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Recollections of Ungern-Sternberg

4,492 words

Editor’s Note:


Ferdinand Ossendowski, 1876–1945

The following two chapters from Ferdinand Ossendowski’s Beasts, Men, and Gods [2] give a good sense of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg’s qualities and vision. Ossendowski joined the baron’s army as a commanding officer of one of his self-defense troops. He also briefly became Ungern-Sternberg’s political advisor and chief of intelligence. Ungern-Sternberg sent Ossendowski on a diplomatic mission to Japan and the United States, and when the baron’s regime collapsed, Ossendowski stayed on in the United States and wrote Beasts, Men, and Gods, which was published in 1922.



“The terrible general, the Baron,” arrived quite unexpectedly, unnoticed by the outposts of Colonel Kazagrandi. After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground—an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action. Though the danger was evident, I felt the deepest offence.

“Sit down,” he snapped out in a hissing voice, as he pointed to a chair and impatiently pulled at his moustache. I felt my anger rising through my whole body and I said to him without taking the chair:

“You have allowed yourself to offend me, Baron. My name is well enough known so that you cannot thus indulge yourself in such epithets. You can do with me as you wish, because force is on your side, but you cannot compel me to speak with one who gives me offence.”

At these words of mine he swung his feet down off the bed and with evident astonishment began to survey me, holding his breath and pulling still at his moustache. Retaining my exterior calmness, I began to glance indifferently around the yurta, and only then I noticed General Rezukhin. I bowed to him and received his silent acknowledgment. After that I swung my glance back to the Baron, who sat with bowed head and closed eyes, from time to time rubbing his brow and mumbling to himself.

Suddenly he stood up and sharply said, looking past and over me:

“Go out! There is no need of more. . . .”

I swung round and saw Captain Veseloffsky with his white, cold face. I had not heard him enter. He did a formal “about face” and passed out of the door.

“‘Death from the white man’ has stood behind me,” I thought; “but has it quite left me?”

The Baron stood thinking for some time and then began to speak in jumbled, unfinished phrases.

“I ask your pardon. . . . You must understand there are so many traitors! Honest men have disappeared. I cannot trust anybody. All names are false and assumed; documents are counterfeited. Eyes and words deceive. . . . All is demoralized, insulted by Bolshevism. I just ordered Colonel Philipoff cut down, he who called himself the representative of the Russian White Organization. In the lining of his garments were found two secret Bolshevik codes. . . . When my officer flourished his sword over him, he exclaimed: ‘Why do you kill me, Tavarische?’ I cannot trust anybody. . . .”

He was silent and I also held my peace.

“I beg your pardon!” he began anew. “I offended you; but I am not simply a man, I am a leader of great forces and have in my head so much care, sorrow and woe!”

In his voice I felt there was mingled despair and sincerity. He frankly put out his hand to me. Again silence. At last I answered:

“What do you order me to do now, for I have neither counterfeit nor real documents? But many of your officers know me and in Urga I can find many who will testify that I could be neither agitator nor. . .”

“No need, no need!” interrupted the Baron. “All is clear, all is understood! I was in your soul and I know all. It is the truth which Hutuktu Narabanchi has written about you. What can I do for you?”

I explained how my friend and I had escaped from Soviet Russia in the effort to reach our native land and how a group of Polish soldiers had joined us in the hope of getting back to Poland; and I asked that help be given us to reach the nearest port.

“With pleasure, with pleasure. . . . I will help you all,” he answered excitedly. “I shall drive you to Urga in my motor car. Tomorrow we shall start and there in Urga we shall talk about further arrangements.”

Taking my leave, I went out of the yurta. On arriving at my quarters, I found Colonel Kazagrandi in great anxiety walking up and down my room.

“Thanks be to God!” he exclaimed and crossed himself.

His joy was very touching but at the same time I thought that the Colonel could have taken much more active measures for the salvation of his guest, if he had been so minded. The agitation of this day had tired me and made me feel years older. When I looked in the mirror I was certain there were more white hairs on my head. At night I could not sleep for the flashing thoughts of the young, fine face of Colonel Philipoff, the pool of blood, the cold eyes of Captain Veseloffsky, the sound of Baron Ungern’s voice with its tones of despair and woe, until finally I sank into a heavy stupor. I was awakened by Baron Ungern who came to ask pardon that he could not take me in his motor car, because he was obliged to take Daichin Van with him. But he informed me that he had left instructions to give me his own white camel and two Cossacks as servants. I had no time to thank him before he rushed out of my room.

Sleep then entirely deserted me, so I dressed and began smoking pipe after pipe of tobacco, as I thought: “How much easier to fight the Bolsheviki on the swamps of Seybi and to cross the snowy peaks of Ulan Taiga, where the bad demons kill all the travelers they can! There everything was simple and comprehensible, but here it is all a mad nightmare, a dark and foreboding storm!” I felt some tragedy, some horror in every movement of Baron Ungern, behind whom paced this silent, white-faced Veseloffsky and Death.



“Tell me about yourself and your trip,” he [Ungern-Sternberg] urged. In response I related all that I thought would interest him and he appeared quite excited over my tale.

“Now I shall tell you about myself, who and what I am! My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is the truth and what is false, what is history and what myth. Some time you will write about it, remembering your trip through Mongolia and your sojourn at the yurta of the ‘bloody General.'”

He shut his eyes, smoking as he spoke, and tumbling out his sentences without finishing them as though some one would prevent him from phrasing them.

“The family of Ungern von Sternberg is an old family, a mixture of Germans with Hungarians—Huns from the time of Attila. My warlike ancestors took part in all the European struggles. They participated in the Crusades and one Ungern was killed under the walls of Jerusalem, fighting under Richard Coeur de Lion. Even the tragic Crusade of the Children was marked by the death of Ralph Ungern, eleven years old. When the boldest warriors of the country were despatched to the eastern border of the German Empire against the Slavs in the twelfth century, my ancestor Arthur was among them, Baron Halsa Ungern Sternberg. Here these border knights formed the order of Monk Knights or Teutons, which with fire and sword spread Christianity among the pagan Lithuanians, Esthonians, Latvians and Slavs. Since then the Teuton Order of Knights has always had among its members representatives of our family. When the Teuton Order perished in the Grunwald under the swords of the Polish and Lithuanian troops, two Barons Ungern von Sternberg were killed there. Our family was warlike and given to mysticism and asceticism.

“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries several Barons von Ungern had their castles in the lands of Latvia and Esthonia. Many legends and tales lived after them. Heinrich Ungern von Sternberg, called ‘Ax,’ was a wandering knight. The tournaments of France, England, Spain and Italy knew his name and lance, which filled the hearts of his opponents with fear. He fell at Cadiz ‘neath the sword of a knight who cleft both his helmet and his skull. Baron Ralph Ungern was a brigand knight between Riga and Reval. Baron Peter Ungern had his castle on the island of Dago in the Baltic Sea, where as a privateer he ruled the merchantmen of his day.

“In the beginning of the eighteenth century there was also a well-known Baron Wilhelm Ungern, who was referred to as the ‘brother of Satan’ because he was an alchemist. My grandfather was a privateer in the Indian Ocean, taking his tribute from the English traders whose warships could not catch him for several years. At last he was captured and handed to the Russian Consul, who transported him to Russia where he was sentenced to deportation to the Transbaikal. I am also a naval officer but the Russo-Japanese War forced me to leave my regular profession to join and fight with the Zabaikal Cossacks. I have spent all my life in war or in the study and learning of Buddhism. My grandfather brought Buddhism to us from India and my father and I accepted and professed it. In Transbaikalia I tried to form the order of Military Buddhists for an uncompromising fight against the depravity of revolution.”

He fell into silence and began drinking cup after cup of tea as strong and black as coffee.

“Depravity of revolution! . . . Has anyone ever thought of it besides the French philosopher, Bergson, and the most learned Tashi Lama in Tibet?”

The grandson of the privateer, quoting scientific theories, works, the names of scientists and writers, the Holy Bible and Buddhist books, mixing together French, German, Russian and English, continued:

“In the Buddhistic and ancient Christian books we read stern predictions about the time when the war between the good and evil spirits must begin. Then there must come the unknown ‘Curse’ which will conquer the world, blot out culture, kill morality and destroy all the people. Its weapon is revolution. During every revolution the previously experienced intellect-creator will be replaced by the new rough force of the destroyer. He will place and hold in the first rank the lower instincts and desires. Man will be farther removed from the divine and the spiritual. The Great War proved that humanity must progress upward toward higher ideals; but then appeared that Curse which was seen and felt by Christ, the Apostle John, Buddha, the first Christian martyrs, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe and Dostoyevsky. It appeared, turned back the wheel of progress and blocked our road to the Divinity. Revolution is an infectious disease and Europe making the treaty with Moscow deceived itself and the other parts of the world. The Great Spirit put at the threshold of our lives Karma, who knows neither anger nor pardon. He will reckon the account, whose total will be famine, destruction, the death of culture, of glory, of honor and of spirit, the death of states and the death of peoples. I see already this horror, this dark, mad destruction of humanity.”

The door of the yurta suddenly swung open and an adjutant snapped into a position of attention and salute.

“Why do you enter a room by force?” the General exclaimed in anger.

“Your Excellency, our outpost on the border has caught a Bolshevik reconnaissance party and brought them here.”

The Baron arose. His eyes sparkled and his face contracted with spasms.

“Bring them in front of my yurta!” he ordered.

All was forgotten—the inspired speech, the penetrating voice—all were sunk in the austere order of the severe commander. The Baron put on his cap, caught up the bamboo tashur which he always carried with him and rushed from the yurta. I followed him out. There in front of the yurta stood six Red soldiers surrounded by the Cossacks.

The Baron stopped and glared sharply at them for several minutes. In his face one could see the strong play of his thoughts. Afterwards he turned away from them, sat down on the doorstep of the Chinese house and for a long time was buried in thought. Then he rose, walked over to them and, with an evident show of decisiveness in his movements, touched all the prisoners on the shoulder with his tashur and said: “You to the left and you to the right!” as he divided the squad into two sections, four on the right and two on the left.

“Search those two! They must be commissars!” commanded the Baron and, turning to the other four, asked: “Are you peasants mobilized by the Bolsheviki?”

“Just so, Your Excellency!” cried the frightened soldiers.

“Go to the Commandant and tell him that I have ordered you to be enlisted in my troops!”

On the two to the left they found passports of Commissars of the Communist Political Department. The General knitted his brows and slowly pronounced the following:

“Beat them to death with sticks!”

He turned and entered the yurta. After this our conversation did not flow readily and so I left the Baron to himself.

After dinner in the Russian firm where I was staying some of Ungern’s officers came in. We were chatting animatedly when suddenly we heard the horn of an automobile, which instantly threw the officers into silence.

“The General is passing somewhere near,” one of them remarked in a strangely altered voice.

Our interrupted conversation was soon resumed but not for long. The clerk of the firm came running into the room and exclaimed: “The Baron!”

He entered the door but stopped on the threshold. The lamps had not yet been lighted and it was getting dark inside, but the Baron instantly recognized us all, approached and kissed the hand of the hostess, greeted everyone very cordially and, accepting the cup of tea offered him, drew up to the table to drink. Soon he spoke:

“I want to steal your guest,” he said to the hostess and then, turning to me, asked: “Do you want to go for a motor ride? I shall show you the city and the environs.”

Donning my coat, I followed my established custom and slipped my revolver into it, at which the Baron laughed.

“Leave that trash behind! Here you are in safety. Besides you must remember the prediction of Narabanchi Hutuktu that Fortune will ever be with you.”

“All right,” I answered, also with a laugh. “I remember very well this prediction. Only I do not know what the Hutuktu thinks ‘Fortune’ means for me. Maybe it is death like the rest after my hard, long trip, and I must confess that I prefer to travel farther and am not ready to die.”

We went out to the gate where the big Fiat stood with its intruding great lights. The chauffeur officer sat at the wheel like a statue and remained at salute all the time we were entering and seating ourselves.

“To the wireless station!” commanded the Baron.

We veritably leapt forward. The city swarmed, as earlier, with the Oriental throng, but its appearance now was even more strange and miraculous. In among the noisy crowd Mongol, Buriat and Tibetan riders threaded swiftly; caravans of camels solemnly raised their heads as we passed; the wooden wheels of the Mongol carts screamed in pain; and all was illumined by splendid great arc lights from the electric station which Baron Ungern had ordered erected immediately after the capture of Urga, together with a telephone system and wireless station. He also ordered his men to clean and disinfect the city which had probably not felt the broom since the days of Jenghiz Khan. He arranged an auto-bus traffic between different parts of the city; built bridges over the Tola and Orkhon; published a newspaper; arranged a veterinary laboratory and hospitals; re-opened the schools; protected commerce, mercilessly hanging Russian and Mongolian soldiers for pillaging Chinese firms.

In one of these cases his Commandant arrested two Cossacks and a Mongol soldier who had stolen brandy from one of the Chinese shops and brought them before him. He immediately bundled them all into his car, drove off to the shop, delivered the brandy back to the proprietor and as promptly ordered the Mongol to hang one of the Russians to the big gate of the compound. With this one swung he commanded: “Now hang the other!” and this had only just been accomplished when he turned to the Commandant and ordered him to hang the Mongol beside the other two. That seemed expeditious and just enough until the Chinese proprietor came in dire distress to the Baron and plead with him:

“General Baron! General Baron! Please take those men down from my gateway, for no one will enter my shop!”

After the commercial quarter was flashed past our eyes, we entered the Russian settlement across a small river. Several Russian soldiers and four very spruce-looking Mongolian women stood on the bridge as we passed. The soldiers snapped to salute like immobile statues and fixed their eyes on the severe face of their Commander. The women first began to run and shift about and then, infected by the discipline and order of events, swung their hands up to salute and stood as immobile as their northern swains. The Baron looked at me and laughed:

“You see the discipline! Even the Mongolian women salute me.”

Soon we were out on the plain with the car going like an arrow, with the wind whistling and tossing the folds of our coats and caps. But Baron Ungern, sitting with closed eyes, repeated: “Faster! Faster!” For a long time we were both silent.

“And yesterday I beat my adjutant for rushing into my yurta and interrupting my story,” he said.

“You can finish it now,” I answered.

“And are you not bored by it? Well, there isn’t much left and this happens to be the most interesting. I was telling you that I wanted to found an order of military Buddhists in Russia. For what? For the protection of the processes of evolution of humanity and for the struggle against revolution, because I am certain that evolution leads to the Divinity and revolution to bestiality. But I worked in Russia! In Russia, where the peasants are rough, untutored, wild and constantly angry, hating everybody and everything without understanding why. They are suspicious and materialistic, having no sacred ideals. Russian intelligents live among imaginary ideals without realities. They have a strong capacity for criticising everything but they lack creative power. Also they have no will power, only the capacity for talking and talking. With the peasants, they cannot like anything or anybody. Their love and feelings are imaginary. Their thoughts and sentiments pass without trace like futile words. My companions, therefore, soon began to violate the regulations of the Order. Then I introduced the condition of celibacy, the entire negation of woman, of the comforts of life, of superfluities, according to the teachings of the Yellow Faith; and, in order that the Russian might be able to live down his physical nature, I introduced the limitless use of alcohol, hasheesh and opium. Now for alcohol I hang my officers and soldiers; then we drank to the ‘white fever,’ delirium tremens. I could not organize the Order but I gathered round me and developed three hundred men wholly bold and entirely ferocious. Afterward they were heroes in the war with Germany and later in the fight against the Bolsheviki, but now only a few remain.”

“The wireless, Excellency!” reported the chauffeur.

“Turn in there!” ordered the General.

On the top of a flat hill stood the big, powerful radio station which had been partially destroyed by the retreating Chinese but reconstructed by the engineers of Baron Ungern. The General perused the telegrams and handed them to me. They were from Moscow, Chita, Vladivostok and Peking. On a separate yellow sheet were the code messages, which the Baron slipped into his pocket as he said to me:

“They are from my agents, who are stationed in Chita, Irkutsk, Harbin and Vladivostok. They are all Jews, very skilled and very bold men, friends of mine all. I have also one Jewish officer, Vulfovitch, who commands my right flank. He is as ferocious as Satan but clever and brave. . . . Now we shall fly into space.”

Once more we rushed away, sinking into the darkness of night. It was a wild ride. The car bounded over small stones and ditches, even taking narrow streamlets, as the skilled chauffeur only seemed to guide it round the larger rocks. On the plain, as we sped by, I noticed several times small bright flashes of fire which lasted but for a second and then were extinguished.

“The eyes of wolves,” smiled my companion. “We have fed them to satiety from the flesh of ourselves and our enemies!” he quietly interpolated, as he turned to continue his confession of faith.

“During the War we saw the gradual corruption of the Russian army and foresaw the treachery of Russia to the Allies as well as the approaching danger of revolution. To counteract this latter a plan was formed to join together all the Mongolian peoples which had not forgotten their ancient faiths and customs into one Asiatic State, consisting of autonomous tribal units, under the moral and legislative leadership of China, the country of loftiest and most ancient culture. Into this State must come the Chinese, Mongols, Tibetans, Afghans, the Mongol tribes of Turkestan, Tartars, Buriats, Kirghiz and Kalmucks. This State must be strong, physically and morally, and must erect a barrier against revolution and carefully preserve its own spirit, philosophy and individual policy. If humanity, mad and corrupted, continues to threaten the Divine Spirit in mankind, to spread blood and to obstruct moral development, the Asiatic State must terminate this movement decisively and establish a permanent, firm peace. This propaganda even during the War made splendid progress among the Turkomans, Kirghiz, Buriats and Mongols. . . . ‘Stop!’ suddenly shouted the Baron.”

The car pulled up with a jerk. The General jumped out and called me to follow. We started walking over the prairie and the Baron kept bending down all the time as though he were looking for something on the ground.

“Ah!” he murmured at last, “He has gone away. . . .”

I looked at him in amazement.

“A rich Mongol formerly had his yurta here. He was the outfitter for the Russian merchant, Noskoff. Noskoff was a ferocious man as shown by the name the Mongols gave him—’Satan.’ He used to have his Mongol debtors beaten or imprisoned through the instrumentality of the Chinese authorities. He ruined this Mongol, who lost everything and escaped to a place thirty miles away; but Noskoff found him there, took all that he had left of cattle and horses and left the Mongol and his family to die of hunger. When I captured Urga, this Mongol appeared and brought with him thirty other Mongol families similarly ruined by Noskoff. They demanded his death. . . . So I hung ‘Satan’ . . .”

Anew the motor car was rushing along, sweeping a great circle on the prairie, and anew Baron Ungern with his sharp, nervous voice carried his thoughts round the whole circumference of Asian life.

“Russia turned traitor to France, England and America, signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and ushered in a reign of chaos. We then decided to mobilize Asia against Germany. Our envoys penetrated Mongolia, Tibet, Turkestan and China. At this time the Bolsheviki began to kill all the Russian officers and we were forced to open civil war against them, giving up our Pan-Asiatic plans; but we hope later to awake all Asia and with their help to bring peace and God back to earth. I want to feel that I have helped this idea by the liberation of Mongolia.”

He became silent and thought for a moment.

“But some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers! . . . Return!” he commanded the chauffeur.

An hour and a half later we saw the electric lights of Urga.