Saturday, 1 February 2014

Men of Yore: Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is true and what is false, what is history, and what is myth.1 Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, 1921
In Mongolia, there was a legend of the warrior prince, Beltis-Van. Noted for his ferocity and cruelty, he spilled “floods of human blood before he found his death in the mountains of Uliasutay.”2 His slayers interred the corpses of the Prince and his followers deep in earth, covered the graves with heavy stones, and added “incantations and exorcism lest their spirits again break out, carrying death and destruction.” These measures, it was prophesied, would bind the terrible spirits until human blood once more fell upon the site.
In early 1921, so the story goes, “Russians came and committed murders nearby the dreadful tombs, staining them with blood.”3 To some, this explained what followed.
At almost the same instant, a new warlord appeared on the scene, and for the next six months he spread death and terror across the steppes and mountains of Mongolia and even into adjoining regions of Siberia. Among the Mongols he became known as the Tsagan Burkhan, the incarnate “God of War.”4
Later, the Dalai Lama XIII proclaimed him a manifestation of the “wrathful deity” Mahakala, defender of the Buddhist faith.5 Historically, the same individual is best known as the “Mad Baron” or the “Bloody Baron.” His detractors are not shy about calling him a murderous bandit or an outright psychopath.
The man in question is the Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg. His exploits can be only briefly sketched here. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Baron Ungern found himself in eastern Siberia where he aligned himself with the anti-Bolshevik “White” movement. However, his extreme monarchist sentiments and independent ways made him a loose cannon in that camp.
In 1920, he led his “Asiatic Mounted Division,” a rag-tag collection of Russian, Mongol, Tatar and other troops, into the wilds of Mongolia, a land seething with unrest against Chinese occupation. Rallying Mongols to his banner, in early February 1921 Ungern scored a seemingly miraculous victory by wresting control of the Mongol capital, Urga (today Ulan Bator), from a large Chinese garrison. He then restored the Mongols’ spiritual and temporal leader, the “Living Buddha” Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu Bogdo Gegen, or, more simply, Bodgo Khan and established himself as warlord over Outer Mongolia and the scattered White Russian detachments that had taken refuge there.
Surrounding himself with an inner circle of murderous sycophants and fortune-tellers, he instituted a reign of terror that claimed as victims Jews, real or suspected Reds, and hundreds of others who somehow aroused the Baron’s wrath or suspicion.6 In June of the same year, he launched an ill-fated invasion of Soviet Siberia which ended with his capture by the Red Army and his subsequent trial and execution on 17 September. 

Like Prince Vladimir of Wallachia (Vlad Tepes) Ungern-Sternberg was not just interested in 'war for wars sake' (though that may have been part of his characater), he was interested in improving the lives of the people whom he ruled over:
According to some eyewitnesses (his engineer and officer Kamil Gizycki, and adventurer and writer Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski, etc.), Ungern was the first to institute order in Urga; imposing street cleaning and sanitation, and promoting religious life and tolerance in the capital, and attempting to reform the economy.

Ungern-Sternbergs mystical side meant that he  used 'witchcraft' against his enemies.  Witchcraft is just an olden term that modern folk would call 'psychological warfare' (In modern parlance 'psy-ops'):
But if Ungern was influenced – and mislead – by the supernatural, he also knew how to use it to his advantage. Prior to his final attack on Urga, he dispatched fortune-tellers into the city where they “filled the Chinese soldiery with superstitious fear” by predicting his imminent arrival and spreading rumours that the White Baron was immune to bullets and could appear and disappear at will.32 He also ordered nightly bonfires set on the surrounding hills. His Mongol agents told the credulous Chinese that the fires were Ungern offering sacrifices to the spirits who would take their vengeance on the sons of China.
As we all know the establishment (media, government, education etc) likes to shine a positive light on some historical characters and a negative one on others, Ungern-Steinberg is one of those characters.  If he had fought for the release of black slaves, or Jews, or votes for women, or some other leftist cause then he would be portrayed in a positive light; but because he was a staunch Monarchist, he used warfare in a confident aggressive manner, and because he had strong religious/mystical feelings he is either ignored or portrayed negatively by the establishment, because the establishment currently opposes all of those things.



  1. Thank you very much for your treatment of Von Ungern-Sternberg.

    I have read conflicting reports of his personality and character. Like Tepes, he inspires envious admiration and moralizing disdain.

    We who lead over-civilized lives often fantasize about barbaric disruption of civilization. The contrast between violent fantasy versus the sober history of violence is important.

    It used to be common to read biographies of great men rather than fantasies about fictional men (e.g. Conan of Cimmeria). If I had the fortitude and time, I would respond to your "men of yore" by analyzing them in terms of Machiavelli. Sadly, I fear I am too slothful - at least at present - for such a Herculean effort.

  2. You're right that civilized people often have misconceptions about violence, perhaps because they have little contact with it, which causes them to misperceive it - either in a postive way as a fantasy, or a negative way as something mindblowingly terrifying). If they were exposed to it more frequently (even in a small way) then they might percieve it more accurately.

    I suppose that's why it makes it difficult for us civilised folk to give a fair account of historical figures like Ungern-Sternberg and Tepes, because we live in secure times relative to theirs. It's easy to point and yell 'uncivilized' or 'immoral' at someone who uses barbaric acts, while sitting safely in a house protected by police officers and soldiers. Try placing yourselves in their shoes and your perspective on what is 'uncivilized' changes a great deal.

    On a tangeant, the urban-born religion of Jainism also has a somewhat distorted view of nature (plants & animals), possibly because of the absence of nature from the city; in their case they over-value nature instead of under-valuing it. Not having contact with something often results in mis-perception.