In January 1921 hundreds of bonfires began burning in the hillsides around the Mongolian capital of Urga. The Bloody Baron had returned.
Baron Roman Feodorovitch von Ungern-Sternberg had first besieged Urga the previous October. Four attempts by his Asiatic Cavalry Division to take the town were beaten back by Chinese troops.
The Division retreated back into the steppes to regroup, recruit fresh troops, and make contact with Mongolian nationalists. Few locals liked the new Chinese overlords who had moved into the power vacuum left by the Russian Civil War. Rumours spread that a clique of lamas in Urga, close to the Living Buddha, were plotting to help the Baron’s men.
The Chinese tightened security; some Russians in the town were imprisoned, others were shot. In the hills, the Baron waited for his fortune tellers to tell him the best time to attack.
Russians who had sat out the civil war in Mongolia knew the Baron as a White Army commander with a dark reputation. Von Ungern-Sternberg had ruled a chunk of Siberia as a warlord through the Civil War, robbing trains of supplies heading up to the front, extorting money from anyone passing through his area and refusing to co-operate with Admiral Kolchak in his fight against the Red Army.
The Mongolians in Urga saw the Baron in brighter colours. The imprisonment of their spiritual leader the Living Buddha and maltreatment of lamas had outraged the population and turned previous collaborators against the Chinese. Even a proto-Communist cell based around Mongolian workers in the Russian consulate translation school was eager for the Baron to attack.
The Chinese who ran the town knew little about Von Ungern-Sternberg or why he kept returning to their city. After the attacks in October Marshal Chang Tso-Lin had been given $500,000 by the Chinese government to equip and send reinforcements; in a typical piece of warlord corruption the Marshal took the money but the reinforcements stayed at home.
General Chu’s garrison had remained confident. Joseph Galeta, a Hungarian soldier taken prisoner of war by the Russians in 1917 and struggling through a grim nine year journey back to his homeland, was told by senior Chinese officers that this time the Bogdo Ul mountain would halt the Baron.
‘Just children, without the least notion of the capacity of a modern army or to what extent they had to fear Baron Ungern-Sternberg,’ thought Galeta about his Chinese employers. ‘When the Baron made it over Bogdo Ul Chinese morale dropped dramatically.’
When the Baron reappeared in January the Chinese began to panic. They now believed he had returned as the spearhead of a larger army, bolstered by troops from the Crimea and Siberia. They were wrong … but the governor of Urga had already fled and the nearest relief force was eight hundred miles away, refusing to advance any further because of the weather.
The focus of these fears and hopes was thirty five years old in 1921 and had spent most of his life in military service.
Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was tall, with reddish blond hair and a large cavalry moustache. His light blue eyes were set in a piercing stare under a prominent forehead slashed with a scar from a sword blow. He was the product of hundreds of years of Teutonic in-breeding. His martial ancestors had been the point of the Russian Empire’s sword since the thirteenth century. Before that, they carved an Empire out of the Baltic states, introduced Christianity to the pagan populations, and made them into serfs.
The Baron was born to an aristocratic family of Baltic Germans in Graz, Austria and brought up in Reval, Estonia; he fought in the Russian and Mongolian armies, travelled the Russian Far East, joined the Cossacks for the First World War in which he was wounded five times, and became a Siberian warlord in the Russian Civil War. He was an authoritarian, did not care about his physical comfort, and was indifferent to the suffering of others.
The Bolsheviks claimed Von Ungern-Sternberg was an arch reactionary, painting him as an old style Russian Imperialist dedicated to bringing back the oppressive feudalism of Tsarist society. Like all good propaganda there are elements of truth – but in his core beliefs the Baron was just as revolutionary as the Politburo. He believed the West was irretrievably decadent: a cesspool of democracy, comfort and tolerance. It had to be destroyed by fire. He believed in tradition, the eternal Buddhist wisdom of the Asiatic people, and the redeeming power of war.
As he waited in the hills above Urga his ultimate goal was across the border in another country; he believed it was his destiny to return Russia to a year zero of Buddhist simplicity through the use of cleansing force under a new Tsar. The taking of Mongolia was his first step.
The Baron’s Asiatic Cavalry Division was one of the last coherent parts of the White Russian Armies, a heterogeneous movement of monarchists, democrats, anti-semites, social revolutionaries, imperialists and nationalists that failed to overthrow the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
The Whites were the best and worst of Tsarist Russia: dedicated and brave but corrupt, lazy, and ignorant. They nearly won. In late 1919 the Don Armies in the South planned to be in Moscow by Christmas and Admiral Kolchak’s Siberian forces were rolling up Bolshevik territory on a 750 mile long front. But the wave collapsed, the armies atomised and, within months, victims of the disaster like the former general waiting tables in a Paris restaurant and the exiled Russian noblewoman prostituting her daughters on a Harbin side street were stock figures for journalists.
The Division had escaped the catastrophic collapse of Kolchak’s forces because the Baron had been sent on a mission by Ataman Semenov to lay the foundations of a planned pan-Mongolian republic shortly before the White Army’s lines broke during the winter of 1919. Semenov was somewhere between boss and co-conspirator to the Baron, one of the few men Von Ungern-Sternberg admired. By January 1921 the Ataman was impotently plotting in Port Arthur and his malnourished men were squatting in railway carriages near Vladivostok. The Baron was now his own commander.
His Division was a 1,470 strong multicultural mixture of Cossack, Russian, Mongolian, Buryat, Tartar, Japanese and others. It was made up of two regiments (Tatar Regiment of 350 men, Annenkov regiment of 300), three native Mongolian divisions (a Chakhar [Inner Mongolian] Division of 180 men and two divisions of local Mongolians totalling 360 men), a four gun artillery section of 60 men, and a machine gun unit of 80 men with ten guns. Two anonymous Englishmen somehow found themselves in the Baron’s service. Smaller White Army units driven across the border by the Bolsheviks allied themselves to his command.
Japanese soldiers served in the Division in a covert semi-official capacity. Japanese military command in Russia initially regarded the Baron as a geopolitical tool for the Far East; they soon discovered that, unlike Semenov, the Baron could not be bought. In leaving Siberia the Baron was not fleeing history. He was intent on making it.
Discipline was ferocious. The Baron’s recruitment methods left mass graves.
‘He would stop at each man separately, look straight into his face, hold that gaze for a few moments, and then bark: “To the army”; “Back to the cattle”; “Liquidate”. All men with physical defects were shot until only the able-bodied remained. He killed all Jews, regardless of age, sex or ability. Hundreds of innocent people had been “liquidated” by the time the inspection was closed.’
Soldiers who displeased the Baron would be lucky to escape with having their backs beaten to a bloody pulp by a split bamboo cane. Memoirs published later by ex-soldiers show admiration over shadowed by a struggle to understand. They saw the visionary as well as the sadist in him but never understood how they co-existed or related.
In 1921 the population of Urga was estimated at 70,000. Mongolia’s capital was a ramshackle sweep of one storey wooden houses and gers (circular felt huts with conical roofs called yurts by the Russians) punctuated by Chinese warehouses, Russian town houses, and the gold-leafed towers of Buddhist temples with chiming prayer wheels outside. Pilgrims came from all over Mongolia to worship.
The town was widely spread out on both banks of the river. In some areas open countryside separated different districts. Wide dirt roads baked solid in summer but were muddy slush through most of winter.
There were street markets throughout the city. Cattle, wool, saddles, meat, painted glass snuff bottles, hay, coral beads, and silk were sold or bartered in a fast moving flood of Mongols, Chinese, Buryats, Russians, and other foreigners. Caravans of camels plodded through the streets. Lamas in yellow or red robes wandered through the crowds spying on new arrivals and picking out those rich enough to afford their fortune telling skills.
Fortune telling was ubiquitous in Mongolia. The most common method was to burn a shoulder blade of mutton in the coals of a fire until it blackened; it was then removed, cleaned of ash, and the cracked surface studied. Skilled fortune tellers could predict a man’s death in the patterns.
The back streets of Urga functioned as a waste disposal system. Inhabitants defecated and urinated in public, crouching in groups on the curb to chat while they did. Buddhist ideas on the immortality of the soul allowed dead or dying bodies of native Mongolians to be left in the street; they were regarded as the meat left behind once the soul had flown to reincarnate.
At night the wild dogs of Urga came out and ate everything, gulping down excrement then devouring the decaying flesh of the corpses and splintering the bones. The houses of the Russia quarter, some Chinese merchants’ homes and the palaces of the Living Buddha had toilets and other facilities but the majority of Urga’s population trusted to the dogs.
Some of the more modern buildings had electricity and there was a small telephone network run through a central exchange with over a hundred users. Among the modern pleasures available to inhabitants were silent films brought occasionally from Russia and displayed in makeshift cinemas.
The town was silent and still when the Asiatic Cavalry Division came down from the hills and attacked at six o’clock on the morning of 1 February.
Before the battle the Baron, like a medieval lord, had given his men three days to loot and rape Urga as reward. The troops, who had spent months living in the desolate steppes of Mongolia, saw Urga as the last chance for food, warmth and shelter.
They broke the back of the Chinese lines and rampaged through the streets, hunting down fleeing defenders by the light of fires set by saboteurs. Hand grenades blasted out the doors and windows of buildings used as the last line of defence by Chinese soldiers. Cossacks galloped on horseback through the streets killing anyone in the open. There was constant rifle and artillery fire.
By the early morning of 2 February hundreds of Chinese defenders were dead or trying to find an officer who would not kill them after they surrendered. Men of the Asiatic Cavalry Division not in the front line of the fighting turned on the liberated areas of the town. There was mass looting. Chinese civilians were murdered.
Filthy lice carrying soldiers who had last changed their uniforms back in Russia broke into clothing shops and dressed in silks. Alcohol was discovered and drunken men staggered round Urga firing into the air. A Cossack soldier was so drunk he turned his gun on his own unit before he was shot dead.
Chinese banks were looted. Soldiers organised an ad hoc lottery: laughing men formed a line for one chance to plunge their hands into strong boxes. The lucky found gold coins or jewellery. Those with paper currency threw it into the streets.
‘The scene was worthy of a good painter,’ remembered a Division soldier, ‘wild men, with fresh blood on their hands, clothing and boots, standing in line before the bank’s safes, awaiting their turn at the loot. The light from numerous fires made their faces bronze. It was remarkable that nobody paid any attention to their wounds…’.
Real horror began when the Baron’s men freed Russian prisoners from the Chinese jails. These men had been locked up in terrible conditions with little food several weeks earlier as revenge for local Mongolian forces joining the Baron.
The freed men were shown the nature of the new order in Urga when one asked for a horse in case the Asiatic Cavalry Division had to retreat; he was shot dead. The rest joined drunken soldiers in a mob led by Dr Klingenberg, the Division’s doctor, and turned on the Jews.
‘I have always followed your activities,’ the Baron had written to a notoriously anti-Semetic fellow General, ‘and approved of your ideas on the terrible plague that is the Jews, these parasites who corrupt the world’.
Any Jewish men the mob found were killed by being hit in the face with wooden blocks until they died. Women were gang raped and murdered; wives and daughters who offered themselves to save their men did not survive to see the agreement broken. Half-naked bodies lay in the streets and houses as the mob moved on. Alioshin saw a sympathetic officer beat them to the house of a young girl and offer her a straight edge razor; she cut her throat. Another officer who tried to rescue a woman being raped by a group of Cossacks at the Russo-Asiatic Trading Company was shot dead by them.
A local Dane called Olsen who protested was roped to a horse and dragged through the streets until he died. Another foreigner was killed by Dr Klingenberg to get his medical supplies.
Chinese resistance continued sporadically throughout the day. There was a fierce but short-lived firefight between Ungern’s Cossacks and the Chinese near the Russian cemetery in the foreign section of the town.
Boris Volkov, a twentysomething former intelligence officer for Kolchak who had earned himself a death sentence from Semenov by spying on him for the Admiral and was living in Urga after the White Army’s collapse, found himself in the middle of the battle:
‘Our house, the former consulate, was the first to be occupied by the Baron’s men. I will never forget those Cossacks in rags, half dead from the cold, who smashed the windows with their gun butts and burst into the house under the fire of Chinese artillery and rifles’.
Small scale house to house fighting continued through the day as did mob violence directed against Chinese civilians. The Mongol troops allied with the Baron were the main protagonists in these attacks. Some Chinese were sheltered by Russians and other foreigners – a dangerous move.
An American named Guppel who hid Jews and Chinese was forced to give them up by the mob or die. Even Tohtoho, a Mongolian prince, was besieged until he gave up those he had allowed into his home.
By the morning of 3 February the Chinese resistance was broken; eight carloads of Chinese officials fled Urga, abandoning their troops. Surviving units attempted to escape through the Chinese district of Maimaichen at the far east of the town. They were cut to pieces by enfiladed machine gun fire.
Survivors broke out to the north and left Urga to the Baron. General Chu tried to marshal his troops from the snowbound gold mines of Dzumodo but the soldiers were out of control and could not be stopped; they looted Chinese farms as they fled towards the Russian border.
The Hungarian Joseph Galeta was at Chu’s makeshift headquarters.
‘General Chu’s army, under the shock of their sudden defeat, had become a panic-stricken rabble and in their haste to get as far ahead of the pursuing army as possible they did not hesitate to rob their compatriots. While the farmers were crouching in the corners in fear of their lives, the soldiers shot their pigs and cattle, and breaking open the corn bins shovelled the corn in front of their horses’.
A smaller group of 300 managed to escape to the south; they were hunted down and killed by Asiatic Cavalry Division’s troops near Chorin-Chure. Their unburied bones littered the area for years. Pershin, head of the Russo-Mongolian Commercial Bank, watched panicking soldiers flee past his house ‘without warm clothes, without shoes, without packs. The men, the horses, the carts were all mixed together. Among this rout one could occasionally pick out the carrying of weapons and provisions’.
As the Baron’s men closed Chinese soldiers trapped in town stripped off their uniforms and tried to hide; sixty were found in a house in the Russian sector – all were executed.
Baron von Ungern-Sternberg set up his command at the eastern end of Urga in Maimaichen. He directed mopping up operations but was primarily interested in securing Chinese munitions and gold from the vaults of the Maimaichen Chinese Bank and the Frontier Bank.
Mongol troops and local inhabitants headed for the religious heart of the town, exhilarated by their victory. Buddhist services were held that evening.
‘After sunset one could hear giant sacred trumpets whose sound now brought pleasure instead of misery echoing in Da-Hure,’ wrote Pershin. ‘After two months of enforced silence the trilling of the bachkours returned with force through the icy air’.
The Baron’s new order in Urga instituted the rule of law on 4 February. A fire caused by looters had begun in the town that evening, threatening armouries and the central religious district. The Baron rode in from Maimaichen to oversee the fire fighting efforts and the blaze was put out before nightfall.
On his way into central Urga to take command he saw two young Mongolian women carrying bundles of cloth stolen from a Chinese shop. He ordered them arrested and a week later they were wrapped in the stolen cloth and hanged outside the scene of the crime. It was the first public execution in Urga’s history. The days of looting and rape were over.
In the aftermath of the fighting the Urga dogs roamed the streets of the Chinese district gnawing on the bodies of the dead. Volkov saw decapitated heads lying in the doorways of wrecked Chinese shops. Cossacks wearing outlandish silk coats over their ragged uniforms set up camp in abandoned buildings.
Military discipline was reimposed amongst the wreckage. The sadist Colonel Leonid Sipailov was made commandant of the town. Looting, murder and rape of civilians was punishable by death. For drunkenness the punishment was lashes with a split bamboo cane: twenty-five for civilians, fifty for privates, one hundred for officers. Soon bodies were hanging outside shops and buildings.
Soldiers still risked their lives for alcohol. Sipailov arrested two Cossacks and a Mongol who had stolen brandy from a shop. He forced the Mongol to hang the Cossacks by the door of the shop; he then hanged the Mongol. The Chinese proprietor appealed to the Baron a few days later for permission to cut down the corpses as they were discouraging customers.
Chinese civilians were ordered to bury the dead. Major Dockray, an Englishman resident in Urga, estimated there were 2,500 corpses.
The mass killing began again on 5 February, this time as a legalised measure. The Baron ordered an official pogrom against the Jewish community. In contrast to the riotous mob violence of the battle this was to be a methodical military operation commanded by Sipailov. The Baron wanted all Jews in Urga dead.
He had already issued orders to his men to kill any Jews they found when the Division crossed the border into Mongolia. Two of his officers had been captured by the Chinese in 1920 and were held in a Manchouli jail; they justified the robbery and murder of an entire Jewish family on the grounds they had written permission from the Baron.
‘Commissars, Communists and Jews, together with their families, shall be destroyed. Their entire property shall be confiscated’.
The Baron’s anti-Semitism had unpredictable limits. His chief spy in Urga before the attack was a Jewish civilian called Jacobson and he used Jewish spies in China and elsewhere. When Cossacks invaded the compound of the American Trading Co. and tried to rape the Jewish fiancée of an American called McLoughlin, the Baron’s guard intervened. After McLoughlin explained the situation the Baron scribbled out a passport for the girl on a scrap of paper and had the Cossacks shot. A mental aberration? Political pragmatism? The Baron later tried to win recognition for his Mongolian state from the Americans. No other Jews were that lucky.
The Jews in the town lived scattered amongst the Russians. The mob had already attacked the obvious targets and with most Jewish people in hiding the pogrom faltered. Pershin estimated that only fifty Jews were killed by Sipailov’s troops over the course of the occupation. Pershin himself hid a dentist called Gauer and his family amongst the crowd of Russian exiles in his house.
The Jews of Urga were helped by the fact that the Mongols were unable to understand the Baron’s anti-semitism: to them all Europeans were the same and they could not understand how one group (hara oros – dark Russians) could be as evil as the other group (tsagan oros – blond Russians) claimed.
When Cossacks slaughtered a Jewish family the Mongolian nanny fled with the baby and had it baptised a Christian by an Orthodox priest at the Russian consulate; the pursuing Cossacks were forced to accept the conversion by the priest but turned on the nanny and slashed her to pieces with their sabres.
Despite approaches from Lamas, the Russian community and representatives of the Living Buddha the legalised anti-semitic executions continued through the Baron’s rule of Urga.
On February 6th Pershin was approached by the Russian community and asked to make an official visit to the Baron. He was accompanied by Solimanov, a merchant who represented the Muslim community of the town. The streets of Urga were deserted but the district of Maimaichen was full of military activity. Pershin noted the multicultural nature of the Baron’s men.
‘A mixture of all tribes and races, from the Russians of Europe and Siberia, to Mongols, Buriats, Tartars, Kirghizes …‘
The Baron, indifferent as always to physical comfort, had set up headquarters in the looted shell of a Chinese house. Broken windows were pasted over with paper and the house was cold despite a smoking stove. Lamas, Mongol princes and Russian officers waited in the reception room. The two other rooms in the house were sparsely furnished and dirty; in one, Colonel Ivanovski sat on stool eating noodles and trying to ignore the pain of an abscess in his tooth. Pershin later discovered that, despite his proximity to the Baron, Ivanovski helped many people to escape Urga – for a fee. Von Ungern-Sternberg occupied the room at the back; it was minimally furnished with a table, chair and bed.
He acknowledged their presence with a curt nod. Pershin was impressed, despite himself, with the Baron’s aristocratic bearing. With a shave and a haircut the Baron could have fitted into a high society gathering.
The first item on Pershin’s agenda – a cautious plea for tolerance towards the Jewish community – was angrily dismissed before he got very far. They changed track and requested permission to form a self-defence force to protect the town from looters. The Baron refused. He had no interest in creating a new armed force in the town that was not under his direct command. The interview was over.
The markets restarted on the streets; shops opened; Sipailov and his Cossacks continued to hunt down Jews; men and women were hanged for theft; defences were rebuilt; attempts made to clean up battle damage; Mongolians attended their newly opened temples; a military bureaucracy created to run alongside the civil Mongolian one; new jails and torture houses were opened; Chinese officer prisoners executed and their men forced into the Baron’s service; the Baron moved his headquarters into central Urga; new paper currency was introduced; and, most importantly, preparations were made for the coronation of the Bogdo Geghen – the Living Buddha – as Emperor.
The Bogdo Geghen was fifty-one when he was crowned Emperor of Mongolia. He was the eighth reincarnation of the Buddha and had been brought to Urga as a five-year-old. As the Living Buddha the lamas were unable to refuse him anything and he led a dissolute early life.
‘He liked to hunt down his people with bloodhounds or to smash the crowd of worshippers by madly galloping on a horse into their midst. Later he became a drunkard and quite easy with women, in consequence of which he contracted disease and lost his sight’.
Some of his exploits were simply childish: he hung a wire connected to a strong battery over the wall of a temple; passers-by grasping the wire got an electric shock they were supposed to attribute to the Living Buddha’s magical powers.
His other activities were less childlike. The walls of a room in his Winter Palace at Urga were covered with long mirrors; the mirrors turned on hinges to reveal pornographic drawings on the stone behind. He had lovers of both sexes, stole his wife from a well known wrestler, allowed her to be fondled by members of his court, and had a long relationship with his male attendant Legtseg.
He and Legtseg swapped clothes and identities for sexual roleplays. It became so intense that even the Living Buddha’s louche court were disturbed by the adjutant’s influence. Legtseg, believing the relationship was ending and hysterical, attacked the Living Buddha and was arrested; the Living Buddha had him exiled to a remote part of Mongolia. A local prince loyal to the Buddhist hierarchy buried him alive.
The Living Buddha went blind through undiagnosed syphilis. His dissolute lifestyle slowed but he still drank; there were crates of Russian champagne in his cellars. But he was a friend of Russia and a passionate believer in Mongolian independence.
Mongolians from all over the country came to Urga for the coronation; they picked their way through the devastation of battle remains on their way to the temple. The Urga dogs were overworked. Decaying bodies still lay in the streets and the Mongols were shocked at the evidence of massacres.
The honour guard received new uniforms before the ceremony: Mongolian coats (tyrlyks), silk caps and hoods which attached to the caps (bachlits). The bachlits were coloured green for the Tartar units, yellow for the Tibetan and red for the Headquarters guard. The Baron wore a silk Mongolian robe with general’s epaulettes and his cross of St George medal at the breast.
The procession through the streets began at ten in the morning. An honour guard kept back the crowds as a huge cavalcade of lamas, Mongol princes, and a group of the Baron’s men led by Colonel Rezukhin, commander of the Buriat detachment, marched behind mounted heralds. The heralds carried a Mongolian flag, embroidered in gold with a soiombo, an ancient Mongolian symbol now used to represent independence.
Next was the Living Buddha’s personal guard wearing red tyrlyks and yellow armbands with the black Asiatic sign of the swastika. Then came the Bogdo Geghen and, behind him, the Baron riding a white horse with yellow reins. As the Living Buddha passed by, blind eyes behind dark glasses, the crowds knelt on the ground.
Cossacks presented arms and the parties entered the temple to the sound of Mongolian trumpets. The coronation took place with solemn ceremony. Afterwards the Baron gave a speech. He described himself as a Mongol auxiliary and talked about Mongolia’s glorious history under Genghis Khan. He called for a renaissance.
Next he gave a violent attack on Communism, driven by his personal synthesis of apocalyptic Christianity and warrior Buddhism.
‘He launched a fantastic appeal, full of quotations from the Apocalypse and the Lamaist scriptures, for a punitive expedition against the Red Russians’.
For the first time in three hundred years Mongolia was an independent nation. The Baron had created a Buddhist state and enthroned an Emperor. The touchstone of Ghengis Khan’s Mongolian Empire had been resurrected. Mongolia cleared of Chinese, Jews, and Communists. Russia would follow.
What appears to history as the moment the wave broke and began to fall back, was to the Baron and his officers in Urga just the first step in a greater plan.
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