Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Baron’s Cloak

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

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Baron’s Cloak
    Book Description:

    Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (1885-1921) was a Baltic German aristocrat and tsarist military officer who fought against the Bolsheviks in Eastern Siberia during the Russian Civil War. From there he established himself as the de facto warlord of Outer Mongolia, the base for a fantastical plan to restore the Russian and Chinese empires, which then ended with his capture and execution by the Red Army as the war drew to a close.

    In The Baron's Cloak, Willard Sunderland tells the epic story of the Russian Empire's final decades through the arc of the Baron's life, which spanned the vast reaches of Eurasia. Tracking Ungern's movements, he transits through the Empire's multinational borderlands, where the country bumped up against three other doomed empires, the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Qing, and where the violence unleashed by war, revolution, and imperial collapse was particularly vicious. In compulsively readable prose that draws on wide-ranging research in multiple languages, Sunderland recreates Ungern's far-flung life and uses it to tell a compelling and original tale of imperial success and failure in a momentous time.

    Sunderland visited the many sites that shaped Ungern's experience, from Austria and Estonia to Mongolia and China, and these travels help give the book its arresting geographical feel. In the early chapters, where direct evidence of Ungern's activities is sparse, he evokes peoples and places as Ungern would have experienced them, carefully tracing the accumulation of influences that ultimately came together to propel the better documented, more notorious phase of his career

    Recurring throughout Sunderland's magisterial account is a specific artifact: the Baron's cloak, an essential part of the cross-cultural uniform Ungern chose for himself by the time of his Mongolian campaign: an orangey-gold Mongolian kaftan embroidered in the Khalkha fashion yet outfitted with tsarist-style epaulettes on the shoulders. Like his cloak, Ungern was an imperial product. He lived across the Russian Empire, combined its contrasting cultures, fought its wars, and was molded by its greatest institutions and most volatile frontiers. By the time of his trial and execution mere months before the decree that created the USSR, he had become a profoundly contradictory figure, reflecting both the empire's potential as a multinational society and its ultimately irresolvable limitations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7107-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    On either September 15 or 16, 1921, Ungern took off his cloak. Or perhaps someone took it from him. Shortly after that he was shot.

    The cloak, technically speaking, is adeel, the traditional dress of Mongolian nomads. With a wide base and narrow collar, it runs about four feet from top to bottom, with two broad sleeves almost as long as the garment itself hanging from the sides. We can tell that this particular deel belonged to someone important because of the color, a rich shade of orangey-gold usually reserved for nobles, and the fact that it is made...

    (pp. 12-24)

    Leechgasse begins just beyond the limits of the Inner Town (Innere Stadt), the early core of Graz once bounded by the city wall. From there, the street runs east, away from the old town, cutting a swath for about a mile through the comfortable residential area of Geidorf. Baron Nikolai Roman Max von Ungern-Sternberg was born on this street, in house Number 5, on January 10, 1886.¹

    The details of the day are unknown, but we know at least that he entered the world among his own kind. Of the twenty-six houses that stood on the street that year, nine...

    (pp. 25-42)

    Hiiumaa Island lies twelve miles off the western coast of Estonia in the Baltic Sea. In the late nineteenth century, this small outcrop of windswept rock was one of the westernmost fringes of the Russian Empire, closer to Stockholm and Gotland than St. Petersburg. Today the ferry crossing from the Estonian mainland takes just an hour and a half, but the island still feels like an isolated place.

    Thick birch and pine forests cover much of the land. One sees few cars or people. Here and there the pointy steeples of Lutheran churches poke up amid the treetops. The Ungern-Sternberg...

    (pp. 43-62)

    During the age of Peter the Great, the Russians began to call their country an empire (imperiia). The new name was part of a great change. Inspired by the mercantile powers of England, Holland, and Sweden, the tsar and his lieutenants forced the Muscovite boyars to turn toward northern Europe, and a series of adjustments quickly followed. Pantaloons replaced kaftans. Beards were shaved. Wives and daughters were instructed to enter “society.” Weapons, taxes, maps, and government offices were transformed or copied to match the European style. And all of this lodged itself in the new state name.Imperiiawas a...

    (pp. 63-82)

    Russians in Ungern’s time were used to thinking of their country as divided into two uneven parts: European Russia (Evropeiskaia Rossiia) on the western side of the Ural Mountains, home to the historical core of the state and its great cities, and Asian Russia (Aziatskaia Rossiia) stretching out to the east, more than twice as vast as the western side but far less developed.

    The famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleev explained the contrast between the two halves as a tale of two centers: the center of the empire’s population, which he situated in a corner of Tambov province not far from...

    (pp. 83-99)

    Ungern left the Trans-Baikal Cossacks in early 1910. The exact circumstances are unclear, but the explanation we usually hear is that he was forced out because of a duel. According to one writer, it was a drunken sword fight rather than a formal standoff, and at least one author places the event a few years later in the Amur region rather than in the Trans-Baikal. The single most important point that seems to carry over from one version to the next is that Ungern was wounded in the head during the contest and that the injury went on to give...

    (pp. 100-123)

    Six months after the parade in Blagoveshchensk and over 1,000 miles away, the young merchant Aleksei Burdukov was making ready to leave the central Mongolian town of Uliastai (now: Uliasutai) for his base in Kobdo (Mongolian: Khovd; Chinese: Kebuduo), a Chinese trading and garrison town in the far western part of the country. Just as he was about to set out, however, he was stopped by the local Russian consul, who asked him to wait: another Russian had just arrived, an officer from the Amur Cossacks, who was also heading in the same direction. Trips between Mongolian towns tended to...

    (pp. 124-140)

    One of the myths of World War I is that it began with an outpouring of happy unanimity on all sides. “As never before, thousands and hundreds of thousands felt. . . that they belonged together,” the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled about the times in Vienna. In St. Petersburg, the Russian nationalist Vasilii Rozanov recorded something similar in his diary: “We will act as one, we will forget all our divisions, all our family quarrels.” “Everywhere,” he added, “there is an excitement for unity, a joy in feeling united.”¹

    In reality, despite these impressions, reactions to the war were...

    (pp. 141-163)

    It’s not clear where Ungern was when the February Revolution began. The Bolsheviks claimed that he was still in the stockade and was then freed shortly thereafter in the wave of amnesties that followed the revolution, but given his short sentence, it’s more likely he had already been released by the time the monarchy fell. (We don’t know the location of the jail either.) Judging from the published summary of his trial in Novonikolaevsk, he seems to have told the tribunal that the army sent him to Vladivostok after his release (presumably for reserve service), but whether he actually reached...

    (pp. 164-189)

    The Mongolian campaign is the best-documented period of Ungern’s life. We find him everywhere now: in Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese documents, Western diplomatic cables, Red Army and Comintern reports, orders from the Asiatic Division, newspapers, memoirs. Most striking of all, some of the new sources are personal, the kind that take us into his thoughts, in particular a handful of letters and the curious Order No. 15 that date from his time in power in Urga as well as the lengthy interrogation transcripts compiled by the Bolsheviks after his capture. The result is a dramatic shift in the story we...

    (pp. 190-208)

    Kiakhta sits among rolling hills in the southern part of Russia’s Buryat Autonomous Republic. With its worn apartment blocks and shady streets lined with sagging log houses, it feels much like the other small towns of the region. Even the fact that the local Lenin statue happens to stand across from an old nineteenth-century church and that both the cathedral and the “genius of the revolution” seem to have gotten a fresh coat of paint in recent years is not terribly unusual, since this is the kind of ideological disconnect one finds all over Russia today. The only remarkable thing...

    (pp. 209-227)

    Ungern would have known from the moment he was captured that he was going to be shot. He later admitted to his interrogators that he tried to take his life on two occasions, first, as soon as he saw the Reds, by reaching for the poison he always kept in the lining of his deel, but it had fallen out of the garment, then later on the way to Kiakhta by trying to hang himself with a pair of horses’ reins. (They were too thick.) Suicide was a gruesome practice of the civil war on both sides, in particular among...

    (pp. 228-234)

    After Ungern’s capture, the Asiatic Division broke into smaller and smaller parts. Some of the men reached Manchuria and were arrested by the Chinese. Some took refuge in the pro-White Russian mission in Beijing. Others were captured by the Reds in Mongolia. The Reds and their Mongol allies continued fighting small White forces in the western part of the country for the next several months, defeating the last of them by early 1922, some of whom were then later tried in Novonikolaevsk in a reprise of the Ungern trial.

    A number of the people who figured in Ungern’s life had...

    (pp. 235-236)
    (pp. 237-238)
  22. NOTES
    (pp. 239-300)
    (pp. 301-334)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 335-344)