The Bloody White Baron
The fact that the most sadistic general in the Russian civil war was the only one who was a practising Buddhist will seem odd to many people. Baron Roman Feodorovich Ungern von Sternberg was a Baltic German anti-Semite who was devoted to both the Russian autocracy and the mysticism of the East. But in the dying days of Tsardom, there was nothing very unusual in that. What was unique about him was that he carried his beliefs into practice. In 1921, he became dictator of Mongolia with the idea of using his adopted country as a springboard for the overthrow of Bolshevik power in Soviet Russia.
Ungern, as he was known, was born in 1886, and brought up on his step-father’s estate in what is now Estonia. He was an undisciplined boy with a violent temper who was saved from an aimless future by the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. He volunteered for service and was sent east. This changed his life. He discovered horses and the romance of an ascetic life on the open steppe. And he fell in love with the mysticism of the Orient.
After the war, he returned to St Petersburg and entered the prestigious Pavlovskoe Military Academy. At the same time, he began studying the occult arts, beginning with the famous Madame Blavatsky, inventor of Theosophy. There was a large Buddhist temple in Petersburg at the time, and the Tsar took an interest in Buddhist affairs, not least because of the competition with Britain for influence over Tibet.
After graduation, Ungern was posted to a Cossack Regiment in eastern Siberia, where he tried to form an Order of Military Buddhists in order to wage what he called “an uncompromising fight against the depravity of revolution”. He believed that “evolution leads to Divinity and revolution to bestiality.”
The rules of the Order prescribed both celibacy and the unlimited use of alcohol, hashish and opium. Ungern was later to change his views on alcohol, but not on drugs or women. Like many of his ancestors, he was given to fits of ungovernable rage if he thought his honour slighted. In 1913 he was cashiered from the Army for fighting duels.
He did not return home to European Russia. Instead he wandered into Mongolia which, two years earler , had declared its independence from China. He would have stayed amidst the mud, dead dogs, disease and prayer wheels of Ugra (now Ulaanbaatar) but for the outbreak of the First World War. He was recalled to the colours and fought with extreme bravery on the Galician front where, among other decorations, he won the Cross of St George, one of Imperial Russia’s highest military medals.
After the February Revolution, he was posted back to the Far East. But when the October revolution happened, he mutated into a sort of military-administrative terrorist, operating on behalf of those who wanted to put Grand Prince Michael on the throne of Russia in place of Nicholas II. Unbeknown to them, and perhaps symbolic of the general unreality of Ungern’s life as an anti-Bolshevik operator, Prince Michael had already been murdered by the Soviets.
Operating independently of Admiral Kolchak’s ‘official’ White Army in Siberia, Ungern raised a force with which he hoped to imitate the feats of Genghis Khan. He was realistic enough, though, to solicit arms from the Japanese, who had their own anti-Chinese agenda.
With no more than 10,000 men, Ungern succeeded in driving the Chinese out of Mongolia. In March 1921 he declared himself dictator. However, by then the Soviets were firmly established in power and the window of counterrevolutionary opportunity in his homeland had been firmly shut. His remarkable feat of arms suddenly seemed pointless.
While other monarchists moved to Harbin, in Manchuria, and tried to continue life as they had known it before 1914, or resigned themselves to reality and became taxi-drivers in Paris or New York, Ungern stuck to his selfimposed mission. Dressed in a long, yellow Mongolian robe he travelled through his domain on a white horse with his personal shaman who predicted the future from the way sheep bones cracked after being heated up over an open fire.
His ideas of military discipline were ferocious. He was an expert on the tortures of the East and had insubordinate soldiers or enemy informers torn apart by animals, or forced to sit in the tops of trees for days at a time, until they fell asleep and plunged to the ground, where they were shot. Others were exposed for nights on end on sheets of ice, or burnt alive. An ordinary punishment was a hundred lashes, which left men blinded by blood, but still able, as Ungern once observed with detached curiosity, to walk “even when flesh and bone are separated”.
Ultimately, his methods provoked desertion as often as obedience. Just six months after assuming power, he was kidnapped by some unknown subordinates and handed over to the Bolsheviks across the border in Novonikolaevsk (now Novosibirsk). He was given a reasonably fair trial, but sentenced to death for counter-revolutionary activity, despite the fact that it had all taken place outside the court’s jurisdiction.
James Palmer says at the end of this intriguing but slightly disorganised book, that he faced both the tribunal and the firing squad with “cold resignation”. Prayers for his soul were read throughout Mongolia.