In 1936 Vladimir Pozner, a young immigrant writer with left-wing views, was trawling the underground of the Russian community in Paris for information on a dead Baron.
The people he talked with had been driven out of their homeland twenty years before by the Bolshevik revolution. Their Paris exile was a world of former colonels driving taxi-cabs; aristocrats in genteel poverty scratching for rent; Russian language newspapers on cheap paper predicting the fall of Communism any day now; and tea rooms in which the clock had stopped in 1917.
Pozner had no sympathy for these shards of old Russia embedded in the French capital. He was researching the biography of a general from the Civil War. The best place to find information was among the Russian exiles still mentally fighting the Bolsheviks.
“The taxi drivers and workers in the automobile factories made their way right across Paris to read the memoirs of their former leaders in the Russian Library,” he wrote. “They surrounded the page with exclamation marks and comments such as ‘Traitor!’ ‘Jew!’ ‘Coward!’ Everything that might be read between the lines of these books was shown up here, pencilled in, rubbed out, and scrawled in again by subordinates bursting with retrospective rage.”
Literary Detective Work
The subject of Pozner’s biography had been suggested by a literary editor with a taste for the macabre. The Russian Civil War (1918-22) had spread mass murder and war crimes from Helsinki to Vladivostok as Bolshevik revolutionaries fought the White Army for control of the country. In the east Bolsheviks hammered nails into the shoulders of captured officers – one nail for each star on their epaulettes. In the West the White Army commander General Bulak-Balakhovich told communist prisoners they were not worth a bullet and ordered them to hang themselves.
As civilised men regressed back to the Stone Age one White Army commander stood out for his cruelty. Pozner was writing the life of Baron Roman Feodorovitch von Ungern-Sternberg: the Bloody Baron.
The Russian writer believed the Baron was dead: shot by a Bolshevik firing squad in a courtyard of Novonikolaevsk (now Novosibirisk) prison in Siberia on 15 September 1921. He knew the Baron led a private army during the Civil War – the Asiatic Cavalry Division (Aziatskaia Konnaia Diviziia) – responsible for the murders of thousands: most shot or bayoneted, some ripped apart by horses, some stuffed alive into the firebox of a train. There were hints the Japanese army might have bankrolled him as part of their plan to gain territory in Siberia then found it could not control him.
The Baron took his army of Cossacks, Tartars, Buryats, Russians and others across the border into Mongolia and drove out the occupying Chinese. He put the blind and syphilitic Living Buddha on the throne and planned a new Mongolian Empire on the scale of Ghengis Khan. His rule lasted six months.
That was the broad sketch of exile stories about the Baron. Pozner needed detail. He wrote to contacts across the White Russian diaspora. Letters came back from Berlin, San Francisco and Shanghai. He visited survivors of the Civil War in Paris.
One informant told him the Baron became ‘eccentric’ after his wife was raped and murdered by the Bolsheviks; an aristocratic couple showed him baby photographs of young Roman and spoke of an adventurous young man; a poor American journalist shared his memories of an interview with the Baron in Mongolia for the price of a hot meal in a bistro; another informant claimed the Baron had never been married. Right-wing magazines said Baron Roman Feodorovitch von Ungern-Sternberg was a hero who brought justice; Pozner’s colleagues thought the Baron was a psychopathic monster who killed thousands.
A conman claiming to be the Baron’s son was featured in a French newspaper. An ex-officer driving a taxi-cab admitted he had served under the Baron and, drunk, explained why the Reds had won … the Whites had not killed enough people.
Pozner tried to sort truth from fiction. Each story contradicted another; every fresh lead was a dead end. Facts he was certain of turned out to be lies but unbelievable fantasies had an edge of truth.
He gave up and turned it into a novel instead.
It would become a common reaction to the Baron’s short, sharp life. The exotic nature of his Eurasian adventures coupled with the lack of any corroborating detail meant the Baron had more of a life in fiction than in biography.
A German Third Reich author called Berndt Krauthof wrote a novel about Ungern in 1938 called Ich befehle (I Command). In 1973 Jean Mabire, a right-wing French writer better known for his histories of the Waffen-SS, published a fictional account of the Baron’s life: Ungern – Le Baron Fou (later known as Ungern – Dieu De La Guerre). Mabire garnished it with photographs, footnotes and appendices.
The Baron appeared waving a sabre in the sharply drawn panels of the Italian graphic novel Corto Maltese In Siberia by Hugo Pratt. The Russian writer Victor Pelevin, whose novels were damned as a computer virus eating away at cultural memory by a critic, gave the Baron a walk-on as the God of War ruling a metaphysical Valhalla in his drug filled 1996 novel The Clay Machine Gun.
When the Baron appeared in factual works on the Russian Civil War he received only a footnote or brief paragraph. To Peter Fleming, writing in the 1960s, he was a ‘moody swashbuckler with red hair and a pale face [who] was to gain a reputation for sadistic brutality which was surpassed by very few contestants on either side in the Civil War’.
In Richard Luckett’s later view of the White Armies ‘Ungern-Sternberg, generally known as the Bloody Baron, looked totally ineffective but was, it seemed, more or less physically indestructible. He was also exceedingly cruel, and a sabre blow received during a trivial quarrel with a fellow officer may have mentally unbalanced him. The Baron, with his pale face, red hair, and long cavalry moustache, was soon one of the most feared men in Siberia’.
The longest non-fiction account in English is found in Peter Hopkirk’s Setting The East Ablaze, a history of the Bolshevik Revolution in the Russian Far East, where the Baron takes his place amongst larger than life characters like Enver Pasha, the Turkish empire builder, and General Ma, the sadist Chinese warlord fighting a jihad against the Red Army. The book printed a copy of the only photograph believed at that time to exist of the Baron: an iconic shot taken in Mongolia 1921 of von Ungern-Sternberg in ceremonial dress for the coronation of the Living Buddha, focusing his piercing stare on the camera. (Who took it? Did he live?) Hopkirk’s version of the Baron’s life owes a lot to the novel Pozner wrote after abandoning his own biography.
Later there was even a children’s book about him – The Bloody Baron: Wicked Dictator Of The East: ‘The Baron himself had also lots of practice at killing people during his military career and was very good at it …The Reds hated people like the Baron who lived in big houses and treated the Russian peasants badly’.
The Baron in Russia
The rediscovery of the Baron began in the country that had once hated him the most. Today the Baron is a cult figure for young Russians. The fall of Communism in 1990 freed historians from writing state approved propaganda and allowed them to investigate previously forbidden subjects. Many turned their efforts to correcting the one-dimensional caricatures that appeared in Soviet textbooks whenever archenemies of the Bolshevik revolution were mentioned.
Through the historians’ efforts more information was unearthed about the Baron: despite Germanic origins in Estonia he was a Buddhist; when he killed he believed his victims would return stronger in the next life; he was an anti-Semite who thought Jews were trying to take over the world. More photographs turned up.
Historians put pieces of the jigsaw together. They discovered that von Ungern-Sternberg’s plans for the East were more sophisticated than previously believed.
In May 1921 the Baron told a guest: “A plan was formed to join together all the Mongolian peoples which had not forgotten their ancient faiths and customs into one Asiatic State, consisting of autonomous tribal units, under the moral and legislative leadership of China, the country of loftiest and most ancient culture. Into this State must come the Chinese, Mongols, Tibetans, Afghans, the Mongol tribes of Turkestan, Tartars, Buriats, Kirghiz and Kalmucks.
This State must be strong, physically and morally, and must erect a barrier against revolution and carefully preserve its own spirit, philosophy and individual policy. If humanity, mad and corrupted, continues to threaten the Divine Spirit in mankind, to spread blood and to obstruct moral development, the Asiatic State must terminate this movement decisively and establish a permanent, firm peace.”
This new information came from freshly opened archives and the rediscovery of long forgotten primary sources. Ferdinand Ossendowski, a Polish explorer still well-known in his homeland, wrote Beasts, Men And Gods in 1922 about his travels in Mongolia during the Baron’s rule. It was a big success at the time, being translated into several languages but a scandal about plagiarism crippled its reputation and it is now read only by hollow earth believers who skip the chapters on the Baron and go straight to Ossendowski’s reports on the mystical beliefs of Mongolian shaman. Ossendowski acted as political advisor to the Baron … but he liked to downplay that.
A S Makiev, the Baron’s adjutant, published the self justifying memoirs Bog Voiny, Baron Ungern (God Of War, Baron Ungern) in 1934 through a cheap Shanghai publisher. In 1941 Dimitri Alioshin wrote Asian Odyssey about his journey as a young Russian officer through Siberia, Mongolia, and China, and service in the Asiatic Cavalry Division. The records of Alioshin’s publishers were destroyed during a German bombing raid and no-one knows why a Russian exile last heard of in Harbin would publish in English through a London firm.
Other Russians who lived in Mongolia left accounts of the time buried in boxes of their papers held by the Hoover Library in California. There are few other accounts. Most of the Baron’s men died in Mongolia and those who escaped did not want to talk about what they had done.
Leonid Youzefovitch gathered together all the sources he could find and wrote a Russian-language book on the Baron, translated into French in 2001 as Baron Ungern: Khan des Steppes, which utilised the previously unavailable Soviet records.
In 2008 James Palmer wrote the first full English language biography of the elusive Ungern-Sternberg. If you want to know more about the crazed White Russian ruler of Mongolia then Palmer’s The Bloody White Baron is the best place to start.
The assembled jigsaw of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg’s life is one of contradiction and cruelty. An Estonian-born aristocrat who abandoned his privileged life to live like a nomad in the Far East and believed Russia irretrievably corrupt; a reactionary who shared a desire for violent change with men like Lenin and Trotsky but saw Bolshevism as modern Western decadence and an enemy to the eternal values of the Buddhist East.
Von Ungern-Sternberg created an independent Mongolian nation under a Buddhist emperor. He appeared as a saviour and turned into a tyrant, then lost it all inside six months. His plans to change the world just ended up drowning a small corner of it in blood.
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