Eden on the Steppes

An aristocrat's quest for Buddhist redemptionAaron Lackowski

The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordindary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia
James Palmer
New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009
288 pp., $26.95 cloth


The Baron’s alchemic mix of spirituality and anticommunist passion inspired his storming of Mongolia. He assumed the role of Shambhalan savior from the north, charging to defend the Bogd Khan (Holy Emperor)—Mongolia’s Buddhist political figurehead—against the recently vanquished Chinese and growing Bolshevik and Japanese threats. When Ungern won Urga, the Mongolian capital, in 1920, he took the religious inheritance no less seriously than the political, declaring himself a reincarnation of the Fifth Bogd Gegen (Holy Shining One). The swastika-emblazoned ruby ring he wore, a gift from the Bogd Khan, was important to him for both its anti- Semitic and its Buddhist symbolism.

But the Baron’s prejudices were strategically narrow in scope. In the attack on Mongolia, he enlisted a broad range of help: his brutally disciplined White cavalry included Japanese, Mongolians, White Russians, Cossacks, and Buriats (Mongol Buddhists of Siberia), many of them forcibly conscripted.

Palmer picks up on the historian Isaiah Berlin’s idea that individuals born on the fringes of great empires are prone to “borderlands syndrome.” He situates the Baron in a lineage of iron-fisted rulers—including Na poleon (Corsican), Hitler (Austrian), and Stalin (Georgian)—who have fallen victim to what Berlin characterizes as “exaggerated sentiment or contempt for the dominant majority, or else over-intense admiration or even worship of it.”

This view, however, places the burden of history on a few small souls, and The Bloody White Baron, like many biographies, often seems to be doing just that. In the unrelenting parallels to Hitler that Palmer offers as evidence of Ungern’s world-historical significance, the Baron’s “hunger for power” looms larger than life—and indeed, larger than history. Still, the depth of that hunger is intimidating.

In taking Ungern’s devious fantasies seriously, Palmer offers more than an inventory of military excursions. Working with the sparse historical knowledge of the Baron’s shaky psychological moorings and spiritual pursuits, he illuminates the malleable imagination of power, to which Buddhist politics have never been immune. One of Ungern’s most powerful allies was the 13th Dalai Lama, who, fearing communistinspired revolution in Tibet, sent troops to fight for the White cause. (Following the British invasion of Tibet in 1906, the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia, where he coexisted tenuously with his religious equal, the Bogd Khan.) But the growing Red Army was too powerful even for this alliance. After a Bolshevik defeat that all but sealed his capture, Ungern veered south. His plans for a modern Mongol empire dashed, he plowed ahead, bedraggled troops in tow, toward the last destination in his deranged grasp at spiritual significance—the towering Himalaya. Eventually, betrayed by his own men, he was executed in 1921.

Baron Ungern-Sternberg was undoubtedly psychotic, but he was also human, and his terrible schemes were informed by the most basic assumptions of the culture he grew up in. Easy as it is to dismiss him as the putrid reminder of a barbarous past, the exotic representations of the East that drew Ungern to Mongolia continue to appear in all sorts of Westernized spiritual practices. And as Donald S. Lopez, Jr., reminds us in his groundbreaking book Prisoners of Shangri-La, romanticized misinterpretations of Tibetan Buddhism—and Buddhism generally—are a burden to the individuals expected to uphold the mirage of Oriental authenticity. The Bloody White Baron serves as a warning against clinging to such projections too dearly.

Aaron Lackowski
, Tricycle’s associate editor, is the Books in Brief reviewer.

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shopalu's picture

Looks like a very informative read. Thanks

DazzleUEsq's picture

The Younghusband Expedition which your reviewer refers to as the "British invasion of Tibet" was actually in 1904.

An irony of the whole "Mad Baron" affair is that his presence in Mongolia as a remnant of Semenov's "White" resistance during the civil war period following the Bolshevik Revolutution prompted the Soviets, despite initial reluctance, to enter Mongolia as supporters of the nascent homegrown communist movement and establish their first satelite in that most unlikely of countries. Their presence in Mongolia for the better part of the next seven decades insured that the Chinese, whom the Baron had expeditiously chucked out of the eastern part of the country, could not, therefore, make any credible reclamation efforts of their previous political position. In other words, unlike Tibet, Mongolia had a guarantor of their independence, a "Big Brother," albeit a communist one.  Mongolia's claim to independence from their erstwhile Qing (Manchu) overlords was identical to Tibet's and they managed to preserve that independence while we all know what happened to Tibet.