As the debate over the true relationship between ISIS and Islamic tradition grinds on, historians of 20th-century Mongolia must be wondering why no one is talking about Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg.
In the early 1920s, Ungern-Sternberg carved out a religiously inspired pseudo-state based in Ulaanbaatar, terrorizing its inhabitants with sadistic public murders to fulfill his messianic dream of a restored empire. His story is instructive for anyone trying to understand what’s unique and what isn’t about the Islamic State.
Like all historical analogies, the parallel here is imperfect: Ungern-Sternberg had a broad, bristling mustache, while ISIS’s nominal leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has a beard. Also, Ungern-Sternberg was Buddhist. But in assessing ISIS today, it’s worth remembering that almost a century ago, the chaos and violence of the Russian Civil War helped foster a particularly brutal version of a religion that is now better known for peace.
Ungern-Sternberg was an officer in the Russian army and the descendant of a long line of Baltic German nobility who had served the tsar. The baron fought for the Russians in World War I and continued to fight for the White Army against the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution. In 1920, when the conflict had ranged across the Russian Empire for several years, momentum started to shift decisively in the Bolsheviks’ favor. Ungern-Sternberg, who was in Siberia, organized a small army of defeated White Russian soldiers and set out to conquer Mongolia. From this nearby territory, wedged between Russia and China, the baron and his men hoped to avoid death at the hands of the Bolsheviks while mobilizing for a renewed campaign to liberate Russia from communist control. In Mongolia, however, he became embroiled in a two-front fight with not only the Bolsheviks, but also the Chinese forces in control of the country. Advancing on the capital of Ulaanbaatar, he sought to win the support of the local population by promising liberation from Chinese rule. He also made disloyalty too terrifying to contemplate.
In the case of ISIS, it was Sunni fighters who had been on the losing side of Iraq’s civil war who founded a state in Syria, then returned to Iraq to retake cities like Mosul from the Iraqi government—just as Ungern-Sternberg had planned to take Russia back from the Bolsheviks. Civil war provided the context in which both ISIS’s leaders and Ungern-Sternberg came to rely on systematic and highly visible atrocities to consolidate their rule, at a moment when years of savage, disorganized violence had desensitized populations. Like ISIS, Ungern-Sternberg harnessed this violence to establish a modicum of order.
In Mongolia, Ungern-Sternberg executed deserters and recruits who did not meet his expectations. Stories of the baron’s bloodlust abound, and the author Peter Hopkirk compiled some of the most sensational. Captives were allegedly buried alive, burned at the stake, and thrown into the boilers of trains. One witness asserted that in Ulaanbaatar, the baron sentenced a baker’s dishonest apprentice to be baked to death in his own oven. Another claimed that the baron hung three men accused of stealing brandy over the door of the shop they robbed … until the shopkeeper, worried about losing business, begged him to remove the bodies.
Contemporary biographers of Ungern-Sternberg have struggled to paint a reliable portrait of the man out of rumors and shaky sources. But the results do little to vindicate him. In trying to sort myth from reality, for example, the historian James Boyd argues that contrary to some reports, the baron didn’t allow rampant looting in Ulaanbaatar; he actually prevented it by immediately hanging looters. And Sergius Kuzmin of the Russian Academy of Sciences issues such remarkable corrections as, “Ungern maimed doctor Klingenberg not for the death of Bayar Gung at Kyakhta, but for not rendering medical assistance to wounded Chakhars.” The veracity of a particularly damning account by one of Ungern-Sternberg’s officers, Dmitri Alioshin, has also been hotly disputed. Alioshin accuses the baron of whipping men to death, burning them alive, and feeding them to wolves. But Boyd argues the wolves might be more of a literary trope. Another historiographical note, offered by Kuzmin in the baron’s defense, vividly captures the horror of the period: Alioshin’s memoirs “described the story of poisoning of wounded men in the field hospital by A.F. Klingenberg, as if it was ordered by Ungern. However, memoirs by Golubev and A.S. Makeev provided more reliable and detailed data: lieutenant colonel Laurentz, on behalf of the baron, ordered medical attendant Logunov to poison wounded men, for which he was shot by Ungern’s order.” Even the most cautious accounts, in other words, make clear that Ungern-Sternberg’s ruthlessness was real enough.
So too was the religious dimension of his exploits. During a pre-war visit to Mongolia, the baron had converted from Christianity to a strange form of mystic Buddhism. His never-fully articulated interpretation of the faith, with which he sometimes mixed bits of Christian eschatology, was probably just as bizarre to most Buddhists as ISIS’s strain of Islam is to Muslims today. But as Ungern-Sternberg amassed power, people found political and personal reasons to play along with his desire for religious legitimacy. One of his first moves after attacking Ulaanbaatar was to free Mongolia’s Buddhist leader and former king, the Bogd Khan, who was being held under house arrest by the Chinese. The Bogd Khan was a high-ranking member of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy and had his own political agenda in Mongolia, which he felt the baron might help him advance. And so the Bogd Khan bestowed an official blessing on the baron, granting religious sanction to Ungern-Sternberg’s rule. According to one of the more extravagant accounts, he endorsed the baron’s claim to being “the incarnated God of War and Khan of grateful Mongolia.” Other scholars render the title more modestly as “Great Hero General, Builder of the State,” or simply, “Hereditary Grand Duke Darkhan Khoshoi Chin Wang in the dignity of Khan.”
Beyond the rhetoric, it’s hard to tell how exactly Buddhism shaped Ungern-Sternberg’s rule. In the course of invading Mongolia, the baron supposedly received advice from the oracle bones of his soothsayers and a detachment of bodyguards from the Dalai Lama. Rumors spread that he enjoyed divine protection; that he once killed a Chinese officer and two men with only a bamboo stick; and that in another battle 74 bullets had entered his overcoat and saddle but left him untouched. Ungern-Sternberg cast his struggle against communism in starkly religious terms as well, arguing that the Bolsheviks, who sought to destroy faith itself, needed to be dealt with severely. Buddhism appeared to influence the baron’s political ambitions and propensity for violence as well. Some sources claimed that Ungern-Sternberg envisioned “a great State from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the shore of the Volga,” in which “the wise religion of the Buddha shall run to the north and the west.” Or he may have imagined a “central Mongolian empire” under the Bogd Khan, where Buddhism enjoyed the support of a restored Manchu Khanate in Beijing. As for the violence employed to realize this dream, Alioshin states that the baron’s “Buddhist teachers taught him about reincarnation, and he firmly believed that in killing the feeble people he only did them good, as they would be stronger beings in their next life.”
By 1921, Ungern-Sternberg had consolidated his rule in Ulaanbaatar and decided to return and liberate Russia. Driven by an aggressive, reckless strategy, the baron set out for Siberia. Before leaving, he issued an order that seemingly epitomized his madness. “[C]ommissars, communists, and Jews are to be eliminated together with their families,” he allegedly declared: “Today only one form of punishment is acceptable—death by varying degrees.”
But the Russians were prepared. The Red Army ambushed Ungern-Sternberg’s forces shortly after they crossed the border, forcing them to withdraw and regroup. At this point, it seems, the baron’s demoralized troops turned against him. There are different versions of the mutiny, but when Soviet forces seized him, the baron had already been betrayed by his own men. At an ensuing Soviet trial, Ungern-Sternberg was defiant. One report claims that when told he could save himself by singing the Internationale, a Bolshevik anthem, he demanded his judges sing the old Russian anthem instead. Another fanciful account, from the Polish adventurer and reputed fabulist Ferdinand Ossendowski, holds that the baron’s eventual execution took place on the exact day that his demise had been foretold by Buddhist seers.
Without the benefit of such prophecy, projecting historical parallels into the future is a dangerous business. But a few points are worth considering in regards to ISIS. The cruelty and capriciousness of the baron’s rule ultimately alienated his followers, and his messianic worldview did not prove conducive to sound strategic thinking. Yet if these factors contributed to Ungern-Sternberg’s downfall, it is also worth recalling that it was the victory of Soviet forces and the establishment of the Soviet-allied Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924 that finally brought an authoritarian form of stability to the region. Relative to the baron, the Red Army’s brutality was less flamboyant and its messianic mindset more secular. But its style was not entirely dissimilar.
Setting aside the obsessive debate over the Islamic nature of ISIS makes it easier to see the group’s political and structural context: how the Islamic State’s savagery built on the brutal legacies of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, and the broader conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It also suggests a grim prospect: Whatever power replaces ISIS—be it secular, Islamist, or unexpectedly Buddhist—may be only marginally less vicious than its predecessor.