Monday, November 2, 2009
Mongolian Helter Skelter
Everybody says Russia is a unique for a European power in that it is also an Asiatic or Eastern country. External and internal commentators claimed this to be true, and yet few books about modern Russia have very much to say about the Far East. James Palmer’s book, the Bloody White Baron: the Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, helps to redress the balance.
Although the subject of this biography was an ethnic German from the Baltic provinces in the far western fringe of the Russian Empire, this book follows his notorious career in Russia’s Far East during the Russian Civil War. The Baron Ungern-Sternberg epitomizes the bizarre nature of the Russian situation. He hailed from an ethnically German family that had served the Romanov tsars loyally for generations. He fought Germany heroically, with complete disregard for his personal safety, during World War I. To say that his temperament was a product of a bipolar disorder seems a gross understatement. Reading the book, one can only think of Charlie Manson by way of comparison.
The Baron was charismatic if not mesmerizing and completely unfit for anything outside of war. He was, according to Palmer, a brave and brilliant military leader, but one who was not suited to high rank by virtue of his unorthodox disposition. His true niche was as a guerrilla leader or ruthless bandit. The Baron fought well in the First World War, but truly came into his own in the chaotic and desperate circumstances of the Civil War, where unorganized groups of irregular soldiers clashed with local populations and each other with ideological fanaticism and often resembled bloodthirsty criminals as much as they did legitimate combatants.
Ungern-Sternberg’s participation in the Civil War highlights some of the reasons the Whites lost. His military force was only nominally allied to other White forces that were resisting the Communists. Moreover, the Baron was so brutal to local populations that the Communists could increasingly rely on the assistance of anyone who had dealt with his murderous regime, unless they were so terrorized that they refused to risk his displeasure. Strangely, the Baron was a Buddhist with deep strains of mysticism, anti-Semitism, and occult belief—as well as an inclination to adapt to Mongolian language and culture.
Palmer notes that the Baron’s Buddhism was more compatible with violence than one might think. For in Mongolia—where the Baron eventually retreated to set himself up as the protector of the Mongolian strand of Buddhism (an offshoot of the Tibetan variety)—Buddhism is intertwined with a host of fearsome deities and forbidding holy sites. The Baron’s forces were eventually overrun. Communism triumphed in the West and then slowly eradicated all resistance further east, especially after the Japanese and other allies had stopped protecting White clients. But before the Bolsheviks triumphed, the Baron killed and tortured local populations, visitors, and many of his own men. Palmer’s epitaph is a sad one.
Despite the final defeat of the insane Baron-- who succumbed to his own troops only after evincing superhuman energy and diabolical cruelty to his own followers--the Communists eventually proved almost as destructive to Mongolia, although in a less frenzied and capricious way. The Communists went to war with Buddhist religious culture, which under girded almost every aspect of the Mongolian way of life, and killed many priests and anybody else who even allegedly collaborated with the Baron, including whole tribes of people. They also destroyed the vast majority of Buddhist temples, exported or melted down most Mongolian art, Mongolia was Stalin’s first client state, and suffered for it.