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Book Review: The Bloody White Baron (James Palmer)

“The Bloody White Baron” is one of those fascinating short books about a nasty little corner of the world during a nasty time. The nasty little corner of the world is Mongolia; the nasty time is the Russian Civil War. The eponymous Baron is Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, of Estonian/German extraction, who was called the last khan of Mongolia and waged a brutal, doomed minor campaign against the Chinese and the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. Naturally, he came to a bad end.

The backdrop to all this is the Russian Civil War in eastern Siberia. Figures such as Alexander Kolchak and Grigory Semenov pop up as background players to Ungern’s little campaign. (Interestingly, the tenuous relationships of such men with Ungern highlight one of the White Russians’ biggest failures—the inability to unite among themselves). Palmer is an excellent writer, and he makes all these characters come alive.

The book covers mostly 1920 and 1921. Ungern wanted to put Michael, the brother of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, on the throne, which would have been difficult, considering the Bolsheviks had murdered him three years before. But as far as Ungern was concerned, “Monarchy was the only right way to order the people, and they ought to long for it. If they didn’t, they had been corrupted and would have to be punished.” So Ungern went back and forth over Mongolia, raising and losing a small polyglot army, and using it in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to drive out both the Chinese and the Bolsheviks (who both saw Mongolia as a place to extend their power).

One of the most interesting takeaways from the book is the author’s clear-eyed treatment of Buddhism. Palmer talks a lot about Mongolian Buddhism, which is essentially the same as Tibetan Buddhism. He talks about it in general, and but also about how it affected Ungern’s thinking, and about how it played into, and in many ways drove, the actions of many of those interacting with Ungern. Palmer, who has traveled extensively in Mongolia and speaks the language, doesn’t sugarcoat the religion. Most religions don’t get the sugarcoating treatment nowadays, but usually Buddhism does. Vacuous Hollywood stars purport to be Buddhist and tell us that Buddhism is a wonderful way of spirituality, lacking in silly things like doctrines, gods and required behaviors. This is reinforced by various dubious writings. For example, the pseudo-scholarly book by Stephen Prothero, “God Is Not One,” discussing the world’s religions, gives much the same treatment to Buddhism as movie stars do (when it’s not busy blaming all the world’s problems on Christianity and offering cut-rate Muslim apologetics). Palmer, merely in the service of providing color and background to his story, gives a much more accurate portrayal of Buddhism.

So, Palmer notes that “Many writers ignorant of Asian history—particularly, for some reason, anti-religious science writers—also claim that Buddhism lacked the history of atrocities and intolerance that marked Western religion, despite, for instance, the many Buddhist-inspired messianic revolts in China, or the deep complicity of Zen Buddhism in Japanese militarism during the Second World War.” And, “Buddhists are often portrayed in the West as not believing in a God or gods, and most Western Buddhists don’t. The vast majority of Buddhists worldwide, however, are enthusiastic believers in all manners of gods and spirits.”

The reality is that much Buddhism is a spirit-soaked religion, full of belief in magic and demons, frequently extremely violent and intolerant, with nothing of the Golden Rule or any other Christian-inspired belief that is central to the West’s shared morality. (Palmer notes, though, that Chinese Buddhism is more focused on “mercy and release from the wheel of suffering” than Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, thus conforming somewhat more to Western stereotype.) Buddhist temples contain “lurid images of the gods . . . severed heads and flayed skins, desecrated corpses blossoming into gardens of blood . . . .” And many important Buddhist figures, including incarnations of various Dalai Lamas and other leading lamas, such as the Bogd Khan (aka the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the third-most important lama in Tibetan Buddhism and a major player in Ungern’s activities), were drunken sexual perverts desperate for power and material goods.

Palmer doesn’t note these real Buddhist characteristics just to add flavor, though. His point is that a culture soaked in this type of violence, with a belief in prophecies, demons and spirits, was not only willing but ecstatic to take as a “White God,” the “God of War,” a failed Russian army officer who promised to restore the Mongolian nation to the glory of Genghis Khan, and also to accept his horrendous brutality without comment or complaint. Ungern was like a Buddhist real-life Hieronymus Bosch: “[Ungern’s] ideas [of punishment] come straight from the Buddhist hells, of which there are a great variety, with numerous punishments for each sin. All of Ungern’s favorite tortures were prominent in the hell scrolls of the Mongolian monasteries: exposure on the ice, burning alive, rending by wild beasts.” (Palmer also has funny statements in this context, like “Looking for a [specific] ‘god of war’ in the eclectic Mongolian pantheon is like looking for a virgin martyr among Catholic saints.”)

Ungern himself was a complex religious figure. Theoretically he was Lutheran. But he had strong Russian Orthodox leanings, too, doubtless because of the link between Russian monarchism and Orthodoxy. He liked theosophy (perhaps he would have gotten along well with noted Democratic icon and crypto-Communist, Henry Wallace, who was forced out in favor of Harry Truman as Vice President for FDR’s last term, not because he was basically a Communist, but because he was humiliatingly taken in by a theosophist con-man). And, what Ungern really wanted from religion was to confirm his messianic view of himself. Really, Ungern was a mostly tolerant syncretist—he didn’t care what religion you followed, as long as you shared his messianic views, and (of course, he being Russian) Jews were not allowed. He wasn’t racist, either —he thought Asians superior to whites—though, of course, he thought any noble person superior to peasants.

My only complaint about the book is that there are literally no pictures. This must be for money/copyright reasons. Palmer frequently describes pictures in details, presumably to make up for the lack—so the pictures exist. But that just calls attention to the lack of pictures, and to coin a phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words. This really reduces the impact of the book—just a few pictures would have been invaluable. Nonetheless, Palmer’s writing mostly makes up for the lack, and the book is well worth reading.

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