Ninety-five years ago today, on March 13, 1921, a Russian warlord named Roman von Ungern-Sternberg became the dictator of the country of Mongolia, which was nominally ruled by its king the Bogd Khan. This event is just one of a long series of extremely complicated political maneuvers that occurred in Asia in the wake of the Chinese and Russian Revolutions and the First World War, and given the convoluted history of that part of the world in the early 1920s one is tempted to just skim past it as another hopelessly arcane bit of intrigue in a very chaotic era. But there’s something about Roman von Ungern-Sternberg–known more popularly as Baron Ungern–that stands out even on perfunctory examination of this event. Though virtually no one has heard of him today, he’s got to be one of the most bizarre and colorful would-be rulers of the 20th century.
Baron Ungern’s life is as complex as the story of his rise to (very brief) power. Though known as a Russian general, he was actually born in Austria, and his family moved to Estonia, then in the Tsarist Russian empire, in the late 1880s. His military career began when he joined a Russian military school in St. Petersburg in 1906. There he rose through the ranks, eventually serving at the front in Russia’s disastrous participation in the First World War. But Ungern’s sympathies and interests always seemed to lay to the east. He was fascinated with the history and culture of the Mongols of Central Asia and their awesome empire that reached its height in the 13th century. He was always trying to arrange transfers to the Russian Far East, and sympathized with the Mongolians who were then fighting for their independence from the Chinese.
Rather a fierce-looking fellow, wasn’t he? Who should play Baron Ungern in the movie? Thirty years ago Sam Elliott or Kris Kristofferson could have done it.
In 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and a provisional government installed in St. Petersburg; a few months later that government was itself overthrown by the Bolsheviks, which began the Soviet period of Russian history. Baron Ungern’s reaction was rather extreme. He pledged allegiance to the deposed Romanovs and vowed to fight the Bolsheviks whenever and however possible, but he specifically avoided joining what became the White movement, the anti-Bolshevik uprising that seized Russia in the years following the Revolution. Ungern and another anti-Bolshevik colleague, Semyonov, waged their own rogue war against the Reds in the Far East, being financed mostly with Japanese money. Now a romantic warlord in his own right with a war to fight and (as he saw it) a country to win, Ungern was able to act out his fantasies of being a Mongol chieftain. Many of his troops were Mongolians scavenged from the steppes of Central Asia, and his style of warfare was similar to the brutal nomadic raiding and horseback cavalry style of the great Genghis Khan. In the early 1920s, on the steppes of eastern Russia, it was as if the 13th century had returned.
Of course, Ungern had a few unorthodox ideas. He was fascinated with mystical Buddhism and pursued a personal and political philosophy that was a bizarre pastiche of historical, religious and political ideas, most from the distant past, few of which were internally consistent and virtually none of which were common in Russian society. In an era when monarchies in Europe and Asia were crumbling, Ungern was one of the last believers in the absolute divine right of kings, insisting it was the great bulwark of civilization against the heresies of democracy and Bolshevism. He also evidently began to believe that he was personally the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. Because, of course! You don’t get to be a neo-Mongol warlord in the 20th century without channeling Genghis Khan, right?
During his brief reign, some Mongolians believed Ungern to be the avatar of the ancient god of war known as “Jamsaran” (Tibetan equivalent: Begtse), symbolized by this mask. Jamsaran is actually a female god.
Ungern finally achieved his goal of power over Mongolia–but only briefly. After a long and complicated series of wars against various Chinese and Russian armies, he restored the Bogd Khan to the throne of Mongolia on February 22, 1921, but he was just a figurehead ruler. Ungern held power from March 13 until August 20. His short reign was pretty brutal. Ungern hated Jews and had what few Jews he could find in Mongolia rounded up and executed. He annoyed various other Asian rulers with his belligerent attitudes, although some people in Mongolia appreciated the reforms he tried to make such as instituting modern sanitation in Mongolia’s cities. His hold on power was slender, however, as he was caught between the Bolsheviks, seeking to consolidate their power over all of Russia, the Chinese, who wanted Mongolia back, and the Mongolians themselves, who were in the midst of a Marxist-inspired revolution that was ultimately supported by the Bolsheviks who hoped to make Mongolia a satellite state.
Ungern’s number was up when the Reds counterattacked in summer 1921. As it turned out he wasn’t as brilliant a military commander as Genghis Khan. An ill-advised foray across the Russian border sapped Ungern’s forces, and under the pressure of another Bolshevik attack a revolt by his own men ultimately caused the collapse of his fragile dictatorship. The “Mad Baron” was captured by Soviet forces, interrogated, given the courtesy of a trial that lasted all of six hours, and then faced a firing squad on September 15, 1921. Eventually the Communist elements of Mongolian society prevailed, completing the Mongolian Revolution that had begun in 1911.
The Bogd Khan was a Buddhist monk and the official king of Mongolia from 1911. He was deposed by Chinese troops in 1919, put back on the throne by Baron Ungern, and then remained a figurehead until his death in 1924.
Roman von Ungern-Sternberg presents a story of intrigue and adventure so bizarre and over-the-top that one wonders if he was real, or dreamed up by some pulp novelist. Indeed I think his story would make a fascinating movie. He’s an unusual figure for his beliefs and his audacity, but historically he reflects much of the turmoil that convulsed Russia and Asia in the wild first decades of the 20th century. Neither the Russian nor the Chinese Revolution happened in a vacuum, and indeed their currents of history collided much more often than one might think. Baron Ungern was at the forefront of that collision. Genghis Khan he wasn’t, but he made his own name in history, odd though it was.