A large number of ethnicities have inhabited Mongolia since prehistoric times. Most of these people were nomads who, from time to time, formed great confederations that rose to prominence. The first of these, the Xiongnu, were brought together to form a confederation by Modu Shanyu in 209 BCE. They defeated the Donghu, who had previously been the dominant power in eastern Mongolia. The Xiongnu became the greatest threat to China for the following three centuries; the Great Wall of China was built partly as defence against the Xiongnu. Marshal Meng Tian of the Qin Empire dispersed more than 300,000 soldiers along the Great Wall to prevent an expected invasion from the North. It is believed that after their decisive defeat by the Chinese in 428-431, some of the Xiongnu migrated West to become the Huns. After the Xiongnu migrated west, Rouran, a close relative of the Mongols, came to power before being defeated by the Göktürks, who then dominated Mongolia for centuries.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, Mongolia was controlled by Göktürks, who were succeeded by the ancestors of today’s Uigur and then by the Khitan and Jurchen. By the tenth century, the country was populated predominantly by Mongols believed to be a branch of the Xianbei. During this period the country was divided into numerous tribes linked through transient alliances.
In the late twelfth century, a chieftain named Temujin united the Mongol tribes to the Naiman and Jurchen after a long struggle and took the name of Genghis Khan. Known to Mongolians as Chinggis Khan, the mistranslation Genghis is said to have been made by the conquered people of the Middle-East. Starting in 1206, Genghis Khan and his successors consolidated and expanded the Mongol Empire into the largest contiguous land empire in world history, going as far northwest as Kievan Rus. After Genghis Khan’s death, the empire was divided into four kingdoms, or “Khanates”. One of these, the “Great Khanate,” comprised the Mongol homeland and China, and its emperors were known as the Yuan Dynasty. Its founder, Kublai Khan, set up his centre of administration in present day Beijing. After more than a century of power, the Yuan Dynasty was replaced by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the Mongol court fled north. The Ming armies pursued and defeated them in Mongolia, but did not conquer Mongolia.
During the next several centuries, Mongolia was split between the Oirad in the west and the Khalkha in the east. Altan Khan united the Mongols briefly in 1571. After failing to defeat the Chinese, he made peace with the Ming Dynasty and instead focused on Tibet, eventually becoming a convert to Tibetan Buddhism.
During the seventeenth century, the Manchus rose to prominence in the east, they conquered Inner Mongolia in 1636. Outer Mongolia submitted in 1691. For the next two hundred years Mongolia was ruled by the Qing Dynasty. During this time, the Manchus maintained their control over Mongolia with a series of alliances and intermarriages, as well as military and economic control. Several Emperors of the Qing Dynasty were born to Mongol mothers.
With the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Mongolia declared independence in 1911. The new country’s territory was approximately that of the former Outer Mongolia. After the October Revolution in Russia, Chinese troops led by Xu Shuzheng occupied the capital in 1919. The Chinese rule did not last: notorious Russian adventurer “bloody” Baron Ungern who had fought with the “Whites” (Ataman Semyonov) against the Red army in Siberia, led his troops into Mongolia and forced a showdown with the Chinese in the City of the Red Hero. Ungern’s cossacks triumphed, and he briefly in effect ruled Mongolia under the blessing of religious leader Bogda Khan. But Ungern’s triumph was shortlived; he was chased out by the Red Army, which, while at it, liberated Mongolia from feudalism and insured its political alignment with the Russian Bolsheviks. In 1924, after the death of the religious leader Bogda Khan, the Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed and was backed by the Soviets.
The Mongolian People’s Republic was aligned closely with the Soviet Union. During the 1920s and 1930s, several high-ranking politicians who demanded a more independent course, like Dogsomyn Bodoo or Horloogiyn Dandzan, fell victim to violent power struggles and were killed. In 1928, Horloogiyn Choybalsan rose to power. Under his administration, forced collectivisation of livestock was instituted, and the destruction of Buddhist monasteries in 1937 left more than 10,000 lamas dead.
During the Soviet-Japanese Border War of 1939, the USSR defended Mongolia against Japan. Mongolian forces also took part in the Soviet offensive against Japanese forces in Inner Mongolia in August 1945 (see Operation August Storm). The (Soviet) threat of Mongolian forces seizing parts of Inner Mongolia induced the Republic of China to recognize Outer Mongolia’s independence, provided that a referendum was held. The referendum took place on October 20, 1945, with (according to official numbers) 100% of the electorate voting for independence. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, both countries re-recognized each other on October 6, 1949.
After Choybalsan died in Moscow on January 26, 1952, Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal took power. In 1956 and again in 1962, Choybalsan’s personality cult was condemned. Mongolia continued to align itself closely with the Soviet Union, especially after the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1950s. While Tsedenbal was visiting Moscow in August 1984, his severe illness prompted the parliament to announce his retirement and replace him with Jambyn Batmonh.
The introduction of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR by Mikhail Gorbachev strongly influenced Mongolian politics even though Mongolia was a sovereign nation. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, combined with these two policies, were enough to lead to a peaceful democratic revolution in Mongolia in 1990. This, in turn, allowed Mongolia to begin engaging in economic and diplomatic relations with the Western world. The nation finished its transition from a communist state to a multi-party free-market democracy with the ratification of a new constitution in 1992.