The Mad Baron in my book ‘The Dew of Heaven’


One of the minor characters in my book “The Dew of Heaven” is the sadistic baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (Graz, Austria, December 29, 1885 – Novonikolaevsk, September 15, 1921) an anti-Bolshevik lieutenant general in the Russian Civil War who then started his own business as an independent warlord, taking control of Mongolia from the Republic of China in 1921. He was often referred by his men as the Mad Baron. His actions, unwittingly, put Mongolia under Soviet influence rather than Chinese, as it was before his intervention.
Ungern professed to be a reincarnation of the God of War but his eccentric, violent treatment of enemies and his own men demonstrate his mental problems, like his father and grandfather, who had been locked into mental asylums.
Ungern aspired to restore the Russian monarchy under Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia and to revive the Mongol Empire under the rule of the Bogd Khan. During his five-month occupation of Mongolia, he imposed order on the capital city, Ikh Khüree, through fear, intimidation, and brutal violence against his opponents, particularly Bolshevik supporters, Slavs, Jews and Chinese.

Civil power over Mongolia formally belonged to the Bogd Khan. According to some eyewitnesses (his engineer and officer Kamil Giżycki, and Polish adventurer and writer Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski, etc.), Ungern was the first to institute order in Urga; imposing street cleaning and sanitation, and promoting religious life and tolerance in the capital, and attempting to reform the economy. Ossendowkski, one of the most popular Polish writers in his lifetime (at the time of his death in 1945, Ossendowski’s overseas sales were the second-highest of the all writers of Poland), had served as an official in Admiral Kolchak’s government and after its collapse, fled to Mongolia. Despite his distaste for the Kolchakovec, Ossendowski managed to persuade Ungern not to execute him as Ossendowski shared Ungern’s interests in the occult, Asia and mysticism. The previous man and the next man summoned to Ungern’s ger were not so lucky as both were beheaded on the spot for having “secret Bolshevik codes” on them. Ossendowski become one of Ungern’s very few friends (according to him) and in 1922 published a bestselling book ‘Men, Beasts and Gods’ in English about his adventures in Siberia and Mongolia, which remains the book by which the Ungern story is best known in the English-speaking world. It is somewhat unfortunate as Ossendowski had a habit of inventing things, most notably the two chapters in Men, Beasts and Gods which describes his visit to the kingdom of Shambhala inside the earth, which is not only obviously not true, but also plagiarized from the 1886 book ‘Mission de l’Inde’ by the French occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre.


In 1888 Hunger-Sternberg family had moved from Graz to Reval (Tallinn), the capital of the Governorate of Estonia within the Russian Empire, where his parents divorced three years later in 1891. In 1894 his mother married the Baltic German nobleman Baron Oskar Anselm Herrmann von Hoyningen-Huene and Ungern-Sternberg grew up in the Russian province of Estland (modern Estonia).
From 1900 to 1902 Ungern attended the Nicholas I Gymnasium in Reval. As a student he was regarded as an intelligent boy but extremely difficult to deal with, who was forever getting into brawls with his fellow students and whose grades were terrible as Ungern took the view that as a nobleman he had nothing to learn from his teachers, who were all mere commoners. In 1903 he enrolled in the Marine Officers Cadet School in Saint Petersburg. As a cadet, Ungern-Sternberg did well only with physical exercises and his grades with the other subjects were all extremely bad as he refused to study. In 1905 he left the school to join the fighting in Eastern Russia during the Russo-Japanese War, but it is unclear whether he participated in operations against the Japanese, or if all military operations had ceased before his arrival in Manchuria. In 1906 was transferred to service in Pavlovskoe Military School in Saint Petersburg as a cadet of ordinary rank. During the same period, he become obsessed with the occult and was especially interested in the more esoteric and mystical strains of Buddhism.
Ungern-Sternberg had become interested in “Eastern mysticism” via Theosophy which was very popular with the Russian upper classes at the time. Ungern-Sternberg’s cousin, Count Hermann von Keyserling who knew him well later wrote that the baron was very curious from his teenage years onwards with “Tibetan and Hindu philosophy” and often spoke of the mystical powers possessed by “geometrical symbols”. Keyserling called Ungern-Sternberg “one of the most metaphysically and occultly gifted man I have ever met” and believed that the baron was a clairvoyant who could read the minds of the people around him.
After graduating he served as an officer in East Siberia in the 1st Argunsky and the 1st Amursky Cossack regiments, where he became enthralled with the lifestyle of nomadic peoples such as the Mongols and Buryats. Ungern had specifically asked that he been stationed with a Cossack regiment in Asia as he wanted to learn more about Asian culture, a request that was granted. During this period, Ungern-Sternberg was notorious for his heavy drinking and exceptionally cantankerous moods, spending a disproportionate amount of his time feuding with other officers in the daytime when not fighting duels and engaging in drunken brawls with his fellow officers in the evenings.
It was much to the relief of his superiors when Ungern-Sternberg decided to forsake alcohol and took to spending his days studying Buddhism, learning Mongol and Buryat and generally spending as much time as possible with the nomads.
Those who knew Ungern-Sternberg well described him as very drawn towards “Eastern culture” as he was fascinated by Asian cultures, especially that of the Mongols and the Buryats. At the same time, he was an excellent horseman who earned the respect of the Mongols and the Buryats due to his skill at riding and fighting from a horse, being equally adept at using both a gun and his sword.

Ungern moved to Outer Mongolia in 1913 to assist Mongols in their struggle for independence from China, but Russian officials prevented him from fighting with Mongolian troops. He arrived in the town of Khovd in western Mongolia and served as out-of-staff officer in the Cossack guard detachment at the Russian consulate. The other Russian officers who sent to train the Mongols in modern warfare disliked Ungern and as a social pariah, owing to his fits of rage.

On July 19, 1914, Ungern joined front-line forces as part of the second-turn 34th regiment of Cossack troops stationed on the Austrian frontier in Galicia. Ungern took part in the Russian offensive in East Prussia and from 1915-1916 he also participated in rear-action raids on German troops by the L.N. Punin Cavalry Special Task Force. Served in the Nerchinsk Regiment, a unit that: “Would have the dubious distinction of fighting in some of the most stupid and bloody actions of the Eastern Front”, as the casualty rate among officers was 170% while among the soldiers it was 200%, meaning that almost everyone in the regiment was killed or wounded together with their replacements and their replacements.Throughout the war on the Eastern Front, Ungern gained a reputation as an extremely brave, but somewhat reckless and mentally unstable officer, a man with no fear of death who seemed most happy leading cavalry charges or being in the thick of combat, in short a man who thoroughly enjoyed killing people. Much to his joy, Ungern won the St. George’s Cross, Imperial Russia’s highest decoration for his bravery in combat. Although decorated with several military awards, he was eventually discharged from one of his command positions for attacking and seriously injuring another officer with his sword during one of his rages in October 1916, which led to him being court-martialed for attempted murder and given two months in prison.

After his release from prison in January 1917, he was transferred to the Caucasian theatre of the conflict, where Russia was fighting against the Ottoman Empire. The February Revolution which ended the rule of the House of Romanov was an extremely bitter blow to the monarchist Ungern-Sternberg, who saw the revolution as the beginning of the end of Russia. Ungern-Sternberg regarded the new government, which was soon dominated by the Right-Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky as a “total mess”, but for the want of a better alternative, Ungern accepted the authority of the new republic. In the Caucasus, Ungern-Sternberg first met Cossack Captain Grigory Semyonov, a Eurasian man who was the product of the union between a Russian father and a Buryat mother, who despite having “Asiatic” facial features had managed to become an officer in the Imperial Army. Ungern-Sternberg and Semyonov bonded, becoming best friends as the two were very much outsiders in the Russian Army as Semyonov was unpopular for being Eurasian while Ungern-Sternberg was unpopular for being a Volksdeutsche with a nasty temper at a time when Russia was at war with Germany. Additionally, both Ungern-Sternberg and Semyonov were ambitious men with burning desires to be successful as soldiers and both had a keen interest in Asia, especially Mongolia. In April 1917 near Urmia, Iran, Ungern, together with Grigory Semyonov, started to organize a volunteer military unit composed of local Assyrian Christians. The Ottoman government had waged the Assyrian Genocide, attempting to exterminate the Assyrian minority, which led to thousands of Assyrians fleeing to the Russian lines. Ungern and Semyonov conceived of a scheme under which the two would organize and lead the Assyrians against the Ottomans. Under Ungern’s command, they went on to score some minor victories over the Turks, but their total contribution to Russia’s war effort was limited. Afterwards, the Assyrian scheme led Semyonov to the idea of a Buryat regiment in the Russian Army as he became convinced that with the ethnic Russian units taking enormous losses that the key to victory laid with enlisting the Asian peoples of Russia into the war (the Buryats, like the other Asians, were not subject to conscription). The Kerensky government gave its approval to Semyonov’s plans, and Ungern-Sternberg soon headed east to join his friend in trying to raise a Buryat regiment.

Because of his successful military operations in Hailar and Dauria, Ungern received the rank of Major-General. Semyonov appointed him commandant of the Dauria railway station and entrusted him with forming military units to battle Bolshevik forces. In Dauria, Ungern formed the volunteer Asiatic Cavalry Division (Russian: Азиатская конная дивизия), a mix of Russians, Buryats, Tatars, Bashkirs, Mongols from different tribes, Chinese, Manchu, Japanese, Polish exiles and many others. Ungern’s unit was known as “The Savage Division” (Russian: Дикая дивизия), a term properly referring to the military unit consisting of mountain peoples from the Caucasus or Mongolic Kalmyks in the Russian Imperial Army, which fought in World War I and later, after the Russian Revolution, against Bolsheviks. Ungern reinforced his military station at Dauria, creating a kind of fortress from where his troops launched attacks on Red forces. Under his rule, Dauria was a well-known “torture center” filled with the bones of hundreds of Ungern’s victims while Ungern transformed the surrounding countryside into a wasteland full of burned villages with the silence only being broken by the cries of the women his men raped. Hundreds of Ungern’s officers and soldiers objected to his violence against civilians and consequently were executed for treason and mutiny. One officer recalled: “On these hills, where everywhere were rolling skulls, skeletons and decaying body parts, Baron Ungern used to like to go there to rest”. Dauria was an execution camp where Red prisoners taken all over Siberia were sent to be killed by Ungern. A visitor to Dauria recalled seeing “dried slices of human flesh dangling from nail. Blood had so saturated the ground under the building that the soil was discolored and befouled”. When not executing Red prisoners, Ungern spent of his time fighting Red and Green guerrillas where very active in the region.
Ungern’s chief executioner had been a Colonel Laurent, but Ungern had him executed after he decided he was a Red, and his replacement was the sexual sadist Colonel Igor Sipailov. Sipailov had played a leading role in a massacre on Lake Baikal where a group of Bolshevik prisoners had been taken abroad a ship, promised that they would be exchanged for White prisoners abroad an another ship, and as they came on the deck expecting to be exchanged, had their heads smashed in by Sipailov and company using ice mallets. Sipailov who once been a mechanic in the Imperial Russian Army (Ungern had promoted him to the rank of colonel) appeared to have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome as an observer commented: “He was always nervously jerking and wriggling his body and talking ceaselessly, making the most unattractive sounds in his throat and sputtering with saliva all over his lips, his whole fact often contorted with spasms”. Sipailov, a man with “cold, colourless eyes under dense brows”, whose “strange undulating line of his skull” caused his bald head to resemble a saddle, was much hated by Ungern’s officers for “his scandalous meanness and cunning, his bloodthirstiness and cowardice”. Sipailov was also a sadist who openly admitted that torture and rape were his favorite hobbies, and that he greatly enjoyed killing women by striking their heads with his hammer while raping them at the same time.

As part of his plans, Ungern traveled to Manchuria and China proper (February through September 1919). There he established contacts with monarchist circles, and also made preparations for Semyonov to meet with the Manchurian Warlord Marshal Zhang Zuolin, the “Old Marshal”. In July 1919 Ungern married Manchurian princess Ji in an Orthodox ceremony. The princess was given the name Elena Pavlovna von Ungern-Sternberg. They communicated in English, their only common language. This marriage had a political aim, as Ji was a princess and a relative of General Zhang Kuiwu, commander of Chinese troops at the western end of the Chinese-Manchurian Railway (in Russian: KVZhD), and governor of Hailar. Ungern’s attitude towards women was of aggressive misogyny and he was not close to his wife. Ungern once spoke of “the entire negation of women” as one of his life-goals, was opposed to the women’s rights movement, and suggested “that stupid woman Pankhurst” (the British feminist Emmeline Pankhurst) should come to Siberia where he would put her into her proper place. Ungern was quoted as saying with disgust that the problems of modern Russia were: “Those dirty workers who’ve never had any servants of their own, but still think they can command; those Jews who started the revolution to be revenged on us; those women who lie in wait for you everywhere, in the streets, in drawing-rooms, with their legs spread out-we’ve got to rid of all that!”.There is no evidence that Ungern loved his wife or anybody else as Ungern was incapable of love.

After Kolchak’s defeat at the hands of the Red Army and the subsequent decision of Japan to withdraw its expeditionary troops from the Transbaikal, Semyonov, unable to withstand the pressure of Bolshevik forces, planned a retreat to Manchuria. Ungern, however, saw this as an opportunity to implement his monarchist plan. On 7 August 1920, he broke his allegiance to Semyonov and transformed his Asiatic Cavalry Division into a guerrilla detachment. Ungern’s army marched under the banner of a yellow swastika, a symbol Ungern had chosen as the swastika was an ancient Buddhist symbol of good luck and already been co-opted in the early 20th century by anti-Semitic volkische groups in Germany as an ancient Aryan symbol. The anti-Semitic and Buddhist associations of the swastika appealed to the baron.

Even Ungern’s loyal followers were not safe and at various times, Ungern publicly beat and flogged his most loyal officers like Colonel Rezuhin aka “the Cutter”, Colonel Sipailov the sexual sadist who served as his chief executioner and the sinister Dr. Klingenberg, his chief medical officer and poisoner. Many of Ungern’s more elaborate and gorier executions involved using the branches of trees to slowly pull apart human bodies. Dr. Klingenberg, a fellow Baltic German who was close to Ungern because he one of the few officers who spoke German as his first language was a Social Darwinist who believed in the “survival of the fittest” suggested to Ungern that he be allowed to poison those wounded and sick soldiers who were “unfit”, an idea that Ungern gave his approval to. Dozens upon dozens of Ungern’s sick and wounded soldiers were poisoned by Dr. Klingenberg, who was so enthusiastic about killing his patients that many ill soldiers preferred not to visit the hospital, least they fall victim to Klingenberg.

Ungern’s troops crossed the northern border of Outer Mongolia on October 1, 1920, and moved south-westwards.
Ever since the 17th century when Mongolia had subjected to the Qing Empire , there had been prophecies circulating around Mongolia that a messianic figure known as “Hidden King” who ruled the vast and fabulous kingdom of Shambhala inside of the earth would take human form as a great warrior who gave no mercy in battle who riding a white horse would invade Mongolia from the north to end the Chinese rule. Starting in the 19th century, the Qing had started to settle vast numbers of Han into both Inner and Outer Mongolia and by 1911 in Inner Mongolia the Han settlers had outnumbered the native Mongols by a ratio of 19 to 1, which led to fears the Han would swamp the Mongols, making them a minority in their own land. The Han disliked the Mongols, depicting them as stupid, debauched and inclined to laziness with Chinese literature often having “…Mongolian henchmen, often Oddjob to a Japanese Blofeld, who habitually threatened the hero or heroine with sadistic torture”. For their part, the Mongols saw the Chinese as arrogant, pushy, and greedy, leading them to look back to the days of Genghis Khan when the “proper” order of things was in place with the Mongols ruling China.

The great savior would not only expel the much hated Chinese from Mongolia, but also restore the mighty Mongol Empire, which at its height in the 13th century stretched across Eurasia from Hungary to Korea and from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. As Ungern-Sternberg rode a white horse, invaded Mongolia from the north, spoke fluent Mongol, worshiped at Buddhist shrines and spoke of his desire to restore the Mongol empire, the rumors spread all over Mongolia that the savior had at long last arrived to free Mongolia from the Chinese yoke and Mongol princes followed by their banner man rallied to the baron’s army. Mongols and Chinese have traditionally hated each other with a passion, and the behavior of General Xu’s occupying army had stoked anti-Chinese resentments to a fever pitch, leading to many Mongol nobles together with their banner men to rally to the baron. Mongolia had no army, but every Mongol man had a gun, knew how to ride and shoot and under the banner men system were obliged to go to war if the nobleman whom they were loyal to demanded their service. When the Ungern entered Mongolia, the rumors spread like wildfire that the day of deliverance was now at hand as the savior from the north had at long last come and soon Mongolia would be restored to its former greatness.

Ungern entered into negotiations with Chinese occupying forces. All of his demands, including disarmament of the Chinese troops were rejected. On October 26–27 and again on November 2–4, 1920, Ungern’s troops assaulted Mongolia’s capital, Urga (officially Niislel Khuree; now Ulaanbaatar) but suffered tremendous losses. After the defeat, Ungern’s troops retreated to the upper currents of the Kherlen River in Setsen-Khan Aimag (district ruled by princes with the title Setsen Khan) in eastern Outer Mongolia. He was supported by Mongols who sought independence from Chinese occupation, especially the Bogd Khan, who secretly sent Ungern his blessing for expelling Chinese from Mongolia. The Chinese had tightened their control of Outer Mongolia by this time, strictly regulating Buddhist services in monasteries and imprisoning Russians and Mongols whom they considered “separatists”. According to memoirs by M.G. Tornovsky, the Asiatic Division numbered 1,460 men, while the Chinese garrison was seven thousand men strong. The Chinese had the advantage in artillery and machine guns, and had built a network of trenches in and around Urga. At his camp, Ungern imposed a ferocious discipline on his Russian soldiers, especially those who had previously served Admiral Kolchak. Ungern was forever on the lookout for Bolshevik spies, and executed anyone who he suspected might be Jewish. By contrast, the Mongol banner men who rallied to his cause were well treated as they could always leave. One of Ungern’s Russian soldiers Dmitri Alioshin bitterly wrote in his 1941 memoirs ‘My Asian Odyssey’: “What the Baron dared not do to his Orientals he did all too readily to his own countrymen”. Even Ungern’s Russian officers, who long been accustomed to the harsh discipline of the Imperial Russian Army when fifty lashes was considered to be a lenient act of punishment thought that Ungern was going too far, complaining variously of his “insane”, “inhuman” and “incomprehensible” punishments he inflicted on his Russian soldiers for trivial offenses or for no reason at all.

Alioshin in his memoirs described Ungern’s Russian officers as “dressed in rags, with pieces of leather tied to the soles of their feet. Unshaven and dirty, cynical and cunningly cruel, they were lost to the world. Death was always welcome to them, and they fought like devils”. Ungern himself called his Russian officers as “rotten through and through, demoralised, sunk into the depths”. Colonel Boris Rezhuhin, known as “Rezhukin the Cutter” who served as Ungern’s right-hand man emulated his master, through Ungern sometimes had Rezhukin flogged and beaten. Ungern’s bodyguard was a tall Cossack, Evgenie Burdokovskii, known as “Teapot” since whenever Ungern poured a guest a cup of tea, that was the signal for Burdokoskii to strangle the guest to death.

On February 1, 1921, Ungern’s detachment, led by B.P. Rezukhin, captured Chinese front-line fortifications in a night attack. During the night, the constant ratter of the Chinese machine guns, the rifles fired by both sides, the war cries of the Chinese and Mongols together with the fires started by Ungern’s artillery and the sky lit up by rockets made for a scene of utter chaos that terrified the people of Urga. Other troops moved to Urga and to the Manjusri Monastery on Bogd Khan Uul mountain south of Urga. On February 2, Ungern’s troops battled for control of Chinese front lines and secured parts of Urga. The assault on Urga took place in a raging blizzard with a temperature of -20 Celsius at day and -40 Celsius at night; this, together with Urga’s remote location, gave the battle the reputation as a desperate fight at the end of the world. During the battle Ungern’s special detachment of Tibetans, Mongols, Buryats and Russians rescued the Bogd Khan from house-arrest and transported him through the Bogd Uul to Manjusri Monastery. The Chinese guarding the Bogd Khan were all killed quietly by arrows or by Tibetans disguised as pilgrims coming to pay their respects to the Bogd Khan. The major problem with the rescue operation turned out to be the obesity of the Bogd Khan who proved to be too fat to ride a horse, thus requiring two Tibetans to ride to next to him to hold him in place. On February 3, Ungern gave his soldiers a respite. Borrowing a tactic from Genghis Khan, Ungern ordered his troops to light a large number of camp fires in the hills surrounding Urga, using them as reference points for Rezukhin’s detachment. This also made the town appear to be surrounded by an overwhelming force. On February 4, Ungern launched a major assault on the remaining Chinese positions in Urga from the east, capturing the most fortified positions at the barracks and the Chinese trade settlement (Chinese: 買賣城, Maimaicheng) during a fierce blizzard. During the fighting, Ungern was in his element, fighting with a reckless, suicidal courage and maniacal energy as he personally led cavalry charges to cut down the Chinese with his sword, his uniform and sword drenched with blood, shouting it either was victory or death while giving the impression that he was having the time of his life. Ungern’s artillery caused much of the city to catch on fire, which further contributed to the chaos as the Mongols and Russians fought the Chinese in the streets of Urga. The Mongol cavalry had reached the rear of the Chinese positions, throwing the defenders into disarray. Upon reaching the Maimaicheng, Ungern had his men smash their way in by blasting the gates with explosives and improvised battering-rams. After breaking in, a general slaughter set in as both sides fought with bayonets together with what Palmer called “…an extraordinary variety of knives, swords and even cleavers”, which were all used as weapons. To clean out houses, Ungern’s men tossed in hand grenades, and then charged in, bayoneting any Chinese they found. For their part, the Mongols who long loathed the Chinese went about sacking the Maimaicheng with great enthusiasm, but were exceeded by the Russians. Ungern’s Russian soldiers were brutalized, desperate men who were a long away from home which they had little hope of returning to, battling an enemy they viewed as subhuman, which led many to abandon all decency and to rape and kill with a ferocity that surpassed that of the Mongols. Ungern-Sternberg’s conquest of the Chinese-occupied city of Urga in Mongolia in the winter of 1921 was an evocation of hell, a kind of steppe-“Blood Meridian.””. Some of the Ungern’s Russian soldiers were so crazed with blood-lust and a “Yellow Peril” hatred of all Asians that they cut down all Asians they saw, Mongol and Chinese, soldiers and civilians without regard to age or sex.

After the battle, Ungern staged a pogrom against the Russian Jewish refugees living in Urga as he led his Cossacks against the Jews, ordering that all Jews be killed as he stated, “in my opinion, the Jews are not protected by any law”. The Mongols, who had no tradition of anti-Semitism, did not understand why Ungern wanted to slaughter the Jews, and as Ungern led a Jewish baker named Moshkovich, renowned for his kindness, away to be hacked to pieces, many ordinary people were heard to ask “What harm has he done, this good old man?”, only to brushed aside. In Russia, gang rape had always been an integral part of the pogroms, though usually only men were killed in pogroms. In the Urga pogrom, gang rape was very common, but this time women and children were killed as Ungern gave orders to kill every Jew without regard to age or sex. Prince Togtokh, a Mongol prince famed as an anti-Chinese guerilla fighter and until then one of Ungern’s strongest allies, had attempted to hide some Jews in his house that he just reclaimed from the Chinese. Ungern stormed into Togtokh’s house, had the Jews taken out to be beaten to death on the streets and when Prince Togtokh protested at this violation of the sacred Mongol law of hospitality, nearly had him hanged. When a Danish missionary named Olsen protested, Ungern had him tied to a horse and killed by dragging him through the streets. So many bodies were left on the streets of Urga that packs of wild dogs started to devour the dead. One German business man living in Urga spoke of his horror as packs of “growling and yapping creatures drew and tore at long bloodstained strings of entrails, and under the whirl of their many trampling feet the pale soles of the dead Mongol’s boots shifted about as the corpse was dragged to and fro upon the ground.” At the same time, Ungern had his Cossacks and Mongol horsemen ride down the Chinese trying to flee Urga, cutting them down with their swords and lances the disorganized rabble of small groups of Chinese desperately heading down the road south back to China.

Between March 11 and 13, Ungern captured a fortified Chinese base at Choir south of Urga; while Chinese soldiers abandoned Zamyn-Üüd without a battle.
When remaining Chinese troops, having retreated to northern Mongolia near Kyakhta, then attempted to round Urga to the west in order to reach China, Russians and Mongols feared an attempt to re-capture Urga. Several hundred Cossack and Mongol units were dispatched to meet the Chinese troops of several thousand strengths in the area of Urga – Uliastai road near the Tuul river in central Mongolia. There battles raged from March 30 to April 2, the Chinese troops were routed and pursued to the southern border of the country. Thus Chinese forces left Outer Mongolia.

Ungern, Mongolian lamas and princes brought the Bogd Khan from Manjusri Monastery to Urga on February 21, 1921. On February 22, a solemn ceremony took place, restoring the Bogd Khan to the throne. As a reward for ousting the Chinese from Urga, the Bogd Khan granted Ungern the high hereditary title darkhan khoshoi chin wang in the degree of khan, and other privileges. Other officers, lamas and princes who had participated in these events also received high titles and awards. For seizing Urga, Ungern received from Semyonov the rank of Lieutenant-General. Mongolia was proclaimed an independent monarchy under the theocratic power of Bogd Khan, or the 8th Bogd Gegen Jebtsundamba Khutuktu.

On March 13, 1921, Mongolia was proclaimed an independent monarchy, under Ungern as a dictator. Ungern had Dr. Klingenberg poison General Evtina, an elderly and popular White officer who arrived in Urga in early 1920 and whom many saw as a possible rival. General Evtina had been a Kolchakovec and Ungern feared that the Kolchakovec in his army would rally to him. Ungern established a Bureau of Political Intelligence headed by the sexual sadist Colonel Igor Sipailov to hunt and kill all political opponents. Ungern sometimes had the alcoholic Sipailov whipped and beaten for being drunk on the job, but many believed that because Ungern never had him executed for his drunkenness indicated that Sipailov had some special hold on the baron. In a city such as Urga, where a steady stream of refugees from Russia who were constantly arriving to escape the civil war in their country together with an equally constant stream of visitors from China, Ungern feared that Bolshevik infiltrators were entering the city, and an atmosphere of paranoia ensured that the Bureau soon had plenty of “Reds”, both real and alleged to investigate. Sipailov was also very greedy, and many of the people he executed for being “Reds” were in fact killed so he could confiscate their wealth, most notably a Danish businessman named Olufsen who was tied to a car and dragged across the countryside to make him reveal where he had supposedly hidden a vast cache of gold that he did not possess. Sipailov’s greed meant that it was the better-off people in Urga who were killed for being alleged communists. Between March and July 1921, the Bureau killed between 250 and 300 people, mostly from the expatriate community in Urga as few Mongols had enough wealth to interest Sipailov.

A mystic who was fascinated by beliefs and religions of the Far East such as Buddhism and who believed himself to be as the successor to Genghis Khan, Ungern von Sternberg’s philosophy was an exceptionally muddled mixture of Russian nationalism with Chinese and Mongol beliefs. His traditionalism and orientalism, quite atypical for Western culture at that time, contributed to his reputation as the “Mad Baron”. Ungern-Sternberg inverted Western fears of the “Yellow Peril”, arguing that the West was morally corrupt and degenerate with the forces of “mad revolution” controlled by the Jews were running amok while the East had mostly maintained its moral purity, and he would lead a pan-Asian army to cleanse the West of its sickness via a bloodbath. The insane anti-Semitic fanatic Ungern-Sternberg had conquered Mongolia in 1921 with the aim of using it as a base for the conquest of the Soviet Union, after which he would “exterminate” all of the Jews and Communists in Russia. Ungern-Sternberg intended to revive the Mongol Empire as he believed that West was corrupt and degenerate, and needed to be destroyed by a pan-Asian army under his leadership. The exceptionally sadistic Ungern-Sternberg regarded extreme violence as spiritually cleansing based on his understanding of Buddhism, and believed the world needed a bloodbath to undergo a spiritual regeneration. The Buddhist hell differs from the Christian hell in that Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Thus in the Buddhist view of things the violence inflicted by demons on the sinners sent to hell is essentially redemptive and therapeutic, and in a certain sense the demons are agents of good as once the sinners repent, they will be reborn in a new life in this world to be given a new chance at redemption. Buddhist scrolls and monasteries often feature “hell galleries” showing various sinners – almost always naked or nearly naked nubile young women – being graphically tortured and torn to pieces by demons.Ungern-Sternberg had seen the pictures of the “hell galleries” showing scenes of sinners suffering at the hands of the demons, which inspired him with the idea that in a depraved, sinful world falling prey to the forces of “mad revolution” that what the world needed was to bring to life the scenes from the “hell galleries”, and as such Ungern spent much of his time having people tortured to death in a variety of gruesome ways directly inspired by visions of hell. Ungern managed to be both a Buddhist and a Christian at the same time, and in a letter to a Mongol nobleman quoted the line from the Book of Revelations, namely that “There will come a time when men shall pray for death, but shall not receive it” as an explanation for what he was going to do to a sinful, corrupt world. Ungern regarded Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam as all expressing the same great, mystical spiritual truth he was seeking and saw no contradiction in praying at churches, Buddhist shrines, Hindu temples and mosques as he viewed all four religions as part and parcel of the same great mystical truth. The only religion that Ungern hated was Judaism, which he saw as the font of all evil in the world.

Historians note that Ungern was viewed as the incarnation of the “God of War” (the figure of Jamsaran in Tibetan and Mongol folklore). The Mongols always referred to Ungern as the “God of War”, a title of great respect given the militaristic nature of Mongol society, but it is not clear just what god Ungern was supposed to be as the Mongols had dozens of war gods as the Red Horseman, the hero turned god Geser Khan, the combative Begtse who carried fifty severed heads with him, the pre-Buddhist god Pehar who had been forced by monks to become a defender of Buddhism, and the most fearsome of them all, the tamed demon Makakala who devoured the enemies of Buddhism alive. Regardless about just god Ungern was supposed to be, it is clear that Ungern was seen as one of the Dhanapala (“defenders of the faith”), the fierce demons forced by the magic of the lamas to become defenders of Buddhism, a type of god very popular in both Tibet and Mongolia. The Russian term bog voiny (“god of war”) for Ungern may had been a mistranslation of the Mongol term “holy warrior”. Although many Mongols may have believed him to be a deity, or at the very least an incarnation of Genghis Khan, Ungern was never officially proclaimed to be any of these incarnations.

The Bolsheviks started infiltrating Mongolia shortly after the October revolution 1917, i.e., long before they took control of the Russian Transbaikal. In 1921, various Red Army units belonging to Soviet Russia and to the Far Eastern Republic, invaded newly independent Mongolia to defeat Ungern. These forces included Red Mongolian leader and independence hero Damdin Sükhbaatar. Spies and various smaller diversionary units went ahead to spread terror and betrayal to weaken Ungern’s forces. Ungern organized an expedition to meet these forces in Siberia and to support ongoing anti-Bolshevik rebellions. Believing he had the unwavering popular support of locals in Siberia and Mongolia, Ungern failed to properly strengthen his troops despite being vastly outnumbered and out-gunned by the Red forces. However, unbeknownst to Ungern, the Reds had successfully crushed uprisings in Siberia, and the Soviet economic policies had temporarily softened in Lenin’s NEP. Upon Ungern’s arrival, few local peasants and Cossacks volunteered to join him.

In the spring the Asiatic Cavalry Division was divided into two brigades: one under the command of Lieutenant-general Ungern and the second under Major-General Rezukhin. In May, Rezukhin’s brigade launched a raid beyond the Russian border to the west of the Selenge River. Ungern’s brigade left Urga and slowly moved to the Russian town of Troitskosavsk (present-day Kyakhta in Buryatia). Meanwhile, the Reds moved large forces towards Mongolia from different directions. They had a tremendous advantage in equipment (armored cars, airplanes, rail, gunboats, ammunition, human reserves, etc.) and in numbers of troops. As a result, Ungern was defeated in battles that took place between June 11 and 13 and failed to capture Troitskosavsk. Then the combined Bolshevik and Red Mongol forces entered Mongolia and captured Urga after a few small skirmishes with Ungern’s guard detachments.

Having captured Urga on July 6, 1921, the Red forces failed to defeat the main forces of the Asiatic Division (Ungern’s and Rezukhin’s brigades). Ungern regrouped and attempted to invade Transbaikal across the Russo-Mongolian border. To rally his soldiers and local people, Ungern quoted an agreement with Grigory Semyonov and pointed to a supposed Japanese offensive which was to support their drive, although neither Semyonov, nor Japanese were eager to assist him. After several days’ rest, on July 18, the Asiatic Division started its raid into Soviet territory. Eyewitnesses Kamil Giżycki and Mikhail Tornovsky gave similar estimates of their numbers: about three thousand men in total. Ungern’s troops penetrated deep into Russian territory. The Soviets declared martial law in areas where the Whites were expected, including Verkhneudinsk (now Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia). Ungern’s troops captured many settlements; the northernmost being Novoselenginsk, occupied by them on August 1. By this time, Ungern understood that his offensive was ill-prepared; he also heard about the approach of large forces of the Reds. On August 2, 1921 he began his retreat to Mongolia, where he declared his determination to fight Communism. While Ungern’s troops wanted to abandon the war-effort and to head towards Manchuria to join with other Russian émigrés, it soon became clear that Ungern had other ideas. He wanted to retreat to Tuva, then to Tibet. Troops under both Ungern and Rezukhin effectively mutinied and hatched plots to kill their respective commanders. On August 17, Rezukhin was killed. A day later conspirators unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Ungern. His command then collapsed as his brigade broke apart. On 20 August Ungern was captured by the Soviet detachment led by the famous guerrilla commander P.E. Shchetinkin (later a member of the Cheka).

After a show trial of 6 hours and 15 minutes on 15 September 1921, prosecuted by Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, the Baron was sentenced to execution by firing squad. The sentence was carried out that very evening or night in Novonikolaevsk.

In the words of the British journalist Andrew Stuttaford: “To find even a quick allusion to… von Ungern-Sternberg (1886–1921) is to be pulled into a past too strange to be believable and too terrible not to be. As such, Ungern remains the subject of enduring fascination, a window into the dark side of humanity who has been featured numerous times in popular culture.


(Large parts of this post have been taken from Wikipedia).


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