The story of Baron Ungern-Sternberg is a fascinating one: a Russian nobleman of Baltic German descent, who takes up the cause first of the Tsar, then the Bogd Khan of Mongolia during the years of the bloody Russian Civil War. Still in his early-thirties, Ungern-Sternberg led a troop (perhaps a ‘murder’ would be a better description, as in a ‘murder of crows’) of several thousand cavalrymen composed of Cossacks, Buryats (an ethnic Mongol tribe from Russia’s Far East), Manchurians, and Mongolian warriors that operated around Mongolia, northern Manchuria and the Trans-Baykal region of Russia. His army wreaked havoc across the region in the name of God, Buddha, and the royal families of Russia and China. Ungern-Sternberg was influenced by eastern mystics, theosophists, and Vajrayana Buddhism. But what stood out most about Ungern-Sternberg—an unabashed anti-Semite—was his acumen as a leader of light cavalry, and his utter cruelty to enemies and friends, alike.
I was excited to read the book after hearing that James Palmer has published this history, entitled The Bloody White Baron. I had read about Ungern-Sternberg in the late Peter Hopkirk’s wonderful history of Anglo-Russian competition for supremacy in Central Asia aptly called The Great Game.
The problem with trying to write a book length history of this enigmatic, savage man is that there is just not that much material. To be fair, Palmer admirably scours the U.S. National Archives, as well as those of Estonia (where Ungern-Sternberg was born), Mongolia, and Russia. But there is simply too little information and much of what does exist (including Soviet sources) is just not that reliable.
Palmer relates colorful descriptions of Ungern-Sternberg’s upbringing and his service for country and Tsar as a young officer in the Russo-Japanese War (where he first was exposed to eastern philosophy and religion) and during World War I. Palmer also delves in length on the wave of mystic learning that was popular at the time in aristocratic circles, and makes a convincing case that Ungern-Sternberg not only read widely such works, but was influenced by writings of those, such as the theosophist author Helena Blavatsky. Nevertheless, the work seems to wander as it describes these nouveau philosophies and the older Vajrayana Buddhism traditions, founded in northern India and widely popularized in Tibet. Ungern-Sternberg twisted these to meet his own agenda and engaged in an intensive campaign of violence against his own countrymen (Bolsheviks and Whites), Chinese, and even some Mongolians (although Ungern-Sternberg tried to stay in the good graces of his hosts, so he generally treated his Buryat and Mongol troops much better).
I would recommend Palmer’s work, only if you have an interest in the history of Mongolia or the Russian Civil War. Otherwise, it was not quite the page turner that I had hoped it would be.