I’ve always been skeptical of the kind of historical op-ed that relies on building some absurdly precise parallel between a contemporary political event and an obscure precedent from the past. The Greek debt crisis really isn’t all that similar to the Fourth Crusade, post-9/11 America isn’t really reminiscent of fin-de-siècle Vienna, etc. But given the ongoing debate over the Islamic nature of ISIS, I can’t resist throwing caution to the wind and offering my own contribution to the genre: Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg — The Buddhist al-Baghdadi. If nothing else, the gruesome adventures of an aristocratic 1920s Buddhist convert provide one more bit of evidence for why we should understand ISIS in a political or structural context, rather than a specifically Islamic one.
The most dramatic account of Baron Ungern-Sternberg’s reign of terror is undoubtedly the 1922 classic Beasts, Men and Gods, penned by Polish adventurer Ferdinand Ossendowski. Ossendowski’s tale of meeting Ungern-Sternberg in Mongolia while fleeing the Red Army makes for engaging reading, though that may have something to do with long-standing accusations that he made up the most engaging parts of it. Yet when it comes to the outline of Ungern-Sternberg’s career, as well as the depths of his savagery, the essentials of Ossendowski’s book are all supported by Peter Hopkirk’s better-documented and still quite engaging book, Setting the East Ablaze.
Baron von Ungern-Sternberg was a Russian officer from a long line of Baltic barons, “Huns from the time of Atilla” he supposedly told Ossendowski. The baron served in World War One, then fought with particular distinction and savagery for the Whites during the Russian Civil War. When the tide turned decisively in the Bolsheviks’ favor, Ungern-Sternberg found himself deep in Siberia. There, he organized a small army made up of defeated White Russian soldiers and set out to conquer Mongolia — a place he felt a great affinity for, having visited there previously and having converted to his own idiosyncratic form of messianic Buddhism. In conquering Mongolia, he would avoid death at the hands of the Bolsheviks while he reorganized his forces for an eventual liberation of Russia. Named “the incarnated God of war and Khan of grateful Mongolia” by Bogdo Khan, the Living Buddha, Ungern-Sternberg imagined himself the reincarnation of Ghengis Khan. He explained to Ossendowski, that he wanted to forge 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.” Pausing only to order beatings and executions, he also told Ossendowski of his efforts to form an order of Buddhist militants in Russia. If Ossendowski was skeptical of the baron’s grandiose claims, it is likely many other Buddhists were as well, though for political and personal reasons many found it expedient to play along. In his invasion of Mongolia the baron received advice from the oracle bones of his soothsayers, a detachment of bodyguards from the Dalai Llama, and the support of Mongol cavalry seeking to free their country from Chinese rule.
In 1920, following almost three years of vicious fighting, Central Asia was in chaos and its population was inured to violence. Von Ungern-Sternberg established a modicum of order by being even more violent, finding ever more dramatic ways to torture and kill his enemies that could inspire fear in a desensitized population.
Peter Hopkirk describes Ungern-Sternberg’s systematic atrocities in terms that sound all too familiar today. In first building his army, the baron made a point of executing recruits who did not meet his expectations. As one of his officers explained, “His 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.” Entering Mongolia, Ungern-Sternberg sought to terrorize anyone who resisted his advance. Officers were burned at the stake, villagers in their huts. To what extent the baron’s use of exemplary sadism — a bakers’ apprentice baked to death in his own oven, men thrown into the boilers of trains — contributed to his success is unclear, but he quickly succeeded in driving a much larger Chinese garrison out of Urga (now Ulan Batur) and making it his capital.
So just to clarify the comparison:
By 1921, the baron had consolidated his rule in Urga and was preparing to return to liberate Russia. It is unclear if Urga would be his Mosul or his Raqqa in this case. Here is where the comparison breaks down. Ossendowski, who was staying in Urga as the baron’s nervous guest, recorded the beginning of the end before wisely leaving town. Ungern-Sternberg went to a Buddhist temple to pray for success in his new anti-Bolshevik crusade. Instead, he received a prophecy that he would die in 130 days. Instead of losing hope, he simply took this to mean he would have to act fast. But the Bolsheviks were now better prepared. They ambushed the baron’s men shortly after he crossed the border, forcing them to withdraw and regroup. A few minor victories gave the baron the chance to commit a final atrocity — burying captured Bolshevik Cavalry alive — but soon his troops turned against him. The Red Army found him on the ground, covered in ants, where his former Mongolian allies had left him to die. Supposedly, he was then executed by a Bolshevik firing squad exactly 130 days after his death had been foretold.
As Baron Ungern-Sternberg’s short and bloody career shows, the combination of extreme faith and extreme violence can prove effective in times of extreme chaos, but wielding them is not always conducive to long-term strategic planning or winning the loyalty of those around you. Whether Al-Baghdadi himself survives much longer than Ungern-Sternberg did remains to be seen. But even if he doesn’t, his death would be unlikely to sweep away the region’s volatility and insecurity, out of which he emerged as an Islamist leader, just as the baron’s death hardly brought tranquility to Soviet Central Asia.