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.
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.”