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19 September 2018


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The Baron's Cloak

by Willard Sunderland (Cornell, $35)

Born to Austrian nobility, a soldier of the Russian empire, a Cossack, a megalomaniacal, murderous anti-revolutionary, Baron Roman Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg was a reflection of his age. The turning of the twentieth century through the First World War was a time of great flux and modernization, when empires tore apart at their seams, when millions were sacrificed on the crucible of ideas, when a single soldier could muster a small force and commandeer a nation.

For Ungern, notorious for his cruelty, anti-Semitism, and ruthless leadership as a White commander during the Russian Civil War, that nation was Mongolia, and he (almost unwittingly, it seems) sought, in the final year of his life, to make it the vanguard of a new Asiatic power to counteract the scourge of Bolshevism. He failed in his “campaign” to take Mongolia (which Sunderland shows to be far less intentional than has been ascribed), was captured and shot. Yet he also partially succeeded, in that Mongolia gained a semi-autonomy that lasted through the Soviet era.

Unlike other accounts of Ungern, Sunderland does not give overmuch attention to this final year of his life, instead focusing on the broader sweep of events, on the full arc of Ungern’s life from Austria to Estland, from Trans-Baikal to Mongolia. In part, this is because there is really very little to know about Ungern, but also because Sunderland wants to show how the multinational, ever-bored Ungern was an apt, if sociopathic, mirror of his times. The effort succeeds and this is a fine history of the era.


— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2015