The Historical Dictionary of Mongolia

Simon Wickhamsmith

Now in its fourth edition, and the first of two volumes, the latest iteration of Alan Sanders’ dictionary has expanded the previous edition by more than 500 pages. This is a very welcome addition to the ever-growing library of contemporary Mongolian Studies, although despite its title it focuses quite heavily on the post-Soviet period. This editorial decision has important consequences, for it offers a timely reminder that Mongolia is a modern democratic state, with all the complexities which that entails, and not simply a one-time Soviet satellite, or an annexation of the Manchu, or the nation unified by Chinggis Khan. Nonetheless, I feel that either a third volume, to allow for more on the earlier history, or a less detailed treatment in the two existing volumes of the minutiae of recent governments and parliamentary decisions, would have offered a more balanced treatment.

I will not be alone among my Mongolist colleagues, I am sure, in finding the omission or inclusion of particular topic or individuals eccentric or questionable. But such is the nature of a reference book, I think, and my intention in this review is to minimize my cavils and celebrate Sanders’s scholarship and investigative work by noting some aspects of his book which in my opinion make it a key reference work for the field.

For me, even before the first alphabetical entries, the hundred or so pages of Chronology and Introduction provide a very effective overview of Mongolia’s complex history. Sanders does a superb job of laying this history out in mini-articles. The second half of both sections deals with the post-Soviet era, and amounts to a very fine presentation of the salient developments during the last almost three decades of Mongolia’s history. Here I should point out that, in covering in an addendum in the closing pages of the second volume the election of Khaltmaagiin Battulga as President in July of 2017, the book is brought right up to date.

It could be argued that, more than anything else, this is more a guide to post-Soviet Mongolia. It contains an exhaustive treatment of issues and events since 1990, and biographies of what appears to be every important figure in contemporary political life. That said, there is also considerable treatment of the 1921 Revolution and the period of Soviet influence. As someone who works on literary culture, while I might have appreciated more coverage of leading writers and their works, individuals such as  Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj and Sodnombaljiryn Buyannemeh are well-covered.

However, the extensive treatment of recent politics could have been carried more effectively into earlier decades. For instance, the treatment of the Great Repression of 1937-1939 is good, but at three pages only this vital period in Mongolia’s process of Sovietization feels a little poorly served. Editorial decisions have to be made of curse, and, as I suggested earlier, if all of our interests were to be represented, the number of volumes would be far greater than two. That said, this is far less a historical dictionary, covering the entire sweep of Mongolian history, than it is a reference book of contemporary Mongolian politics, and if a caveat is needed before advising anyone to buy it, it is that those looking for comprehensive detailed information about the pre-revolutionary period will most likely be disappointed.

The importance of a reference book such as this is in what it contributes, first, to a broad understanding of its subject and, second, to the needs of scholars. I would say that, with very few caveats, Sanders’s dictionary offers both scholars and lay readers a book which is sufficiently informative to be the go-to work for Mongolia-related questions and sufficiently well-written to be enjoyable as a book to dip into for the pure pleasure of discovery. It will, I suspect, be more frequently on my desk than on my shelves and, if my colleagues are anything like me, that alone is an indication of its contribution to the understanding of Mongolia.