‘The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution’

By Willard Sunderland

Published by Cornell University Press

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Using Baron von Ungern-Sternberg as his focus, William Sunderland has written a compelling account of Russia in War & Revolution.

Ungern was an anti-Bolshevik warlord in the Russian Civil War. In the chaos of war, he amazingly managed to take control of Outer Mongolia from the Chinese forces that occupied it in 1921.

Ungern was part of a notable Baltic-German family, whose first loyalty was to the Imperial Russian Empire they lived in. Ungern was in the Imperial Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War, a disastrous war for Russia, and one they learnt few lessons from. He subsequently served in Siberia where he became enamoured with the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols and Buryats. Ungern was very much a man born out of time, even then he did not fit in, but the coming of the Great War brought purpose for a man like Ungern, where he displayed a reckless bravery that bordered on madness. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Ungern joined forces with corrupt warlord Semyonov (backed by the Japanese) to fight the Bolsheviks. Unusually among many of the White Russian leaders, Ungern did not line his own pockets at the expense of his men, that and his bravery would amount to his sole virtues. Ungern was made governor of Dauria by Semyonov, where he formed his multi-ethnic Asiatic Cavalry Division.

Known as ‘The Mad Baron’, Ungern was a bizarre individual, even by the standards of the chaos of World War One, and the Russian Revolutions, and subsequent Russian Civil War. He combined mystical esoteric Buddhism with arch-conservatism. Believing that monarchs were the only form of government that worked, he aspired to revive the Russian monarchy by making Michael Romanov tsar in place of his late brother, who had been murdered, along with his family, by the Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg. Ungern was unaware that Michael had also been murdered. Ungern also wanted to revive the Great Mongol Empire under the Bogd Khan. In many respects, Ungern was like a real-life Colonel Kurtz, he in his own very unique world. After years of fighting, he invaded Southern Siberia in support of anti-Bolshevik rebellions, this led to his final defeat and capture at the hands of the Red Army.

After a show trial, Ungern was found guilty (a foregone conclusion, the Bolsheviks never would have had a ‘trial’ if Ungern wasn’t going to be sentenced to death, and Ungern, in any case, pleaded guilty to the charges, he didn’t consider he’d done anything wrong in the first place). Ungern was executed on September 15, 1921, but the fact that people are still writing about him almost a century later proves, his myth endures, and yet, as this well-written book proves, the reality was far more extraordinary, Sunderland also does a fine job in explaining the world and events that formed the backdrop to Ungern’s life.