A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron

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Slavic and Baltic Division, New York Public Library
Baron Ungern-Sternberg, ‘the last khan of Mongolia,’ circa 1920

Like a contemporary reincarnation of Adela Quest, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, James Palmer was both attracted and repelled by his first encounter with the grotesque, grimacing, wooden gods of Inner Mongolia:

I entered the shrine of a gruesome god, his sharp teeth grinning and his head festooned with skulls. I wasn’t certain who he was, since the Tibetan pantheon inherited by the Mongolians is replete with such figures. In a small dark room, with incense burning and other gargoyles looming, it seemed capable of an awful, twitching animation; I felt it might lick its lips at any moment. A rural Mongolian couple were kneeling on the floor before it, chanting and kowtowing; they’d brought oranges to feed the god and cash to bribe him. Even after the pilgrims had left, I didn’t want to stand in front of the thing, let alone examine it closely; it was the first time I’d had any concrete sense of the word “idol.”

Although he was “raised Anglican, which takes most of the fear out of religion,” that temple—dim and shadowy, echoing with the sound of distant chanting—awakened Palmer’s religious awe. Outside the entrance, he bought some oranges and sticks of incense, and then returned. He placed the incense in front of the most horrifying god, and left the oranges and a five-yuan note at its feet. “Better safe than sorry, after all.”

This story, like most of the other personal stories in Palmer’s extraordinary book, is not here by accident: he uses it to give the reader some hint of what originally intrigued him, horrified him, and drew him to write about one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of Mongolia. It also helps explain the motives of the subject of his story, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a White Russian fanatic who briefly terrorized the region in the early 1920s:

Such a temple, with its close, fearful atmosphere, would surely have made a deep and lasting impression on Ungern. He had not come to it a blank slate—he was a cruel and ruthless man long before his arrival in Mongolia—but the images of Mongolian Buddhism, filtered through the perspective of the equally murky world of Russian mysticism and its fascination with the “Orient,” had shaped his thinking and his actions.

Indeed the baron eventually came to regard himself not only as “the last khan of Mongolia” but as one of the gods himself. The story of his evolution—from failed, rejected, and ousted Russian nobleman to a member of the Mongolian pantheon—is the central drama of Palmer’s book. And drama is the right word here: though The Bloody White Baron is a work of history based on archives and memoirs, it also resembles, in its style and themes, the classic British Central Asian travelogues, from Robert Byron’s …

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