Monthly Archives: February 2017

Landscape 03: Transition-ing

Photo: Mongolian attendees in the countryside circumambulating (clockwise) the newly unveiled commissioned carved white granite sculpture of Zava Damdin—depicted in prayer pose, carrying a sutraic text and wearing the traditional Mongol Gelug peaked hat and monk’s robe with large cuffs in the shape of horses’ hooves— in Mandalgovi the capital of Dundgovi Aimag in the Gobi Desert and 300kms South of Ulaanbaatar) in Mongolia. 2015. Name of Mongolian sculptor: tba. Photograph courtesy of D. Bilguun.

This article is for those of you interested in studying contemporary ‘post-soviet’ socialist culture and society in Mongolia. The topics presented in this article are: Soviet era Socialist-Realist expressionism (or post-Soviet expressions of socialist realism) and early theories of (economic) transition related to  post-soviet socialist countries.

An Example of Contemporary Post-Soviet Era Socialist-Realist Expressionism?

There is something post-soviet socialist as well as soviet socialist in the design, construction and social location of this contemporary statue in Mandalgovi—don’t you think? Although the statue was only recently completed (2015) to me it appears to reflect a style commonly adopted by Mongolian artists who are the product of a 1960-70s Soviet-auspiced art school education. Could it be that this statue of Zava Damdin is a present-day example of 1960’s-70 Soviet era Socialist-Realist ‘expressionism’? That is, the extent to which artists of the day were permitted to  deviate from the dominant ‘realist’ mode to incorporate ‘cubo-futurist’ stylistic elements that were common in pre-Stalinist 1920s avant-grade art circles in Soviet Russia.

Originated by the Soviet architect and painter Vladimir Yevgraphovich Tatlin (1885-1953) the stylistic elements of socialist-realist ‘expressionism’ draw from ‘constructivism‘, an architectural-artistic philosophy that originated in Russia around 1913. Rather than ‘autonomous art’ the movement and its exponents favoured art as a practice for social purposes, particularly after World War 1 and the development of ‘Russian Futurism‘ amongst the Moscow-based literary groups, poets and artists at that time.

Cubo-Futurism was the primary school of sculpture and painting practice by the Russian Futurists. Russian sculptors and artists is this school included the sculptor Vera Ignatyevna Mukhina (1889-1953) who taught at Vkhutemas, the Soviet State Art School in Moscow; the painter and designer Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster (1882-1949); the avant-garde artist, costume and set designer Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova (1881-1962); and Russian cubo-futurist artist Olga Vladimirovna Rozanova (1886-1918).

Note: By way of established protocol, when I am in Mongolia later this year, I will seek out the sculptor and enquire about his/her training, stylistic influences and how she/he would describe and label this excellent work and then add the information to this post.

Transitional Processes

Following a relatively peaceful democratic revolution in 1990, a new Mongolian constitution was introduced on the 13th January 1992, establishing a parliamentary democracy in Mongolia. So began the next transition for people who make their home in Mongolia.

A transitional economy [i] is one which is changing for a centrally planned economy towards a free market (Feige 1994). The dramatic collapse of Mongolia’s economy, as well as that of other eastern European countries during the early 1990s precipitated the reconsideration of ‘transition’ in purely economic terms.

From the 1960s until the 1980s, a neo-classical approach to the conceptualization of transition theory prevailed. The neo-classical approach concentrates on economic market-driven reforms involving radical actions such as privatization, financial system reform and direct foreign investment. Ivan Major (1993) summarized the reform package associated with this essentially political process as that of privatization, liberalisation and democratisation.

The goal of privatisation is to break up economic monopolies in the shares of production. Freeing up of the market and the breaking up of the power of a communist system is facilitated through democratisation. Each country is said to bring its own specific ‘transition’ instruments and policies in the period of economic transition. According to the Belgian-American economist Jozef M van Brabant (1987) there is no single model of market economy or planned economy in transition beyond a number of core elements.

In terms of a primarily economic modality of description, from the early 1990s a ‘structural adjustment approach’ then gained popularity followed by, from the mid 1990s, a ‘guided market approach’ (see Cheng 2003). And then, for the first time, social and cultural considerations were considered in the transition theory formulations.[1]

Post-soviet socialist scholars such as the American anthropologist Katherine Vedery (1996, pp15-16) expressed a fundamental disagreement with prevailing assumptions in the literature, instead arguing that ‘transition’ is incorrect in the assumption that a transition is occurring away from socialism to that of capitalism, democracy, or market economies. Rather, she argued that initially the 1990s were a time of ‘transformation’ in post-socialist countries that would go on to produce a variety of forms, some of which approximated western-style capitalism but that others would not.

Transition can also refer to processes occurring from within the social and political life of Communism, to that of a society, characterized by a liberalization of the market and democracy in different aspects of the social and political life (Vasilenko 2006, cf. to Kornai 1990). Tacit acknowledgement of a cultural approach to transitional processes if only from the perspective of the ‘actors’ is also an important consideration. 

Not new to the prevailing theoretical and methodological discourse, this continues to be somewhat problematic to substantiate [2] from a grounded-in-the-field qualitative research approach or even an Actor network Theory (AT) perspective. As contemporary French philosopher-anthropologist Bruno Latour (1990, p2) has pointed out:

‘AT has very little to do with the study of social networks. These studies, no matter how interesting, concern themselves with the social relations of individual human actors – their frequency, distribution, homogeneity, proximity. It was devised as a reaction to the often too global concepts like those of institutions, organizations, states and nations, adding to them more realistic and smaller sets of associations.

Although AT shares this distrust for such vague all encompassing sociological terms, it aims at describing also the very nature of societies. But to do so it does not limit itself to human individual actors but extends the word “actor or actant” to non-human, non-individual entities. Whereas social networks add information on the relations of humans in a social and natural world, which is left untouched by the analysis, AT aims at accounting for the very essence of societies and natures. Actor-network Theory does not wish to add social networks to social theory, but to rebuild social theory out of networks.’

Question: From a western academic 'scientific' social science research perspective, how are we to measure, describe inter-culturally, even just accomodate in our narrative expositions, 'actants' attributed locally in contemporary Mongolian society and Mongol Buddhist culture as'non-individual' nor 'human'?

Cultural aspects and social spheres in local transition-ing

If we accept that ‘transition’ can occur in an economic sector such as ‘religion,’ and that the organizational ‘nodes’ that support its operation cannot take place without at least some changes in social institutions, then we can also take into account the inter-connectedness (globally and locally) of the distributed nativist and other kinship groups through which such development is actualized. Such evidence that transitional reform and innovation in religion is taking place in Mongolia offers us new possibilities in considering changing national ideas as well as social ideals. The significance of this theoretical approach is far-reaching.

The neo-political approach of transition theory initiated the specific interest in different social spheres of transition. Scholars at that time began to shift their attention from the economic aspect of transition to the cultural aspects (Sharma 1997) wherein the historical roots of a cultural heritage identity could play a crucial role for outcomes in the restructuring of a transitional society (Hedlund 1999).

The intersection of my own exploration of this particular domain, that of a Mongol socio-cultural sphere in transition, is relatively clear (or at least it is to me). Contemporary Mongol Gelugpa Buddhism, if considered only within the extended community within which I am located in Mongolia, is a social sphere, an economic sphere, a cultural as well as religious sphere. Here I observe an attraction to, and generation of, considerable personal investment in an explicitly stated (re)construction of some kind(s) of cultural heritage identity. As a preliminary litmus test, from 2004 until now, I have measured this by the growing number of Mongol kinship groups I have seen initially engage in their own participate-observation processes—and then stay. I too am no exception. And so the important question arises: sociologically speaking, what is going on here?


Anderson, James H. 1998. The size, origins, and character of Mongolia’s informal sector during the transition. . Washingto DC: World Bank.

Birzea, C. 1994. Educational Policies of the Countries in Transition Strasbourg: Council of European Press.

Bogomolov, O. 1999. “Russia and the CIS Countries.” In The Democratic Process and the Market: Challenge of the Transition, edited by M. Simai, 77-93. Tokyo, New York, Paris: United Nations University Press.

Brabant, Jozef M van. 1987. Adjustment, Structural Changes, and Economic Efficiency: aspect of monetary cooperation in Eastem Europe. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Camoy, M, and J Samoff. 1990. Education and Social Transition in the Third World. Princeton and New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Cheng, Kevin C. 2003. Growth and Recovery in Mongolia During Transition. IMF Working Paper.

Coughlin, E. 1989. “Stirrings of Democracy in China and Russia Astonish Experts.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 28 (June):5-7.

Currie, L. 1981. “The Role of Economic Advisors.” In Developing Countries: Contribution in Economy and Economic History. Westport Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press.

Deery, P. 1995. “Handcuffed to History: Russia and the Politics of Memory.” Quadrant (April):67-71.

EBRD. 2016. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Transition Report 2016-17. Country Assessment: Mongolia. Transition for All: equal opportunities in an unequal world. Available online:  [Retrieved: 21 February 2017].

Eriksson, Thomas. 2015. “United Nations Development Program (UNDP): inequality in Mongolia. Available online: [Retrieved: 21 February 2017].”

Feige, Edgar L. 1994. “The Transition to a Market Economy in Russia: Property Rights, Mass Privatization and Stabilization.” In A Fourth way?: privatization, property, and the emergence of new market economics, edited by Gregory S Alexander and Grażyna Skąpska, pp57-78. New York: Routledge.

Gaddy, C, and B Ickes. 1998. “Russia’s Virtual Economy.” Foreign Affair published by the Council of Foreign Relations September-October Issue. Available at: [Retrieved: 16 December 2016].

Gur, O. 2005. “Globalisation and the Welfare States: developed, developing and transition countries (Chapter Five).” In Globalisation and Social Stress, edited by G W Kolodko. New York: Nova Science Publisher.

Guriev, S, and B Ickes. 1999. “Growth Through Restructuring EERC Available at:”

Hedlund, S. 1999. Russia’s ‘Market’ Economy: A Bad Case of Predatory Capitalism. London: UCL Press, Tailor and Francis Group.

Kornai, Janos. 1990. The Road to a Free Economy: shifting from a socialist system: the example of Hungary. New York: W.W. Norton.

Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala, and Hishgee Dondov. 2016. “Informal Mining in Mongolia: livelihood change and continuity in the rangelands.” Local Environment (The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability). Available online: [Retrieved: 21 February 2017].

Latour, Bruno. 1990. On actor-network theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications. CSI-Paris/Science Studies-San Diego in Finn Olsen (special issue of the Danish philosophy journal ), ” Om aktor-netvaerksteroi. Nogle fa afklaringer og mere end nogle fa forviklinger” Philosophia, Vol. 25 N° 3 et 4, pp.47-64; (article écrit en article written in 1990]. Version anglaise (English version) in Soziale Welt, vol. 47, pp. 369-381, 1996. – version anglaise sur le web web édition at ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf [Retrieved 21 February 2017].

Linden, C, and J Prybyla. 1997. Russia and China On the Eve of a New Millennium. New Bmnswick, London: Transition Publisher.

Major, I. 1993. Privatisation in Eastern Europe: A Critical Approach. Budapest: Hungarian Academy of Science and the Blue Ribbon Commission Hungarian Foundation.

Murrel, P. 1993. “What is Shock Therapy? What Did It Do in Poland and Russia?” Post-Soviet Affair 9 (2):111-140.

Naya, S, and J Tan. 1996. Asian Transitional Economies: Challenges and Prospects for Reform and Transformation. Singapore: Institute of Soutiieast Asian Studies.

Niemi, J, and K Owens. 1994. “Russia and China in Transition: implications for human resource development.” The Turbulent 21st Century 32 (2):13-19.

Otgochuluu, Ch. 2016. “Mongolia’s State Policy on the Minerals Sector ” Law in Transition Journal pp66-75. Available online: [Retrieved: 21 February 2017].

Overholt, W. 1993. China: The Next Economic Superpower. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

PAGE. 2014. Mongolia’s Transition to a Green Economy: a stocktaking report. Government of Mongolia Ministry of Environment and Green Development in collaboration with Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) – an initiative by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Available online at: [Retrieved: 21 February 2017].

Sharma, S, ed. 1997. Restructuring Eastern Europe: The Macroeconomic of the Transition Process. Zagreb: University of Zagreb.

Vasilenko, Irina. 2006. “Educational Transformation in Transitional China and Russia: a comparative analysis of private schooling in Beijing and Moscow.” PhD thesis, School of Social Sciences, Victoria University.

Verdery, Katherine. 1996. What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History. Edited by Sherry B Ortner, Nicholas B Dirk and Geoff Eley.


[1] See Vasilenko (2006, pp83-89) for a summary of the ‘social implications and political dimensions of transformation’ discourse from the 1980s until 2006.

[2] A useful discussion of the complexities associated with assumptions associated with studying ‘transition’ in transitional societies some of which include difficulties in acknowledging a cultural approach within transitional processes can also be found in Valisennko (I2006, pp90-96)

[i] In terms of economics, transition theory is a complex topic. What follows is an introduction to the basics of post socialist economic theorizing.

Whilst much of the theorizing was initially articulated in the 1990s, the term ‘transition’ as it pertains to development in the nation-state Mongolia continues to this today (see PAGE 2014, Otgochuluu 2016). In 2016 the European Bank (EBRD 2016) released its latest projected ‘transition report (2016-17) for Mongolia.

According to Vasilenko (2006) ‘transition’ can refer to processes of economic, political and costal restructuring from a Communist society with the absolute domination of a state, to a society characterized by market economy, democracy and civil rights of individuals (Deery 1995). Linden and Prybyla (1997) argue the term ‘transition’ had been given currency to denote a new geopolitical reality: that of countries in transition.

Although the expression usually refers to former communist countries, a closer analysis shows that transition is in fact a universal historical phenomenon. All societies, civilizations and nations have, at some point in their development, changed their mode of government, property system, the division of power, political paradigms and ideas, attitudes and mentalities, social relations and institutions, way of daily life, etc. It can be argued that every individual, social group or community is in transition. A certain degree of impermanence is a fact in everyday life. As I write (21 February 2017) a small plane with five passengers has just crashed into a big shopping centre here in Melbourne located only 2 kms away.

When one speaks of post-totalitarian ‘countries-in-transition’ one is thinking of a much more complex phenomenon. The transition about which we speak is being played out on a historical stage the duration of which is impossible predict. Moreover, the efficacy of current initiatives as measured by transitional indicators to eventually transform domains such as political life, the economy, culture, education, social structures and international relations is, I would argue, quite difficult to predict.

What we see in aggregated datasets may not be what is actually happening at all. As Thomas Eriksson (2015) describes the main indicators of inequality promulgated by the United National Development Program in Mongolia, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Hishgee Dondov (2016) are describing how Mongolian nomadic herders are responding to changes ushered in by post-soviet socialist economic transitional reforms. In this case study, and in response to local climate change and poverty, they are seeking a share of the mineral resource wealth that the state is promising to international investors through informal mining.

As Lahiri-Dutt and Dondov (2016 p12, fn1) astutely point out, the use of the term ‘informal’ is somewhat vexed in Mongolia dues to its association with illegality. James Anderson (1998, p3) offers a workable definition, ‘The informal sector consists of small scale, usually family-based, economic activities that may be undercounted by official statistics, and may not be subject, in practice, to the same set of regulations and taxation as formal enterprises.’


In Russia the outcomes of such economic reforms precipitated a profound crisis in spheres of economic (Birzea 1994, p7), social and political life (Gaddy and Ickes 1998) accompanied by excessive inflation (Major 1993).

Transition Theory emerged after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia in 1989 as this and other states were thrust into social and economic transformation associated with the transition from a communist central planning system of governance, to that of an open-market society. Initiated by state and academic advisers, initial ‘orthodox’ theories focused on discussing strategies with primarily economic ramifications for how to reform a centralized economy to a market of capitalism (Major 1993, p24) ascribed to Transition theory (Bogomolov 1999). According to Valisenko (2006, pp74-75), the second wave of extensive debates around the issue of economic transition has developed since 1989, when the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe declared that they were in the midst of transforming their economic systems from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented one.

People’s Republic of China

Meanwhile, the success of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) economy from the 1990s has called into questions the supposedly required scenario demanded by ‘transition orthodoxy’, where an immediate economic reform, a shock therapy (Currie 1981), is routinely accompanied by rapid political change. Scholars [various] have observed, often approvingly, and to some extent, the benefit of a heterodox path of gaige kaifan zheng ci (an open door policy in China) that was designated by Chinese economists as jiang she you zhong guo tecide jihui zhu yi (building a socialist society with Chinese characteristics).

The different approach to the gradual transformation of Chinese society proves, for supporters of radical reform, the necessity of varying the concepts and models making up transition in countries with a powerful communistic bureaucracy (Murrel 1993). Discussions over the role of a state, and an authoritarian regime demonstrate some new conceptual and strategic issues in the development of policy responses (Overholt 1993). This is the first place the term ‘transitional society’ (sometimes ‘transition society’) occurs in the academic literature within the context of transitional theory. However, the definition of a ‘transitional society’ has yet to be firmly established. In line with this theory, the term can refer to the society, implementing economic reforms or facing specific political situations.

It also refers to democratic political reform (Niemi and Owens 1994) or has its focus on the decentralization of the economy in the move towards an open-market system (Coughlin 1989). Some scholars see a parallel in the existence of similar economic processes between developing countries and transitional ones (Naya and Tan 1996). Others assume that the microeconomic dimensions of the transitional and developing societies are two entirely different processes (Camoy and Samoff 1990) and consider the specific characteristics of a transitional society as a natural growth process in an economy.

According to Guriev and Ickes (2005) the function of the main microeconomic agents in a transitional society (cf. business enterprises and households, local government as well as the level of savings and accumulation of human capital) is slightly different in contrast to those in a developing country. It was emphasized that a transitional society can be characterized as the experience of growth through restructuring but not through development. For a developing economy to grow, household should choose to save and accumulate human capital and then supply labor and capital to emerging firms. In transition countries the situation is somewhat different, since their economies have already been industrialized. The labor force has acquired necessary technical skills and the physical assets are in place.

Moreover, there exist large enterprises that resemble modern capitalist firms. Therefore the microeconomic problem of transition is slightly different from those of development. Households choose how much to save and [for which] firms to work. Also, they choose to become entrepreneurs and establish new business. Existing firms make their restructuring choices, changing both outputs and inputs, including size and composition of their workforce.

Based on an interrogation of the literature Valisenko (2006, p76) concludes that, ‘the understanding and use of ‘transition’ and ‘transformation’ in the literature implies quite divergent conceptions. However implicit within these conceptions are certain essential elements of economic structure, power relations and decision-making opportunities, mainly related to policy-producing exercises. Firmly associated with the ‘transition’ (from communism to capitalism) in now democratic countries associated with the previous ‘Eastern Bloc’ and nested between political feedback and ‘top down’ policy-making (and their implementation) processes, theoretical considerations associated with Transition Theory offer a rational approach to analyzing economic issues at the economic and macro-systemic level of policy development and governance.’

Colophon: Although there are all sorts of socio-cultural transitions and transformations taking place within the 'religious field' (cf. Pierre Bourdieu) in Mongolia, the macro-economic frameworks of ‘transition theory’, whether in relation to the new Russia, China or Mongolia, are somewhat limiting in terms of utility and value even though more than just some of the people with whom I associate in Mongolia are professionally engaged in shaping policy development(at all levels) and its implementation. That said, for me, particularly during the earlier years of my fieldwork, it was important to get a sense of how post-soviet 'transition' was being represented in the academic and economics-related literatures. A more contemporary reading is the subject of a forthcoming post.

Landscape 03: Transition-ing was researched and written by Catherine Pleteshner.

See the INDEX to my blog for other articles that may be of interest.


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