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.