Staunton, June 17 – When any society looks back on events of a century, it often fastens not on what have long been assumed to be the most important individuals but rather on marginal figures whose actions and personalities compel attention not only by their out of the ordinary characteristics but also their resonance real or imputed with current events.
Perhaps the most notable such figure as Russians look back to the Civil War period was Baron Max Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, the Baltic German baron who was distinguished by cruelty seldom matched in human history, seized Mongolia from the Chinese with only a thousand men, and has passed into legend after being executed by the Bolsheviks.
Unlike other such figures at the margins of the great struggle between the Reds and the Whites, Ungern has always attracted the interest of both Russians and non-Russians, but that interest appears now to be peaking in Russia – and Aleksey Mikhalyev, a political scientist at Buryat State University has investigated why this is so and what it may mean.
In “The God of War or Memory about the Black Baron in Present-Day Russia” (in Russian; Politicheskaya nauka 3 (2018): 129-146 (inion.ru/publishing/journals/politicheskaia-nauka/arkhiv/2018-3/bog-voiny-ili-pamiat-o-chernom-barone-v-pravom-diskurse-sovremennoi-rossii/; summarized by Olga Sobolevskaya at iq.hse.ru/news/286418877.html), he presents his conclusions.
“Dauria gothic is a neo-romantic trend in art characterized by a dark atmosphere and mythologized subjects about wars and conflicts in the Trans-Baikal,” Mikhalyev says. (Dauria on the border between Russia and China was Ungern’s headquarters and torture chamber until he marched with his Asiatic Cavalry Division into Mongolia.)
This isolated region has long been filled with mythologies about lamas, Buddhism, yogas, the search for the Shambala and the like, but with Ungern, who sprang from an impoverished branch of the Baltic German nobility, this traditional “Asian gothic” was combined with elements of the European, including many things resembling Dracula.
“Dauria gothic,” the scholar continues, has been pushed in novels, histories, mange comics, anime and even rock music, all of which combine horror and mysticism, the living dead, ghosts, fortune tellers, shape shifters and all the other phenomena of the gothic in Western Europe.
All this is presented as believable, Mikhalyev suggests, because it occurs in a far away play “beyond the limits of the everyday” and because at the center of it all is real historical figure people can focus on, Baron Ungern-Sternberg about whom people can look up in the history books.
“Instead of the Holy Graal and other symbols of nobility, there are ‘the doors of the Shambala.’ And the ‘Dauria feudal’ Ungern too is a hybrid of Western and Eastern forms: a crusader knight and a Buddhist, a local ‘king’ – and ‘a white khan.’”
Legends about Ungern began to be created shortly after his death, most prominently by a Polish fantast named Ferdinand Ossendowski whose book Beasts, Men and Gods was a best seller in the West. It purported to be true – Ossendowski knew Ungern in Urga – but was almost entirely made up.
(That was obvious to people who really knew what happened at the time. Sven Hedin, the great Swedish explorer, wrote a pamphlet about him entitled Ossendowski and the Truth: Two Strangers. Other commentators like Dmitry Pershin with direct experience were even more brutal.).
Also important at the birth of the Ungern legend was Arseny Nesmelov, a Russian émigré in Harbin who wrote “The Ballad about the Dauria Baron” in 1928, an epic poem in which all gothic elements were present and in which the baron himself was presented “almost like a horseman of the Apocalypse.”
Most White Russian leaders were horrified by Ungern believing him to have brought dishonor on their cause, and the Bolsheviks of course were only too happy to present him in the darkest tones, something that unintentionally attracted attention. See the 1948 novel Dauria by Konstantin Sedykh and the 1971 Soviet film of the same title directed by Viktor Tregubovich.
Ungern also attracted the attention of the Nazis who characterized him as “the ideal Aryan” and even “the first fascist.” There is even a legend that Alfred Rozenberg, the Nazi ideologue, wrote a play about Ungern that played in German theaters in the 1930s, another story that for some has done nothing to distract attention from Ungern.
At the end of the Soviet period and the beginning of the Russian one, both Russian historians and Western ones sought to wade through the mythology; but Mikhalyev says that even the best of them were profoundly affected by what they sought to dispel. (See academia.edu/7730735/Кузьмин_С.Л._2011._История_барона_Унгерна_опыт_реконструкции._М._КМК_).
The baron’s legend has continued to grow and metasticize, with various political trends “from nationalists to monarchists” finding their own Ungerns. Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, the father of the pretender to the Russian throne, even called Ungern the equal of philosophers Petr Savitsky and Lev Karsavin!
Mikhalyev says that “by the level of mythologization, the personality of Ungern is comparable only with the figure of Chapayev.”
“Of all the leaders of the White Movement,” Mikhalyev says, “Baron von Ungern-Sternberg became a significant figure not only in Russia and Germany of the 1930s and 1940s but also in Mongolia.” That has continued: Ungern’s visage now appears on football shirts and on fake Buddhist icons.
The Buryat historian says that the main reason for this is that Ungern in his mythologized form represents “a certain ‘revolt against the contemporary world,” one in which the Middle Ages are viewed as organic and good and the modern age as artificial and defective. That is why there is so much talk about the black baron, the god of war, and so on.
As Mikhalyev documents, the number of books, nominally history, openly novelistic, and even cartoons, has risen since the end of Soviet times. Each offers its reader a vision of Ungern designed to fit what that individual wants. Given how many disputes there are about the Dauria gothic world, that is easy – and very likely to continue.