An aristocrat's quest for Buddhist redemption
The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordindary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia
New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009
288 pp., $26.95 cloth
On the flat Earth of the imperial imagination, most anything is possible. Constraints of geography and time do not limit fantasies of conquest so much as they arm them with rich and varied paints for a worldly canvas. But the many sprawling empires of history, whether Mughal, Japanese, or British, have not arisen easily or overnight. While the unending struggle for dominion may appear in the historical record as so many moves on a chessboard, each pawn’s final farewell is much less graceful in real life.
James Palmer’s The Bloody White Baron, a debut work of popular history shortlisted for Britain’s John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, exhumes a historical figure who ended up as a casualty of his own grand scheme: a man who dreamed up a new world order and then chased it across the desolate steppes of northern Asia only to meet his own miserable demise. With this biography of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, Palmer unearths an easily forgotten episode in early 20th-century Eurasian geopolitics. As the Baron’s story unfolds, the margins of both history and human psychology take center stage in a work that unravels more comfortable accounts of modern nationhood and spirituality.
At first take, there is nothing especially unusual about Ungern’s military life. A minor aristocrat by birth, he rose through the ranks of the counterrevolutionary White Russian army to assemble his own cavalry and briefly conquer Mongolia. It was the Baron’s motivations that distinguished him from any number of sword-wielding European contemporaries— he mounted this eastward crusade in the name of Buddhism. In a short-lived but hugely violent campaign to win a kingdom from which to overthrow the Bolsheviks, Ungern sought to reestablish a monarchical order that he would follow to the Pure Land or death.
Ungern was born in Austria in 1885, to a German mother and an Estonian father of German heritage. Upon his parents’ divorce, the boy was sent with his father to Estonia, then a part of the vast Russian empire. There, his privileged childhood as a son of marginal nobility seems to have been lonely, filled with war games and punctuated by a string of school expulsions. Palmer’s description of the youthful Ungern is unsettling: “I imagine him not to have been a bully as such, but, as his later behavior suggests, rather one of those pupils of whom even the bullies are afraid, the kind who violate the unwritten rules of childhood fights, whom nobody wants to sit near, and who cannot be trusted with compasses or scissors.”
Unsurprisingly, Ungern jumped at the chance to fight for Tsar Nicholas II in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. The tall, athletic soldier reveled in the violent clashes and ascetic discipline of the trans- Siberian cavalry campaigns. Upon Russia’s overwhelming defeat by the Japanese and the popular rebellion of 1905—including the infamous Bloody Sunday, when the Imperial Guard gunned down demonstrators in St. Petersburg—something in Ungern clicked. As the monarchic order spiraled downward, he saw that a reversal of fortune for the upper classes would require more than young blood to contain the uppity peasantry: it called for the rise of a new order to resurrect the old.
Like many upper-class Russians at the time, Ungern dabbled in various spiritual philosophies inspired by Eastern religions and occultism. Although nominally Lutheran, he had connections to the Theosophical Society of St. Petersburg, and while little is known about his motivations or involvement, Palmer tells us that he subscribed to an “esoteric Buddhism.” The notion of an Eastern “Yellow Peril” that had exploded in 1890s Germany worked wonders on Ungern’s worldview. He caught the bug, but his spiritual investment in “the East” turned it upside down: in his campaign, the “Asiatic hordes” would play the role of heroic ally and redeeming counterbalance, an otherworldly answer to the pleas of the floundering aristocracy.