Thursday, July 01, 2010

Book Review: The Bloody White Baron - James Palmer

Insane, murderous and worshipped as a god, no not your humble reviewer, but the subject of The Bloody White Baron, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, an infamous White Russian commander in the Civil War.

This biography of Baron Ungern-Sternberg is James Palmer's first book. Ungern was born into the Estonian German nobility of the Russian Empire and seems to have had an awkward childhood being made to leave a number of schools before going to a military academy. He became a junior officer in the Imperial Russian Army with a cavalry regiment in Siberia, where he became fascinated by the Mongol and Buryat nomads. Due to disciplinary problems he was moved between regiments and sent away from active service with his violent behaviour remaining a problem through his life.

Ungern was recalled to the military with the outbreak of the First World War, gaining a reputation for reckless courage, but still being indisciplined. Under the Provisional Government he was sent back to Siberia to establish stable military units there before the October Revolution. Joining the White Russians in the Transbaikal region after the revolution he served under Semonov as part of the Siberian forces that undermined Admiral Kolchak's forces by stealing their supplies being sent across the Trans-Siberian railway.

Splitting from Semonov, Ungern lead a small army into Mongolia to drive out the Chinese. He eventually succeeded, setting the Bogd Khan as spiritual leader and becoming dictator. The Bolsheviks establishing control of Siberia started to attack Mongolia. Ungern's troops rebelled against his irrational cruelty as he led them against them, ending in his overthrow and capture by the Red Army.

Ungern's life, like that of many minor historical figures, suffers from being poorly documented which means that in places Palmer does have to speculate, but there is enough information used to avoid this being wild guesses. There is also a depiction of Mongolia and its history in the early Twentieth Century stuck between the Russian Empire and China, both of which had territorial ambitions over it and at times Palmer slips into writing a travel book about his research in Mongolia rather than concentrating on Ungern's life. I did find that this helped to give a sense of the region that the action occurred in. The writing is clear and tends to avoid being either academically dessicated or slipping into purple prose.

Palmer has chosen to try and portray the intellectual milieu of the Russian aristocracy in the period where Buddhism, Theosophy and pan-Asian ideas were popular and undoubtedly influenced Ungern. The discussion of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism was interesting in showing aspects of Buddhist beliefs that are different from the usual western views of it as being a peaceful religion.

One irritation with the book is the lack of illustrations and only having two maps in the front it is hard to relate to some of Palmer's commentary on images of the protagonists or the terrain of Mongolia and Siberia. This criticism can also be applied to the descriptions of the Buddhist temples in Mongolia and China and the images of the warlike gods included. Footnotes have been used to show the sources and an index and bibliography are included.

Overall this is an interesting and entertaining biography of a figure that has maintained a shadowy presence in popular culture and I would recommend it.

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