The Broader Picture: The not-so-free marketeers

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TWO AND A HALF thousand years ago, give or take a few hundred, the people we now call Mongolians parted company with their neighbours. While others settled down, Mongolians kept moving. It was a disturbing habit; the Chinese even built the Great Wall to stop what they regarded as trespassing by footloose 'barbarians'. It didn't work. Mongolians had no word for country, only a vague term derived from the verb 'to move'. Boundaries meant nothing. As far as they were concerned, they owned wherever they wandered.

By the 13th century, Mongolians had wandered and conquered their way to the largest empire the world has ever seen. It stretched from Hungary to Burma, swallowing up the whole of China and Central Asia as well as much of Russia and Eastern Europe.

The descendants of Genghis Khan on these pages have more modest horizons. Their empire has vanished, and they have lost a large chunk of their own homeland to China. But Mongolia remains a vast country, larger than western Europe. The population is small - only 2.2 million - about half of whom live in the capital, Ulan Bator (which means 'red hero'), and a handful of other towns built during nearly 70 years of slavish loyalty to the Soviet Union. The others are still nomadic, like this mother and two children photographed in their best clothes before the family yurt, a circular tent made of felt.

If socialism had gone according to plan such people would no longer exist. Mongolia's peripatetic past was judged feudal and unacceptable. In 1931, seven years after Monoglia became a communist country, a settlement programme was launched to tether the nomads to state farms. All traces of the past were to be eliminated and any nomadic wandering was to go the way of the Mongolian script, scrapped in favour of the 'modern' Cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately for Mongolia, efforts to reverse thousands of years of history failed. Mongolians refused to stay still and continued to set up camp where they pleased, even ringing the new showcase capital with a shanty town of yurts.

Today, communism is being swept aside. But with it have gone the subsidies from Moscow, and Mongolia now faces economic collapse. Inflation has rocketed; factories are seizing up; the foreign exchange reserve of dollars 100m has been lost by the Central Bank in currency speculation. So deep runs the disillusion with the new system of free-market capitalism that last year Mongolia became the first former communist country to re-elect communists back into government.

It is thanks to families like these that Mongolia avoids starvation. They used to belong to the Gachuurt State Farm, 60 kilometres east of the capital. Now they belong to what the government tells them is a new class of private herders. But they are doing what they always did - producing and selling milk and meat. The only real difference, says the mother, is that schools and doctors now charge fees. Unlike the urban populations created in the image of the former Soviet advisers, they can survive on their own. The yurt is more secure than a concrete apartment block. And if the collapse of communism marks the 'end of history', in Mongolia at least, the end looks much like the beginning.-

(Photographs omitted)