As seen, the border between Russia and China is far more than simply a geopolitical boundary, a barrier, or a line of interaction and contact between two powerful nations. Its formation and the dynamics of its status represent complex sets of human relationships, networks, control mechanisms, and economic, social, and cultural practices. The border is not merely a dividing line between two states – it epitomizes the interrelations between individuals, groups of people, and states while encapsulating what people think about the border, and how they conceptualize it. Essentially, the border is at the crossroad of institutions, contacts, conflicts, and interests. Currently more than 440,000 Buryat live in Russia, many in Buryatia. About 46,000 live in Mongolia, and approximately 70,000 live in China.

Concentrations of ethnic Mongols (red) within the Mongol Empire (outlined in orange)

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, the Russian imperial state disintegrated into many self-governing entities, each claiming sovereignty over its territory based on the right of “national self-determination.” The Buryats, a Mongol-speaking people from Eastern Siberia inhabiting the borderland between Russia, Mongolia, and China, were among those who made a bid for independence between 1917 and 1919. Their situation was complicated, however, by the start of the Allied Intervention into the Russian Revolution, and specifically by the arrival of the Japanese expeditionary forces into Buryatia in 1918. Pursuing their own agenda of independence in the complicated realities of the Civil War and the Japanese Intervention, Buryat political leaders initiated the pan-Mongolist movement that aimed at uniting all Mongol-speaking people into one state. Although they failed to unite all the Mongols of Outer and Inner Mongolia, the Buryat national movement succeeded in 1923 in establishing territorial autonomy, the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, albeit within the new Soviet state. 

The efforts of the Buryat national movement culminated in 1919, a year that sharply divides the history of the Mongols and the borderland region in general. Buryat aspirations for cultural and increasingly territorial national independence emerged in the early 1900s, in part due to the aggressive Russification policy of the Tsarist government but mainly because the Buryats got actively drawn into the modern world due to their strategic location on the Russo-Chinese border.1 As the power balance in the region was broken after 1917, the region plunged into shifting and complicated power hierarchies between different power players, among them the Buryats. Recently, historians have turned their attention to the role minorities played in interimperial conflicts in Northeast Asia, especially between imperial Japan and China. Very little attention, however, has been given so far to the role of the Buryat-Mongols in the interimperial rivalry between Imperial/Soviet Russia, Japan, and China. The young Bolshevik regime worked on regaining authority over Russian imperial territories lost during the Russian Civil War, while imperial Japan pushed further north, at times successfully, to gain new territories of influence. Although China had been weakened by the end of World War I, it used the “Mongolia question” to attempt to restore its former control over Mongolia, and thus represented for Mongols and Buryats one of the biggest impediments on their road to independence. Moving beyond conventional narratives that depict various ethnic groups within empires as bit players in imperial struggles, or as tragic victims of colonial expansion, I wish to offer a depiction of the Buryats as full-fledged historical actors who played a formative role in the political making of the region. As the history of Buryats’ political endeavors demonstrates, minorities often indirectly shape imperial designs and colonial realities by pursuing their own complicated and shifting agendas. 

1919 is important for another reason: it is the year when the pan-Mongolist national movement reached its peak, galvanized by the breaking and shifting regional order and balance of power. Pan-Mongolism, I contend, was one of the several competing regional projects, namely the Japanese, the Chinese, and finally the Soviet efforts to build a new regional or global order. These projects were linked by complex hierarchical webs of cooperation, coercion, and dependence, which determined in the end the downward trajectory of the pan-Mongolist movement. To recover the full dimension of Buryat agency at this historical juncture, it is necessary to reevaluate intersections among the Buryats and the colonial powers of Russia, China, and Japan, as well as the kind of broader political, economic, and cultural struggles that borderland regions are often rife with. My aim is not to argue for the incidental significance of Buryat politics to Russia, Mongolia, Japan, or China, but to demonstrate that Buryat, Mongol, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese politics came together in 1919 in a forgotten nexus that reshaped Northeast Asia’s boundaries for all of its peoples. 

The trajectory of the relationship between members of the Buryat pan-Mongolist movement and Japanese imperial agents is a story of complicated negotiation and eventual clash of two very different visions of the region, one of independent Mongolia under Buryat leadership, and another of pan-Asianist order under Japanese direction. For the Buryat national leaders, the Japanese were critical allies in providing assistance to their independence movement. The historiography to date has assumed that the Japanese Interventionist forces superimposed their authority and mercantile interests on the local population. Often overlooked is the fact that this arrangement was also in the interest of the Buryat political leaders, who sought to gain the support of the Japanese military and business sector. The cooperation ultimately failed largely because the Japanese diplomatic, military, and business establishments pursued uncoordinated and mutually conflicting agendas. The pressure of American and Chinese interests on Japan, and the advance of the Red Army into Buryatia after 1920 and to Outer Mongolia in 1921, gave additional impetus for Japan’s policy makers to abandon cooperation with the Buryat leaders. On the other hand, the Bolshevik leaders enhanced their efforts to win over non-Russian populations by declaring the right for national self-determination and territorial autonomy. In the changed geopolitical situation, and attracted to the promises of the Bolshevik regime, the Buryats abandoned their pan-Mongolist plans and embraced Buryat nation-building within the new Soviet federative state. The Buryat national movement was, therefore, not a story of survival and resistance, but rather of active participation in the regional political configuration which saw the pan-Mongolist project reach its nadir in 1919 and produce lasting political effects. 


Buryatia after the Revolutions of 1917

Buryat pan-Mongolism was not a post-World War I phenomenon related to the “Wilsonian moment” of national self-determination but had its roots in the pre-revolutionary period. Taking a cue from anthropological and ethnographic studies, we consider the Buryats an “autoethnographic people,” meaning that their cultural identity was largely shaped by the self-descriptive activities of its educated members.2 In the middle of the nineteenth century, early Buryat chroniclers first attempted to describe their own people by imitating modern European ethnographic accounts.3 In the early twentieth century, a school of Buryat studies started to take shape thanks to the pioneering efforts of the first ethnographers and historians of Buryat origin, such as Mikhail Bogdanov (1878–1919), Gombojab Tsybikov (1873–1930), and Tsyben Jamtsarano (1880–1942).4 They received a Western education in prestigious academic institutions, mainly at St. Petersburg University, where they became acquainted with the latest trends in European social sciences and humanities, as well as with the new currents of social-revolutionary ideas. Their European education led them to engage with and analyze their own personal experiences, which they used to understand the cultural experience and history of their people. As members of a colonized people, their academic activity was bound to become a political act, impregnated with meanings of social justice and social consciousness. In 1905–1907, reacting to the new land-use regulations that favored Russian peasant migrants in Buryatia at the expense of the indigenous people, the newly emerged Buryat national movement began to campaign for more political, social, and economic rights for the Buryats. The Buryat educated elite began to formulate at this time a newly imagined Buryat nationality, in which connection to the larger Mongol and Asian community became the key characteristic.5 Finally, it was these same Buryat scholars who became the leaders of the national movement in 1917–1919. 

The February Revolution of 1917 was the beginning of the end of the Russian Empire, but just the start of the political journey for Buryat nationalists. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and the new Provisional Government and the leftist Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies established dual power in the country. National movements in the territory of the former empire, including Buryatia, began to agitate either for greater autonomy or absolute secession from Russia and the creation of independent states. From March 1917 onward, leaders of the Buryat intelligentsia organized several conferences in Petrograd, Chita, Irkutsk, and Verkhneudinsk (present Ulan Ude), to which they invited Buryat representatives from all-Buryat ethnoterritorial administrative districts (aimak) of the Irkutsk region, Buryatia, and Transbaikalia. These efforts culminated in the first All-Buryat Congress in April 23–25, 1917, in Chita. At the Congress, Russian-educated Buryat activists advocated the creation of a self-governing Buryat Autonomous Region, with elective bodies and within a continuous territory, on the model of Finland and Poland. All adult Buryats, men and women, with no criminal convictions from the age of eighteen, would be able to vote and elect their representatives to the parliament, the Buryat National Duma. The Duma, in turn, would elect a permanent executive body, the Buryat National Committee (Burnackom), responsible for organizing elections, assembling the National Duma, and launching publications in the Buryat-Mongol language.6 Matters of language, culture, and religion were of utmost concern. The Congress called for the establishment of an Education Council that would overlook the creation of Buryat schools, training of teachers, and design of curricula that would include the history of the Buryats and Mongols, the history of Mongolian literature, and Buryat studies. This new vision of an independent Buryatia was based primarily on Buryat identity in an ethno-national sense that excluded other ethnic groups. In their appeal to the Russian Provisional Government, the first All-Buryat Congress defined Buryats as a “distinct group in a national, cultural, economic, and legal sense.” For most of the Buryat leaders, Buddhism and Buryat language were the two unifying principles of the Buryat nation, and the Buryat government took it upon itself to assist in spreading Buddhism across the Baikal region and promoting compulsory primary schools in the Buryat-Mongol language.7 However, despite Burnackom’s appeal to the Provisional Government and the Siberian Soviets for recognition, both central authorities hesitated and finally rejected the Buryats’ request, fearing the break-up of the Russian state as the imperial authority collapsed. 

The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 plunged the region into chaos. Burnackom tried in vain to remain neutral in the Civil War between Red and White forces. Attempting to navigate between the two centers of power, the Buryats made appeals to both sides, and in both cases with disappointing results. Much like the Provisional Government before him, the leader of the White forces, admiral Kolchak, refused to acknowledge the Buryats’ proposal for territorial autonomy, fearing further disintegration of the country. As the Bolsheviks rose to power in the spring of 1918, Burnackom attempted to ally with them, only to be turned down as well. Amid intense fighting to solidify the Soviet rule in Siberia, the Bolshevik authorities had no intention of granting the Buryats administrative and political self-government, and merely agreed to autonomy in the sphere of culture. Faced with refusal from both sides, the Buryat national leaders decided to search for support elsewhere. 

By the spring of 1918, another formidable anti-Red force emerged in Buryatia: the military detachment of the local Cossack warlord ataman Grigory Semenov (1890–1945). Semenov returned from the western front to his home in the Baikal region in September 1917 to form a special Buryat-Mongol mounted division for the Russian Army under the Provisional Government. After the Bolshevik Revolution, in December 1917, Semenov and his small force, which now accepted all nationalities, settled in the region of Manchuria (now Manzhouli), in the Hulunbuir district. This was the territory of the Barga Mongols where, because the Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) ran through it, Russian influence and settlement were considerable. As more soldiers returned home from the western front, Semenov’s division grew in numbers. Just one month later, in January 1918, the Buryat-Mongol division had 51 officers, 300 Barguts, 80 Khorchin Mongols, and 125 Russian volunteers, 556 persons in total. Many Mongols who sought to disentangle themselves from the former Qing Empire and fled to the north after the failed anti-Chinese revolt in 1916, joined Semenov’s forces. In early 1918, 300 Serbs, former Austria-Hungarian prisoners of war, also joined Semenov. The division was renamed the Special Manchurian Division.8 

Though nominally part of the White Army and under the command of its leader, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, Semenov acted as an independent power in the region. Along the western part of the Chinese Eastern Railway, his detachment “requisitioned” everything he desired despite the protests of Kolchak and Dmitry Horvat, the pro-Kolchak General Manager of the CER. Semenov’s further ascendency to regional power came, however, with the support of the Japanese Army. In February 1918, in Harbin, Semenov met with the head of the Harbin Japanese rezidentura, Lieutenant Colonel Kurosawa Hitoshi, and the military attaché in Beijing, General-Major Saitō Suejirō. Semenov was able to convince them to assist his detachment in his fight with the Bolsheviks. 

The Japanese business sector learned about Semenov from its own sources. Businessman Nishihara Kamezō, mainly known as the middleman for a series of Japanese loans in 1917–1918 to a Chinese warlord in exchange for territorial concessions and rights in northern China, sent his two envoys to Siberia in late 1917 to search for a pro-Japanese White leader. On the basis of his intelligence sources, Nishihara concluded that Semenov was the most acceptable figure for an alliance with the Japanese government. In March, nine Japanese officers, including members of the Harbin rezidentura, became part of Semenov’s Staff as consultants and instructors.9 By April 1918, Semenov’s division included 346 Japanese officers, non-commissioned officers, and rank-and-file soldiers. Semenov also received a considerable amount of armaments and ammunition as material support from the Japanese. Backed both by Japan’s approval and Japanese guns, Semenov embarked on achieving his own political goals


The Japanese Intervention

The Buryats populated the territory that was historically a contested area between the Russian and Chinese empires, until the Japanese empire joined the rivalry in the 1890s. The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, the 1727 Treaty of Bura, and the 1729 Treaty of Kyakhta divided the Mongols and their territories, marking the formation of the Buryats as a separate ethnic group out of several large Mongol and Manchu-Tungus groups. The Buryats became the most numerous and most unified of all ethnic minorities in the Siberian part of the Russian Empire, and they put up a prolonged and bloody resistance to Russian colonization in the eighteenth century. After a century of stability, Russia took advantage of China’s defeats in the Opium Wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860) and its paralysis during the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) and acquired large territories in the Far East. After signing the anti-Japanese Treaty of Alliance in 1896 immediately after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, Russia constructed a railway through Manchuria, extending its sphere of influence over northeast China. After its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, Japan solidified its power in Korea and South Manchuria, effectively stopping Russia’s expansion eastward. Starting in early 1917, as Russian influence began to wane in East Asia, Japan fixed its sights on the territories formerly under Russian influence and sought opportunities to exert more control over Chinese domestic politics. In December 1917, the Japanese Army General Staff, together with the Navy General Staff, developed an “Operational Plan for the Actions of the Imperial Army in Russia.” In accordance with this plan, in January 1918, two Japanese warships entered the port of Vladivostok to “protect the interests of Japanese citizens.” Nominally under the auspices of participating in the Allied Intervention to contain the Bolshevik Revolution and guard the eastern front against Germany, Japan deployed considerable armed forces to the Russian Far East, Eastern Siberia, and northern Manchuria between 1918 and 1925.10 

Initially, there was a lack of consensus among the Japanese ruling elite over whether the Japanese intervention was a good idea at all. The Japanese government was split into three factions. The hantai shuppei (anti-interventionist) faction led by Hara Kei, prime minister between September 1918 and November 1921, opposed the intervention, warning that it would be a financial disaster and would jeopardize relations with the United States. This faction was widely supported by the more liberal segments of the public, which were quite rightly concerned that the intervention would threaten peace in the Far East and incite hatred of the Japanese among the Russian people, thereby destroying the good relations rebuilt after the Russo-Japanese War.11 The kyōchō shuppei (allied intervention) faction, dominated by older statesmen like Yamagata Aritomo, was not against military action in principle but wanted to do so in cooperation with the United States. The tandoku shuppei (sole intervention) faction, represented by the general staff led by Field Marshal Uehara Yūsaku, General Tanaka Gi’ichi, Foreign Minister Motono Ichirō, Home Minister Gotō Shinpei, and Director of the Southern Manchurian Railway Company Kawakami Toshitsune, insisted on an exclusively Japanese operation, emphasizing Japan’s need to take control of Siberia’s abundant resources.12 The kyōchō shuppei faction prevailed, and the Japanese government officially announced the start of the intervention on August 2, 1918, after the United States joined the Allied forces. The government issued a promise to withdraw from the Russian territory once order was restored, and renounced any intention to infringe on Russian territorial sovereignty and internal affairs.13 In reality, however, the Japanese Army had been on Russian soil since April 1918, and was already actively involved in the raging Civil War. Moreover, Japan’s intelligence service had stepped up its operations in Siberia since early 1917, while starting in January 1918, high-ranking Japanese generals began arriving in Vladivostok to observe the situation on the ground and offer arms and financial aid to the anti-Bolshevik government.14 Further insubordination by the Army was reflected in the scale of the Japanese Interventionist forces. Despite an agreement with the Allied Intervention forces to limit the total number of troops to 7,000, and in opposition to the cabinet and the Privy Council in Japan, the Army General Staff asserted the “right of supreme command” and launched a full-scale assault. It deployed more than 72,000 troops, one-third of all of Japan’s active service troops, to Vladivostok and the Transbaikal region, in addition to 60,000 troops in North Manchuria. 

The government’s interest in Siberia did not end with the dispatch of military forces. In July–August 1918, a number of high-profile businessmen, politicians, and military personnel established a Special Commission for Siberian Economic Aid (Rinji Shiberia keizai enjo iinkai). Among members of the Commission were the presidents of Mitsui and Mitsubishi corporations, the head of the South Manchurian Railway Corporation (Mantetsu), and the head of the Bank of Korea. The aim of the Commission was “to establish a basis for Japanese economic activities in opposition to the acquisition of concessions by the United States and other countries.”15 In December 1918, the Committee set up the Russo-Japanese Trading Company, followed in 1919 by the Far East Business Development Corporation and the Russo-Japanese Bank, which were organized for the purpose of entering the mining, oil production, forestry, fisheries, and related transport industries.16

Beginning in mid-1918, the military, the Terauchi Government, and the business establishment, backed by the Ministry of Finance, committed Japan to gaining either an economic or political foothold in Buryatia. To achieve this goal, they actively engaged in the Russian Civil War, making contacts with the leaders of the White forces, supporting them financially and materially, staging anti-Bolshevik uprisings, and often acting as coordinators and strategists of White Army actions against the Bolsheviks. Semenov and the Buryats were key figures for Japan, as they positioned themselves as pro-Japanese and promised considerable concessions to Japanese interests once they gained power. 


Buryat Pan-Mongolism

Unfortunately for the Buryats, they could not help but ally with Semenov. After December 1917, the Red Army, which included a few Buryat Bolsheviks, was gaining more ground first in Irkutsk and then, in spring of 1918, in Buryatia. In the Transbaikal region, the Buryat self-government still represented the most stable and popularly supported authority. In the summer of 1918, however, Semenov rooted out the Bolshevik forces in Buryatia and the Irkutsk provinces. The Buryat self-government had to work now with Semenov and his staff. For a short while, cooperation seemed to be possible as Semenov, trying to gain military, political, and economic assistance from the Buryats, supported the Buryat national movement. 

Numerous rumors and false reports circulated in the region regarding Japan’s involvement with Semenov and with Buryat-Mongol activities. Aleksandr Kolchak’s Omsk government, which controlled the territory west of Lake Baikal, was led to believe by the reports of its officers in Buryatia that Semenov was part of a larger Japanese strategy in the global political space. According to the officers in Irkutsk loyal to the Omsk government, the Japanese were getting ready to go to war with the United States; in order to secure iron ore from Eastern Siberia and prevent an attack from China, they were plotting an uprising in Mongolia, and Semenov had been chosen to lead it.17 On the other hand, reports dispatched to Tokyo from the Japanese Military Mission in Omsk maintained that the Mongol uprising was Semenov’s plan and had neither been initiated nor was it being led by the Japanese military. The reports claimed that the rumors about a Japan-backed Mongol uprising were part of Semenov’s plan to solidify his control over the region east of Lake Baikal.18 Until recently, Soviet and Russian historians have considered Semenov to have been the chief architect of the Mongol uprising. Semenov was credited with formulating pan-Mongolism, or the idea of a greater Mongolian state, which would unite all Mongol-speaking people.19 Hence, both Russian and Western historians have considered the cooperation between Semenov and the Japanese military as the crudest example of Japan’s insatiable imperialism and the personal greed of bloody warlords. Semenov did indeed entertain the idea of becoming the head of the Great Mongolian State and spread the rumor that he was, in fact, a Mongolian prince, but he was not the one who first put forward the idea of pan-Mongolism as a geopolitical goal, nor did the Japanese have a coherent imperial policy for Siberia.20 

Often overlooked is the role that the Buryat politicians played in the construction and development of the pan-Mongolist movement. In fact, it was the Buryat national elite who first conceived of pan-Mongolism, prior to the 1917–1919 period. Most of the Russian-educated Buryats were also employed in government offices overseeing the implementation of Tsarist Eastern policies in China, Tibet, and Mongolia.21 Most importantly, future nationalist leaders such as Tsyben Zhamtsarano, Tsydn-Eshi Tsydypov, and others were directly involved in Outer Mongolia’s move to independence, and knew from the inside the geopolitical interests of big powers in the region. They were aware that after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, in which many Buryats participated, including Tsydn-Eshi Tsydypov, Japan began extending its influence in Inner Mongolia. In the Third Russo-Japanese Entente of 1912, the Russian Empire as well as Britain and France acknowledged the eastern part of Inner Mongolia as belonging to the Japanese sphere of influence. In 1911, with the fall of the Qing Empire, Outer Mongolia and its leader, the Bogdo Khan, declared independence from China and the establishment of a state for all the Mongols. Diplomatic negotiations then ensued between the Russians, the new leaders of Outer Mongolia, and the unhappy Chinese, in which the Buryats acted as consultants and translators. (Tsyben Zhamtsarano was, e.g., a consultant to the Russian ambassador in Urga.) Outer Mongolia tried to seek Japanese help in 1912 and 1914, but Japan preferred not to interfere in the Russian sphere of interest. Moreover, Japan did not consider the Mongolian drive for independence as a genuine act, but rather as the result of Russia’s diplomatic machinations to extend its power into Mongolia following the Qing dynasty’s collapse.22 Not finding any support with Japan or with Russia, according to an agreement reached between Russia and China in 1915, Outer Mongolia remained under China’s suzerainty, although with a high level of independence. A new attempt at a greater Mongolian unity and independence came only three years later, initiated by the Buryat political elites who were either witnesses of or directly involved in Outer Mongolia’s earlier endeavor to gain complete independence. By the end of 1918, as no warring party could claim overwhelming authority in the region, the Burnackom had abandoned its goal of achieving administrative and territorial autonomy within the Russian state, and instead started to pursue a different, more ambitious goal: the creation an independent Mongolian state, which would unite Buryatia and Outer Mongolia. Despite the Mongols’ earlier failure, the Buryats were more confident about their own success. Elbek-Dorzhi Rinchino, former head of the Burnackom, for example, was sure that “the significance and prestige” of the Buryats had increased during the Russian Revolution, because between 1917 and 1919, the Burnackom was in sole control of Buryat affairs for almost two years. Importantly, the Western-educated Buryat national leaders often thought of the Mongols and other peoples of central Asia as primitive and rejected the theocratic governance of Outer Mongolia as not in accord with the progressive notion of modern secular nationhood. Rinchino expressed a widely held assumption among the Buryat politicians that they would play a special leading role in the new state as “the most cultural [group] among Mongol people.”23

The Buryats based their “superiority” not only on the fact that they had Western education and were fluent and literate in both Mongolian and Russian (and sometimes other European languages), but, according to them, that they possessed an articulate national self-consciousness, which other Mongol peoples had still to achieve. If initially the Buryat national leaders saw their Western education as a “weapon” against Russian imperialist policies, in 1919 they considered Western education, together with the possession of national self-consciousness, as indispensable tools in the political and national struggle for the unity of the Buryat-Mongol people. With the decline of the Eurocentric (and in this case Russia-centric) order in the post-World War I period, and the simultaneous emergence of alternative political visions, the Buryats were able to imagine themselves as the civilizational leaders of the Mongol people, in the same way that the Japanese, a decade earlier, had imagined themselves as the moral leaders of Asia. 

The Buryat leaders were aware that without powerful allies their plans would be difficult to realize. They saw Japan as the most powerful player in the region, and had high hopes that they could interest Japan in cooperation. As Rinchino wrote: Most important for the realization of our program is the establishment of contact with Japan and Semenov. Semenov is useful to us as long as the Japanese stand behind him, who have their own plans for Siberia, Manchuria, and Mongolia. Semenov has authority and power only because of Japan’s backing. Our most important task, therefore, is to establish direct contact with the Japanese, while contact with Semenov is less significant.24 

Rinchino’s writings revealed that, for Buryat leaders, cooperation with Semenov was only a convenient way to get closer to the Japanese military. Eventually, they optimistically thought, Semenov would complete his part and disappear as a power contender from the political scene, while the Buryat national government would establish its authority in the region. The Buryat leaders hoped that once they made direct contact with the Japanese, they could play on the Japanese interests to achieve their political goals.25 They thought that Japan would like to have united Buryatia and Outer Mongolia as an independent buffer state between Soviet Russia and Manchuria. The Buryats made their move to secure Japan as an ally in late 1918. When the Fifth National Congress of the Buryat-Mongols of Eastern Siberia was convened in Verkhneudinsk, between November 18 and December 3, 1918, Buryat politicians invited a Japanese officer, Captain Suzue Mantarō, to attend in a bid by to gain access to the Japanese command. The Buryat hosts organized a feast in Suzue’s honor and apparently gained his favor, since he eagerly transmitted their suggestions for cooperation with Japan and supported their appeals. The Buryat politicians expressed a desire to send local students to study in Japan, and to organize tourist trips.26 The plan related to students was submitted to the vice chief of staff in Tokyo by the Japanese staff in Siberia in January 1919.27 Moreover, in the same month, Burnackom, now Burnarduma (Buryat National Duma), established a Mining Department to investigate the mineral wealth of Transbaikalia, especially the lands of the Buryat people. The Mining Department invited Japanese mining specialists, who actively participated in its operations. The region’s natural resources, the Buryats rightly believed, would be a key factor in attracting foreign assistance.28 However, the Buryats were misguided by the promises the Japanese officers in Siberia made to them. Encouraged by the Japanese military and business interests, the Buryats overestimated Japan’s commitment to supporting the creation of the Mongol state and were little aware of conflicting agendas within the Japanese establishment. 


The Mongol State and Japan

The Japanese government, the military, and the business sector were united in their understanding that the Japanese Expedition to Siberia presented an excellent opportunity to extend the Japanese railway networks from Korea and southern Manchuria into northern Manchuria, Transbaikalia, and the Russian Far East. They had serious disagreements, however, in regard to Japan’s foreign policy priorities, which finally overwhelmed any coherent imperial strategy in the region. The Army, the party most supportive of Mongol independence, was also not unified in how to proceed. In January 1919, Buryat and Mongol political leaders organized a meeting in Dauria, on the border of Russia and Manchuria. Semenov and the Japanese officer Captain Suzue were also in attendance. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the steps for the creation of the Mongol state. The Japanese informed their command in Tokyo of the Buryat plans to institutionalize Buryat-Mongol self-government (jiritsu), but said nothing of independence. Even though Captain Suzue was in favor of wide-ranging support of the Buryat-Mongol movement, the high command in Tokyo ordered that he remain an observer. The General Staff also advised Suzue to convince Semenov not interfere in Mongol affairs.29 

Despite the disapproval of the Japanese Foreign Ministry and hesitation of the General Staff, Buryat-Mongol politicians went ahead with their pan-Mongolist project. On February 25, 1919, the Constituent Congress of the unified Mongol state opened in Chita. The Congress, which claimed to have representatives from Inner and Outer Mongolia, Hulunbuir, and Buryatia, was co-chaired by a young lama from Inner Mongolia, Neise Gegen, and the Buryat politician Dashi Sampilon. The Congress resolved that all people of Mongol descent should be allowed to form a state in which they would enjoy full rights. The capital was to be in the Hulunbuir city of Hailar, with the Provisional Government seat temporarily located in Dauria station. The Congress also established four ministries: Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Finance, and War.30 Captain Kuroki Chikayoshi, head of the Japanese Mission in Chita between August 1918 and February 1919, and Captain Suzue, became the two foreign advisors of the Dauria government. Captain Kuroki encouraged Buryatia’s independence plans and promised Japan’s support. Unlike Kuroki, Captain Suzue did not make any promises at the Congress. To further attract Japan’s interests, the Congress, which also included Semenov, promised to Japan exclusive trade rights and use of mineral resources, in addition to a contract for the construction of a new railway. Although the Japanese government was very interested in the mineral deposits of Transbaikalia and even sent mining engineers to the eastern Baikal region, it refrained from expressing full-scale support of the new state.31 Outer Mongolia’s response was also lukewarm. Outer Mongolia did not participate in the Congress, but promised to join once the new government was approved by the Paris Peace Conference, in particular by the United States and Japan. In truth, however, the leaders of Outer Mongolia did not trust Japan and the promises of its military, as the memory of Japan’s dismissal of Mongols’ earlier plea for support in 1914 was still fresh. Moreover, they did not favor Buryat leadership of a pan-Mongol state.32 Without Outer Mongolia, however, united Mongolia was unable to aspire for a larger unification. 

It seems that one of the most important reasons for the Army’s support of the pan-Mongolist movement was to stall the advance of the United States in the region. The Japanese government was alarmed by the arrival of the Russian Railway Service Corps (RRSC) in 1918, which was the brainchild of the American Advisory Commission of Railway Experts. Both operated under the aegis of the U.S. State Department. Originally, the RRSC was intended to help the Provisional Government to modernize Russian railways for the war effort. In March 1918, the RRSC reached an agreement with the CER General Manager Dmitry Horvat and deployed 110 men to the CER.33 In early May 1918, Semenov also asked for assistance from the RRSC unit on the CER, but the U.S. State Department refused to offer him any support. The Japanese worried that the RRSC and the U.S. State Department might wreck their chances for their own railway expansion. At the January 1919 meeting in Dauria, the only concern of the Japanese officers was the railway issue. Captain Suzue asked the Buryat members if it was true that the Americans had been granted the right to build a railway from Manchuria to south Mongolia. The Buryat and Mongol politicians acknowledged that the Americans were indeed engaging in different sorts of activities in the region, but that they were not aware of any plans for a railway. The Buryat-Mongol representatives did not fail to add that, of course, they would prefer such a railway to be built by the Japanese.34 

The Buryat leaders of the Congress requested that Lieutenant Colonel David Barrows, head of the Intelligence Office of the American Expeditionary Forces, send out two telegrams, one to Woodrow Wilson and another to the Paris Peace Conference, requesting international recognition and support.35 The telegrams were never delivered, however, owing to Semenov’s interference in the matter. Anxious not to be left out, Semenov told the Buryat representatives that he would hand the telegrams to Barrows himself. According to Rinchino, Semenov signed his own name on the telegrams as the sole representative of the newly proclaimed Mongol state. Barrows returned the telegrams to the Buryat Congress, pointing out that the American government might consider helping a new national government headed by its national leaders, but not a local warlord with a questionable reputation. Rinchino and the others were furious at Semenov. Because the Buryats had to rely on Semenov as an intermediary, they lost their chance to establish direct contact with the United States, as well as Japan. 

Encouraged by the Japanese military advisors, the Congress sent a delegation of five people via Japan to represent the new Mongol state at the Paris Peace Conference. The delegation, however, got stranded in Tokyo, because the Japanese government, after a prolonged consideration, refused to issue travel documents for their trip to France. The reason for the refusal was the vehement protest of Kolchak’s Omsk government, which objected to any territorial autonomy for the regions of the Russian imperial proper. Kolchak sent to the American authorities in Vladivostok a message in which he claimed that united Mongolia would lay the foundation of a “yellow flood on Europe,” and called the Buryats “the future Prussians of the Far East.” He also voiced fears that the Kazakhs, Kalmyks, and Tibetans were going to join the state, disrupting even further the balance of power in the region.36 The French, British, and American representatives became alarmed at such prospects, as they had the potential to undermine territories and peoples under their sphere of influence. Moreover, they feared that the new state would not only violate the territorial integrity of China and Russia, but would become in fact a Japanese puppet-state. The United States in particular worked on preserving the Open Door principle in Siberia and China, and specifically northern Manchuria, against Japanese aggression. Weighing the potential complications and especially the possibilities for Japan’s rise in the region, the Western powers refused to express support for the Buryat-Mongol independence movement. 

On the other hand, never keen on antagonizing China by supporting Mongolia, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also refused to support the delegation. Giving in to the Foreign Ministry, the General Staff recalled Kuroki and promised to stop all relations with the Buryats. The Foreign Ministry’s agenda in Northeast Asia increasingly diverged from that of the Army. The former demanded in vain that the latter not support the initiative to create a Mongol state because this would have a negative impact on Japan’s relations with Russia and China. The Ministry became aware that the Chita Congress in February 1919 aimed at the unification of the Mongol people, with the Buryats occupying the center of such unification, and, most importantly, that the Congress had declared the independence (dokuritsu) of united Mongolia from both China and Russia. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was largely concerned with maintaining friendly relations with China. Japanese diplomats in North China supported the Manchurian warlord General Zhang Zuolin, who warned that Japan’s involvement with Buryat-Mongol plans for a Greater Mongolia would spoil the relations between China and Japan, as the Chinese were by no means enthusiastic about such plans. Already in early 1918, the emergence of Semenov’s Buryat-Mongol Division alarmed the Chinese state. To reassert Chinese authority over Outer Mongolia in the summer of 1918, a Chinese battalion entered Urga to reinforce the consular guard in violation of the 1915 Kyakhta agreement between Russia, China, and Mongolia. According to the agreement, China granted Mongolia autonomy and promised to keep only a small military escort in Urga. The renewed claims of the Chinese state over Outer Mongolia, and its vehement opposition to the Buryat-Mongol independence movement, only added confusion to the already complicated balance of power in the region. Now, the Japanese diplomats had to reassure Zhang Zuolin that the Japanese Army supported only self-government (jiritsu) for the Buryats, and would not allow any independent state to exist beyond the Baikal region. In other words, for the Foreign Ministry, the China policy was the priority; therefore, it strongly disapproved of the creation of an independent Mongolian state and of Japanese military involvement in such an enterprise.37 

However, during the intervention, the Japanese military developed the habit of independent actions, which often went against orders from Tokyo. Thus, Colonel Kurosawa Hitoshi, who was Kuroki’s replacement in Chita between February 1919 and August 1920, promised unofficial support in the form of money and arms to the pan-Mongolist movement. It was known that the Japanese military trained and supplied armed detachments in Inner Mongolia organized by Neise Gegen, the leader of the new state.38 Despite the General Staff’s assurance that there would be no contact with the Buryats, in April 1919, Dashi Sampilon, representative of Buryatia in the new Mongol government, travelled to Irkutsk with a Japanese Army captain to convince Irkutsk Buryats to support the “Mongol buffer state between the great powers of the white and yellow races.”39 In May 1919, the Buryats attempted to send their own delegation to make direct contact with Japan, but Semenov made sure that the delegation could not move beyond Hailar. 

The Buryat-Mongol plans for a pan-Mongolian state were never realized. Largely responsible for this was ataman Semenov, who could not tolerate independent actions of the Buryat elites. Relations between the Buryat politicians and Semenov deteriorated due to mutual distrust and accusations of sabotage. The Japanese presence in Buryatia was mostly supported by the military force, and they had to ally with Semenov. Bypassing Semenov and establishing direct cooperation with the Buryat government was not feasible in a situation in which military force ruled the day. The Buryat-Japanese affair ended with the arrest and murder of Mikhail Bogdanov, a prominent Buryat politician and historian, by Semenov in December 1919. Semenov also ordered arrests of other Buryat politicians, who were warned ahead and went into hiding. Meanwhile, beginning in September 1919, the Red Army was steadily advancing into Eastern Siberia, and destroyed the Kolchak forces in February 1920. In spring 1920, the Bolsheviks established their regime in Buryatia. Neither the Mongol state, nor the self-governing body of the Buryats, Burnarduma, remained in existence. 


The Buryat-Mongol Soviet Republic

The pan-Mongolism project became entangled in complicated hierarchical relations with other powers in the region, which sought to realize their own visions of regional order. The Japanese actions in Siberia were much more nuanced and complicated since they were not simply aimed at supporting the military warlord Semenov. The Japanese Army and government engaged in negotiations with the Buryat-Mongol nationalist movement, which, as they very well knew, had an enormous potential to wreck the whole fragile balance of power in East Asia. However, in 1919, neither the Army General Staff, the business establishment, nor the government was sure how and whether Buryatia could be incorporated as a Japanese protectorate.

The Buryats’ independence activities and their cooperation with the Japanese military had complicated and important consequences for the Russians, Japanese, Mongols, Chinese, and, finally, the Buryats themselves. The Russian Bolsheviks devised a strategy of “national self-determination” which aimed at disarming nationalism by granting territorial-political autonomy to various ethnic groups of former Imperial Russia, but within the confines of the new Soviet Federation. By the end of 1920, Semenov’s army and the Japanese troops had left Buryatia. The Russian and Buryat Bolsheviks entered the region, but worked in close collaboration with national Buryat leaders to solidify the Soviet authority. An outcome of these efforts was the establishment of the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in January 1923. The Republic was established on the four national principles: national territory, national language, national elite, and national culture. The Bolsheviks’ commitment to these principles persuaded Buryat national leaders to join the Soviet state-building project, as they were led to believe by the Bolsheviks that the formation of an autonomous region might lead to the creation of a united and independent Buryat-Mongol state that would incorporate Outer Mongolia. The national Buryat leaders were also given high-ranking positions, equivalent to the Minister of War, Minister of Education and Culture, and Minister of Finance, in the newly established Mongolian People’s Republic (1924). Disappointed in Japan, the Buryat leaders turned to the Bolsheviks as another, possibly more effective means to unite the Mongol-speaking peoples. On the other hand, by winning over the local elites, the Soviets had not only recruited ethnic support for the revolution but also secured Buryatia and Mongolia as a conceptual border between Russia and its Asian neighbors. As the central authority disintegrated in the Russian East, China initially saw an opportunity to restore its hold on Outer Mongolia. And although China lost Outer Mongolia, which was transformed instead into a Soviet client state, it managed to keep and integrate Inner Mongolia into its provincial system. The pan-Mongolist movement, therefore, became one of the major incentives for Chinese nation-building, forcing the issue of China’s nationhood, territoriality, and ethnic composition to the forefront of its concerns.40

For the Japanese, one of the consequences of the Buryat-Japanese encounter in 1919 was that it awakened the Japanese military’s interest in the political potential of Mongol nationalism. Until the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, the Japanese were vaguely aware of the Mongols and Mongolia, and only in the 1920s did a narrative emerge of a special relationship between Japan and Mongolia. It was not a coincidence that both public and scholarly interests in Mongolia were promoted and often sponsored by the Army since the early 1920s, as the Army regarded Buryatia and Mongolia to be of utmost strategic importance. As early as 1918–1919, Buryatia represented the new periphery of Japanese imperialism, where its strategy of getting involved with a local anticolonial independence movement and utilizing it for its own purposes was first tried out.

The Buryats, however, had to endure all the consequences of their failed attempt to gain independence. The most devastating blow came during Stalin’s Great Terror of the late 1930s, when almost all-Buryat national politicians were accused of anti-Soviet pan-Mongolist activities and eventually were executed or died in labor camps. Since the Civil War period, the Soviet state had been consumed with an ideological fear of foreign influence on its border regions.41

The fear understandably intensified with the creation of the Japanese puppet-state Manchukuo in 1932 near the Soviet Far Eastern borders, which the Soviet leadership perceived to be politically and militarily weak, as well as with the renewed Japanese attempts to influence Mongolian politics. Coupled with constant concern about the resurgence of ethnic nationalism, in 1935 the Soviet leadership embarked on large-scale ethnic cleansing on its borders. In Buryatia, the Soviet authorities claimed that Buryat pan-Mongolism was formulated by the Japanese military during the intervention, and Buryat political elites and the Buryat Buddhist clergy were accused of working for the Japanese intelligence in order to assist the expansion of the Japanese empire. Moreover, to upset Buryat connections with Mongol groups outside the Soviet Union, in 1937 the Soviet central authority broke up the territory of the Buryat-Mongol Soviet Republic, which thereby decreased in size by 40 percent. This decision was part of the general Soviet policy to curb the authority of regional national governments and identities in order to promote a unified Soviet identity. The story of the Buryat national movement in 1919 moves us away from both empire-centric and Eurocentric views of the history of East Asia in the early twentieth century. In the volatile post-World War I period and in one of the most fiercely contested imperial arenas, the Buryats managed to invert the projected colonial trajectory and carve for themselves a space of independence. Albeit not without its cost, the national space they imagined and struggled for was finally realized within the Soviet Union. The Buryat-Mongolian identity as we know it now was worked out during that crucial year of 1919. 


1. On the rise of Buryat national self-consciousness since the early 1900s, see Vera Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

2. C. Ellis, T. Adams, et al., “Autoethnography: An Overview,” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung 12:1 (January 2011),

3. K. Kollmar-Paulenz, “Systematically Ordering the World: the Encounter of Buriyad-Mongolian, Tibetan and Russian Knowledge Cultures in the 19th Century,” in L’orientalisme des marges: éclairages à partir de l’Inde et de la Russie, eds. Philippe Bornet et al. (Lausanne: Université de Lausanne, 2014), 123–46.

4. Robert W. Montgomery, “Buryat Political and Social Activism in the 1905 Revolution,” Sibirica 10:3 (Winter 2011): 1–28; Robert Rupen, “Buryat Intelligentsia,” Far Eastern Quarterly 15:3 (1956): 383–98.

5. Anya Bernstein refers to the Buryats’ vision as “Asian Eurasianism,” a vision of Eurasia not from the center but from the Russian Asian periphery. A. Bernstein, “Pilgrims, Fieldwork, and Secret Agents: Buryat Buddhologists and the History of an Eurasian Imaginary,” Inner Asia 11:1 (2009): 23–45.

6. Bato Batuev, O natsional’nom dvizhenii v Buryatii v period bor’by za Sovetskuyu vlast’ (Ulan Ude: Trudy Vostochno-Sibirskogo bibliotechnogo instituta, 1963), 12–8.

7. Ivan Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia and Mongolia, 1911–1924 (London: Routledge, 2016), 77–82.

8. Jamie Bisher, White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian (London: Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2005), 54–55.

9. A.V. Polutov, “Yaponskie voennye missii v Manchzhurii, Sibiri i na Dal’nem Vostoke (1918–1922 gg),” Vestnik DVO RAN 4 (2012): 75–6,

10. James Morley, The Japanese Thrust into Siberia, 1918 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957).

11. More practical reasons against the intervention were that the expedition would force Russia to conclude a peace treaty with Germany, and that the Allied forces might compel Japan to send troops to Europe as an extension of the Siberian expedition. On public reaction, see Paul Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918–1922: “A Great Disobedience against the People” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011).

12. Hara Kei, Hara Kei Nikki, ed. Hara Kei’ichirō, vol. 7 (Tokyo: Kangensha edition, 1950–51), 294–96, 346, 366.

13. Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 55–80.

14. Polutov, “Yaponskie voennye missii,” 72–3.

15. Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nihon gaikō bunsho, vol. 3 (Tokyo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1918).

16. Hara Teruyuki, “Japan Moves North: The Occupation of Northern Sakhalin (1920s),” in Rediscovering Russia in Asia: Siberia and the Russian Far East, eds. Stephen Kotkin and David Wolff (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), 58; Keishi Ono, “The Siberian Intervention and Japanese Society,” in Japan and the Great War, eds. Oliviero Frattolillo and Antony Best (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 102. Also, Hagino Toshio, Nichiro kokusai ringyō kankeishiron (Tokyo: Ringyō Chōsakai, 2001), 104–38; Sven Saaler, “Nihon no tairiku shinshutsu to Shiberia shuppei: Teikokushugi kakuchō no ‘kansetsu shihai kōsō’ wo megutte,” Kanazawa daigaku keizai gakubu ronshū 19:1 (1998): 267–72.

17. State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) f. P1700, op. 7, d. 4, l. 12.

18. Ivan Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia and Mongolia, 1911–1924: Buddhism, Socialism and Nationalism in State and Autonomy Building (London: Routledge, 2016), 115.

19. Historical research is complicated by the fact that Semenov has not officially been rehabilitated; all materials concerning his activities in Siberia are classified and stored in the FSB (former KGB) archives in Moscow.

20. Leonid Kuras, “Ataman Semenov and the National Military Formations of Buriat,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 10:4 (December 1997): 80–85.

21. Robert A. Rupen, “Cyben Žamcaranovič Žamcarano (1880-?1940),” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 19:1/2 (1956): 126–45; John Snelling, Buddhism in Russia: The Story of Agvan Dorzhiev: Lhasa’s Emissary to the Tsar (Longmead: Element, 1993); Alexander Andreev, Soviet Russia and Tibet: The Debacle of Secret Diplomacy, 1918-1930 (Leiden/Boston, MA: Brill, 2003); Ihor Pidhainy, “Tiber through the Eyes of a Buryat: Gombojab Tsybikov and His Tibetan Relations,” ASIA Network Exchange 20:2 (2013): 1–14. doi: 10.16995/ane.92.

22. Nakami Tatsuo, “Mongol Nationalism and Japan,” in Imperial Japan and National Identities in Asia, 1895–1945, eds. Li Narangoa and Robert Cribb (London/New York: Routledge, 2003), 92–3.

23. R.D. Nimayev et al. eds., Elbek-Dorzhi Rinchino: Dokumenty, stat’i, pis’ma (Ulan Ude: Komitet po delam arkhivov pri sovete ministrov respubliki Buryatia, 1994), 126.

24. Ibid, 124.

25. Ibid, 126.

26. Its objectives were to “enlighten the Mongol people” and develop friendly attitudes toward Japan among them. The Congress organizers suggested to send ten students on a scholarship funded by the Japanese government. After a year of Japanese, they would engage in three-year professional training. The most talented students would continue their education. The program was to begin in March 1919. The Buryats also invited three Japanese doctors as medical advisors for one- or two-year visits.

27. Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia, 117.

28. Moreover, the fifth Congress sent a large monetary gift to Bogd Khan, head of Outer Mongolia’s government, to gain his favor, and tried to solidify contacts with Barga and Inner Mongolia.

29. Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia, 120.

30. GARF f. 200, op. 1, d. 406, l. 1–2.

31. Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (JACAR) Ref. B03051344900, Ref. B03051345000, Ref. B03051345100,

32. Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia, 120.

33. Leo Bacino, Reconstructing Russia: U.S. Policy in Revolutionary Russia, 1917–1922 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999).

34. Jamie Bisher, White Terror, 105–107.

35. GARF f. 200 op. 1, d. 478, l. 48.

36. Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia, 142.

37. Ibid., 120–21.

38. Ibid., 131.

39. GARF f. 200, op. 1, d. 478, l. 177.

40. Xiaoyuan Liu, Reins of Liberation. An Entangled History of Mongolian Independence, Chinese Territoriality, and Great Power Hegemony, 1911–1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

41. Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 309–93.


For updates click homepage here





shopify analytics