My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is true and what is false, what is history, and what is myth.1
– Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, 1921
In Mongolia, there was a legend of the warrior prince, Beltis-Van. Noted for his ferocity and cruelty, he spilled “floods of human blood before he found his death in the mountains of Uliasutay.”2 His slayers interred the corpses of the Prince and his followers deep in earth, covered the graves with heavy stones, and added “incantations and exorcism lest their spirits again break out, carrying death and destruction.” These measures, it was prophesied, would bind the terrible spirits until human blood once more fell upon the site.
In early 1921, so the story goes, “Russians came and committed murders nearby the dreadful tombs, staining them with blood.”3 To some, this explained what followed.
At almost the same instant, a new warlord appeared on the scene, and for the next six months he spread death and terror across the steppes and mountains of Mongolia and even into adjoining regions of Siberia. Among the Mongols he became known as the Tsagan Burkhan, the incarnate “God of War.”4
Later, the Dalai Lama XIII proclaimed him a manifestation of the “wrathful deity” Mahakala, defender of the Buddhist faith.5 Historically, the same individual is best known as the “Mad Baron” or the “Bloody Baron.” His detractors are not shy about calling him a murderous bandit or an outright psychopath.
The man in question is the Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg. His exploits can be only briefly sketched here. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Baron Ungern found himself in eastern Siberia where he aligned himself with the anti-Bolshevik “White” movement. However, his extreme monarchist sentiments and independent ways made him a loose cannon in that camp.
In 1920, he led his “Asiatic Mounted Division,” a rag-tag collection of Russian, Mongol, Tatar and other troops, into the wilds of Mongolia, a land seething with unrest against Chinese occupation. Rallying Mongols to his banner, in early February 1921 Ungern scored a seemingly miraculous victory by wresting control of the Mongol capital, Urga (today Ulan Bator), from a large Chinese garrison. He then restored the Mongols’ spiritual and temporal leader, the “Living Buddha” Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu Bogdo Gegen, or, more simply, Bodgo Khan and established himself as warlord over Outer Mongolia and the scattered White Russian detachments that had taken refuge there.
Surrounding himself with an inner circle of murderous sycophants and fortune-tellers, he instituted a reign of terror that claimed as victims Jews, real or suspected Reds, and hundreds of others who somehow aroused the Baron’s wrath or suspicion.6 In June of the same year, he launched an ill-fated invasion of Soviet Siberia which ended with his capture by the Red Army and his subsequent trial and execution on 17 September.
This article focuses on Baron Ungern’s real and alleged mysticism and its influence on his actions. A key question is whether his perceived “madness,” in whole or in part, was a misreading of his devotion to esoteric Buddhist, and other, beliefs.
Background and Early Years
While the Baron spent most of his life in the service of the Romanovs, he was almost entirely German by blood. He entered the world as Robert Nicholaus Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg on 10 January 1886 (new style) in Graz, Austria. In Russian-ruled Estonia, his father, Teodor Leonard Rudolf von Ungern-Sternberg, enrolled his son in the Tsar’s nobility as Roman Fedorovich. The Ungern-Sternbergs were an old and illustrious family. The Baron dated his line back at least a thousand years and boasted to his Bolshevik captors that seventy-two of his ancestors had given their lives in Russia’s many wars.7
There is a suggestion of mental instability, even madness, in his immediate line. For instance, one late 18th century ancestor, Freiherr Otto Reinhold Ludwig von Ungern-Sternberg, earned infamy as a ship-wrecker and murderer who died in Siberian exile.8 Roman’s own father had a reputation as a “bad man” whose violence and cruelty led to divorce and a ban on him having any “influence” on his children.9
As regards Roman von Ungern-Sternberg’s mental state, obviously a diagnosis of insanity can be made only after examination by a psychiatrist, something impossible in this case.10 However, Dmitry Pershin, an eye-witness who took a somewhat positive view of the Baron, still felt that Ungern suffered from a “psychotic abnormality” which made him lose his temper at the “least provocation,” often with terrifying result.11
Later stories claimed that Roman’s aberrant behaviour was the result of a sabre cut to his head, but he manifested rebellious, violent tendencies much earlier. His school days were marked by constant problems; at the elite Naval Cadet Corps, he racked-up no less than twenty-five disciplinary charges before withdrawing in the face of certain expulsion.12 His education left him with a life-long aversion to “thinking” which he equated with “cowardice.”13
As a junior officer before and during World War I, he established a reputation as a violent troublemaker with a penchant for hard-drinking. However, he also earned medals for wounds and reckless bravery. In the words of one superior, the young Baron was a “warrior by temperament,” who “lived for war” and adhered to his own set of “elemental laws.”14 The latter were influenced by an interest in mysticism and the occult, especially of the Eastern variety.
The Baron as Mystic Warrior
Just when and where this interest began is uncertain. Ungern’s personal brand of faith, if it was Buddhism at all, adhered to the mystical Tibetan Vajrayana or Tantric sect. Young Roman got his first taste of the East as an infantryman during the Russo-Japanese War, and he spent 1908 to 1914 as a Cossack officer in Siberia and Mongolia. It was then, he later claimed, that he formed an “Order of Military Buddhists” to serve the Tsar and fight against the evils of revolution. The rules of his Order included celibacy and the “limitless use of alcohol, hashish and opium.”15 The latter was to help initiates overcome their “physical nature” through excess, but as the Baron confessed, it did not work quite as he had planned. Later, in Mongolia, he enforced a strict ban on drink. Still, he asserted, he gathered “three hundred men, bold and ferocious,” and some who did not perish in the fighting against Germany and the Bolsheviks were still with him in 1921.
Ungern resigned his regular commission at the end of 1913. Alone, he headed into the vastness of Outer Mongolia which had proclaimed independence from China. By one account, he rose to command the cavalry forces of the fledgling Mongolian Army, while another holds that he joined the marauding band of the bloodthirsty anti-Chinese rebel, Ja Lama. At some point, Ungern ended up in the western Mongolian town of Kobdo (Khovd) as a member of the guard of the local Russian consulate.
One of his comrades recollected that “when one observed Ungern, one felt himself carried back to the Middle Ages…; [he was] a throwback to his crusader ancestors, with the same thirst for war and the same belief in the supernatural.”16 Another recalled that he displayed “a great interest in Buddhism,” learned Mongolian and took to frequenting lama fortune-tellers.17 According to Dmitri Aloishin, a later, unwilling member of the Baron’s army, Ungern’s “Buddhist teachers taught him about reincarnation, and he firmly believed that in killing feeble people he only did them good, as they would be stronger beings in the next life.”18
The parallels between aforementioned Ja Lama and the Baron seem too close to be mere coincidence. Also known as the “Lama with a Mauser,” Ja Lama briefly made himself master of western Mongolia. Another “militant Buddhist,” he earned a fearsome reputation for ripping out the hearts of unfortunate captives and offering them up in skull-shaped bowls as bali (sacrifice) to the “Tibetan terror gods.”19 One such “Tantric” ritual slaughter occurred in Kobdo in the summer of 1912, just before Ungern arrived on the scene. In February 1914, the Russian consul in Kobdo arrested Ja Lama and Cossack troops, possibly including Ungern, and escorted the captive to exile in Russia. Did Ja Lama become a role model for the Baron, or even a religious inspiration?
A Tibetan angle figures prominently in Ungern’s subsequent Mongolian escapade. The Living Buddha was himself a son of the Land of Eternal Snows, and a small Tibetan community dwelled in Urga. A hundred or so of these men formed a special sotnia (squadron) in the Baron’s forces and played a critical part in the assault on Urga by snatching the Bogdo from under the noses of his Chinese guards. The Chinese and Mongols were convinced that the feat had been accomplished through sorcery. These Tibetans maintained a distance from the rest of the Baron’s army; apparently others were put off by their habit of dining out of bowls made from gilded human skulls, perhaps the same sort of vessels used in Ja Lama’s sacrificial rites.
The Tibetan nexus also provided the Baron with a link to Lhasa and the Dalai Lama, to whom he addressed personal letters. After his power in Mongolia collapsed, Ungern dreamed of leading the remnants of his division to far-off Tibet and putting himself at the service of the Buddhist holy man.20 The prospect of this gruelling, and potentially suicidal, trek was the final straw in provoking mutiny against the Baron.
Also serving under Ungern in his Mongolian adventure were fifty or so Japanese soldiers. This has fuelled accusations that he was a cat’s paw of Japanese imperialism. While it is clear that the Japanese military monitored the Baron’s activities and thought he might be useful, it is equally evident that they had no real control over him. Still, his tiny Japanese contingent received better rations and the unique privilege of consuming alcohol.21 Japanese military records suggest that the men were “mostly petty adventurers” acting on their own accord, but that is far from clear.22 Their commander, a Major or Captain Suzuki, had met the Baron in 1919 at a “Pan-Mongol Congress” and the pair maintained a special and secretive friendship.
An intriguing possibility is that Suzuki was not an emissary of the Mikado’s Army but of one of the secret societies that permeated it, such as the Black Dragon Society or the even more secretive Green Dragon Society. The latter was based in a sect of esoteric Buddhism, and its Pan-Asiatic, Pan-Buddhist agenda meshed with Ungern’s own beliefs.23 The Baron felt that the West had lost its spiritual moorings and had entered a stage of moral and cultural disintegration. The Russian Revolution was but a manifestation of this advanced corruption. Only in the East, specifically in Buddhism, did he see a force capable of resisting this decay and restoring spiritual order in the West.
The Baron’s Lamas and Fortune-Tellers
Ungern was fascinated by all forms of divination. He allegedly carried a deck of Tarot cards with him, even in the heat of battle. As noted, in Kobdo he consorted with lama soothsayers and in Urga he surrounded himself with a small army of fortune-tellers (tsurukhaichi), sorcerers and shamans.24 Aloishin recalls that the Baron’s diviners were forever consulting the roasted shoulder blades of sheep, pouring over the cracks “to determine where the troops must be stationed, and how to advance against the enemy.”25 On other occasions, Ungern ordered his troops to stop “at various places in accordance with old Mongolian prophecies.”26
The Baron’s staff physician, Dr. N. M. Riabukhin, damned the fortune-tellers as “brazen, filthy, ignorant and bow-legged” and decried the fact that Ungern “never took any important step” without consulting them. The soothsayers convinced him that he was the incarnation of Tsagan Burkhan, the God of War. To White officer Boris Volkov, the Baron’s dependency on these types seemed proof of the “moronic mentality of the degenerate who imagined himself the saviour of Russia.”27
Prior to his advance in Red Siberia, Ungern spent 20,000 precious Mexican dollars to hire thousands of lamas to “perform for him elaborate services in the temples and to call to his assistance all their mystic powers.”28 One drugged shamaness’s prediction of the Baron’s approaching doom proved eerily accurate, and helped convince him to undertake the disastrous invasion.29 The fortune-telling lamas failed him when they counselled a two day delay in the attack on Troitskosavsk, a key border town.30 This gave the Reds opportunity to bring up reinforcements and repel the assault. Later, officers bribed a Buriat fortune-teller to change his predictions, which led Ungern to call-off further advance and order retreat to Mongolia.31
But if Ungern was influenced – and mislead – by the supernatural, he also knew how to use it to his advantage. Prior to his final attack on Urga, he dispatched fortune-tellers into the city where they “filled the Chinese soldiery with superstitious fear” by predicting his imminent arrival and spreading rumours that the White Baron was immune to bullets and could appear and disappear at will.32 He also ordered nightly bonfires set on the surrounding hills. His Mongol agents told the credulous Chinese that the fires were Ungern offering sacrifices to the spirits who would take their vengeance on the sons of China.33
One person struck early by the Baron’s peculiar nature was mystical philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling who knew Roman and his brother Constantin from childhood. Keyserling later regarded the Baron as “the most remarkable person I have ever had the good fortune to meet,” but also a mass of contradictions.34 He saw Ungern as one whose “nature was suspended… in the void between heaven and hell,” someone “capable of highest intuition and loving kindness” alongside “the most profound aptitude for the metaphysics of cruelty.”35 The Baron’s metaphysical ideas, Keyserling believed, were “closely related to those of the Tibetans and Hindus.”36 Keyserling was convinced that Roman possessed the occult power of “second sight” and “the faculty of prophecy.”
Keyserling was not the only one to come to such conclusions. Years later, fascist and occult philosopher Julius Evola opined that Baron Ungern possessed “supernormal faculties” including clairvoyance and the ability to “look into the souls” of others.37 Ferdynand Ossendowski claimed that he did exactly that at their initial meeting. “I have been in your soul and know all,” the Baron proclaimed, and Ossendowski’s life was secure.38
Much the same is repeated in the testimony of others who knew Ungern. Aloishin thought the Baron patently insane but also felt that he “possessed a dangerous power of reading people’s thoughts.”39 He recounts how Ungern would inspect recruits by staring into each man’s face, “hold that gaze for a few moments, and then bark: ‘To the army’; ‘Back to the cattle’; ‘Liquidate’.”40 Riabukhin mentions that on their first meeting “it was as though the Baron wanted to leap into my soul.”41 Another anonymous officer recounts that “Ungern looked at everyone with the eyes of a beast of prey,” and this instilled fear in all who met him.42 A Polish soldier in Mongol service, Alexander Alexandrowicz, accepted the Baron’s “second sight,” but believed that it was his “superior” intellect that helped him “size up any man in a few minutes.”43
The Mysterious Ferdynand Ossendowski
Arguably, no one did more to create the prevailing image of Baron Ungern than the above noted Polish writer Ferdynand Ossendowski. However, he is a far from an impeccable source. Prior to his encounter with the Baron, Ossendowski had a long history as spy, intriguer and purveyor of fraudulent documents. He almost certainly was an agent of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. In 1917-18 he was mixed-up with the infamous Sisson Documents, a fake (if fundamentally accurate) dossier on German-Bolshevik intrigues.44 Later, in Siberia, Ossendowski served White “Supreme Ruler” Admiral Kolchak as an economic adviser and, probably, a spy. Ossendowski arrived in Mongolia as a refugee from the Red tide. In his widely-read 1922 book Beasts, Men and Gods, the Pole describes his meeting with the “Bloody Baron” in vivid detail, and not without some sympathy for the subject. Nevertheless, Ossendowski knew that “standing before me was a dangerous man,” and that “I felt some tragedy, some horror in every movement of Baron Ungern.”45 Nor did Ossendowski mince words about the climate of fear that gripped Urga under the Baron. He describes Ungern’s brace of murderous underlings such as the psychotic “strangler” Leonid Sipailov, the equally repellent Evgeny Burdukovsky and the sadistic Dr. Klingenberg. What Ossendowski conveniently side-steps is the mystery of his own survival in that precarious environment.
In the views of others who witnessed the Baron’s rule, Ossendowski was not just lucky and no innocent observer. Konstantin Noskov notes that from the moment of his arrival in Mongolia, “Professor” Ossendowski played “a strange role understood by no one.”46 “He interfered in everything,” adds Noskov, “quarrelled very skilfully [and] wove complicated political intrigue….” Pershin charges that Ossendowski was another who exploited Ungern’s obsession with the supernatural, a view echoed by one of the Baron’s officers, K.I. Lavrent’ev.47 By encouraging “the Baron’s faith in occultism and other things of the beyond,” Ossendowski became an “adviser” to the Baron, which may explain a later claim that the Pole became Ungern’s “chief of intelligence.”48
Ossendowski, according to Pershin, “wormed his way into a position close to the Baron” and so “extracted all the advantages he wanted.”49 Those included money and safe passage to Manchuria “in comfort and, perhaps, with something more than that.” Dr. Riabukhin and Noskov both recall that Ossendowski was inexplicably the sole survivor among a group of refugees whose other members were murdered on Ungern’s orders.50 Boris Volkov adds that Ossendowski played a key role in formulating the Baron’s infamous and “mystical” Order #15, and so secured his life and a large sum of money.51 Noskov flatly declares that Ossendowski was the author of the Order.52
“Order #15,” the closest Ungern ever came to outlining a philosophy or mission, deserves closer examination. Since the Baron was not in the habit of issuing numbered orders, the #15 is meaningless in that context. According to Aloishin, that number and the date of its issue were more work of the “learned lamas” who picked them as lucky numerals.53 Basically, the Order outlines a grandiose scheme to initiate an ever-expanding wave of counter-revolution that would cleanse Russia of its radical contagion and restore the Romanov throne under the late Tsar Nicholas’s brother, Mikhail Alexandrovich. The Baron, as many others, was not aware that Mikhail had been dead since June 1918. The Order proclaimed that “the evil which has come to Earth in order to destroy the divine principle of the human soul must be destroyed at the root,” and that “the punishment may be only one: the death penalty, in various degrees.”54
The most notorious article, though, was #9 which declared that “Commissars, Communists and Jews, together with their families, shall be destroyed.” The Baron had a pathological hatred of Jews, and wherever his power held sway there was a ruthless extermination of that community. Even Pershin, who felt that “stories concerning [Ungern’s] mercilessness have been much exaggerated,” admitted that the mass killing of Jews was regrettably true and that the Baron was implacable on the matter.55 Volkov felt that Ungern used pogroms as a tool to exploit anti-Semitism among the émigrés and troops, but there was an almost religious zeal to his hatred. In a letter to a White Russian associate in Peking, the Baron warned against “international Judaism” and even the insidious influence of “Jewish capitalists” who were an “omnipresent, though very often undetected, enemy.”56 At his trial, the Baron assured his Jewish, Bolshevik prosecutor, Emelian Yaroslavsky, that “the Communist International was organised 3,000 years ago at Babylon.”57 In his feelings towards Jews, Ungern certainly prefigures the Nazi mentality, and much the same could be said for his whole weird mixture of mystical anti-modernism.
In August 1921, the Baron’s despotic reign came to an end when desperate officers of the Asiatic Mounted Division staged a coup against him and his dwindling cadre of loyalists. Almost miraculously, Ungern escaped the general slaughter and found a brief, final refuge among his Mongol soldiers. They too soon abandoned him to the approaching Reds, but without harming a hair on his head; they were still convinced that he was the Tsagan Burkhan and could not be killed.58
The Soviets suffered from no such delusions. At his trial in Novo-Nikolaevsk, he was a calm, even dignified, prisoner. He had foreseen his fate and accepted it. The prosecution was most interested in portraying him as an agent of the Japanese, which he denied. However, the Baron readily admitted to mass killings and other atrocities. So far as his brutal discipline was concerned, he proclaimed himself a believer in a system that had existed “since Frederick the Great.”59 He went before the firing squad quite convinced that someday he would be back.
A final point brings us back to Ossendowski, who claimed that the Baron sought contact with the mythical subterranean kingdom of Agarthi and its mysterious ruler, the “King of the World.”60 Agarthi, of course, is identical with Agarttha or Shambhala, a mystical land enshrined in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. In the early twentieth century, the story was picked-up and elaborated by Western esoteric writers such as Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre and Nikolai Roerich who believed that it described an actual realm hidden somewhere in northern Tibet or a nearby Central Asia. By an interesting coincidence, another officer in Ungern’s Division was Vladimir Konstantinovich Roerich, Nikolai’s younger brother. Then again, perhaps it was no coincidence at all. But that brings us to a story that is best saved for a following article: “Red Star over Shambhala: Soviet, British and American Intelligence and the Search for Lost Civilisation in Asia.”
1. Ferdinand Ossendowski, Beasts, Men and Gods [BMG] (New York: Dutton, 1922), 238.
2. Konstantin Noskov, The Black Year: The White Russians in Mongolia in the Year 1921 (Harbin, 1930), 75.
4. Tsagan Burkhan roughly translates as “White God” but can also be used to mean “White Buddha.” The use of the term for Ungern seems to have started among his Buriat troops and spread to other Mongols.
5. Markus Osterrieder, “From Synarchy to Shambhala: The Role of Political Occultism and Social Messianism in the Activities of Nicholas Roerich,” presented at “The Occult in 20th Century Russia: Metaphysical Roots of Soviet Civilization,” Munich, March 2007, 10, n. 51.
6. Boris Volkov, About Ungern (trans. Elena Varneck), 6 , Hoover Institution Archives [HIA], Stanford, CA,.
7. Izvestiya (23 Sept. 1921). Standard genealogy puts the beginning of the line in the mid-13th century with one Hanss von Ungern or Johannes de Ungaria who took service under the Bishop of Riga: Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels (Glueksburg: C.A. Starke, 1952), 467.
8. Marquis de Custine, Empire of the Czar: A Journey through Eternal Russia (New York: Anchor, 1989), 61-65.
9. Vladimir Pozner, The Bloody Baron: the Story of Ungern-Sternberg (New York: Random House, 1938), 50-51.
10. I. V. Ladygin, “Chetyre mifa o barone Ungerne,” http//army.armor.kiev.ua/hist/ungern.shtml.
11. D. Pershin, “Baron Ungern, Urga, i Altan Bulak,” 113, HIA, Stanford.
12. Paul du Quenoy, “Warlordism a la russe: Baron von Ungern-Sternberg’s Anti-Bolshevik Crusade, 1917-21,” Revolutionary Russia, Vol. 16, #2 (December 2003), 4. This article provides an excellent overview of Ungern’s career.
13. Pozner, 81-82.
14. Baron Petr N. Vrangel’ (Wrangel), “Yuzhnyi front,” Beloe delo, Vol. V (1927), 12-13.
15. Ossendowski, “With Baron Ungern in Mongolia,” Asia, Vol. 22, #8 (1922), 618.
16. Pershin, 53c.
17. Boris Volkov, “On Ungern,” 45, trans. by Elena Varneck, HIA, Stanford.
18. Dmitri Aloishin, Asian Odyssey (New York: Henry Holt, 1940), 230.
19. Charles R Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia (New York; Praeger, 1969), 198.
20. N. M. Riabukhin, “The Story of Baron Ungern Sternberg As Told by His Staff Physician,” 30, trans. by Elena Varneck, HIA, Stanford.
21. Volkov, 47.
22. Fujiko Isono, “The Mongolian Revolution of 1921,” Modern Asia Studies, Vol. 10, #3 (1976), 388.
23. My thanks to the late Charles Rice for this information.
24. Pershin, 53c.
25. Aloishin, 228. See also Ossendowski, BMG, 218.
26. Aloishin, 231.
27. Volkov, 5.
28. Aloishin, 258.
29. Osssendowski, “Baron,” 661-662.
30. Riabukhin, 23, and Volkov, 42.
31. Riabukhin., 28.
32. Pershin, 45.
33. Ibid., 49.
34. Pozner, 81.
35. Hermann Keyseling, Creative Understanding (New York: Harper, 1929), 276 and Pozner, 81-82.
37. Julius Evola, “Ungern-Sternberg, el Baron Sanguinario,” trans. from Roma (9 Feb. 1973).
38. Ossendowski, “Baron,” 615.
39. Aloishin, 229.
41. Riabukhin, 2.
42. Ungernovets, “Memories of Ungern-Sternberg: Memories of a Participant” (c. 1933), 11, trans. by Elena Varneck, Varneck Collection, HIA.
43. Rene Guenon. Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2001), 311.
44. George Kennan, “The Sisson Documents,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 28, #2 (June 1956), 130-154.
45. Ossendowsky, BMG, 226.
46. Noskov, 14.
47. Pershin, 53c.
48. Osterrieder, 11, n. 70.
49. Pershin, 53c.
50. Noskov, 16.
51. Volkov, 6.
52. Noskov, 26
53. Aloishin, 258.
54. “Order No. 15 issued by Baron Ungern Sternberg,” trans. by Elena Varneck, Varneck Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, 5.
55. Pershin, 59, 59c, 66, 75. See also Volkov, 15, 20, 26, 50.
56. Ungern to “Grigorii,” (20 May 1921), 7-8, “Letters Captured from Baron Ungern in Mongolia,” HIA, Stanford.
57. “Trial of Ungern,” from Izvestiya (23 Sept. 1921), trans. by Elena Varneck, Varneck Collection, HIA, Stanford.
58. Aloishin, 267-268.
59. “Trial,” Ibid.
60. Ossendowski, BMG, 301-312.
© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
For our reproduction notice, click here.