Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

I imagine that he would like to be remembered riding through a horde of terrified revolutionary soldiers, scything them down with his sabre as bullets whizzed around him, passing through his cloak, but never so much as scraping him; the warrior-king of Mongolia, receiving reports, tribute and prisoners, like his hero Genghis Khan, in a hastily pitched campaign tent. My chief image of him, though, is less heroic; I picture him on the steps of a temple, hearing- and believing- that he has only a hundred and thirty days left to live, his mutilate face contorted by terror.

This book tells the story of Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sterberg, the last Khan of Mongolia, who in one short year rose from being a Russian Nobleman to incarnate God of War and returned Khan. In Mongolia he was lauded as a hero, feared as a demon and, briefly, worshiped as a god.

In late 1920 a White Russian baron and cavalry major-general, thin, intense and hideously scarred, cut his way into Mongolia, defeated the Chinese occupiers, took over the country, ruled it breify and brutally, and raised a Mongolian army to lead back against Russia.

It could have been just another bloody episode in the long horror of the Russian Civil War, but what made it unusual was the sheer oddness of Ungern-Sternberg. Most of the Russian leaders, whether Bolshevik Reds or their opponents the Whites, were a vicious bunch who were not averse to the slaughter of a few thousand citizens, the Reds in the name of the people, the Whites in the name of the tsar, but none of the others did it in the name of the Buddha..

It was an almost unbelievable story. One of his chief war aims was to free the Bogd Khan, the huge, blind Living Buddha who had been imprisoned by the Chinese, so that he could act as a rallying point for his crusade. Like all good conquerors, he was rumored to have left a hidden treasure behind him, plundered from monasteries and buried somewhere on the steppe. Ungern-Sternberg did not seem to belong to a century of tanks and telephones but to an earlier, cruder age. Like his Baltic forefathers, he was a lost crusader, a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter. His hatred was focused, though: Jews and Bolsheviks were killed by his troops onslaught, presaging a later, greater evil...

There seemed to have been more to his leadership than sheer despotic terror. He was undoubtedly popular among his Mongolian troops. who fought for him with a fury which appeared to some European observers to be close to devil-worship. Everything about the story, when I first encountered it, seemed uncertain, even Ungern's appearance, tall in some sources, short in others, gray-eyed, green-eyed, blue-eyed- nobody was able to pin him down. In one account he came across as a detached fanatic, willing to muse on philosophy and history, in another as a sadist and butcher, hands steeped in blood. Stories about him were a morass of rumor, myth and supposition. His personal beliefs were murky; his Buddhism might have been inherited from an equally eccentric grandfather, or the result of a personal conversion during his early years in Mongolia, and he seemed happy to use the most respectable, if mystical and apocalyptic, language of Russian Orthodoxy at points, despite his family being Lutheran. The changes in his appearance suggest an atavistic religious progress. In one of the few surviving photographs he appears in Russian army uniform, neatly groomed, but with an intense, monastic appearance, like an Orthodox mountain hermit, but near the end of his campaign he rode bare-chested, "like a Neanderthal', hung with bones and chains, his beard sprouting in all directions and his chest smeared with dirt. He had gone from monk to shaman in a few years.

1 comment:

  1. The Bloody White Baron; The Extraordinary Story of A Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia" by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2009.

    There are some interesting discussions about Buddhism in this book, specifically the distinctions between Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, the later two being more heavily influenced by more primitive forms of shamanistic beliefs. The author also discusses the influence of Theosophism in many parts of Europe during the 19th an early 20th centuries.

    "Theosophy was a kind of stripped-down and generalized version of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Its most critical beliefs were re-incarnation, the fundamental unity of world religions, the existence of karma and the cyclical nature of the universe. Today Theosophy survives largely through the diligent work and wills of sweet little old ladies, but its wider influence is obvious to anybody familiar with alternative religious beliefs, particularly during the so-called "New Age" of the 1980s.

    Crankish though its beliefs were, Blavatasky's society drew to it many talented and likeable individuals, and was a major influence on many artists and poets. It was especially popular in Russia, where it had tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of followers, mostly from the upper classes. Among the Russian and German aristocracy, belief in clairvoyance, poltergeists, telapathy, spritualism, astrology and the like were as common as belief in homeopathy among the English middle classes today."

    "Today, an interest in both Eastern religion and the occult tends to be associated with a broad range of 'alternative' thought, and in general with radical, or at least mildly left-wing, politics. This was certainly not the case in Ungern's time. Although plenty of radicals and socialists could be found in occult circles, at least as many occultists were reactionaries or fervent nationalists. One reason was the innate elitism of occultism.

    George Orwell, considering the advertisements for astrologers in a French fascist magazine, brilliantly noted how 'the very concept of occultism carries with it the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limitd to a small circle of initiates...Those who dread the prospect of universal sufferage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret cults." ["Y.B. Yeats", Horizon,, London, 1943] The high intensity of Russian patriotism and Orthodox mysticism, especially in the near-deification of the tsar, easily bleed over into the stranger fringes of belief."

    James Palmer has traveled extensively in East and Central Asia, and in 20003 he won the 'Spectator's" Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. He has worked with Taoist and Buddhist groups in China and Mongolia on environmental issues. He lives in Beijing.