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The lama question

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It has become a kind of Mongolist shorthand to consider the “Great Repression” (ih helmegdel) which was visited on Buddhism during the late 1930s as an almost complete and unimaginably brutal destruction of all vestiges of religious activity. Chris Kaplonski’s subtle and meticulously researched book offers a very different approach, a nuanced reading of the historical and social development of ‘the lama question’ (lamyn asuudal) which, more than any other account I have read, leaves me with a feeling for, and understanding of, the intentions of both the repressed and the repressors, as well as a more precise awareness of the historical development of this period.
Kaplonski’s approach to his subject is noteworthy for its extensive and unprecedented use of archive material. Mongolian archives, as he suggests in his introduction, are not always easy to access. Once accessed, however, the material is frequently disorganized and with frequent and frustrating lacunæ. The sheer amount of archival texts used for this book is impressive enough then, but the way Kaplonski has employed his sources lends his work a feeling of authoritative completeness, especially in the use of trial documents.
The use of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the “state of exception” as the book’s theoretical framework might strike the reader as flimsy. The majority of the text deals with an analysis of the political and social history, and refers only occasionally to Agamben’s work. But slowly the importance of Agamben’s concept as a foundation, both for the book and for a full understanding of the events as they unfolded, becomes clear. Indeed, Kaplonski’s approach as an anthropologist is to rethink and complicate Agamben’s ideas, and his proposal that there exists in the case of Mongolia an interweaving of several “technologies of exception” is both intellectually rigorous and satisfying.
These “technologies of exception” which Kaplonski sees as the means by which the state sought to answer (or at least offer a response to) the ‘lama question’ squarely reflect the development of the socialist project in Mongolia. Until the Seventh Congress of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party in 1928 instituted what would come to be seen as a “leftist deviation,” the focus of the government was on modernizing the country, through implementing policies on women’s issues, healthcare and education. This modernization did not necessarily concern itself with personal belief, and we should be aware that some leaders “openly proclaimed their religious belief while at the same time pledging to take action against the reincarnations (hutagt and huvilgaan) who distorted and exploited belief.” (p66) This apparent disinterest in molding and controlling individual belief – perhaps under the assumption that it would naturally wither away through the force of socialism – is key to Kaplonski’s re-evaluation of the MPRP’s religious policy. He successfully shows that the “question” was more concerned with freeing the poor and the vulnerable from monastic exploitation than freeing the general populace from religion. He also, in passing, manages to show that the Mongolian government, as frequently imagined, was not – at least not then – an emasculated puppet controlled by the Kremlin, but “active agents in their history-making….The Mongolians – Socialists, Buddhists and those who were both – were simply people trying to make sense of the world and shape it as best they could.” (228)
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it was actually the senior clergy, regarded as having temporal and spiritual control over the junior clergy as well as over the local people, who were singled out for investigation under the law. Kaplonski’s account of the trial of the Yonzon Hamba in the autumn of 1937, right at the beginning of the Great Repression, provides us with detailed archive material illustrating not only the relentless questioning but also, most tellingly, the fact that even at this late stage there was indeed a charge, a trial and a sentence, all conducted from within the legal context. Kaplonski makes the vital point that it was necessary for the government to retain the due process of law in order to show how socialism was able sufficiently to deal with the lamas. He points out that “[t]o have done otherwise would have recognized the power of the Buddhist establishment and intimated that the socialists were not capable of countering it with anything but the bluntest measures” (p227).
The ideas which follow from Agamben’s concept of the “state of exception” are further addressed in the conclusion. While the preceding material is especially interesting from the point of view of Mongolian (and Soviet) history, it is in the conclusion that we are shown how the government’s approach – explained through the book’s three “technologies of exception” – can be seen as a somehow judicious and subtle approach to what came to be recognized as an intractable problem. By discussing the ideas of sovereignty and state violence through an understanding of how official policies of accommodation and the preservation of legitimacy might work in an individual case, Kaplonski reveals the complexity of the situation in Mongolia during the early revolutionary period, and the paucity of previous attempts to discuss the subject.
Kaplonski’s footnotes (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I  make two appearances) are mercifully brief and succinct, his bibliography wonderfully broad and expansive. My one cavil is the index, which could have been far more detailed and extensive. But this is a small price to pay, and for me The Lama Question ranks as one of the best books I have read on Soviet-era Mongolia, a book to be urged upon all those with an interest in the early revolutionary period, in the sociohistory of religion and, of course, in the disturbing and sadly ever-pertinent issue of state violence.

Reviewed by Simon Wickhamsmith (

Wickhamsmith, S. 2016. A review of Kaplonski, C. 2014. The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception and Early Socialist Mongolia, posted online on 7 June 2016:

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