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TALK | Cloaked in his ambitions: Sunderland on Baron Ungern

Baron Ungern

April 20, 2015

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Baron Ungern, posing in Cossack costume as a child in the Caucasus, where his noble parents were serving the Tsar.

By Sarah McPhee

Willard Sunderland, Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, has had a long-time problem. Since graduate school, all of his scholarly energies have been directed toward finding something that no longer exists — the Russian Empire. The Ellison Center and the History Department sponsored Professor Sunderland’s visit to the Jackson School, where he gave a talk to promote his new book The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution. Sunderland’s approach to analyzing the twilight of the Russian Empire, a land with tremendous cultural diversity, was to search through the space and time of a single life — that of the infamous Baron Ungern.

Roman Nikolai Maximilian Fyodor von Ungern-Sternberg was in some ways an oddity and in other ways a fantastic example of every contradiction in the Russian Empire. He was a Baltic German noble who believed staunchly in the virtue of empires. He adhered to both Orthodox and Buddhist precepts, but was incredibly violent. He was a deplorable student at the military academy, but managed victories in the Far East out of “sheer determination.” He lived in an age of Russification, but his lived experience proved that the “leveling” of the Russian empire, or the effort to bring some standardization and cohesion to the vast land, never quite happened. The differences that defined the Russian Empire never really faded to the background.

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Baron Ungern as a young cadet.

Sunderland’s “geographical unpeeling of the empire” in which Ungern lived was accomplished through the different institutions he inhabited as he moved through this space. Sunderland admitted that it was difficult to reconcile the scales of a life and an empire, the very concept raises methodological questions. “If you can’t see the person very well, and you are really interested in the broader world around the person, maybe the historiographical method that is most appropriate is micro-history. Can we determine what [the people] were looking at?”

Sunderland found that the Trans-Siberian Railroad “stars” in this story. The imperial term promoted regional collaboration, and possibilities for movement were enormous in this time, especially for aristocrats.  Sunderland insisted that the nobility was even better than the military at keeping track of people, “because you don’t want to let the wrong people in.” Through records and documents pertaining to the government and other nobles, Sunderland tracked Ungern from a childhood in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, through officer school, the Great War, Siberia, and finally Mongolia.

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A stylized depiction of Baron Ungern leading his Mongolian troops. Notice he is wearing the cloak.

Sunderland explained that the cloak which Baron Ungern wore while living and fighting in and near Mongolia, a golden kaftan, was the gateway to the story. The Baron spent six months with his own paid army as a warlord in Mongolia, essentially the power behind the throne. He wanted to restore the imperial world that had been shattered by the Great War, but ultimately he was betrayed by his own men and captured.

According to Sunderland, the only time Ungern spoke about his appearance is during his interrogation, prior to the six-hour show trial. Ungern claimed that he decided to wear the cloak to make himself more visible to his men during the attack on Mongolia, but his Bolshevik interrogators presumed he had used it to elicit the sympathy of the Mongolians. The robe featured the epaulets given to him by the Tsar when he was commissioned, rank he had assigned himself, as well as the St. George Cross he had been awarded in battle during the Great War. Clearly the Bolsheviks considered the robe “a useful prop in the undoing of the man,” as they kept him in the cloak for a show trial in front of a crowd of ethnic Russians.


Pointing to the Tsarist epaulets, Professor Willard Sunderland explains the significance of Baron Ungern’s cloak, a Mongolian kaftan.

Sunderland admitted that he once had the opportunity to actually try on the cloak, but “did not want to cross that historical line.”

Eventually Sunderland realized that he was “not writing a biography, but rather rescuing and exhibiting the importance of the individual,” that his book is “a statement on the basic level on the value and importance of individual people” in history. He imagined that the “conceit of the book is that if you add all the spaces of the empire, you find Ungern,” but added that “there is something about us that is bigger than the spaces we occupy.”

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The Trans-Siberian Railroad was critical to the Russian Empire and is one of the “stars” of Sunderland’s narrative.

Nevertheless, Ungern’s life is uniquely woven into the fabric of the Russian Empire. “His last moment is the moment of imperial collapse, and he is created then as a historical character because of the collapse…then there is the complexity of the collapse, even as the state fell apart, it fell apart in peculiar ways. It fell apart so quickly, the disentanglement couldn’t play itself out. Trying to keep it together in some form was a part of the unravelling.”

Ungern’s mission to keep the empire together was ultimately based upon his zeitgeist. Sunderland labelled him a restorationist who had hoped to reunite the collapsed empires of Eurasia by restoring the emperor to the throne and “rekindling service of the aristocrats to the Emperor.” However, Ungern’s approach was entirely pragmatic. He believed the first opportunity to “put things back together” was in outer Mongolia.

When asked if he believed that Ungern genuinely though himself capable of such a feat, Sunderland replied that it was perhaps symptomatic of the time — after all, “there was a time when Bolsheviks huddled around a table in a cafe in Geneva…”