The Tsar's Last Imperialist: the Outrageous Life of Baron Ungern von Shternberg
In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Willard Sunderland presented his research into a biography of Baron Ungern von Sternberg, the notorious leader of the anti-Bolshevik movement in far Eastern Russia between 1917 and 1921.
Ungern von Sternberg, who has been called "the bloody baron," provided vicious resistance to the Reds in the Civil War and by 1921 had led a charge into Manchuria and established himself as de facto ruler of Mongolia. His brutality on the battlefield, with local populations, and among his own troops was well known, as were his anti-semitic views. He was executed in 1921, after his men committed treason and delivered him to the Bolshevik forces.
Sunderland's biography of von Sternberg seeks to place the man in his context and to avoid the over-dramatization that this barbaric figure has often received by both scholars and popular biographers. Rather than focus on his violent acts, Sunderland outlines the "networks of obsessions" that defined him: empire, violence, and the divine.
According to Sunderland, von Sternberg was very strongly tied to the notion of empire. As a member of a Baltic German noble family, his ancestors had served Russian tsars for over 200 years, and were at the top of the hierarchy of minorities in the Russian Empire. He was truly multicultural, speaking six languages and mixing Lutheran, Orthodox, and Eastern religious beliefs. He lived and served his tsar throughout the empire, in particular in eastern Siberia. Sunderland suggested that to von Sternberg, the Empire was a very positive influence, and one that must be restored at all costs.
Sunderland also delved into the violent nature of von Sternberg. Sunderland reminded the audience that von Sternberg lived in a world of violence, some of which was legitimate for a country in the midst of a revolution and Civil War, and some which was not. From his early days, von Sternberg was marked by bad conduct, and his time in military schools and then in the tsar's army did little to quell any violent tendencies that may have pre-existed. In 1921 his belief in violence as a tool to regain power was made clear in his "Decree #15," which Sunderland described as a denunciation of Bolsheviks, Jews, and Western civilization.
Finally, Sunderland turned to von Sternberg's deep religious beliefs in order to give a full picture of the man. Although he was not a churchgoer, Sunderland's research uncovered a deep mysticism and a constant search for religious meaning. Eventually, von Sternberg found that meaning in a mix of Christianity and Eastern religion: he combined Christian notions of the end of time (in von Sternberg's case, the Russian Revolution, which he saw as being imported from the West) and the coming of a new order, which he felt would come from the East.
Sunderland concluded that this new, broader vision of von Sternberg will not rehabilitate him, as his savagery and crimes were real and odious. However, it may approach a fuller understanding of the man within the context of his time, his formative experiences, and his end goals.