Khorloogiin Choibalsan (February 8, 1895 – January 26, 1952) was the Communist leader of the Mongolian People's Republic and Marshal (general chief commander) of the Mongolian armed forces from the 1930s until his death in 1952. His rule marked the first and last time in modern Mongolian history that an individual had complete political power.
Choibalsan was born on February 8, 1895 in Achit Beysiyn, near present-day Choibalsan, Dornod Province. He was the youngest of four children born to a poor unmarried herdswoman named Khorloo (the name Khorloogiin is a matronymic). His father was likely a Daur Mongol from Inner Mongolia called Jamsu, but Choibalsan claimed to be unaware of his identity. Named Dugar at birth, he assumed the religious name Choibalsan at age 13 after entering the local Buddhist monastery of San Beysiyn Khüree where he trained to be a Lamaist monk.
Five years later he fled to Khüree (also known as Urga - present day Ulaanbaatar) with another novice where he worked odd jobs. In part to prevent him from being returned to the monastery, a sympathetic Buryat teacher named Nikolai Danchinov had him enrolled in the Russian consulate's Russian-Mongolian Translators' School. A year later he was sent on at public expense to study at a gymnasium in Irkutsk, Russia from 1914-1917.
Sometimes referred to as "the Stalin of Mongolia", Choibalsan oversaw Soviet-ordered purges in the late 1930s that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Mongolians. Most of the victims were Buddhist clergy, intelligentsia, political dissidents, ethnic Buryats and Kazakhs and other "enemies of the revolution." His intense persecution of Mongolia's Buddhists brought about their near complete extinction in the country.
Although Choibalsan's devotion to Joseph Stalin helped preserve his country's fledgling independence during the early years of the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR), it also bound Mongolia closely to the Soviet Union. Throughout his rule, Mongolia's economic, political and military ties to the USSR deepened, infrastructure and literacy rates improved and international recognition of Mongolia's independence expanded, especially after World War II.
Choibalsan's image in modern Mongolia remains mixed. At the time of his death he was widely mourned as a hero, a patriot, and ultimately a martyr for the cause of Mongolian independence. Remnants of his strong personality cult, as well as successful efforts by his successor Tsendenbal to obstruct "de-Stalinization" efforts that could have shed light on Choibalsan's actions during the purges, helped solidify the positive regard many Mongolians held of their former leader. Official criticisms of Choibalsan in 1956 and 1969, which blamed him for "crude violations of the revolutionary law [that] led to many people perishing," and even the MPRP Central Committee's 1962 decision, in lock-step with Khrushchev's anti-Stalinization policies, to take "decisive measures to insure complete liquidation of the harmful consequences of Kh. Choibalsan's cult of personality in all spheres of life," failed to generate serious public discourse on the matter.
Some scholars have suggested the inclination of Mongolians to avoid blaming Choibalsan for the purges is in effect an attempt to exonerate themselves for what happened. Public anger over the violence of the purges falls predominantly on the Soviet Union and the NKVD, with Choibalsan viewed sympathetically (if not pathetically) as a puppet with little choice but to follow Moscow's instructions or else meet the fate of his predecessors Genden and Amar.
With the end of socialist rule in 1990, however, re-examining of Choibalsan's rule has occurred, and there does seem to be an attempt by some Mongolians to come to terms the country's socialist past in a more general context. Nevertheless, Choibalsan is still not the object of strong resentment in Mongolia. That sentiment is reserved for the Soviet Union. Stalin's statue, for example, was removed from in front of the National Library in 1990, shortly after the Democratic revolution. Choibalsan's statue, on the other hand, still stands in front of the National University in Ulaanbaatar, an institution he helped found and that for a time bore his name. Moreover, the capital of Dornod aimag continues to carry his name.