The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2011.
It doesn’t much matter how vile, cruel, insane, despicable a person may be, if the war or country he’s disgracing is obscure, his bad behavior will probably also be obscure. It was this unfortunate fact that led Hitler to tell doubters that no one remembered the Armenian genocide, and that no one would remember what the Nazis might do.
Wrong on both particulars. The Armenians are getting their overdue press. That said, there is a depressing truth in the general concept. The victims of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg are still more or less a footnote to the list of atrocious murderers of the twentieth century, though God knows he tried.
Ungern identified as Russian despite being born of a mostly Baltic-German stock in Estonia. (Estonia had had a largish population of Germans for generations – family tradition holds that before the war, one of my great uncles ran the German theater in Riga, Latvia).
He was a wild child, kicked out of several school for appalling behavior (“anger issues” in the current euphemism) and even had difficulty adjusting to the army which thought him more trouble than he was worth. Perhaps it was intentional that he was sent far east to deal with border troubles between Russian and Japan or periodically the Chinese.
He found the area congenial, the steppe peoples and the darker strain of Mongolian Buddhism with its strange and violent gods. Ungern had his own ideas about management:
“In Transbaikalia, I tried to form the Order of Military Buddhists for an uncompromising fight against the depravity of revolution.”
The order permitted unlimited vodka, hashish, and opium, but total renunciation of women, strictures which proved counterproductive and were quashed soon enough. Well, as Palmer notes, there are various interpretations of Buddhism in the world, some of them quite odd. After this experiment, Ungern drifted towards the more ascetic (he would come to dress in near rags) strain of faith influenced by some of the more frightening gods of the frontier pantheon.
It was about this time that Ungern became determined to help the Mongolians shake off the Chinese yoke.
The First World War intervened.
In battle, Ungern found his métier. He got himself assigned to a Cossack Brigade in Galicia and by all that was statistical, he should have died twice over. Certainly the rest of his brigade did. Instead, his name turns up in the records again and again for astonishing personal bravery, charging the enemy at the head of his men, astound both friends and enemy alike.
He is also, however, criticized for an indifference to other men’s orders and a tendency towards violent hooliganism when off duty. Despite a chestful of medals, he was more or less kicked out of the service before Russia left the fight.
With little else on offer, he and a fellow officer Grigory Sememov headed to the Turkish border and raised a number of Christian Assyrian volunteers whose fellow Christians were being exterminated by Kurds, Turks and Persians.* Little came of it.
Once the Czar was deposed and murdered and the civil war broke out between the Red Bolsheviks and the White Nationalists, Ungern fell stoutly among the anti-Bolsheviks (and coincidentally, the anti-Semites). The Bolsheviks needed Siberia for natural resources and various White Army forces (and even British and American troops) were determined they should not have it.
He, along with Semenov, returned east to press the fight. Ungern got it into his head that Mongolia (then under Chinese rule) should be ruled by a latter day Genghis Khan, specifically, the Bogd Gegeen. The Bogd Gegeen was the eight incarnation of third highest Tibetan lama who wanted an independent Mongolia (unlike Chinese and Russians, who each wanted to add to their respective empires).
How Ungern practiced war in this distant world makes for grim reading indeed. There’s the story of his driving a group of men into the middle of the freezing Tula river, naked, where they attracted wolves, against whom they were forced to fight barehanded. Half the men survived.
These, by the way, were his own men, being punished for drunkenness. Prisoners could expect a decidedly non-Geneva Convention, much less Marquess of Queensbury treatment. No freezing for Bolsheviks – his enemies Ungern ordered to be slow roasted.
His greatest military success came in taking the capital city of Urga (Ulan Bator) from Chinese control. In the custom of conquerors throughout the ages, he allowed his men free reign to run wild. The Jewish population got the worst of it. Men, women, and children were ordered killed, regardless of station; communists also. By these means he got the Bogd Gegeen on the throne and the Chinese out of Outer Mongolia.
He could not do the same with the Bolsheviks, try as he might. The soothsayers he hired to accompany him on campaign could do little more than confirm the time of his impending death. It may have concentrated his mind, but it did not win the war for him. The fighting on the frontier was brutal, but in the end, out-manned and out-gunned, he was captured while attempting to invade Russia in 1921. The trial lasted a little over six hours, the execution took place that same day.
The Bogd Gegeen died in 1924 and Mongolian Communists quickly filled the vacuum, squelching any talk of a ninth reincarnation. (Number Nine did turn up in 1932 in Tibet and died in March of 2012. No word yet on Number Ten.)
Outside some residual memories of Dr Zhivago, this is not a time or an area that is familiar to a lot of westerners. Not surprisingly then, there is a good deal of ground laying that needs to be done and a whole lot of people and places to get and keep straight. Regrettably, there are no illustrations other than the cover, though their are two good maps. There are some surprising editing slips (it’s Brest-Litovsk, not Brest-Livotsk) and characterization of the eighth Bogd Gegeen as a wastrel has been refuted in subsequent material. The subtitle calling Ungern the last Khan is a bit of a stretch – the title was an honorific given him by the Bogd Gegeen, but it carried no authority.
Still, it is just as well that the thing could be done at all, and for all that this is a widely neglected time and place, the events that Ungern was involved in with helped shape the fate of Mongolia for the rest of the century.
Other books worth a look include:
Jamie Bisher, White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, Routledge, 2009 – Brightly written and authoritative, even indispensable for this time and place.
*The Assyrian Genocide of 1916-1917 is said to have reduced the Assyro-Chaldean population by three quarters. The outlook for the survivors and their children still in Iraqi appears bleak.