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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 The Road to Oxiana and Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approache s to Colin Thubron’s The Silk Road —not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s fictional tales of the same region. Palmer shares those writers’ penchant for wry anecdote. More to the point, he shares their fascination with the extraordinary things that can happen when impressionable and easily unhinged Europeans encounter the ancient cultures of Central Asia.

As a young man, it has to be said, Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg showed no sign of being remotely extraordinary. He was born in Graz, Austria, into a family descended from the Teutonic Knights, the German monastic order that conquered the Baltic coast in the Middle Ages. By the time of his birth in 1885, the Baltic German nobility were thoroughly integrated into the Russian aristocracy. Though he probably spoke German at home in Estonia, Ungern grew up fluent in Russian and French, and, like other Russian noblemen, used a patronymic. A grim and violent child, he was expelled from his gymnasium in Reval (now Tallinn), then expelled from the Marine Academy in St. Petersburg. Later, he would be expelled from his regiment too—for dueling. Much of his career was spent on the outer fringes of empire, in obscure Central Asian garrisons where there was nothing to do except drink, drill, and race horses, in the almost exclusive company of other equally bored and drunken men. In such places, even the whorehouses could be several days’ ride away.

At an earlier point in Russian imperial history, Ungern might well have finished in deep obscurity, gambling his fortune away like other failed aristocrats, or drinking himself to death in the barracks. But he grew from sullen adolescence into sullen adulthood just as the cracks in the empire were beginning to show. He was deeply marked by the revolution of 1905, during which the Estonian peasants on his parents’ estates smashed windows, broke furniture, and burned down a number of manor houses. Ungern, disgusted by the behavior of people he disdained as inferiors, described them as feral animals, “rough, untutored, wild and constantly angry, hating everybody and everything without understanding why.” He could not accept that the peasants—beaten down by his family for centuries—might have any genuine grievances. On the contrary, he raved that they had been misled by Jews and revolutionaries, people who would bring “famine, destruction, the death of culture, of glory, of honour and of spirit” to holy mother Russia. Like his rough contemporary Adolf Hitler, he was an outsider, a man from the border region of a great empire—a flaw for which he compensated by being more of a Russian chauvinist than many Muscovites.

Along with others in his generation—including, again, Hitler—Ungern was also profoundly marked by the experience of fighting in World War I a decade later. The brutality, the sudden lifting of social norms, the mechanized destruction—all of this suited him very well. General Petr Vrangel, later to become one of the most important White leaders during the Russian civil war, met Ungern at about this time and described him thus:

War was his natural element. He was not an officer in the elementary sense, he knew nothing of system, turned up his nose at discipline, and was ignorant of the rudiments of decency and decorum…. He was dirty and dressed untidily, slept on the floor with his Cossacks and messed with them. When he was promoted to a civilized environment, his lack of outward refinement made him conspicuous.

Fighting in East Prussia, the Carpathians, and on the almost forgotten Turkish-Russian front, he won himself a reputation for cruelty and a kind of unthinking bravery. At the time of the war’s end, the revolution’s beginning, and the tsar’s abdication, he was well prepared to continue fighting. It seems, in fact, that he was totally unsuited to any other kind of life.

Ungern was not unique among White officers, of course, either in his brutality or in his hatred of revolutionaries and Jews. Yet he was unique, or at least unusual, in his susceptibility to mysticism. Though raised a Lutheran, he was surrounded by Russian Orthodoxy, a far more mystical creed, from early childhood. As a young man, he was also exposed to the garbled theosophical theories of Madame Blavatsky, a charlatan who preached a made-up version of “Hinduism” and was wildly popular in the aristocratic salons of late tsarist Russia.

The end of the empire saw a flowering of interest in the occult, in prog-nostication, in predictions of the end of the world, and in communication with the spirits of the dead. This was also the era of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fake tract that purported to describe a vast Jewish conspiracy and plan for world domination. Nietzsche’s critique of Judeo-Christian decadence was in the air too, along with Spengler’s Decline of the West. Ungern, with his innate penchant for violence, his natural paranoia, and his fondness for conspiracy theory, was inspired by all of it.

What sealed his religious madness —or so Palmer believes—was his encounters with the Eastern mystics he met during his years in eastern Siberia. Though related to Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolian Buddhism was, at the time, a creed that revolved almost entirely around sacrifice and elaborate attempts to ingratiate angry, unmerciful gods. While Tibetan legends tell of Buddhist saints who had persuaded local demons and spirits to convert to their higher faith, the Mongolian version included local gods who had not yet converted and could not be worshiped, but had to be appeased. Their visages were terrible, not peaceful: “severed heads and flayed skins, desecrated corpses blossoming into gardens of blood, eyeballs dangling from sockets, bones poking from mangled limbs.”

A violent man since childhood, Ungern seems to have been pushed over the edge by these images—many of which he would eventually recreate in reality. He may also have been mesmerized by a local myth which told of a “white god” or an “Ivan from the North” who would come to save the Mongolians from their Chinese overlords—a Superman, in other words, come to rescue a decaying culture. At times, he seemed actually to believe himself to be the fulfillment of a prophecy (much like the hero of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King —played brilliantly by Sean Connery in the movie version—who comes to imagine himself as the genuine reincarnation of Alexander the Great). Ungern would eventually surround himself with a retinue of soothsayers, and would talk of creating a powerful new Central Asian kingdom—Mongol, Buriat, Tibetan, Uighur—that would stand up to the Bolsheviks, fight back against Western decadence, eliminate the Jews, and reconquer Europe in the name of ancient imperial values.

Whatever his psychological or mystical motivation, Ungern’s rise to power was accompanied by a vast wave of torture and murder that was sickeningly real. Effectively stranded by the Russian Revolution in 1917, he made his way to Siberia, where former tsarist army officers were planning to fight back against the newly powerful Red Army. Following a rift with the White generals who were leading the resistance—his politics were far too reactionary even for them—he traveled further east to Dauria, his former garrison town on the Manchurian border. There, he began recruiting not only Russian soldiers and Cossacks who had fled the Bolsheviks, but Mongol, Tibetan, and Buriat troops who had only recently been liberated from centuries of Chinese domination. Over the next two years he would make them into faithful followers, creating a “near-medieval polity” in the region, a kind of fortress kingdom in the steppe.

In the beginning, Ungern offered his followers many benefits, most notably the chance to rob the many travelers who had to pass through Dauria on their way east or west. He also personally took charge of murdering anyone passing through whom he thought might be either a Bolshevik or a Jew. As time went on, other White leaders came to use his outpost at Dauria as their execution camp, trusting in the baron to dispense with Communist prisoners in a rapid fashion. At one point, Ungern dumped so many dead bodies into a local river that the peasants complained it had become polluted, and the officers were forced to burn them instead.

But the height of Ungern’s madness was still to come. In the summer of 1920, probably under pressure from the Red Army, he took his men over the Mongolian border where they successfully invaded and occupied Urga—modern Ulan Bator—ridding the Mongols, finally, from the domination of China. At last, he could give free rein to his sadistic, imperialist, quasi-religious fantasies.

During his short reign as “khan” of Mongolia, Ungern freed the local Buddhist lama from Chinese house arrest, dressed himself in Mongol costume, and drove around the country in a Fiat, its horn madly honking. To maintain discipline, wrote one fellow officer, he invented a gruesome system of penalties, in which a hundred strokes with a bamboo lash counted as a “mild reminder,” and real punishment involved being beaten to death. He had a weird fixation with trees: he would force miscreants to remain at the top of them through freezing nights, until they fell and were shot or died of exposure. Alternatively, he would tie prisoners to tree trunks and burn them to death. He left men stranded in the middle of frozen rivers, to be eaten by wolves; he buried “Communists” alive, and crucified suspected traitors with rusty nails.

He also inspired the officers around him to compete with one another in devising other sorts of bizarre punishment. Like the Nazis who, a generation later, would lose all sense of morality upon entering what they perceived to be the wild “East,” the Russians in Mongolia behaved notably worse than White soldiers and officers further west. Outside of “civilization,” in this land of bloody and vengeful gods, anything was possible. Later, the Russians would justify themselves by mumbling about the “madness of war” or referring vaguely to “the atmosphere” of the place. As for their leader, the man now known widely as the Bloody Baron, he justified his behavior, both at the time and afterward, in a quite straightforward manner: as the reincarnation of the god of war, he had full license to do anything he pleased.

Thankfully, Ungern’s reign was brief. A series of skirmishes with the Red Army devastated his troops; others, horrified by his bloody discipline, began slipping away into the desert. By the summer of 1921, his stronghold in Mongolia looked precarious, and he began contemplating a last, desperate escape, across the Gobi Desert into Tibet. His few remaining Russian officers were having none of it. They plotted an assassination attempt, which failed. But the following day, his Mongolian troops revolted too. According to legend, they abandoned him in the desert, just as he had abandoned so many others; in reality, they probably gave him up when they ran into a Red Army detachment.

In any case, he was captured, put on a train, and taken back to Russia to stand trial. His prosecutor was a Siberian Jew—which, Palmer writes, “must have given Ungern a certain resigned satisfaction.” Thoroughly unrepentant, he seemed to relish the chance to defend his radical views in public. When asked whether he often beat people, he replied, “not enough.” Sentenced to death, he was executed immediately after the trial. The Bolsheviks were taking no chances.

The Bloody White Baron is not, in the end, an uplifting tale. There is no happy ending, and no moral of the story either. Things didn’t even end well for Mongolia: occupied by the Red Army after Ungern’s fall, it became the first Soviet satellite state. Commissars forced the nomads to give up their herds, in the name of “collectivization.” Atheists smashed the temples. During World War II, the Japanese invaded; after Hiroshima, the Soviet Union reconquered the country in a mere two weeks. So horrific was life in Communist Mongolia, in fact, that the era of Baron Ungern’s rule still remains a positive memory for some. While carrying out his research for this book, Palmer encountered a Mongolian woman—the granddaughter of a prominent religious leader—whose family had continued to worship Ungern as a god until the 1970s.

Yet Ungern’s Mongolian adventure was more than a gruesome sideshow, and it deserves more than the footnote it has hitherto been granted in the histories of the twentieth century. In fact, when set against the background of other events in Europe and Asia at that time, Ungern’s story is remarkably mainstream. That he shared some of Hitler’s qualities and proclivities is certainly not coincidental: Nazi ideology emerged from a similarly bizarre mix of hocus-pocus, damaged pride, conspiracy theory, oversimplified interpretations of Nietszche, resentment, and anti-Semitism. Lenin’s Bolsheviks also shared Ungern’s contempt for the decadent West, for Jewish merchants, for traditional religion, and for the “backward” peasantry. European extremists of all kinds experienced World War I as a kind of apocalypse, an event that proved that Christian morality had failed, and that something totally new had to be put in its place. As a result, violence and radicalism were more common in 1920s and 1930s Europe than we often remember.

Ungern’s story also demonstrates, once again, the depth of the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional societies, not only in Europe but in Asia as well. Too often, we in the West remember only the European victims of communism and fascism, forgetting that the same ideologies, promoting the same kinds of mass violence, battered other parts of the world too. The genocidal impulses of Imperial Japan, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia were all reactions, in their way, to the rapid onset of modern trends and new military technologies, just like the genocidal impulses of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Baron Ungern’s Mongolia was simply a smaller incidence of a widespread phenomenon.

Even Ungern’s vision of a Central Asian khanate ruled by himself, a “white Ivan” from the north, was not, in the end, any more bizarre than Hitler’s vision of himself as the dictator of Europe. Stalin also dreamed of world domination, and Chairman Mao created a quasi-religious cult around himself too. In the end, the strangest aspect of the half-forgotten story of Ungern’s bloody reign over Mongolia is not how bizarre it will seem to future students of the twentieth century, but how eerily, horribly familiar.

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