Damdiny Sühbaatar

Peter Symes

When was the last time you saw a portrait of Damdiny Sühbaatar? It was probably the last time you were thumbing through a dealer’s inventory of banknotes and came to ‘Mongolia’. For a few nations there is one man who represents the country. In much the same way the Mahatma Gandhi represents India and Mohammed Ali Jinnah symbolizes Pakistan, Damdiny Sühbaatar exemplifies Mongolia. However, unlike Gandhi and Jinnah, very little information about Sühbaatar is easily available outside Mongolia.

            In Mongolia, Sühbaatar (often spelt ‘Suhebaatar’) is regarded as a hero because of his role as a founding father of the modern communist state. While he was not the principal character in the formation of modern Mongolia, he is represented by the communist state as its greatest hero. Sühbaatar was born in February 1893 when Mongolia was part of the Chinese Manchu Qing empire. His name, Sühbaatar, means ‘axe hero’ and he was given this name after his father, Damdin, had lost an axe in the river Uliastay. He worked at traditional agrarian jobs while young, and received an education in Mongolian and arithmetic during his youth.

            In 1911 the Manchu Qing dynasty collapsed and, following an agreement between Russia and China, Mongolia was established as an autonomous state within China. The Bogd Khan was appointed head of state. The Bogd Khan was a Bogd Gegeen, or ‘enlightened one’, within Mongolian Lamaism and the Bogd Khan was believed to be the incarnation of an early Buddhist leader. Buddhism has been an important part of life within Mongolia for centuries and Sühbaatar’s brother had followed a traditional calling by becoming a lama.

            In 1912 Sühbaatar was drafted into the army of Autonomous Mongolia and attended military school, under the tuition of Russian instructors. He excelled at the training school and, on graduation, he was made platoon commander of a machine-gun company. In 1918 he was transferred to an administrative job, typesetting laws and religious texts for the Bogd Khan.

            In 1919 the Chinese returned to Mongolia and demanded the resignation of the Mongolian Government, which occurred in 1920. The Mongolian army was subsequently disbanded and Sühbaatar became unemployed. However, in 1919 Sühbaatar had formed a secret nationalist group and in 1920 his group joined with another. Members of the combined group then made contact with Russian revolutionaries. After initial contact, the group formed themselves into the Mongolian People’s Party and drew up a formal request for assistance from the Bosheviks, which received approval from the Bogd Khan who set his seal to the document. The request for assistance was looked upon favourably in Moscow and led to numerous visits by members of the Mongolian People’s Party to Russia.

            In February 1921 Sühbaatar was made commander in chief of the Mongolian People’s Army and a month later he was made a member of the provisional government. During 1921 Sühbaatar conducted successful attacks on Russian Tsarist forces that occupied parts of Mongolia and in late 1921 he was part of a delegation that visited Moscow to meet Lenin. On his return to Mongolia he continued to build the army and in September 1922 he was awarded the title ‘Zorigt Baatar’, or ‘Resolute Hero’. On 20 February 1923 Damidny Sühbaatar died from illness, although there have been accusations that he was poisoned.

            Sühbaatar was one of a number of early revolutionaries in Mongolia. While some are remembered with distinction, others have fallen into disrepute as fortunes changed during the struggle for power within the Communist Party. Sühbaatar remains one on whom favour has not only remained, but grown with the passage of time. Current Mongolian histories exaggerate his deeds and play down, or ignore, the deeds of his compatriots. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of the record of history, Sühbaatar is today the hero of Mongolia.

            The first Mongolian banknotes were issued in 1925 by the Mongolian Trade and Industry Bank, which was a joint-stock company established as a Russian-Mongolian enterprise. While other currencies circulated for several years, in 1928 the tögrög, or tughrik, became the single official currency. The Trade and Industry Bank became the possession of the Mongolian government in 1935 and was renamed the State Bank from 1 January 1954.

            The early banknotes of the Trade and Industry Bank (which is sometimes translated as the ‘Commercial and Industrial Bank’), were dominated by a symbol called the ‘soyombo’, which is in the centre of the notes, and it was not until the 1939 issue that Damdiny Sühbaatar appeared on the notes. On the front of these notes the soyombo appears to the left and Sühbaatar appears at the right. The portrait of Sühbaatar was retained for the 1955 issue, but on the notes of this issue the soyombo was replaced by the State Emblem of Mongolia. This combination was retained on the 1966 issue and on the issues of 1981 and 1983.

            In 1993 a new series of notes was issued that wrought dramatic changes. The soyombo was rehabilitated, replacing the State Emblem, and a portrait of Sühbaatar in traditional dress replaced the uniformed portrait of Sühbaatar that had been used for over fifty years. Cyrillic text, for so long a reflection of Russian influence, has been replaced by Mongolian text, which appeared on the earlier notes. The final change introduced in this series is the use of Genghis Khan’s portrait on the higher denomination notes, rather than Sühbaatar.

            The ‘soyombo’, which appears on many of Mongolia’s banknotes, is a mystical symbol that was reputedly developed by the first Bogd Gegeen. Its central feature is the yin and yang symbol, with vertical bars to the left and right and horizontal bars and triangles, or arrowheads, above and below. Surmounting these devices are the sun, moon and flames. The symbol has undergone minor change over the years. Originally it sat on a wreath of lotus flowers and from 1945 to 1992 it was usually surmounted by a communist star. On the notes issued in 1993, the bed of lotus flowers has been rehabilitated. According to some authorities, the constituent parts of the soyombo represent the five elements of wood, fire, earth, iron and water. These elements are important to traditional Mongolian culture and are associated with the horoscope of the Mongolian lunar calendar.

            The soyombo remains an important symbol for the Mongolians but, for the banknote collector, it is one of two symbols that allow easy identification of the Mongolian banknotes. Be it the ‘soyombo’ or ‘Damdiny Sühbaatar’, either image will allow identification of Mongolian banknotes if you can’t read Mongolian, in either the traditional or Cyrillic scripts.

This article was completed in March 2003
© Peter Symes