It is one of the goriest and most bizarre episodes in the bizarre and gory history of Central Asia. In the chaos of the Russian Civil War, a White Russian warlord, descendant of German Baltic Crusaders, arose in Mongolia to build an empire on a foundation of human skulls.
His name was Baron Roman Federovich von Ungern-Sternberg — partisan warrior, mystic and madman.
Baron Ungern-Sternberg might have served as a model for a pulp villain, plotting to build an empire. Viciously anti-Semitic and a fervent anti-Bolshevik, the Baron fought bravely in World War I, which washed away the sins of a poor military record and highly erratic, alcohol-fueled behavior. He served with the cruel White Cossack partisan Grigorii Semenov in the Trans-Baikal region of Siberia during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917.
Th Baron was “the joker in the deck” in Central Asia, using a native army leavened with renegade Russians to build a power base in Mongolia. His driving ambition was to leave “an avenue of gallows” from Mongolia to Moscow, where he would swing Bolsheviks and Jews, enemies of the divinely ordained monarchical order of the universe.
The Russian Civil War was a mind-numbingly brutal episode that cost the lives of millions. Cruelty and brutality were common currency. Yet the Baron’s brutality was of a different order. As his recent biographer James Palmer puts it:
“You had to really go above and beyond to stand out as a sadistic lunatic in the context of the Russian Civil War, but he went that extra mile.”
There is something atavistic about the warfare in Central Asia during this period, even though the ragtag armies were armed with bolt-action rifles, machine guns and even some modern artillery. Ungern-Sternberg’s conquest of the Chinese-occupied city of Urga in Mongolia in the winter of 1921 was an evocation of hell, a kind of steppe-“Blood Meridian.”
“The main gates were immediately blown open with grenades and the triumphant attackers, lusting after Chinese blood, poured in. A massacre of the demoralized garrison now followed. (White Russian officer Dmitri) Alioshin, the sole participant to leave an account of the fighting, describes the scene:
‘Mad with revenge and hatred, the conquerors began plundering the city. Drunken horsemen galloped along the streets shooting and killing at their fancy, breaking into houses, dragging property outside into the dirty streets, dressing themselves in rich silks found in the shops…’ Wherever they could be found hiding, Jews were killed, their women first being raped… Many of the attackers were now so drunk that one Cossack began killing his own comrades, until he himself was shot…”
– Peter Hopkirk, Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia
The sack of Urga was only the beginning of a reign of terror in Ungern-Sternberg-controlled Mongolia. The Baron was obsessed with discipline, deeply paranoid and indulged in all manner of sadistic tortures and punishments, handed out indiscriminately.
“Ungern and his men … had an unfocused, chaotic sadism that took itself out as often on their own side and on random civilians as on their enemy, combined with, in the case of many of his men, a contempt for the people they found themselves among. Ironically, the Chinese they drove out of Mongolia had behaved in a very similar way.”
– James Palmer
Ungern-Sternberg felt a long-standing attraction to Mongolian Buddhism, which was heavily influenced by shamanistic elements. Fascinated by Genghis Khan, he dreamed of a new empire. He was obsessed with fate and prophecy and when a soothsayer told him he had 130 days to live, it seems that he accepted his doom and proceeded to seek it out. He left Urgan, determined to “cleanse” Russia of the Bolshevik plague.
A series of military reverses in battles with the Reds wore away the loyalty of his forces, already strained to the breaking point by the Baron’s erratic cruelty. Thwarted, the Baron sought to return to Mongolia regroup his harried band.
“His head bowed, the Baron rode silently at the head of his broken and demoralized army. But even now they left a trail of atrocities and pillage and destruction behind them. ‘The Baron,’ Alioshin tells us, ‘had lost his hat and most of his clothes. On his naked chest numerous Mongolian talismans and charms hung on a bright yellow cord.’ So horrifying was his appearance that people were afraid to even look at him. Some of his disillusioned soldiers now began to plot against this madman who had brought them so much misfortune.”
An assassination attempt failed, but the Baron fled wounded onto the Steppe, where he fell from the saddle and lay wounded and tormented by ants until a band of Mongolians found him and bound him hand and foot. There he was found by a Red patrol, taken prisoner and taken to Novonikolaevsk in Siberia.
The Bolsheviks tried the Baron for many crimes.
“Showing no sign of fear at the fate awaiting him, the Baron challenged the right of a ‘people’s court’ to try him. He told his Bolshevik accusers: ‘For a thousand years Ungerns have given other people orders. We have never taken orders from anyone. I refuse to accept the authority of the working class.’”
– Peter Hopkirk
He was shot by a firing squad on September 15, 1921 — 130 days after a soothsayer foretold his doom. Thus ended one of the weirdest tales ever played out in the Wild East.
And yet the tale did not end, not really. The Bloody White Baron has featured in tales from Daniel Easterman’s The Ninth Buddha to Hugo Pratt’s graphic novel Corto Maltese in Siberia. And he has become a twisted sort of icon of pan-monarchist right-wing sentiment.
The Bloody White Baron makes a fantastic villain — made shuddersome by the fact that his madness and sadistic cruelty were all too real, harbingers of mankind’s most bloodthirsty century.