Posts filed under 'Mongolia'

1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

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.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“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!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1205 or 1206: Jamukha, Genghis Khan’s brother and rival

2 comments April 4th, 2013 Headsman

It was in the spring of 1206 that the Mongol warlord Temujin was formally elevated by a council of nomadic chiefs to the title posterity knows him — “Genghis Khan”.

Sun Honglei as Jamukha in the 2007 Russian epic Mongol.

That makes this as good a time as any to mark the completely undated but deeply personal execution that Temujin inflicted on his childhood friend turned rival Jamukha in order to attain that position.

Jamukha was one of the last obstacles to consolidating Temujin’s own rule. His elimination cleared the way for the spring 1206 council adorning Temujin with the title Genghis Khan; this event also marks the traditional founding moment for the renowned Mongol Empire.

Temujin was by this time already past his 40th year, and he had spent that lifetime — for this much was already a plentiful allotment for a steppe warrior — maneuvering by conquest and diplomacy into leadership of Mongolia’s multifarious clans and confederations.

According to our only source for the execution, The Secret History of the Mongols,* Jamukha (or Jamuka, or Jamuga) was the young Temujin’s blood-brother; he had risked himself as a companion-at-arms with the teenage Temujin to recover the latter’s kidnapped bride from a neighboring tribe.

But Jamukha, too, was a young man on the make then, and it was not yet written that it was he who would be a foil in Temujin’s story instead of the other way around; indeed, it was Jamukha’s Jadaran clan that had rank and to whom Temujin’s family had once owed allegiance. Genghis Khan began his political life as a parvenu with questionable innovations like raising commoners to military command and sharing spoils outside of aristocratic circles. To judge from the results, history vindicated these decisions.

As both men rose to prominence in their own webs of family and alliance, it chanced that Jamukha headed the last bloc of nomadic Mongols opposing Temujin. They sparred, often savagely, for close to a decade before Temujin finally prevailed.

The Secret History records a spring 1205 campaign commencing against the Naiman and Merkids, tribes of Jamukha’s holdout coalition who eventually succumbed to Temujin’s arms over what reads like a period of months. This sent Jamukha fleeing into the wilderness with just a handful of followers.

At an unspecified point presumably either late in 1205 or early in 1206, those followers turned on Jamukha and handed him over to Temujin.

The Secret History says Temujin was maybe still a little sentimental about his old friend even after the bloodshed that had passed between him. For one thing, he immediately executed Jamukha’s betrayers.

But now that he had the humbled Jamukha in hand, defeated and no longer a threat, Temujin implored his rival to accept forgiveness and a place in that future greatest land empire in history.

Let us be companions. Now, we are joined together once again, we should remind each other of things we have forgotten. Wake each other from our sleep. Even when you went away and were apart from me, you were still my lucky, blessed sworn brother. Surely, in the days of killing and being killed, the pit of your stomach and your heart pained for me. Surely, in the days of saying and being slain, your breast and your heart pained for me.

Jamukha was, maybe, a little more realistic about things.

Now, when the world is ready for you, what use is there in my becoming a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams, in the bright day I would trouble your heart. I would be the louse in your collar, I would become the splinter in your door-panel.

Kill me and lay down my dead bones in the high ground. Then eternally and forever, I will protect the seed of your seed, and become a blessing for them.

And on that prophecy, too, you’d say that history vindicated the Mongols.

Temujin had his old friend and rival’s back broken — a noble death without any blood spilled — and gave him a decent burial. And then, perhaps with Jamukha watching over them as promised, Temujin and his heirs started conquering pretty much everything in sight.

* There are full text transcripts of the Secret History in various languages here.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Back broken,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Soldiers,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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2011: Li Lindong, truck driver

Add comment August 18th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

A year ago today, coal truck driver Li Lindong was executed for the murder of a 35-year-old man named Mergen.*

The victim was dragged down the street for 160 yards, or 145 meters, before he finally died. His death is symptomatic of the serious ethnic/class tensions in Inner Mongolia, where the crime took place.

Li Lindong was Han Chinese; Mergen was an ethnic Mongol herder. Inner Mongolia covers over 10% of China’s landmass and has 24 million people. Han Chinese make up almost 80% of the population, but the ethnic Mongol minority were there first.


A yurt on the Mongolian steppe.

While the Mongols continue to live a traditional, pastoral existence, the region’s coal industry has been booming of late and many Hans, like Li, have flocked in vast numbers to work in the mines.

Problem: mining and sheep-herding don’t exactly go together.

The Mongols claimed a number of grievances:

  1. The noise from the mines is difficult to live with.
  2. The coal pollution is turning the steppe into desert, making it impossible for them to find pasture for their animals.
  3. The miners are intruding on their land, tearing up the grass and even running over and killing their livestock.
  4. The Chinese government is trying to force them to to give up their nomadic existence and live in permanent houses.

According to The Guardian, these complaints had merit and the damage was obvious, even from a distance:

Many students are from herding families who have been moved into cities as the wide-open pastures are fenced off. The government says such measures are necessary to promote development, prevent overgrazing and protect the fragile grasslands, much of which have turned to desert in recent years. Locals say herders’ rights have been violated and the fencing and mining have created bigger environmental problems, including pollution, noise, traffic and dust storms that blow across much of north-east Asia.

The transformation is evident on the flight to Xilinhot. From the air, the grasslands are blotched with sandy areas near farms and the dark smudges of open-cast pits. From the road, the clouds of dust from mines and trucks is visible miles away.

So outraged were the Mongol herders that they actually began organized protests, which aren’t terribly common in China, particularly among Mongols. (The precedents aren’t good.)

This was what lead to Mergen’s murder.

He and about 20 to 40 other herders had formed a human chain to try to block a convoy of coal trucks. There was a standoff as the truckers tried to persuade the herders to move aside. Finally Li, infuriated, simply hit the gas and ran over some of the herders, killing Mergen.**

Mergen’s murder lead to still more protests. One, attended by some two thousand Mongolian high school students, was the largest protest in Inner Mongolia in twenty years. The protesters claimed the Chinese government hadn’t acted to address the underlying problems that lead to the herder’s death.


A protest over Mergen’s death.

The government claimed otherwise, saying they were going to overhaul the coal mining industry and shut down the worst polluters, as well as try to cut down on other environmental problems like water shortages and soil erosion. (They have, at least, shut down over 200 mines.)

As for Mergen’s murder, their response was swift, as Chinese justice tends to be.

Mergen was killed on May 10. Li Lindong was arrested shortly thereafter and tried on June 8, in a six-hour procedure that resulted in the death sentence. That sentence was carried out two months later.

Nor was he was the only person to face charges. Lu Xiangdong, the passenger in Li’s truck, was also convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Wu Xiaowei and Li Manggang got three years apiece for obstructing justice by blocking the police cars that arrived on the scene and allowing the truckers to escape.

The government also gave a monetary settlement to Mergen’s grieving family, but they would probably rather have him back instead.

As for Inner Mongolia … it’s hanging in there, but it remains to be seen whether the environmental problems will or even can be relieved.

* In his culture, there are no last names.

** According to one widely reported but unconfirmed account, he joked about it, saying he had enough insurance to cover the death of a “smelly Mongolian herder.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Mongolia,Murder,Other Voices,Ripped from the Headlines

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1937: Peljidiin Genden, former Mongolia Prime Minister

1 comment November 26th, 2011 Headsman

On earth there are two great geniuses – Buddha and Lenin.

-Peljidiin Genden

On this date in 1937, purged former Mongolia Prime Minister Peljidiin Genden was shot in Moscow.

Genden was in the thick of communist authority in Mongolia, including a forced collectivization that provoked resistance sufficient for Moscow to demand the Mongolians lay off the “leftist deviation.” Eyeballing a likely future conflict with Japan, Russia wanted Mongolia as a buffer zone and couldn’t afford gratuitously upsetting the apple cart.

Genden, himself a former leftist deviant, managed an adroit volte-face and got himself named Prime Minister in 1932.

Stalin’s minions would closely meddle in the business of the Mongolian People’s Republic over the 1930s as it rolled out its own eastern policy. Despite the Comintern’s recent turn towards ideological moderation in those precincts, it soon became concerned that Genden was lax in going after the Buddhist element; in fact, he’d openly declared religious toleration in 1932. But this particular enemy Russia could not abide. “The lama regime,” Stalin tut-tutted, “is stronger than the people’s regime.”

Genden had the ill-chosen moxie to push back against Stalin. On one state visit to Moscow, he got liquored up and bellowed,

“You bloody Georgian, you have become a virtual Russian Czar!”

Other plans for Mongolian leadership were soon put in place, the way cleared via the expedient of framing Genden as the mastermind of a fanciful pro-Japanese plot.

This [Genden] “case” led to the deaths of 639 falsely accused people, including 63 percent of the members of the [Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party] Central Committee and 80 percent of its presidium members … There is evidence that the arrest of many Mongolian leaders on false charges and their “rendition” to the USSR for execution was organized from Moscow by NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov.

It was estimated that, from 1934 to 1939, about 171 Mongols were arrested in Mongolia but tried and sentenced in Russia. The charges were usually “counterrevolution” or “espionage for Japan.” It is known that 33 were shot near Moscow, 108 received long terms of imprisonment, 13 were released, and four died “under investigation.”

And that’s just on the political side. With Genden out of the way, anti-Buddhist purges really took off in the late 1930s, to the tune of 18,000 lamas killed.

Part of the Daily Double: Stalinism East and West.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mongolia,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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1318: Mikhail of Tver

9 comments November 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1318, the Russian knyaz Mikhail of Tver was executed at the command of the Mongols.

Mikhail was the nephew of legendary prince and allegory Alexander Nevsky.


Not directly Mikhail-related. Just awesome.

Mikhail Yaroslavich (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Russian) in 1304 succeeded Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother as Grand Prince of Vladimir, a position granted by Mongol yarlyk that symbolized primacy over all other Russian knyazes. But Mikhail was challenged for leadership by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow.

This fellow, Yuri(y) by name, would fight Mikhail off and on for the latter’s 14 years in power. Their personal rivalry was also the political rivalry of their respective cities, Moscow and Tver — vying for that yarlyk and, in effect, for the eventual leadership of the still-gestating Russian state.

Since it was gestating at the pleasure of the Khanate at this time, the dispute was resolved by Yuri’s getting in with the new khan, Uzbeg.* To get that yarlyk, and he got it in 1317, Yuriy even went so far as to marry one of Uzbeg’s daughters.

We mention this not because it’s a piquant period detail of kingly politics and intercultural exchange, but because the next time Mikhail and Yuriy met in battle, Mikhail won a rout … and ended up with the Mongol princess in his custody.

And then, she died in his custody.

This was a most grave development for Mikhail, almost as much as for the wife herself.

The Mongol commander whom Mikhail released — because Yuriy also got a Mongol army out of the yarlyk deal — reported the tragedy with the most incriminating coloration. While we’re in no position to assert definitively that Mikhail didn’t murder the woman, it plainly does not fit the cui bono test.

The furious Uzbeg summoned Mikhail to the Horde, a summons that, times being what they were, did not admit refusal.

When he arrived, Mikhail found himself already stitched up by the accusations of his enemies, and he was beaten and stabbed to death at the khan’s order.

Mikhail mostly reads as a garden-variety unprincipled local ruler, and he had his own conflicts with ecclesiastical leaders when they took the wrong sides in the Moscow-Tver power struggle. In spite of that, our man was posthumously expropriated by the Orthodox church as a saint.** In fact, he’s the patron saint of the city (which he’s holding, in the icon pictured above) … kind of because of what happened next.

Mikhail’s son Dmitry “the Terrible Eyes” had a terrible revenge for his father’s enemy, and murdered Yuri a few years later, temporarily gaining the yarlyk for himself. The Muscovites almost immediately recaptured the upper hand, however, and in an ensuing Tverite rising the Mongols intervened directly and sacked the city.

Tver would never again regain anything like peer status vis-a-vis Moscow, which in the following years grew larger, stronger, and wealthier under Ivan I; the Mongol yarlyk thereafter became essentially the hereditary possession of his family line. The Orthodox metropolitan outright moved to Moscow under Ivan’s reign … leaving Tver with memories of what might have been, and this monumental equestrian statue of the guy who couldn’t quite make it happen.


(cc) photo of Saint Mikhail’s monument in Tver.

Although the “Tartar yoke” would eventually be thrown off, that was hardly the end for political domination in Russian history.

Experiencing a like phenomenon in altogether different circumstances, the 19th century Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, aka Marlinsky reclaims the long-ago Mikhail for an updated usage.†

His 1824 poem “Mikhail Tverskoy” (Russian link) casts the knyaz as a martyr for the Russian nation. After all, by Marlinsky’s time, the poet could take comfort that those terrible Mongols were

struck by their vassals,
[And] became their slaves‡

* Also Ozbeg or Uzbek. The longest-tenured khan in the Mongol empire’s history, Uzbeg adopted Islam and might be the namesake of the Uzbek ethnic group.

** According to this tome on the Russian church, Mikhail wasn’t really venerated as a saint until centuries after his death: only when that occurred were hagiographical details of his pious life, principled refusal to worship pagan Mongol gods, and supposed contemporary popular cult backfilled into the story.

† A maneuver quite like his friend Kondraty Ryleyev, who pulled the same trick with Severyn Nalyvaiko.

‡ Full original translation of this poem by friend of the blog Sonechka.

“Mikhail Tverskoy”

by Bestuzhev-Marlinskiy

In a dungeon, glum and hollow,
Amidst nocturnal gloom,
A darkish lampad flickers,
And shines its flimsy light
Upon two men within a shady corner:
One, in his youthful years’ prime,
The other, fettered in chains,
Adorned already with gray hair.
Why has this elder been immured
Within your walls, Abode of fear?
Is he condemned to end existence hither,
Or were the gallows meant for him?
No sighs escape his mouth,
And in his fervent eyes —
The glimmer of serenity divine.
Towards the skies his gaze is often cast,
Or with a tender sorrow, he beholds
His son, imbued with grief,
And speaks in consolation:
“Enough, my dear friend,
Of tears sousing your eyes;
The time has come for us to part,
And buy the tranquil calm of native land
with Mikhail’s head.
Be always honorable, truthful.
And, if you wish
To pay your father homage,
Relinquish all the enemies of his without vengeance …”
The people clatter at the square
In the metropolis of brutal khans,
These Russia’s fierce and evil tyrants;
They gawk with savage joy
At the cadaver, beset by wounds.
Above him, smitten by despair,
The young prince weeps,
And rips his clothes and hair,
Reproaching the Tartars and Uzbeks,
And summoning the deity of vengeance …
This mighty god has heeded prayers,
And aided Russians in revolt;
Obliterating the oppressors,
Whose city turned into the ravens’ dwelling;
Whose fields of wheat were desiccated,
Whose hand that held the arms grew weak,
Who, struck by their own vassals,
Became their slaves.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Russia

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1924: Not Onisaburo Deguchi or Morihei Ueshiba, Japanese new religion exponents

3 comments June 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1924, a group of Japanese Oomoto* sect members was lined up for execution by a Manchurian warlord — only to be saved at the last moment by the intervention of the Japanese consulate.

These inordinately lucky folk were the remnants of a bizarre “spiritual army” under Onisaburo Deguchi, who set out to plant a utopian colony on the Mongolian steppe.


Onisaburo (left) and Ueshiba, shackled together for deportation after their near-execution. Onisaburo’s part of this image looks a little touched-up.

Oomoto got started as a splinter sect from Shinto with an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi, who began receiving spiritual visions in the in the 1890’s. Onisaburo was her follower, and then her son-in-law, and certainly the foundling cult’s greatest exponent.

With his guidance, it blossomed as one of the early 20th century’s most successful “new religions”, a term encompassing the dizzying array of novel religious movements in Japan after the Meiji Restoration.**

A born showman and innovative communicator, Onisaburo was a natural to

[mediate] between traditional and modern Japan in a time of national transformation.

… he was no less a master at what Eric Hobsbawm termed the “invention of tradition.” …

Onisaburo’s imaginative rituals and personal presentation (he loved to star in movies, and to dress as a shaman or Shinto deity) combined enough folk tradition to seem familiar, yet always with a new twist suggesting up-to-date modernity and “scientific” awareness to boot.

-Robert Ellwood’s Feb. 2011 review in Nova Religio of Nancy Stalker’s Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religion in Japan

In private communication with this site, Ellwood compared the advent of new religions like Oomoto to the roughly contemporaneous advent in the west of movements like Christian Science and Religious Science. Both of these, like Oomoto, explicitly aimed to yoke tradition and modernity together.

“In Japan the leap from a closed-off feudal society to a modern industrial powerhouse was particularly profound, and naturally disturbing to a lot of ordinary people,” Ellwood said. “The new religions tried to combine old and new, giving people baffled by change and the breakup of traditional peasant communities and ways of life something to hold on to. They said in effect, ‘We understand your problems; we can show how it all makes sense, how it will come out good in the end, and how you can fit in, be part of exciting times, and gain power in the process.'”

Onisaburo’s brand of evangelical, grassroots millenialism hit the big time in the 1910s and 1920s.

It also attracted official censure from authorities wary of deviation from the official Shinto religion.

Onisaburo did a short stint in prison for subversion in 1921, and shifted his attentions abroad.

“Onisaburo considered himself strongly internationalist in an idealistic way, and therefore was led to challenge the increasing nationalism of his time and even the Emperor himself, whereas many of the other new religions accommodated themselves to the prevailing political currents,” Ellwood observed. Later, Onisaburo would actually be prosecuted for lese majeste for his insufficient accommodation to imperial authority.

At any rate, as part of feeling out the proper spiritual direction after his first stint as a ward of the state, Onisaburo and some followers quietly slipped out of Japan in early 1924.

They made for Manchuria, then a de facto independent principality under the Tokyo-allied warlord Zhang Zuolin.

There, they recruited one of Zhang’s subordinates on a mission to form up a “spiritual army” to invade Outer Mongolia.

According to Stalker, this adventure initially had Zhang’s blessing — but he quickly soured on the freelance militia, a leader now calling himself the Dalai Lama, and the gang’s escalating aspiration to unite all of Mongolia on his borders. Zhang surrounded and suppressed the expedition, summarily executing most of the Chinese personnel.

On this day, the Japanese too were about to be disposed of. Onisaburo was reciting death poetry.

Even if my body is exposed
on the plains of Mongolia
I will still keep the dignity of a Japanese

Farewell!
I will ascend to Heaven and protect
not only Japan but the whole world

Far away from Japan
I will now join the gods
in the sky of Mongolia

But the execution was dramatically aborted when Onisaburo was fortuitously able to hail a Japanese consular official who protected his countrymen.

Scarcely chastened — indeed, the adventure with its miraculous escape drew romantic media coverage back home — Onisaburo returned to Japan to rebuild Oomoto. He would continue dabbling in both internationalism (Oomoto adopted the sometimes-persecuted artificial language Esperanto) and Japan’s right-wing fringe (Stalker says that Onisaburo wisely declined Ikki Kita‘s invitation to finance a disastrous right-wing revolt).

Oomoto was violently suppressed in the 1930s, but retained many adherents and still exists today.

Martial artist Morihei Ueshiba was one of Onisaburo’s disciples to escape execution this date. Upon returning to Japan, the man parted ways with Oomoto and instead created the martial art form aikido.

* Alternatively, Omoto, or Omotokyo.

** And continuing to the present day. While Oomoto is also a going concern, the “new religion” most widely familiar to most readers will be the Aum Shinrikyo sect — notorious for carrying out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

This master’s thesis (pdf) sets the scene for new religions (and specifically Oomoto) in early 20th century Japan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Last Minute Reprieve,Mongolia,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Religious Figures,Shot

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1258: Al-Musta’sim, the last Abbasid Caliph

5 comments February 20th, 2009 Headsman

For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*

Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.

Al-Musta’sim Billah held power in the sunset days of a once-mighty empire,

a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appro­priated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)

Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.

He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.

A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”

Genghis Khan‘s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.

On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.

According to The Cambridge History of Iran (volume 5), this was likely a later interpolation of a story that 13th century intellectual Nasir al-Din Tusi recorded:

[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”

It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.

However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.

What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.

None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.

… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.

* Later historian Ibn Tabataba, cited in The Middle East Remembered.

** Christians were spared the rapine, as Khan had a Coptic wife.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iraq,Milestones,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Trampled,Wartime Executions

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1289: Demetre II the Self-Sacrificer

4 comments March 12th, 2008 dogboy

On this date in 1289, Georgia’s King Demetre II, beholden to the Mongol regional ruler Arghun Khan, earned the name “Self-Sacrificer” (tavdadebuli) by giving himself up for execution in a bid to spare his nation the ruins which befell other resistors of Mongolian rule. He was tortured and beheaded for allegedly participating in a plot to overthrow the khan. The Georgian Orthodox church canonized Demetre a martyr and saint.

Demetre sat on the Georgian throne in tumultuous days, when its influence spanned only the eastern half of present-day Georgia. His nation’s position in the Caucuses Mountains between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea placed it at the center of action during the Dark Ages, crushed between European Crusades from the west, Mongolian military expansion from the north and east, and Turkish and Iranian influence from the south.

This left the so-called Caucasian isthmus a political boiler room from the 9th to 18th centuries, during which its dominion waxed several times, and waned even more spectacularly twice as often (a rather complete description is given by Ronald Grigor Suny in The Making of the Georgian Nation).

The Christian polygamist was a fifth-generation descendant of “golden age” Georgian ruler King David II, III, or IV (depends on who you ask), who earned the only name he would need as Georgian ruler for refusing to cede power to Byzantium and expelling the Seljuk Turks — considered the dreaded Muslim invaders — from Georgia, northern Armenia, and some of present-day Azerbaijan. King David the Builder united these nearby Transcaucasian cultures under a single banner shortly after 1100. A century later, in 1204, after the inception of the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond (now in western neighbor Turkey), Georgia reached its zenith under the reign of Queen T(h)amar the Great: from the ruins of Constantinople after the fourth Crusade, in the Eastern center of Orthodox Christianity, the dynastic Kingdom of Georgia entered its glory days.

Georgia at its height under Queen Tamar.

But such days did not last. T(h)amar’s son had no children when he fell fatally ill after a defeat in support of the persistent Crusaders. Within six decades, the Mongols would conquer Georgia at least twice, demanding gold in tribute to protect the once mighty kingdom from the Turks, and eventually other Mongolian factions. The nation’s religious heart felt more threatened by the Muslim onslaught than by the prospect of Mongolian overlords, and residents frequently took up arms alongside the Mongols to repel the southern invaders. Which is not to suggest that rebellion against the region’s ruler, the Mongolian Ilkhanate, was unknown.

Indeed, Demetre II was sired during just such a time and held the dubious distinction of taking power immediately after David VII (David Ulu, “the Senior”), whose efforts at revolt resulted in a three-way carving of Georgia. In 1262, David Ulu and his cousin David VI (David Narin, “the Junior”) ended their largely unsuccessful attempt to pry away the Mongol thumb after being forced to hole up in Kutaisi, the birth city of David the Builder. Ulu and Narin made peace with the Mongols and ruled the eastern and western partitions, respectively.

Their surrender was precipitated largely by the kidnapping of large portions of their families at the invaders’ hands, but it was a year too late to save Demetre’s mother. Three years after the surrender, in a show of pure subjugation, David Ulu agreed to aid the local Ilkahn — himself a subordinate to the Mongolian khan — in battle against the Golden Horde in the neighboring northern Azerbaijani region of Shirvan. Still attempting to exert his own pressure over the kingdom, David Ulu watched his domain shrink further as the southern province of Samtskhe broke away to submit more immediately to the Ilkahnate.

Coins dating to the reign of Demetre II. (From the National Bank of Georgia)

In 1270, David Ulu died, and his 11-year old son ascended to the throne, regency passing to Demetre’s uncle Sadun Mankaberdeli while Demetre was schooled at the court of the khan. At 18, Demetre took control. He had stood side-by-side under Mongol Buddhist-maybe-turned-Christian Abaqa Khan with his Armenian brethren (under the rule of Leon II [or III, depending on the counter]) in four years of service. He distinguished himself in a losing march on Syria at the Second Battle of Homs (1281), yet another Ilkhanate attempt at opening the Crusade routes. This curious cast at a connection with Europe — mirrored through the dispatch of the likes of ambassador Rabban Bar Sauma to the West — ended poorly for both sides: the Mongolians saw their influence diminish even further in the southern Caucases, but the subjugated, Christian Georgia still needed their services. Demetre maintained a relationship with the Mongols, the only way to retain a semblance of power in a time of flux in the region.

Demetre was a prolific breeder in his day, likely managing to produce more subsequent Georgian kings than any other ruler while earning the ire of the church thanks to a trio of wives. His polygamy was decried by another Georgian saint, Basil Ratishvili, who predicted the ruin of the nation from these ungodly acts. It started with a classic merger of adjoining empires through a marriage to a daughter of Manuel I of Trebizond, which by that time was on the rise as a political center (it would become a stop on Marco Polo’s famous wander in the years immediately prior to its moment in the sun at the start of the 14th century); two of their children shared the title of King of Georgia, David VIII taking the half formerly claimed by David Narin, Vakhtang III acquiring Tbilisi and the western side.

Demetre’s second wife was Solghar, a Mongol princess who produced a son and two daughters — including one who married Trebizond’s most dominant ruler, Alexius III. His third marriage yielded a two-time leader in King Giorgi [George] V, who was brought up at his grandfather’s court after Demetre’s execution; his ascent to the throne in 1299 was a brief affair, but when he returned to power in 1314, his campaigns rid Transcaucasia of all Mongolian traces, united the previous factions, eliminated opposing nobles, secured access to Georgian Orthodox sites in the Holy Land, connected Georgia with Egypt and the Byzantine Empire as well as the Republics of Genoa and Venice, introduced the precursor to the modern Georgian flag, and resulted in his informal titles “Giorgi the Brilliant”, “Giorgi the Magnificent”, and “Giorgi the Illustrious.”

For Demetre II, Demetre the Devoted, Demetre the Self-Sacrificer, none of those achievements would be known, thanks to Solghar, daughter of Bugha Chingsang. Chingsang served as prime minister under Arghun Khan, who seized power in 1285 from his uncle after accusing the latter of poisoning Arghun’s father, Abaqa. Bugha’s attempted ouster of the new Khan ended with a resounding defeat, and Bugha and several co-conspirators were beheaded on January 17, 1289. Immediately, the Khan called on Demetre, who was advised by many that an ill fate awaited him if he complied. It is questionable whether Demetre was in any way complicit in the plot, but it is not questionable that Demetre knew what would happen at the court of Arghun Khan. The regional patriarch/bishop Catholicos Abraam reportedly offered the only support:

If you sacrifice your own life for your nation, we, the bishops of this land, will bear your sins, and will pray to God that you be numbered among the holy martyrs. For the Lord Himself said, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And if it is good for a man to lay down his life for just one neighbor, how profitable is it for a man to die for the sake of many?

Demetre agreed, taking Abraam, the priest Mose, his sons David (later VIII) and Giorgi (later V), and several other members of his court. The Georgian Orthodox church officially presents the events thusly:

At the ordu [the Khan’s camp in Azerbaijan] the Mongols could find no fault in the young Georgian king, but they imprisoned him nevertheless. Then a group of Georgian faithful forced their way into the prison to see him and offered to help him escape. The king was deeply moved by their compassion, but nevertheless he told them, “I knew from the beginning the death I would suffer, and I offered my life for this nation. If I escape now, the nation will be destroyed. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).”

The khan ordered his execution. Fully prepared to meet death, King Demetre prayed fervently, received the Holy Gifts, and gave up his soul to the Lord. Those present witnessed a divine miracle: the sun grew dark and an ominous gloom enshrouded the whole city.

The holy relics of the Royal Martyr Demetre were guarded until the catholicos and the priest Mose secretly retrieved the body and, with the help of a group of Tbilisi fishermen, returned the king to his homeland. He was buried in Mtskheta, in the burial vault of his forefathers at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

O Holy Demetre, martyr and king, pray to God that our souls may be saved!

Whether the souls of those who pray to the doomed Demetre II are saved or not, the Georgian Orthodox saint lives on largely through his efforts to revive his nation’s church and restore its places of worship. One of his more enduring acts as sovereign was to order the building of the Metekhi Church in Tbilisi on the site of an extant 5th-century church; its transformation from church to jail to theater and back to church as the fortunes of Georgia swayed may be one of the more apt reflections of the nation itself, if not the most flattering.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Myths,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Power,Royalty,Torture,Treason

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