Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Understanding my Mongolian heritage: part one

I remember the sunny day that I was lying on the sofa with my great-grandmother, talking about her childhood.

Both of us lay facing the white ceiling. The room was nicely decorated. Most of the old but sturdy furniture was bought in Bulgaria, when she was the Minister’s wife. The smell of the room was a mixture of rose oil extract and old dusty books, all of which were nicely-ordered in a drawer, facing the sofa where we were lying.

While I was listening to her, I was swinging the door of the living room with my feet. The movement synchronised with the pace that my Grandma was talking. She rarely talked about her past but on this day I was lucky. She was giving away information that only the luckiest members of my family could hear.

 

Her hometown was Togot, or in Mongolian ‘Tost’ (meaning lavish and oily)

 

She never usually talked about her past because during most of her early years she was treated as the ‘people’s enemy’. This was due to her father and step-father, both of whom were important figures in modern Mongolian history, being depicted as enemies of the nation. That is why I was more attentive than usual, trying to capture every shred of information.

She began by speaking about her mother, Radna, a woman who was a ‘Buriad Mongol’, raised and born in Russia. Her hometown was Togot, or in Mongolian ‘Tost’ (meaning lavish and oily), a place in Irkusts province where the soil was rich and the harvest was plentiful.

Radna’s grandfather, Anatoli Scheglowski, was a Polish man exiled to Siberia for taking part in the Polish Revolution, before later marrying a Buriatian woman.

His son, Radna’s father, was Ivan Anatolievich Ochirov. He was a rich man who owned a vast area of land. He was known in Siberia as the first man to bring a tractor from America in 19th century.

According to Radna’s archives, the future tsar, Cesarevitch Nikolai, stayed for a short period of time in Ivan’s house, prior travelling to Japan in the late 1890s. He is believed to have left a note of appreciation.

 

Disguised as a monk, she travelled through Northern Mongolia with people who had helped her to escape

 

My Grandmother continued by reflecting on the October Revolution in Russia, when all of the Ochirov family’s belongings were confiscated by Russian Bolsheviks. She explained in a humorous way that the family neighbour went mad when she saw how many belongings were removed from the house!

Each of the family’s nine children, most of whom had unknown futures, fled to different parts of the world. Radna, the oldest in the family, fled to Ulaanbaatar. Disguised as a monk, she travelled through Northern Mongolia with people who had helped her to escape.

On the way they stopped in gers (traditional Mongolian tents) belonging to the Steppe people, who are considered as very welcoming, ready to give food and refreshments to travelers whom they have never met before. Some girls in Steppe host families would laugh seeing this pale-faced, bold and handsome monk, who was actually a highly-educated young woman. The same woman would travel miles without knowing what awaited her in Mongolia.

 

Yes, he was a communist

 

Inna, the youngest of the daughters, had an even more adventurous life. In 1929, when she was 14, she went to Moscow. There, her older brother Alexander was working for the Eastern division of Comintern (Communist International), an international organisation connecting communist parties of different countries between 1919-1943.

Yes, he was a communist, the only one in the family to become one. It is unknown if this was his will or a way of protecting his family members. Unfortunately, he was later shot in China in a political murder.

Inna started studying in Old Arbat street, with a nephew of the legendary Lenin, Victor Ulyanov, and son of Maria Kudasheva, who was the wife of French novelist, Romain Rolland. Inna recalled in later life that she would call Lenin’s nephew, whenever his aunt came, saying: “Vitya, your aunt is here!” ‘Vitya’ is like calling an English person named Edward ‘Eddie’, echoing how close they were. During Inna’s study, Trotski controlled the minds of youngsters but Stalin was not yet there.

Later, Inna started studying in Leningrad, in a special graduate school for Mongolians, where she met many bright academics and scientists.

 

They never married, nor had the chance to have a closer physical relationship

 

In the library, she met Lev Gumilev, son of Anna Akhnamova, a renowned Silver Era writer. The young history student fell utterly and deeply in love with Inna. They walked in the boulevards, where Dostoevskii or Pushkin used to walk.

In November 1936, Gumilev told Inna that he loved her very much. However, Inna was young and lost, not knowing how to reply. Gumilev sent her a letter with a love poem, but it was later confiscated by Bolsheviks in 1938. Soon, Lev Gumilev was arrested, only in his fourth year of graduate school.

Their love story was amazing, never an ordinary one. They never married, nor had the chance to have a closer physical relationship. Everything was under control. It was a love that continued for decades via letters that would be exchanged between Mongolia and Russia.

Hearing all of this was magical for me, a girl who was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar city, a strange mixture of post-communist blocs and traditional monasteries. In my city, I didn’t see or experience many interesting things.

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