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Heart of Darkness

July 6, 2009 — The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer Published originally in National Review

To find even a quick allusion to the White Russian civil-war commander Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (1886–1921) is to be pulled into a past too strange to be believable and too terrible not to be. Three years ago, I was working on an article on Mongolia for National Review. When the text I’d submitted for editing was returned, a reference to the country’s “brief, brutal, and bizarre rule [by] a crazed Baltic baron” was questioned: “Are you certain about this?” As James Palmer’s absorbing, wonderfully written new biography of this gargoyle khan, exterminationist anti-Semite, paranoid mystic, and (some thought) reincarnated god shows, when it comes to Ungern, certainty has a way of vanishing into myth, rumor, and whispered campfire tale: There is much about the baron that remains, in Palmer’s perfect adjective, “elusive.”

An earlier, and profoundly influential, biographer (of sorts), the Franco-Russian Communist Vladimir Pozner, came to the same conclusion (Ungern “kept on escaping me”) but took a different tack in response. His Bloody Baron (1938) openly blended fact with fiction and, more surreptitiously, well-crafted Soviet propaganda, to recreate the baroquely cruel baron of legend — but not just legend. There was indeed an Ungern, a killer, a torturer, a burner-alive, who battled the Bolsheviks with a heedless bravery and primitive ferocity so devastating that he was able to turn a corner of Siberia into a charnel-house realm all his own. And yes, he later did the same with a swathe of Mongolia that he transformed into an anticipation of Babi Yar and a reminder of Genghis.

But that was not enough for Pozner. His baron is, almost, a creature of nightmare seemingly lurking in the thin space between reality and the darker side of the human imagination, yet not without a certain atavistic grandeur that was, in fact, entirely lacking from Ungern’s shabby, psychotic, ragtag crusade: “From a distance came a call of trumpets. The street filled with Ungern’s squadrons, riding slowly. The Baron leant out of the window. A stream of horsemen flowed along the roadway. On their shoulder-straps two-headed eagles were foreshortened: legions of silver eagles ready to wing northwards.”

This is the baron who can be glimpsed in comic book (in one of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese series), in video game (Iron Storm), and even in the lyrics of “Ungern-Sternberg,” a song by French punk rockers Paris Violence: “Ungern-Sternberg, chevalier romantique / Tu attends la mort comme un amant sa promise . . .” (“Ungern-Sternberg, romantic knight / You wait for death like a lover . . .”)

Faced with, and fascinated by, epic monstrosity, we — as a species — seem disturbingly willing to keep ourselves at a comfortable emotional and intellectual distance from its deeper, even more hideous implications. In The Bloody White Baron, Palmer does not hold back from detailing the horrors (this is not a book for the faint-hearted) for which that chevalier romantique was responsible, but he does so clinically, analytically, immune to their dark spell: “Ungern’s sadism . . . was appalling and inexcusable, but also explicable. The obsession with . . . whipping was an exaggerated version of the discipline of the old Russian imperial army, where fifty lashes were considered a light punishment. Ungern favored ‘a hundred blows to each part of the body.’ . . . ‘Did you know,’ he mused, ‘that men can still walk when the flesh and bone are separated?’”

By contrast, when Ungern makes an appearance in Buddha’s Little Finger, a 1996 novel by the Russian writer Victor Pelevin, it is as the stern, laconic guardian of an infinite, coldly beautiful Valhalla, and if anything, an oddly admirable figure. Of the maniac there is barely a suggestion; of the chevalier romantique, there is all too much.

It’s no surprise that the other two best-known biographical accounts of the baron are themselves “elusive.” In Beasts, Men and Gods (1922), Ferdinand Ossendowski, a Polish adventurer, writer, and Munchausen detained by the baron in Urga (today’s Ulaanbaatar), paints a vivid portrait of a soldier lost to mysticism, madness, and massacre, a warlord startlingly reminiscent of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. Ossendowski’s accuracy is as disputed as the role he came to play in Ungern’s entourage, and Palmer jeers that the Pole “was not always the most reliable of storytellers.” No, he was not; but — notwithstanding Palmer’s use of an impressive range of archival material — Ossendowski’s flawed, sometimes fantastical yarn remains a significant, and unavoidable, influence on this latest biography of a man who seemed to relish the speculation he provoked: “My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is the truth and what is false, what is history and what myth.” Naturally, the source for that quotation is Ossendowski.

There’s more than a trace of Ossendowski in Dmitri Alioshin’s Asian Odyssey (1940), a memoir by one of Ungern’s veterans, and another major (possibly even reasonably accurate) resource for Palmer. Typically for some of Ungern’s earlier chroniclers, little is known about Alioshin: We cannot even be sure that that was his real name. This lurid, frequently stomach-churning volume is also, if unintentionally, a revealing account of its author’s own moral disintegration: “A few days later we caught a Bolshevik commissar, a former army officer. We tied him to a pole and marched a detachment past him. Each man struck him as hard as he could in the face. He died in fifteen minutes. The next commissar we caught was beaten to death with a nagaika, a strong army whip which tears the flesh from the bones.”

Note the echo of Ungern’s obsessions. Note too that “we”: The once-idealistic officer was descending into barbarism, a process that ground on as the young Russian’s odyssey unfolded on its dreadful course. Tragically, his was a story not so different from that of many others swept into the maelstrom of an empire collapsing into revolution, ruin, and civil war of an atrocity that might have shocked even Hobbes. It’s also a story that helps us peer deeper into the abyss into which Ungern so ecstatically jumped.

But unlike Alioshin, Ungern did not have to fall so very far to leave civilization behind. The baron may have been the scion of one of those ancient German families that retained their hold over Russia’s Baltic provinces until almost the last days of the czars, but arguably the most important thing he inherited from his forebears was a streak of insanity. Violent, charmless, impulsive, and uncontrollable, the baron, as Palmer demonstrates, was from the beginning a Junker amok, noblesse with no hint of oblige. He made a nonsense of his education, and his career in the imperial army was a stop-go fiasco redeemed, and then only partly, by World War I.

It was the Bolshevik revolution that finally gave Ungern his chance to shine, if that’s the word. Within months of Lenin’s coup, the baron’s bravery, energy, and fanatical opposition to a new order that he believed to be literally demonic had allowed him to carve out a prominent role in the White forces ranged against the Red Army in Siberia’s Transbaikalia. Russia’s Calvary was Ungern’s opportunity. Like Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz in the Heart of Darkness on whichApocalypse Now was modeled, the baron had “immense plans”: He dreamt of building a great Asiatic empire as bulwark and spearhead against the revolutionaries (and anyone else) who “threaten[ed] the Divine Spirit” in mankind. And like Conrad’s Kurtz, Ungern appears to have been beguiled, emboldened, and inspired by the wilderness in which he found himself, far from home, far from convention, far from conscience.

Palmer deftly and briskly (this is not a long book) guides his readers through a conflict that raged throughout southeast Siberia and, ultimately, Mongolia. Given the remoteness of time and place, not to mention the bewildering range of characters, factions, and causes, Palmer’s success in telling this tale as clearly as he does is no small achievement. More than that, he brilliantly conveys a sense of the savagery, scope, and strangeness of this war, a war of telegraphy and sorcery, a war at the intersection of ancient and modern, of European and Asian, a war fought in a distant ghastly nowhere, a blood-drenched free-for-all where the most effective forces included huge armored trains, mounted cavalry, and lethal squads of Tibetan dobdobs, “monk-enforcers, their clothes lightly smeared with butter and their faces painted with soot to strike fear into the enemies of the faith.”

But of all the images that crowd this evocative book, there is none more haunting than one that Palmer borrows from Alioshin, a description of Ungern leading his troops during their final retreat: “[He] rode silently with bowed head in front of the column. [He] had lost his hat and most of his clothes. On his naked chest numerous Mongolian talismans and charms hung on a bright yellow cord. He looked like the reincarnation of a prehistoric ape-man. People were afraid to look at him.”

And so they should have been — but as much for what Ungern says about all of us as for what he might have done to them.