“Black Baron” is the title that historiography offered to Roman Fёdorovich Ungern von Sternberg (in Russian Роман Фёдорович Унгерн фон Штернберг), also known as Ungern Khan, who was born in Graz in January 1886 and died in Novonikolajevsk (now Novosibisrk) in September 1921. He was a Russian military of Baltic-German origins. He initially used to be a lieutenant general of the Russian imperial army and later one of the most charismatic leaders of the white troops during the Russian Civil War. During his fight against Bolsheviks in Siberia and the Far East, he tried to create a monarchic Lamaist independent State in Mongolia and in the territories east of Lake Baikal.
Ungern von Sternberg was born in Graz, Austria, from a family of Baltic Germans. He was raised in Tallinn (the old city of Reval in German), the capital of Estonia, that was then part of the Russian Empire. After attending the military school of Pavlovsk at Saint Petersburg and after graduating in 1908, he was stationed in Siberia, where he was fascinated by the lifestyle of the nomadic tribes of the Mongols and the Buryats. He participated to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, beginning to raise a strong interest for Asian culture and civilization. During the First World War, joining a Cossack regiment, Ungern von Sternberg fought in Polish Galicia, where he earned a reputation as brave officer although, at the same time, his superior officers and comrades started to depict him as a dangerous fighter, distinguished by a reckless and unstable behavior. Thanks to his heroic deeds, he was decorated with the St. George’s Cross. His commander, General Wrangel, affirmed he was the type of soldier who was invaluable in wartime, but impossible to deal with in peacetime. After the February Revolution of 1917, he was sent by the Russian Provisional Government into the Russian Far East, under the command of Grigori Semёnov. After the Bolshevik October Revolution, Semёnov and Ungern von Sternberg decided to resist the advance of the Red Army: his hatred of Bolshevism and all it stood for knew no bounds. The noble Estonian began his fight against the reds, commanding white pro-tsarist units during the long and gruesome Russian civil war, and in the following months was noted for the cruelties that he perpetrated against the Jewish-communist foe, earning among the Bolsheviks the epithet of "Bloody Baron". Due to his eccentric behavior, he was soon known among his enemies as the "Mad Baron." Though fighting against the Bolsheviks, both Ungern Sternberg and Semёnov never recognized the authority of Admiral Aleksandr Vasilevich Kolchak, the commander of the white troops. On the contrary, they found a foreign support in the Japanese, who supplied them with weapons and money. Indeed, it was the intention of Japan to create a puppet state led by Semёnov in the Russian Far East, which would follow the name of State of the Transbaikal Cossacks. Precisely for this reason, the commanders of the white troops, who fostered the idea of a strong and indivisible Russia, considered Semёnov a traitor.
|Ungern von Sternberg|
Eventually, Ungern Sternberg forged a proper army, known as the Asian cavalry division, which included a multiethnic contingent: Russians, Cossacks, Tatars, Buryats, Yakuts, Tibetans, Mongols, Japanese and even Chinese joined in the military detachment, which attacked ruthlessly all opponents, primarily Bolsheviks and Chinese.
Hence, during the civil war, whereas Admiral Kolchak had placed his headquarters in Central Siberia, Semёnov and Ungern Sternberg were operating in the eastern front, precisely in the Transbaikal region: their strategic position allowed them to control all the communication lines travelling westward from Vladivostok to the Urals through the Trans-Siberian railway.
In 1920, Ungern Sternberg decided to emancipate from Semёnov, gaining full command over his contingent. Convinced that monarchy was the only political system able to save the Western world from its liberal and communist corruption, he began to think of being able to restore the Qing dynasty on the throne of China and put all of the Far East under her control. Moreover, he started to depict the idea of restoring a pan-Asian monarchy, including Mongolia, Tibet, China and Siberia upon which he would rule as an absolute sovereign, a worthy descendent of Genghis Khan, whose swastika ring he always wore on his finger. Despite not being a Christian, but a Buddhist, he still believed that the Russian tsarism was to be restored under the authority of the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, brother of Nicholas II. The new pan-Mongol State should have launched a holy war against Bolshevism, restoring pure and sacred values in the doomed West and reintroducing the idea of monarchism. Indeed, he was a staunch anti-Semitic and considered the necessity to slaughter mercilessly all the Jews and the Bolshevik communist commissars: he methodically punished his opponents by hanging, mutilating and chopping them. This mass murderer used the most brutal methods both to maintain the order in his military division and to annihilate what he considered the Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik scum.
|The Bogdo Khan|
In 1919, Chinese republican forces occupied Mongolia. Accordingly, in 1921, Ungern Sternberg decided to create a Lamaist theocracy in Asia. His troops entered Mongolia at the request of the eighth Bogdo Khan, the religious and political leader of the country, second in importance for Lamaists only to the Dalai Lama. In January, Ungern Sternberg’s cavalry division launched several attacks on the Mongolian capital of Urga (now Ulan Bator), but was repeatedly repulsed reporting huge losses. Conseqnetly, Ungern ordered his troops to set fire to the fields in the hills around Urga, so that the defenders of the city thought that overwhelming superior forces were surrounding them. The Black Baron succeeded with his stratagem and in February he managed to conquer the city without having to launch a new attack. On the 13th of March 1921 Mongolia was proclaimed an independent monarchy under the rule of the Bogdo Khan and Ungern Sternberg became the military dictator of the new country. Tending to mysticism and fascinated by the beliefs and religions of the Far East (especially Buddhism), Ungern von Sternberg, in his philosophy, mingled exceptional Russian nationalism with the Mongolian and Chinese beliefs, believing he truly was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan: Bogdo Khan himself, as well as the thirteenth Dalai Lama, dared to consider Ungern as the incarnation of the Mahakala (or “Great Black”), a semblance of the god Shiva. By now, everyone of his entourage started to call him the “God of War”. In Ungern’s plans, Mongolia would be his base from which he would restore the Qing dynasty, ally with imperial Japan and free Russia from communist rule: striking out from Mongolia, he would invade Russia, rally the tsarists and wipe out communism from the Russian Motherland.
|Ungern's fighting flag|
Later, a Bolshevik contingent sent to rescue the pro-Soviet Mongolian leader Sukhe-Bator decreed the defeat of the forces of Ungern Sternberg in Mongolia. In May, he attempted to invade the Russian territory at Troitskosavsk (Kyakhta today, in the Republic of Buryatia). After some early successes in May and June, Bolshevik overwhelming forces finally defeated Ungern Sternberg in July and August. Ungern was convinced that the only escape would be reaching Tibet. Howhever, a portion of his army mutinied, and on the 21st of August, host of the Kalmyk Ja Lama, Ungern was betrayed and delivered to general Bljucher, commander of the revolutionary army of the people of the Republic of the Far East and future USSR Marshal, who tried in vain to convince him to join the Soviet army.
On the 15th of September 1921, Ungern was tried in Novonikolaevsk by a special Siberian military court. He was found guilty of having wanted to create an Asian vassal state of the Japanese Empire, to prepare the overthrow of the Soviet power and to restore the monarchy of the Romanovs. The judging committee also considered him to be completely insane. Thus, he was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad. According to tradition, Ungern von Sternberg swallowed his medal depicting the St. George Cross to prevent it falling into the hands of the Bolsheviks. The ring with the swastika would come into possession of General Bljucher and, it is said, that, after the death of the latter, which occurred in 1938 during the era of the Great Purges, it has passed into the hands of Marshal Zhukov.
During his military and political career, the Black Baron affirmed as following:
“They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party [the Bolsheviks], but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture”.
Mabire, J., Ungern. Le dieu de la guerre, 1987.
Pozner, V., Il Barone Sanguinario, 2012.
Ossendowski, F., Beasts, Men and Gods, 1922.