Cusp of a Revolution
Every once in a long while, a person is born in this world that possess an unusual combination of altruism, ambition, and guts. In even more rare instances this individual may develop their talent at a young age and by the time they have reached their teens, may have evolved into a genuine prodigy. As an unstoppable force of nature, this person may end up being a revolutionary figure, a scientist or a rock star; from Martin Luther King, to Albert Einstein, to Jimi Hendrix, there are numerous famous examples. When such a person departs the world at a young age, it is often remarked, “He burned twice as bright and half as long.” To look at the brief, but incredible life of Damdin Sukhbaatar, one time Commander in Chief of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Army, one could easily say the same thing.
Born into a Mongolian peasant family in 1893, Sukhbaatar was given his name, meaning “Axe Hero,” after his father lost an axe in a river near the city of Uliastay. In 1911, he had his first son with his girlfriend Yanjmaa, though his poverty-ridden status caused her parents to keep them from getting married. The political climate in Mongolia at this point in history was quite charged; the Manchu Quing Empire had crumbled and Mongolia was forced to become a Chinese state. As a result, Sukhbaatar was drafted into the Mongolian Army. He already displayed exceptional horsemanship skills and quickly rose through the ranks to become a platoon leader. Military life opened up Sukhbataar’s eyes to corruption within the ranks; he was soon protesting harsh conditions. With WWI coming to a close, Russia on the verge of its own civil war, and the Chinese seizing control of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s capitol, Sukhbaatar made the transformation from soldier to revolutionary.
In 1919 Sukhbaatar formed a secret political organization with the intent of overthrowing the Chinese invaders for good.
Sukhbaatar’s group, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, was closely modeled after the Soviet’s Communist Party. In fact, close ties members had to the Russians prompted the Mongolian Party to seek help from them.
A letter was drafted requesting their assistance and Sukhbaatar took the task of journeying to Russia and smuggling the letter to officials. Utilizing a horse whip, considered to be a good luck symbol on travels, he hollowed out the handle and hid the letter inside. Defying great odds and risking his life by venturing through dangerous territories, Sukhbaatar finally reached his destination and delivered the letter. But during the time he was gone, all hell broke loose in Mongolia with the Chinese arresting numerous members of his party and the White Russian leader, Baron Ungern von Sternberg a.k.a the “Bloody Baron”, seizing Ulaan Baatar and declaring himself the ruler of Mongolia. The Baron was a man not to mess with; his ruthless ways were driven by grand delusions, one of them being that he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. Upon Sukhbaatar’s return, now as the Commander in Chief of the Mongolian People’s Army, and with the support of Russian troops, he vengefully waged war with both the Chinese and the Baron’s troops at key strategic locations along the Mongolian border.
Though he had many doubters, he gained a key, hard-fought victory over the Chinese in Khiagt, seizing the city. Meanwhile, the “Bloody Baron” had been strategizing and moved in on the border town of Kyakhta. Months later, Sukhbaatar and his army, along with Russian troops, swooped in and took him down; the Baron’s men promptly hauled him back to Russia, then tried and shot him. Shortly after, Sukhbaatar stood in the center of the capitol of Mongolia and declared independence from China. It was a glorious moment in Mongolian history and Sukhbaatar was honorably named the Minister of the Mongolian Army. He was also given the title of “Resolut Hero”, though things were about to take a turn for the worse.
It was now 1923 and Sukhbaatar had gotten word from Mongolian intelligence that a coup was planned for the Tsagaan Sar, or White Moon Festival. This did not sit well with the Hero.
Death of a Commander
It was under mysterious circumstances that on the night of February 14, 1923 that Sukhbaatar fell ill. Some have speculated that the coup planned on Tsagaan Sar was too much for him to bear and caused him to be sick. Many of his supporters suggested he had been poisoned. To this day, the nature of his illness is unknown. On February 20, 1923, Sukhbaatar died, only 30 years after he had been born.
Today in Ulaanbaatar – the capital city of Mongolia – the central square is named after none other than Sukhbaatar, where a statue of the iconic revolutionary, astride a horse, stands. The hollowed out horsewhip he utilized to smuggle the letter to the Russians is on display in a local museum. Throughout Mongolia, Sukhbaatar’s name graces provinces and districts, and his image is even featured on Mongolian bank notes. Unfortunately in Mongolian classrooms and other educational venues, the teaching of the authentic legend of Sukhbaatar has taken a backseat to one manufactured by the old Soviet leadership.
Nonetheless, his history is being more thoroughly analyzed by Mongolian researchers to bring to light his true standing as one of the greatest historical figures in Mongolian history.
In life, Sukhbaatar was a man with a purpose and he stood for something – to bring freedom to the Mongolian people. He lived a life in service of his people, never seeking rewards or adulation, but instead having such honors thrust upon him due to his selfless actions. He packed a full life into 30 short years, burning twice as bright and half as long. In death, Sukhbaatar is nothing short of an historic legend.