Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Mad Baron: Savior of Mongolia

It was 90 years ago today that a Bolshevik firing squad dispatched from this mortal coil Lt. General Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg and I had planned to post, for your viewing pleasure, an old Russian movie about the Baron (from the Soviet era so needless to say it was a rather negative portrayal) but, whoever put it on YouTube must not have had all their ducks in a row as it has since been removed. So, I shall instead address a pertinent topic concerning the impact of the mad monarchist of Mongolia on the current state of affairs in the far northeast. I don’t think I have mentioned it here before, but I have elsewhere, that I have a very low opinion of the fairly recent work by James Palmer titled, “The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became The Last Khan of Mongolia”. The title itself is rather misleading but, given how little coverage there is of the Baron, I had eagerly awaited the release of the book and was immensely disappointed with the result.

When you boil it down there was not actually a great deal of information about the Baron in the book, and certainly nothing new of any substance. Many pages were taken up detailing information about various related topics, interesting to some I am sure, but not dealing with the subject matter. What did was often vague, always negative, and most annoyingly inconsistent in regard to sources. For example, Mr. Palmer would quote one source to provide something outlandish the Baron had said yet, when that same source spoke positively of the Baron, would then discount it as an unreliable source! However, this overall very negative portrayal of the Baron did lean toward giving him grudging credit for at least one thing, and that is one thing I agree with the book on and I would call it nothing to shrug off when evaluating the lasting legacy of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg on present-day Mongolia. That is the basic fact that there would most likely not be a Mongolia at all today where it not for the actions of the Baron in 1921.

To understand that legacy, a little historical review is in order. Prior to 1912 Mongolia had been part of the Great Qing Empire, in fact it had been even before China proper was under the rule of the Manchu Emperor. However, when the last Emperor was obliged to abdicate and the Republic of China was declared, the Bogd Khan (like the Dalai Lama of Tibet) basically said that ‘all bets are off’ and declared independence. However, the Republic of China was not willing to let Mongolia go and in due time Mongolia was occupied by Chinese republican troops who dethroned the Bogd Khan and placed him under house arrest. That situation endured until the arrival of the Baron and his army when he defeated the Chinese, drove them out of Mongolia and restored the Bogd Khan to his throne. One must also keep in mind that, although Mongolia had been an associated state of Imperial China, it had also been in the Russian sphere of influence at a time when all of China outside the region around Peking was part of the sphere of influence of Britain, France, Japan, Germany or Russia. So, the Russians had long had an interest in the region and the Mongol authorities had tried to keep on good terms with both Moscow and Peking.

Mongolian independence was, obviously, the ideal goal of the Bogd Khan and most Mongols, however, once the Baron drove out the Chinese it was the Russians who came to dominate the country. The Baron and his White Russian forces always recognized the authority of the Bogd Khan but the local communist revolutionaries were solidly in the Soviet camp and once the Baron was defeated Mongolia became the first Soviet satellite state in the world -with horrific consequences. In fact, Mongolia was often known as the “16th Soviet Republic”. However, as horrific and blood-soaked as the communist regime of the Soviet puppet Choibalsan was, one must consider the alternative. That alternative was, of course, China, first under the nationalists and later under the Chinese Communist Party. It is truly sad how Mongol culture, history, religion, even the written language, was suppressed and all but annihilated by the pro-Soviet dictatorship but what would the consequences have been if the Baron had not driven out the Chinese to open the door to Russia?

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the Republic of China would have been succeeded by the People’s Republic of China and, while the Soviet Union did finally collapse and allow Mongolia to start restoring what had been lost, the PRC is still going strong today. If the Baron and his pan-monarchist forces had not driven out the Chinese, Outer Mongolia would still be a part of China today and would look a lot like Inner Mongolia or, in an even clearer example, the former Kingdom of Tibet. The Mongols would be reduced to the status of a minority in their own country, their culture would be preserved only in museums and their religion would still be suppressed (as we have talked about before the Red Chinese were extremely upset when the Dalai Lama came to Mongolia to formally enthrone the reincarnation of the last Bogd Khan). In short, as bad as their association with Soviet Russia was it did ultimately prove to be only temporary whereas had the Baron not driven out the Chinese when he did, they probably never would have been dislodged and Mongolia would be in a much worse position today with the Mongol people swamped by Chinese immigrants to the point that they disappear as the Manchurians have and as the Tibetans are set to.

Baron Ungern von Sternberg was naturally portrayed as the blackest of villains in Mongolia during the communist era and his image is still not a positive one (aided no doubt by the fact that the old communist party has still remained in power for the most part since the country became a democracy). Some do regard him well and so they should. Not everyone will approve of his methods certainly or even his goals but the fact remains that were it not for the intervention of the Baron and his White Russian and multi-national army there would effectively be no Mongolia at all today.


  1. The Baron is one of those most interesting men that for reasons of brevity, are left out of the historical narrative. I've often thought of naming my dog after him, when I get it. What do you think, a large black poodle named Baron von Ungern-Sternberg?

  2. If you do, I don't need to hear about it. I mean no offense -this is entirely a matter of taste and there is no accounting for it- but I can't stand poodles! Big, small, black, white, for some reason I've just never been able to abide them. I hope yours thrives but for poodles. (shudder)

  3. Haha. I actually consider them to be quite noble animals. Maybe it is because I am French.

  4. For example, Mr. Palmer would quote one source to provide something outlandish the Baron had said yet, when that same source spoke positively of the Baron, would then discount it as an unreliable source!

    Reminds me of the eejits who use medieval sources to portray Middle Ages as evil or Saints as fanatical but discount same sources whenever there is a miracle or sth good about the Middle Ages ...


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