Warning! Today we talk of a monster, doing monstrous things amidst a crumbling empire.
Today’s tale begins in the Mongolian city of Urga – 1st February 1921. The city, home to Mongolia’s spiritual leader, the Bogd Khan; around 60,000 locals, traders, diplomats – and a private army of Chinese invaders from a little over a year before – has been on tenterhooks for months.
I really need to step back a little and explain those Chinese first… don’t I?
Mongolia was in a precarious way – to say the least. For well over a century, the former home of Genghis Khan was a vassal state to one or other of her more powerful neighbours – Russia and China. The failure of China in 1911 – Emperor Puyi deposed, their government giving way to several quarrelling warlords –
And Russia in 1917 – the Romanovs deposed by a democratic regime in vitro, but soon thrown into a civil war on Comrade Lenin’s return –
Left Mongolia free to hew their own path. They did so for a while, till it became clear no-one in power knew how to run an economy. Mongolia turned to China for help.
This put them under China’s orbit again … but it doesn’t quite explain their current situation. Two Chinese warlords, Xu Shuzheng and Duan Qirui were two of many to build their own army after the Emperor fell. In the First World War, Xu and Duan were allowed to keep their army – under the auspices of helping Britain and France. When someone needed someone to risk their lives and dig a trench near enemy lines, Xu and Duan’s army obliged. This was their main role in the war.
With the war over; their real plan – to seize a chunk of China for themselves, as Zhang Zuolin, the self appointed ‘King of the North-East’ had done – became too nakedly obvious. Xu and Duan were suddenly scrambling for an excuse to keep their militia.
Self rebranded the Bureau of Frontier Defence, they took to ‘monitoring’ the border with Mongolia. On October 23 1919, Duan and Xu rolled across the border with ten thousand troops in tow. They kidnapped the Bogd Khan, and posted armed guards everywhere. Through gunboat diplomacy they convinced the leadership it was in Mongolia’s best interests to put them in charge. Mongolia was now run from Maimaichen, the, now heavily fortified, Chinese enclave of Urga. Their new kings, two Chinese warlords who dared to dream big.
Xu and Duan might have remained in power for some time, but for the arrival of another army, in October 1920.
Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was an ousted White Army General, who travelled to Urga to avoid a certain death. Like China, Russia had imploded. A vicious civil war which took up to nine million lives was still raging. Tens of thousands of soldiers of late fighting alongside one another, now bifurcated into the Communist Reds, and Royalist Whites. As a Russian cavalry officer, Ungern had fought with distinction on the Eastern Front – he was an untouchable killing machine at a section of the front which saw a 300% loss of life a year – before being jailed for violence against another officer while on leave. Needing dangerous men on the battlefield more than violent offenders in jail cells, Ungern was released and ultimately sent to the border towns of Siberia- to the wild and lawless places. His mission, to collect whatever Cossacks, Buryat, Mongolians, Tatars, Kipchaks and various other really tough guys he could find on the steppes – and build an army. So he did, and when things fell apart they, ultimately became HIS army.
For some time, Ungern ran a Fiefdom in the Dauria region – on the border of Siberia and Mongolia. He ruled with an iron fist, shaking down passing travellers, punishing wayward locals, and destroying any Reds who encroached onto his patch.
Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was soon famous across the nation for his cruelty, fearlessness, and extreme violence. If one spoke of ‘the bloody White Baron, everyone knew who they were talking about.
He was also a well known zealot, though the nature of his zealotry was complex, and totally self serving. For Ungern, the divine right of kings was everything. One does not unseat a monarch without facing the wrath of God – as a minor aristocrat whose ancestors were employed as enforcers in Estonia, this scans. Beneath that sat an unschooled religious underpinning- part Christianity, part Mongolian Buddhism – acquired either from his wandering in the nineteen-teens, or via an eccentric uncle who was a fervent spiritualist. Ungern saw himself as the latest in a long line of ancestors – crusaders, Teutonic Knights and Baltic pirates; who did well for themselves through violence, most often for a monarch.
Also of note, he was a vile anti-Semite whose army flew a swastika flag before the Nazis even adopted that symbol.
In Russia, as the Whites crumbled before the Reds, and it looked like Dauria would soon be overrun – Ungern wrote to the Bogd Khan asking permission to enter Mongolia. The captive Khan welcomed him, hoping the Buddhist warlord might rid his nation of their captors.
Back to February 1921. This wouldn’t be Xu and Duan’s first rodeo with Ungern. In October 1920, an exhausted Ungern, newly arrived, led his ragtag bunch in an attack on Maimaichen. The Chinese repelled them, but were horrified at their ferocity. Led by a tall, sinewy, wraith-like figure – horrifically scarred, and with shark-like eyes – this group moved swiftly – killing without a moment’s thought. Ungern particularly, in his blood red Mongolian silk jacket, made for an easy target – but it appeared bullets wouldn’t even touch him. After several suicidal charges, they left the defenders shaken – some wondering if they weren’t facing off against some supernatural force.
Ungern’s Army set up camp near the Kherlen river – living in tents as a 40 below zero winter set in. For months, Xu and Duan’s army looked up to the hills at night. Eerie signal fires lit every single night for one purpose – to remind them what was coming. This gnawed at them, till they took their frustrations out on the non-Chinese residents. Xu’s Army looted homes. They beat locals. One day they executed 50 Mongolian holy men. The other residents of Urga started looking up to the signal fires hopefully, this new army can’t be worse than the current lot?
Then, one night in February ….
Ungern had personally reconnoitred Maimaichen a month earlier – legend has it killing three guards on his way out with nothing more than a bamboo cane. This time they were well rested, and were coming at the city with a clear plan.
The hills lit up as if several thousand soldiers were carrying torches towards them. This was a distraction, and a massive overstatement of their numbers. Meanwhile, 500 men crept up to the edge of the city – and waited for the artillery to be moved into position. A panicked group of sentries spotted them, and fired upon them with machine guns. As bullets mostly whizzed just above their heads, Ungern’s Army broke into two flanks. One returned fire, while the other advanced, and vice versa.
They soon breached the Chinese defences and overran the town. In the clamour, the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo broke from their enclosures – stampeding wild animals adding to the chaos. The Bogd’s prize elephant would be found 100 miles away, days later. As Ungern’s Army swept Xu’s Army back; a contingent of Tibetan monks – lent Ungern by the Dalai Llama, stormed the Bogd Khan’s compound. Within minutes – fighting with swords and bows – these commando monks butchered most of the 150 jailers, and carried the Bogd Khan to safety.
As the sun rose, what was left of Xu’s Army took whatever vehicles they could, and fled Urga. Some were picked off by the men in the hills. A Pocket of resistance, who fled to the Russian quarter, fought against Ungern’s sabre wielding army with knives and meat cleavers. They were cut to shreds.
Now, if the people of Urga were rooting for these newcomers, and hoping for freedom – for many the celebrations would be short lived. Ungern’s Army swept the city, murdering anyone they suspected of working for Xu. While they were at it, they killed any Russian immigrants with even tenuous links to the Reds. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the new regime was put to death. Hangings were commonplace. The town market was turned into a giant bonfire – one poor boy was roasted alive in a baker’s oven.
Ungern then, true to form, ordered a pogrom on the Jews of Urga. Only then did he turn his attentions to finding what was left of General Xu’s army, and ridding all of Mongolia of their presence.
Inexplicably, the people of Urga – surrounded by evidence Ungern was a monster – welcomed him as a saviour figure, and a living god of war. On 22nd February 1921, in an ostentatious parade he reinstated the Bogd Khan as king – though he was now a puppet for Ungern himself. Ungern’s army reopened workplaces and public facilities. He had the city streets swept clean, till Urga shone. He instituted law and order in the city – even if punishment was cruel and unusual – lawbreakers being forced to perch on a roof top for weeks on end, or go out, naked and unarmed into the wild – where on at least one occasion the guilty parties were eaten by wolves. He floated a new currency, ‘Barons’ – currency tied to the Mexican peso with sheep, cows and camels on the notes. Urga, at ease, declared Ungern the reincarnation of the fifth Bogd Gegen- putting him on the same pedestal as the Bogd Khan himself.
Had he remained a relatively benevolent dictator, this Tale may have ended differently. It doesn’t. Like all megalomaniacs Ungern had dreams of ruling the world. In his case, he dreamt of reinstating all the cruel and feckless kings deposed in, and prior to the Great War. He planned to do this by rallying tens of thousands of like minds into a grand army, which would sweep Asia, then Russia – where he still hoped to reinstate Nicholas II’s brother Michael to the throne. From there they would invade the democratic nations of Europe. Behind this network of monarchs he imagined himself, the all powerful puppet master. Ungern sent out correspondence to a number of like minded warlords throughout the region.
This period of relative quiet also allowed Ungern time to get paranoid, and look for trouble where there was none. He established the ‘Bureau of Political Intelligence’ to purge Mongolia of dissidents, under the direction of the sexually sadistic Colonel Sipailov. Sipailov’s end game the sexual gratification he got out of torturing people to death, but also to go after the wealth of his victims. He deliberately targeted somewhere between 250 and 300 of Mongolia’s wealthiest citizens. His witch hunt led to an exodus of wealthy Mongolians, which in turn plunged the nation into an economic depression.
In mid 1921 the Red Army sent thousands of troops to Dauria, for a planned invasion of Mongolia. The Reds had offered the Chinese help when Ungern showed up in Mongolia in October 1920, but China were pretty sure then could handle them. At the time the Red Army had enough on their plate anyway- but the dust was starting to settle for them, and they could afford to spare the soldiers. At the same time Ungern was planning an invasion of Dauria. He consulted two fortune tellers – one of whom told him he had 130 days left to live, the other ‘130 steps’. Under the weight of the augurers, but convinced he was a supernatural force himself – Ungern prepared his army for the invasion.
On June 1st Ungern’s army crossed the border, and faced off against the Fifth Red army, 35th Division at the town of Kiatkha. Commanded by the Latvian Konstantin Neumann, the 35th division were also battle-hardened tough guys. they were also far better equipped than Ungern’s Army, and outnumbered them two to one. The two forces skirmished till they met in full force. June 11th, in the forest outside the town. Neumann destroyed Ungern’s army. Ungern abandoned the artillery and fled for the Mongolian border. The Reds invaded Mongolia June 28th, capturing Urga, leaving Ungern rudderless. The Bogd Khan welcomed the Reds as liberators – something he’d regret as they too, it turned out were sadistic murderers.
Meanwhile Ungern marched eastwards with the remains of his army – through mountains, and snake filled swamps. He had convinced himself if he could get to the city of Verkhne-Udinsk, the White army and the Japanese would be waiting for him. As Ungern came across villages, the increasingly paranoid general ordered the villages looted – the people murdered. He couldn’t chance them being Communist spies. Subsequently they came across deserted village after deserted village. Word preceded him of people crammed into sheds, then set afire. On 31st July Ungern’s army clashed with the Red Army 7th Special detachment in one village. They won this battle, and massacred all the prisoners.
When Ungern’s army got to Verkhne-Udinsk, the place was swarming with Red soldiers. On 4th August he fled back into Mongolia – Reds in pursuit. Only 500 of Ungern’s army survived this clash.
Ungern’s Army had had enough. They wanted to leave for Manchuria, in the North of China. Manchu warlords were always on the lookout for battle-hardened mercenaries. Ungern insisted they cross the Gobi desert for Tibet. He still believed he could build a Pan-Asiatic army, and defeat the Reds. His men caved to his demands – but quietly plotted to murder him.
A few days later, Ungern was leaving the fortune tellers tent, when the conspirators opened fire. Ungern hit the deck and crawled to safety. Keeping low, he scrambled to his horse and rode off into the hills. Several conspirators, now terrified he’d return, packed up and ran in the other direction – Straight into a division of Red soldiers.
Ungern returned that evening, ordering his army to up sticks and follow him across the Gobi. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he waved his pistol at the men. Ungern’s army refused to go. Ungern mounted his horse and left.
He returned days later, speaking only to the Mongolians. As their living God of War and Bogd Gegen reincarnate, he ordered them to follow him. A Mongolian officer wrestled him to the ground, and had Ungern hogtied. He was left, bound, in an abandoned luggage train. Ungern’s Army dispersed – most going on to find work for one Chinese Warlord or another. The Red army found Ungern on 17th August, still in the train. As Russian newspapers filled with reports the dangerous outlaw had been captured: his army disbanded – Ungern was brought in for a show trial in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. After a summation of his war crimes – an unsanctioned invasion of a sovereign nation, several thousand acts of murder in often the most grotesque ways, the persecution of minorities and the execution of prisoners of war – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was executed by firing squad, 15th September 1921.
In truth the Bloody White Baron was not completely atypical of the time and place – in the chaos of the Russian Civil War, other monsters carried out monstrous acts – but this is not, exactly what I mean. His parallels with other despots, fascist or otherwise, make him interesting – yet far too common. Monsters like Ungern are often outsiders – sometimes wealthy but bona fide oddballs to polite society all the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler, Napoleon or Ungern they are geographically on the edges of an empire. Their otherness lends them an air of authority to those who feel dispossessed, or left behind by a changing world. They’re often armed with a worldview well beyond the pail – laced with arcane spirituality, or dangerous conspiracy theories.
They ALWAYS speak of a lost golden age which never really existed – and have a simple plan to get back there. ‘We’ll make Mongolia Great Again’. ‘Believe me folks, we’ll win so much, you’ll soon be tired of winning’. You get the picture.
Wary of science and the modern, the Ungerns live in a post truth bubble. Truth always bends to their will – till one day it doesn’t. Always with that other, other in their back pocket to scapegoat. People will happily oblige – believing their violence is directed at those making their lives somehow less Great.
Always beware the Baron von Ungerns, and their death cults folks – those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.