Archived article

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

Truth may sometimes be, if not stranger than fiction, then more compelling. Baron Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg was a Russian aristocrat of German extraction in what is now Estonia who became, through conquest, the last Khan of Mongolia for a short-lived reign of terror and murder in 1921.

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer
The Bloody White Baron, James Palmer (Basic Books (AZ), February 2009)

James Palmer traces the career of von Ungern-Sternberg (or Ungern von Sternberg as he later called himself because he felt it sounded less Jewish) through a trouble childhood (he was expelled from essentially every school he attended), a troubled military career (similarly expelled from regiment after regiment), through a more successful spell on the (rather peculiarly-named, from the Russian point-of-view) Eastern front of the First World War (Ungern-Sternberg was both fearless and rather good at killing), all the while developing a personal and political philosophy that combined fanatical monarchism with occultism and an interest in what he saw as the purity of Asian nomads, which resulted in (somewhat contradictory) missions to restore monarchies in Russia and China and to re-create a Mongolian Empire. Although refreshingly free of racial prejudice toward Asians (a tolerance not extended to Jews or Estonian peasants), Ungern-Sternberg (who may or may not have thought he was the re-incarnation of Genghis Khan) was, in a word, deranged. The Bloody White Baron evokes both fascination at a Russo-German nobleman riding through the steppe with drawn saber, in a Mongolian gown, protected by Buddhist talismans, in what was even then a largely forgotten corner of the world at the tail end of a forgotten war and horror at the consequences of the man’s muddled messianism and amorality. Ungern-Sternberg was the sort of man who made Bolshevism look good.

Palmer tells the story, and the history, well. Since there are large gaps in the record and limited first-person accounts, reliable or otherwise, some speculation or supposition is necessary when reconstructing such a man. Palmer keeps this to a minimum while nevertheless painting a credible picture of the man and his most extraordinary times.

Although Palmer appears to be dredging this story from a period now lost in mists of history, 1921 was not in fact all that long ago. Hong Kong’s Solomon Bard (whose memoirs Light and Shade were recently reviewed here) lived in Chita (admittedly as a toddler) when Ungern-Sternberg’s comrade-in-arm, the half-Buryat Semenov, was based there as de facto dictator of the Transbaikal region of Siberia.

And although Ungern-Sternberg’s reign was short-lived, Palmer argues that Mongolia’s current independence is likely due to the independence won when von-Ungern’s defeated the Chinese garrison in Urga. The result was a Soviet puppet regime (but at least run by Mongolians), rather than integration into China.

Most history of both Russia and Asia is told from the perspective of both regions’ relations with the West, rather than with each other. The Bloody White Baron is the story of a man who, while admittedly horrifying, is also not just a link between a feudal past and a more recognizably modern world, but who also someone who had, and at times almost literally, one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Russia and Asia are joined at the hip to an extent few people outside the two regions, and even many within, realize.

It is tempting to think of Ungern-Sternberg as an aberration, as a videogame villain (for such he has become; he appears in the game “Iron Storm”), but he was, alas, hardly the last of his kind. Just when one thinks the world has enough checks and balances to prevent a man like Ungern-Sternberg coming to power, another does.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.