The crazy life of white russian Major General Baron Ungern von Sternberg, psychopathic warlord of Mongolia and Military Buddhist.
The Baron Roman Feodorovich (also referred to as Robert Nicholas in some texts) von Ungern-Sternberg was the poster child for the worst elements of the Imperial Russian Officer Corps. Born in 1886 to an ethnic Baltic German family with a long history of service to the Tsar, he was enamored with a desire for everything military. At the age of ten, in 1896, he signed up to be midshipmen in the Russian navy. Placing his education on hold in 1904 when the Russo-Japanese War erupted, he rushed to join to fray. He enlisted as a 19 year old private solider with the 91st Dvinsk Infantry Regiment but found himself disappointed when the unit arrived in the Far East too late for the war. He attended the famous Tsar Paul (Pavlosky) Yunkers academy in St. Petersberg before being posted to the Transbaikal Cossack regiment on the border with China in 1908, as a Lieutenant.
Peacetime barracks life was consumed with vodka binges, games of Coo Coo (a cross between Marco Polo and Hide and Seek using revolvers), and duels with fellow officers. In pursuit of the latter he gained a nasty saber scar on the left side of his head which produced a certain level of insanity, not to mention the scorn of his superior officers.
In 1914, World war one came and the Cossacks were sent to the front. He was decorated in battle on the Carpathian front and served with distinction, rising to the rank of Major by the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. When revolution came, the Baron lost his appointment in the New Revolutionary Army. He was saved from unemployment and exile by then Colonel Gregory Semenov, a Cossack officer of far Eastern decent who picked Sternberg to travel with him to the Far East to form a new division of Asiatic Cavalry for service to the provisional government. The unit was recruited among buryat tribesmen, siberian cossacks, mongolians, and adventurers that thrived on russia’s wild frontier. The Bolshevik revolution found the unit and it’s commanders in it’s infancy in Siberia when Lenin took power.
Now-General Semenov, realizing that he had the strongest most disciplined military force for several hundred miles in any direction, decided to take control of a large section of the Russian Far East along the Trans-Siberian railway. The Russian Civil War erupted in earnest by the end of the year. Sternberg was promoted to the rank of major-general in the new white army, being given command of the Asiatic Cavalry as Semenov declared himself viceroy and supreme commander of his slice of Russia, the “Mongol-Buryat Republic”. The warlord Semenov took largely to banditry all along his fiefdom. In exchange for weapons and munitions from the Japanese Army, he became thier puppet in Siberia.
Late in August 1920, when Semenov along with the other tsarist White Russian armies were driven into Manchuria by the Red Army (Communists), the Baron Sternberg led the 1600 strong remnant of his division into Mongolia. Taking a page from his former commander’s book, he was determined to establish a new Mongol Empire, with himself controlling a figurehead Emperor of his own crowning.
The Mongolian army was only a token force and he found resistance only from occupying Chinese forces. He captured the capital of Urga (today-Ulan Bator) in minus forty degree weather on February 21, 1921, and declared himself dictator on March 3rd. The Chinese had left large stocks of munitions, artillery, and machine guns in the town which Sternberg distributed.
For the next six months, a surreal existence fell over Mongolia as the Baron and his army, now dubbed the Order of Military Buddhists, performed every type of atrocity imaginable including torture and cannibalism. He believed himself the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. He became a convert to the eightfold-path. Interpreting the Buddhist scriptures in his own manner, he believed that in the act of killing the weak he upgraded their position in the universe and they would be reborn as greater beings. He therefore felt that by washing Urga with the blood of innocent people he was saving the world in a cosmic sense, one bullet at a time.
On June 28th in an engagement with Bolshevik forces he was wounded in the left side, above his heart. It would be a wound that would not have time to fully heal. A Red Army division descended upon Urga and engaged the army of the mad Baron. His force, now at nearly twice the size was nevertheless an oddball assemblage of mercenaries, criminals and adventurers, and was quickly defeated. The survivors mutinied and attempted to shoot him. He fled into the night with a handful of followers and was eventually captured and handed over to the communists on August 21st. The pitiful renants of his troops, some 600 mixed cavalrymen attempted to leave to the east, but they were all killed north and south Of urga by revolutionary Mongolian forces and parts of the Red Army’s 2-1 Sretenskoy cavalry brigade.
The general was taken back to Russia by train in a cage. On September 15, 1921, he was sent before a firing squad in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk after a public show trail at the Sosnovka theatre. His legend however outlived him. He was the last White Russian general to surrender his forces in the Russian Civil War. He became something of the Elvis Presley of White Officers, being spotted far and wide long after his death all over Asia by both former Reds and Whites everywhere long after his death.
He was celebrated and mourned in Urga, now named Ulan Bator in honor of the former dispatch rider Sukhe Bator, commander of the Red Army that captured him. Today in Mongolia he is seen as something of a liberator due to the fact that he ended hundreds of years of Chinese occupation, even if he traded it for hell on earth.