia (of which there were eighteen during socialism) has a few unmarked mass burials. Together with his colleagues he excavated several of them in different parts of the country. The piles of thousands of human bones, and sometimes clothing, personal items, and utensils, tell stories of the group, but reveal little about individuals. Individual identifications and identities are hard to establish; without DNA identification it is impossible to assemble (p.86) individual skeletons of the victims. Beyond the numbers of people in specific burial sites, the methods of killing, and the ages of the individuals, little can be learned.

I see the mass burials as material versions of uheer—not only because they both exist as groups and defy individual recognition, but also because of their highly controversial meaning. Both the mass burials and uheer are sacred and polluting at the same time. They are worshipped and respected, but they are dangerous and frightening, and thus the living try to get rid of them. Buddhist practitioners, who have disproportionately more political and economic power than shamans, ritualize at least some of the burial sites by cremating the bones of the dead, building stupas, and performing mourning rituals for the collective deaths. This provides some solace to the survivors but does not help to identify the whereabouts of individual family members. Mass burials make death anonymous and identities unknown. Similarly, Buddhist practice suppresses the uheer and sends them away, and thus they do not replace the origin spirits—the verbal memorials for individuals.

Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories

Figure 8. Bones. Photo by Akim Khatagin

Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories

Figure 9. Skulls in mass burials. Photo by Akim Khatagin

The uheer symbolize involuntary forgetting—something imposed externally, rather than selective, willed forgetting by a community. They are the remembering of the forgetting—empty memories. Describing a spirit and thus demonstrating intimate knowledge of it is a strategy, as Taussig argues (1993:105–106), for gaining control over the spirit and defending oneself against the harm it can do. This is particularly true of the Buryats, who must know and repeatedly verbalize the spirits’ evocations to show that they are remembered. But losing the identities of the spirits means also losing control over them. Moreover, by knowing (and rediscovering) the identities of spirits and articulating them, the Buryats create and retain social personae in the face of physical death. The origin spirits may be disembodied, but culturally and socially they are alive. Forgetting these spirits results in a kind of second death—a social and cultural one. The Buryats try to save their origin spirits from becoming uheerbleak, forgotten, lost, indistinct, and miserable. The uheer is doubly dead, physically and socially. The spirit world is a mimetic reconstruction, in Taussig’s terms (1993), of the Buryat world. Through the rituals of resurrecting their origin spirits and making them tangible, the Buryats remake and reassert their ethnic and group identities after decades of homogenization and suppression during state socialism. Here, the representation of forgetting is a foil against which to reconstruct ethnic and national identity. The uheer are the necessary representation of what not to be. The origin spirits are the positive representations: multiply placed, integrated into relationships, and unique.

Uheer are not new in the Mongolian political imaginary. Their images (p.88) and powers, however, have changed in response to the political, cultural, and historical characters of different eras. Oral accounts suggest that in pre-socialist times, the uheer resembled naked women, with long, straggly hair and fierce, pale, lifeless faces.16 Physically invincible, they ran fast, laughed hysterically, and targeted solitary male travelers. As Buddhist lamas recited sutras evoking powerful deities, the uheer lost their power and fell down flat, struggling to lift their heads off the ground while bursting into creepy, hysterical laughter. During the Mongolian Revolutionary Party’s campaign against religion in the 1930s, the commissars announced that they had “tamed” (although it is unclear how) thousands of uheer. Socialism, apparently, did bring a significant decline in uheer attacks, largely because people stopped being afraid of them. After the collapse of socialism, the uheer returned, along with other forgotten spirits struggling to become memories. Since uheer are how misfortune is interpreted, their very existence depends on the conditions experienced by individuals in the community or even by the community at large. Thus, at least in this context, they are the uncanny representations of past violence. The uheer are a cultural metaphor for forced forgetting and violence that carry all the negative connotations of suppressed knowledge instantly in a single powerful symbol. While living in Bayan-Uul at the juncture of socialism and incipient capitalism, I came to see the place as a community of unfortunate individuals held together by a past that is “difficult to remember, but impossible to forget” (Mary Steedly, personal communication, 2007).

An Unsatisfactory Past

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke),” writes Walter Benjamin (1968:255), citing Leopold von Ranke. He describes the work of memory as “the ceaseless, ‘rhapsodic’ excavation of vestiges: ‘ruins of torsos in a collector’s gallery,’ fragments broken off from the chain of prior connections so as to stand unassimilated in the ‘sober chambers’ of retrospection” (Comay 2000:250). According to Benjamin, remembering never leads to an organic closure, for the work of memory is “unearthing what has been buried” (Comay 2000:250); it “dissolves and disintegrates … the dismembered, inorganic body, reminder of incurable mutilation” (Comay 2000:251). And “deformity or ‘distortion’ (Entstellung)—literally, ‘misplacement’ or ‘displacement’—is the essential hallmark of oblivion” (Comay 2000:252).

Benjamin’s is an apt description of the repercussions of state violence in Mongolia. It matches almost precisely the ways in which the Buryats (p.89) characterize the uheer—distorted, displaced, pained, miserable creatures stripped of their identities. It is no surprise that most Buryats are unhappy about the past that they have encountered, one that is incomplete because there is no end to the spirits’ demands for rituals. Not only that, but the rituals of appeasement do not bring the help that people expect in dealing with economic calamity. Indeed, for those Buryats who are surviving on the ruins of state farms, the rituals are a burden. The spirits are expected to help economically, but they bring history instead.

Each time we recall something, it is slightly different from the previous time, which explains why our memories change over time.17 Because of the intensity of the Buryats’ forgetting and the length of time their memories have been disrupted, those memories feel out of place, distorted, and unfamiliar. That is why the descendants strive to find explanations for the return of their potential memories and to accommodate and appease the spirits who embody them. But the erasure of context is only part of the issue. The context for the spirits’ return—the Buryats themselves and their surroundings—has also changed profoundly. Two important elements in Benjamin’s work help to decipher the problems of the Buryats: his concept of the deformity and distortion of the fading past and his critical attempt to separate history from progress through what he calls the “angel” of history. The angel’s face is turned toward the past, where “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage…. A storm is blowing from Paradise; it got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm propels him into the future to which his back is turned…. This storm is what we call progress” (Benjamin 1968:258). Like the angel of history, the Buryats see their past as a pile of wreckage. During socialism they were forced to move toward “progress” even if their backs were turned to it. Since the destruction of the socialist economy, the angel has used the energy of the storm to sort through the pile of destruction, trying to reconstruct something out of it, but with little success.

State socialism strove to leave the past behind in order to focus on the future (Humphrey 1983; Verdery 1991, 1996; Watson 1994; Kotkin 1995). The present was determined not by the past, but by the future, so people structured their lives and work around creating it. When the collapse of socialism disrupted the present and brought uncertainty about the future, the past was again called upon to explain the present. The spirits remain indifferent to the failure of progress and the disappearance of the future because history and progress travel along two different tracks that do not merge or reconnect. Progress is not a natural continuation of the past.

In the Mongolian political imagination, Dagdangiin Amgalan’s painting (p.90)

Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories

Figure 10. Bypassing Capitalism

Bypassing Capitalism represented the ideals of socialism in the most exemplary way. It was reproduced on the wall of a building on one of the main streets of Ulaanbaatar, as well as in history textbooks, and shows a man on horseback leaping from a stripe labeled “feudalism” over a black stripe labeled “capitalism” to land on a lighter stripe labeled “socialism.” The man wears a traditional Mongolian deel (robe) and hat. He is determined, his face is serious but relaxed, and his horse is fast and strong. He is jumping right onto the track of progress, of socialism, which is the horse-man’s savior. This was exactly how the revolutionary government imagined the nation: leaving the past behind, getting on the fast track, compressing time, leaping over capitalism, and catching up with progress.

What went wrong? How might one imagine the sequel to that painting (p.91) in the context of the collapse of socialism and the revival of shamanism? In light of my understanding of Benjamin’s separation of history from progress and his conception of memory as the work of unearthing something buried, I imagine the sequel this way: During the decades of socialism, the horseman galloped away from the past on the track of progress. The past was left in ruins, in piles of corpses. After almost seventy years of galloping through progress, the people no longer recognize their past (the spirits), for both the past and the people have changed. When “progress” failed and the state collapsed, the borders that separated the socioeconomic tracks (feudalism, capitalism, and socialism) disappeared. As a result, the people and the spirits collapsed onto a single track and met up with each other. They again coexist, but now they cannot recognize and interact with each other. This is where the shamans come in: to mediate between the two.

The Politics of Silence after Socialism

There is no doubt that the democratic changes that went into effect beginning in the 1990s brought an opportunity to reinstate the past, contest state-created history, and propose alternative histories. However, memories of state violence remain under close watch from the state, since they trigger strong responses from the populace. Among the Buryats, the persistence of silence, epitomized by the uheer, is directly related to the postsocialist state’s illicit undermining of the dissemination to the public of knowledge about the past even while claiming to initiate the rehabilitation process. Although there are many memories of the distant past, certain silences persist, especially those regarding the details of the violence of the 1930s. Because shamanism is about consolidating and memorializing the identities of personages from the past, it requires not just general information but specific stories. The state, in contrast, is interested in a general narrative that would apply nationwide and in which individual details would play no part. Therefore the memories that the state allows to become public do not help shamanism to deal with absent and partial memories, including the uheer.

To illustrate the perpetuation of silence after the collapse of socialism, I will present some incidents that occurred between 1992 and 2007 that historians of the Research Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression uncovered in their attempts to recreate the history of state violence in the 1930s and 1940s. They concern the discourse and actions that emerged when the historian of the Center discovered some mass burials and made a film about them. The state’s and the people’s reactions to the historians’ work go at least some little way to explain the persistence (p.92) of uheer—the unrealized memory. Among marginalized Buryats, the uheer persist owing to limits in the dissemination of history, since the new post-socialist state still maintains much control over it.

In the late 1980s the socialist state began another round of rehabilitating the victims of violence. These intensified with the democratic changes of 1990, and the state established various working groups and offices for researching and compiling materials and cases in the archives, the legal system, and other branches of the government.18 The state also established a Research Center for the Rehabilitation of Political Repression (hereafter referred to as the Rehabilitation Center) to research the backgrounds of the victims of political violence. But the state failed to consider people’s possible reactions to potential information about the past, about which the historians of the rehabilitation project expected people would be eager to learn.

In the early 1990s the head of the Rehabilitation Center, Dr. Rinchin, and his group began discovering evidence of numerous mass burials in northern Mongolia. They made a documentary about finding mass burial sites of thousands of Buddhist lamas in northern Mongolia, where the permafrost had preserved many bodies still in their robes. The film received tremendous media attention in the mid-1990s, and it was used by members of the democratic coalition in the 1996 parliamentary election campaigns. By portraying the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party as the oppressor and perpetrator, the documentary helped the opposition to gain seats, and many in the Democratic Party credited the film for their victory over the much more powerful MPRP. Some members of the Democratic Party suggested that I get a copy of the film to aid in my research.

After making several phone calls to set up a meeting, I went to Dr. Rinchin’s office—previously an apartment in an old building in one of the central districts of Ulaanbaatar. It consisted of three tiny rooms (Dr. Rinchin’s office, a room for researchers, and a room for an administrator) separated by a hallway. I introduced myself and told Dr. Rinchin about my research. He welcomed me graciously and warmly, and our conversation flowed, to my delight, as if we were old acquaintances and colleagues. When I told him about my project on shamanism and about my view of uheer as the wretched souls of the unmourned victims of political violence, he immediately agreed. He told me about the Center’s projects and generously shared brochures and papers that the office produced. I visited the Rehabilitation Center several times, each visit lasting for more than two hours, which were spent in conversation with Dr. Rinchin, before I finally inquired about the film on the mass burials.

(p.93) When I requested a copy of the film about the mass burials, to my surprise Dr. Rinchin told me that he did not have a copy and that I should not bother trying to find it:

The film brought me so much suffering and trouble. The first time the film was shown, I was accused of “smoking up” the blue screen of the national television station with death and negative energy. I had acquaintances call me at home and request that I stop the showing of the film. Over the next few years, I was constantly accused of reopening old sores, digging into the garbage heap of history, creating anxiety, and ruining social life. People I did not even know threatened to beat me up. Even some of my friends severed their ties and acted as if they did not know me. Acquaintances stopped talking to me. It has been a difficult few years, and I advise you to stay away from that film. I was chased by a car a few times. Sometimes I was even afraid to walk the streets.

Although many individuals felt that rehabilitation was necessary, a surprising number of people expressed indifference, disregard, and even resistance to the discoveries. Some suggested that it was best to “move on and not hold a grudge about the past”; others opined that it was pointless to do this kind of digging, that it was simply a way for desperate historians to build a career on the bodies of the dead. Said Dr. Rinchin, “It is shocking to see how even people who were victims of false accusations and imprisonment now came to the state’s defense. The state was able to produce its cadres. The film was never shown on TV again, and I never managed to get a copy.”

I was intrigued by Dr. Rinchin’s remark that even people who had been victims of violence disapproved of his work and wanted him to stop. How was that possible? Dr. Rinchin mentioned a few names in passing that I brought up later on with some of my older friends. They immediately recognized all the names and explained to me that these people had been persecuted by the state, but then had been rehabilitated publicly and awarded various state honors and medals. It appears that the state used not only the cycles of repression and rehabilitation but also its reward system in order to silence the critics of state violence.

Once, as we were discussing shamans and their suppression under socialism, Dr. Rinchin asked me if I believed in spirits. This caught me off guard. No one in Bayan-Uul had ever asked me if I believed in spirits; most people seemed to assume I did, that it was why I was there. I mumbled something along the lines of what was believable for the people of Bayan-Uul. (p.94) Then Dr. Rinchin told me of something that had happened when he was excavating the mass graves. Spirits do exist, he said.

Several years ago, when we were trying to locate the mass graves in the north [Khövsgöl province], we were walking with shovels. We were very close to the burial site but still could not locate it. Then we suddenly saw a lizard. Now, note that we were in the north, in a place with permafrost, dark, damp soil, and thick forests. Lizards live in the south, in desert areas. That lizard was clearly displaced—it was not from there. And the lizard was not afraid of us, of people. It was climbing up our shovels and running around them. Then it would run and come back to us. It was as if it wanted to tell us something. So, out of curiosity, we followed it. The lizard actually brought us to the sites. When we started digging in the spot where it had brought us, it climbed up a small cliff and watched us dig. It held its head up and seemed very satisfied. When we began finding the bones, it became restless, came back to us, and started climbing up our shovels again, as if it was trying to say something. I do not know exactly what that lizard was. I am convinced, though, that it was the spirit of that place or of one of the dead people. Most likely it was a displaced spirit who wanted to show us the right way. Without that lizard we would probably have found the place eventually, but I am not entirely sure. So, yes, spirits do exist.

I do not know exactly why Dr. Rinchin told me this story. I interpreted his receiving help from a spirit as a form of intuitive knowledge in the face of forgetting and of the state’s attempt to keep the past out of the reach of the public, including scholars. Dr. Rinchin was a historian and believed in hard facts. He even mentioned that the state archive must hold all the names of the people who had been shot in various places and then buried in the graves because the Soviets always recorded the names of the victims who had been transferred from a “delivery” officer to the executioner (from hand to hand, with signed documents). The Mongols must have followed the same strategy. But it was impossible to obtain those lists from the archives. Dr. Rinchin’s story of a lizard spirit had some implications for me in terms of thinking about the people of Bayan-Uul, incessantly searching for the missing, the presumed dead, and people whose identities are impossible to discover. The persistent lizard spirit is an image of resistance to the state’s inhibition of remembering.

Obviously, Dr. Rinchin’s film about the mass burials would not have helped the people in Bayan-Uul (or most people, for that matter) to find many clues about their missing relatives. I see the film not as a source for (p.95) identifying victims, but as a barometer for identifying the impact of the implementation of forgetting and the force of its momentum even after the end of formal state-socialist-style forgetting. Formal state-implemented forgetting had ceased. But it survived (practically before my very eyes) in the minds and actions of individuals. The agency of state socialism was embedded in people’s behavior. And when the state stopped the implementation of forgetting, individuals continued it. The state was able to get to Dr. Rinchin through colleagues, friends, and ordinary people who eventually convinced him to quit his endeavors or attacked him for the knowledge that he made public. In some ways, state socialism had been embodied by people who continued to disseminate the interests of the state even after its collapse. The neoliberal state encompasses many of the elements of the socialist state, and the repercussions of forgetting have continued to create specific types of silences even during democratization.

Numerous other mass burials have been found in different parts of the country. On the outskirts of the city of Ulaanbaatar are several trash dumps where trucks bring trash to be burned. In 2002, near one of them, a place called Hambiin Ovoo, a construction company that was digging for sand found piles of human bones. The Association of Political Victims asked the Central Intelligence Department to determine the identities of the bones. The department replied in writing that despite the numerous bones being found, Hambiin Ovoo was not included on the list of places where executions and burials of political victims took place in the 1930s and 1940s. A single document regarding this particular place was found in departmental archives. As the construction company continued to acquire sand from near Hambiin Ovoo, it encountered several layers of burials.

For the past fifteen years the outskirts of the city, including Hambiin Ovoo, have come to be heavily settled with migrants from the countryside. The media documented that the human bones were everywhere—children were playing with them, dogs were chewing on them. But when the construction company encountered burials of Buddhist monks in yellow silk robes, along with wooden bowls, leather hats, boots, and other items with which the monks were identified, some leading figures of the Buddhist monastery stepped in. A team from the City Rescue Office led by a chief lama of the central monastery and composed of several doctors of forensic medicine collected the bones and established that the mass grave contained the skeletal remains of about a thousand individuals. Two truckloads of bones were cremated. The ashes were powdered and mixed with yellow clay, and the material was used to build a large Buddhist stupa on the top of a nearby hill to commemorate the victims. Although the majority of the (p.96)

Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories

Figure 11. Hambiin Ovoo Buddhist stupa

victims were lamas, some were laypeople. The identities of the victims remain uncertain: the Central Intelligence Department insists that Hambiin Ovoo was not listed as a killing field and that there is no archival evidence of any kind that people were shot there. A few newspapers did speak of it as a killing field, but the archives continued to reject this description.

Some journalists and historians have closely questioned the hastiness of the cremation and the fact that there were no further attempts to establish the identities of the people who had been killed, through either archival documents, forensic medicine, or DNA testing with the help of the international community. The question of whose bones these were will never be answered.

In 2006 two other anthropologists and I hiked to the hill to see the Buddhist stupa that had been erected from the remains of the Hambiin Ovoo victims. Upon our descent from the hill into the valley, we were surrounded by terrain densely packed with human bones. Only a part of the mass grave had been excavated and cremated; additional layers of bones continue to be discovered. No one knew the names of these victims or anything else about them, except that most were lamas. I expressed my sorrow to our guide because the identification of the dead, their names, and the (p.97) places of their birth has been a prime concern of the Buryats, who carry the memories of their ancestors through their shamanic practices. It was their inability to identify the spirits of the dead who nevertheless trouble their descendants that led me unexpectedly to the mass graves.

I see the mass burials as material versions of uheer; they exist as groups, defy individual recognition, and are the outcome of state violence. But they also encompass some controversial meanings. Both the mass burials and the uheer are at the same time sacred and polluting. They are worshipped and respected, but they are dangerous and frightening, and thus the living try to get rid of them. Buddhist practitioners, who have disproportionately more political and economic power than shamans, ritualize at least some of the burial sites by cremating the bones of the dead, building stupas, and performing mourning rites for the collective deaths. They turn the polluting, frightening, and eerie into something sacred, valuable, and worthy of respect. Such meanings bring peace to the general public and some solace to the family members of the persecuted. Yet the stupas that the Buddhists erect out of the acres of burnt bones do not help to identify individuals; death continues to be anonymous, and identities remain unknown. Stupas do not replace the origin spirits—the verbal memorials for individuals. Rather, like the state narrative, they cast the political violence as a national tragedy that absorbs individual tragedies.

Like the uheer, the bones from the mass burials are mute, even though stories swarm around both. Yet in the midst of such an abundance of narratives about the past, many individuals continue to search for one particular story, to the exclusion of another. They seek knowledge that would help them speak to the uheer and hear their stories, not just stories about them, or turn them into origin spirits. Shamanism is about these specific stories. A proliferation of stories cannot make up for the ones that are missing. (p.98)


(1) . During my research there was widespread suspicion about the credibility of existing knowledge, the discrediting of one’s own knowledge, and the fear that additional knowledge would emerge and override one’s memory. Even when recalling some details of a family or community past, people devalued their memories and insisted to me that they had been cut off from their past, that they were a generation of non-knowledge. Many people tend to imagine that their truthful past was somewhere else obscure and unobtainable, whereas whatever knowledge remained with them was unimportant.

(2) . Halbwachs ([1950] 1980) observes that individuals sustain their memories through social interactions and networks as members of a group. As a provisional collective process, memory is updated through social frameworks, and its expression varies with the social setting and the social forces that shape the present circumstances. Connerton (1989), followed by Stoller (1995), among others, points out that commemorative rituals and physical habits are some of the most prominent techniques through which societies sustain and transmit memories. Cole (2001), an anthropologist, critiques Halbwachs for limiting his attention to individual memories at the expense of the social. Cole finds that the Betsimisaraka community she lived with appeared when she first arrived to have forgotten its colonial past. But during the election campaigns, which reminded the people about colonial violence, memories of colonialism erupted.

(3) . This became apparent during my research, when individuals who claimed not to remember much about a certain issue were in fact able to recall extensive details in further conversation. People told me that they were giving voice to some of these narratives for the first time—they had been too afraid, and too cautious, ever to share their memories before then. Some were not even aware of the existence of certain memories until they articulated them to me. The case of the Buryats of Mongolia suggests that individual memories can sometimes be preserved in silence without becoming a part of social memory.

(4) . Unlike works that stress the repressive nature of the totalitarian regime, recent scholarship reveals the irregularity of state power. They show that subtle forms of subversion and resistance, creative forms of “weapons of the weak,” cynicism, spaces (p.273) outside of the state, the underground economy, and “evocative transcripts” were everywhere (Watson 1994; Humphrey 1994).

(5) . According to the MPRP newspaper Ünen, 28,523 people were rehabilitated and 15,750 compensated as of September 9, 2003. Kaplonski comments that some of those who were persecuted will not be rehabilitated because they also had criminal records, but the number for whom no records exist at all is larger: “There are also at least several hundred who cannot be rehabilitated because no records exist for them, but this is a different group of people. And this is where there may well be many more that we will never really know about for certain” (personal communication, 2006).

(6) . In the scholarly literature that was published during socialism, state violence against the clergy was framed as a fight against the enemies of the state. In Minis (1963, 1972), Sambuu (1961), and Purevjav and Dashj’amts (1965), for example, the state’s destruction of monastic libraries and cultural artifacts and its confiscation of the monasteries’ property were seen as completely justified and morally right. Owing to the state’s strict censorship of all printed material, it is impossible to filter out the individual positions of the scholars working during socialism. After socialism a wide range of scholarly works, memoirs, archival material, and journalistic accounts were published on violence against clergy, Buryats, intellectuals, elites, lords, and feudal, including Myagmarjav and Navagchamba (2000), Tserendulam (2000), Ichinnorov (2003), Dashdavaa (2004), Ölziibaatar (2004), Rinchin (2000), Baatar (2007), and Sanj and Bold (2006). For English-language sources see Kaplonski (2002, 2008a, 2008b, 2011, 2012, in press), Sandag and Kendall (2000), and Pedersen (2011).

(7) . On the violence against the Buryats see Dashdavaa (2004), Baatar (2007), and Tseren (2008).

(8) . Kaplonski’s (2008b) research reveals that the state’s role in the violence was not incidental. Under pressure from the Soviets in the late 1920s, the state began preparing the public for the upcoming violence by holding Soviet-style show trials of Buddhist clergy in a state theater called the Green Round (2008b:326).

(9) . These rehabilitations and persecutions have not been clearly presented and discussed in public. The details of these cycles have been researched and written about by historians in the aftermath of socialism (see, e.g., Rinchin 2000, Ölziibaatar 2004, and Kaplonski 2008b), but otherwise knowledge about them remains patchy.

(10) . Mongolian films that illustrate the socialist revolution and life at the turn of the twentieth century include Temtsel (Struggle), Öglöö (Morning), Sukhbaatar (Sukh-baatar), Ardin Elch (The People’s Messenger), and Tungalag Tamir (And Quiet Flows the Tamir).

(11) . The leaders killed by Stalin before Choibalsan assumed power were Balingiin Tsezrendorj, Navaandorjiin Jadamba, Tseren-Ochiryn Dambadorj, Anandyn Amar, Peljidiin Genden, and Gelegdorjiin Demid (Baabar 1999:372). On Choibalsan and his life, see Roshin (2005).

(12) . Although most ordinary Mongols, especially those born during the socialist era, recognize Soviet domination, they do not feel unequivocal hatred toward the Soviets. Nowadays there is some nostalgia about socialist times, but there is also strong awareness of the need to maintain global connections. Many people with whom I spoke were grateful to the Soviets for their help in bringing the country from its tattered post-Qing state to its present condition. However, many also questioned the nature of that assistance, the pricing of goods, and the currency exchange rates that (p.274) the Soviets used for transactions, much of which was kept hidden from the Mongols. Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, the former president of Mongolia and a minister of energy during the 1980s, once during a television interview acknowledged that he had become aware that in the name of economic assistance, the Soviet Union was exploiting its satellite countries.

(14) . Some scholars encountered forgetting based on their intimate knowledge from previous fieldwork and were able to “diagnose” omissions and gaps. For instance, decades of research in Congo caused Fabian (2003) to notice not only remembering but also forgetting in the narrative of a local historian. The interviewee’s acts of “not recalling” (2003:493), the “typification” of his life as an “abstract colonial subject” (2003:499), “disinterest” in recalling certain events (2003: 499), and “leap[s]” through decades (2003:498) were, in Fabian’s interpretation, deliberate forgetting that distanced the speaker from an unpleasant past. Steedly (2000) observed the omission of details from memory at the juncture of the social and the individual. Performances that were meant to move large audiences tended to fit a grand story about the “common experiences of terror, uncertainty, and heartache” (2000:838) while omitting unique personal details. This allowed all individuals to identify themselves in the performance.

(15) . Many of the forgotten spirits used to be origin spirits but became estranged from their descendants during the socialist suppression of religion. Some of them are the souls of shamans who died during that time and did not receive the rituals necessary for them to become origin spirits. There are also spirits who were abandoned prior to socialism, during Mongolia’s Buddhist conversion, or in the Buryats’ often haphazard migrations between Russia and Mongolia to escape exploitation, violence, and poverty.

(16) . It is worthwhile speculating why uheer were represented as female, given certain aspects of Buddhism and traditional Mongolian concepts of gender. First, in Gelugpa Buddhism, female bodies are seen as inherently polluted and lower in karma than male bodies (Gutschow 2004). Therefore, the souls of the dead, either male or female, become reanimated only in female corpses, never in male bodies. Second, since women are seen as inherently more sinful than men, women are more likely than men to become uheer after their deaths. And finally, in a male-dominated patrilocal society where women were often mistreated by their in-laws and husbands, the premature deaths of unhappy women could logically have added to a higher female uheer population.

(17) . In Klein (1997:318–319).

(18) . According to a Mongolian newspaper, Zuunii Medee (September 10, 2003, p. 2), 28,523 people were rehabilitated and 15,750 compensated as of September 9, 2003. Kaplonski comments that some of those who were persecuted will not be rehabilitated because they also had criminal records, but the number for whom no records exist at all is larger: “There are also at least several hundred who cannot be rehabilitated because no records exist for them, but this is a different group of people. And this is where there may well be many more that we will never really know about for certain” (personal communication, 2006).