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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1920: Maria Bochkareva, Russian Joan of Arc

9 comments May 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1920, the Cheka shot famed female soldier Maria Bochkareva (or Botchkareva).

The “Russian Joan of Arc” was a peasant woman from Novgorod by way of Siberia.

She’d been in the workforce since the age of eight, and had passed almost continuously through abusive male relationships (violently drunken father, marriages to two wife-batterers). She’d also in that time shown herself a natural leader, and become a construction foreman.

It seems the great war came for Bochkareva as a liberating, almost redemptive, force: at least, that is the conclusion of hindsight.

In her memoir Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier (freely available here), she recalls the spirit of patriotism that swept Russians into war, just as it did German and French and British youths.

a gigantic wave of popular enthusiasm, sweeping the steppes, valleys, and forests of vast Russia, from Petrograd and Moscow, across the Ural mountains and Siberia, to the borders of China, and the Pacific coast.

There was something sublime about the nation’s response. Old men, who had fought in the Crimean War, in the Turkish Campaign of 1877-78, and the Russo-Japanese War, declared that they never saw such exaltation of spirit. It was a glorious, inspiring, unforgettable moment in one’s life. My soul was deeply stirred, and I had a dim realization of a new world coming to life, a purer, a happier and a holier world.

“Go to war to help save the country!” a voice within me called.

This dovetailed nicely (we do not say insincerely) with Bochkareva’s own striving for a more meaningful life than was on offer in her second marriage.

To leave Yasha for my personal comfort and safety was almost unthinkable. But to leave him for the field of unselfish sacrifice, that was a different matter. And the thought of going to war penetrated deeper and deeper into my whole being, giving me no rest.

Bochkareva appealed directly to the tsar and secured his personal permission to enlist. She earned several decorations for heroism in the tsarist army … and when the Romanovs fell, the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary government under Alexander Keresnky gave her permission to create an all-female formation: the Women’s Battalion of Death.

(“Of Death” was a bombastic cognomen any unit could receive by pledging never to surrender.)

“Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes,” Bochkareva implored in an appeal to Russian women in June 1917. “Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke — to protect the freedom of our country.”


Maria Bochkareva, center, supervises shooing practice. (Source)

Some 2,000 answered the summons.

Only around 300 of these could withstand Bochkareva’s iron discipline, and though other women’s battalions would follow (one, for instance, defended the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks), only Bochkareva’s saw service on the front.


The Women’s Battalion at a Moscow ceremony in the summer of 1917.

Although amenable to Kerensky’s Provisional Government, Bochkareva was an unmitigated anti-Bolshevik.

According to her memoirs, her “tigresses” continued fighting while the rest of the front was fraternizing, and enraged her male comrades by drawing artillery fire. She had to flee male soldiers intent on lynching her when she was still fighting after peace was announced. She had a hard time getting used to the idea of the new Soviet government, and the feeling was mutual: her battalion was soon disbanded and it wasn’t long before she took a steamship into exile.

(Her memoirs contain a harrowing account of her once being detained as a counterrevolutionary and barely avoiding execution.)

That memoir of Bochkareva’s was dictated in New York in 1918, just a few months since she had been in the trenches facing the Kaiser. Clearly she did not believe her mission to “heal the wounds of Russia” had been accomplished, for it was her attempt to return to the fight against the Bolsheviks that doomed her: in spring 1919, she went to the Russian Urals during the civil war to try to form a women’s unit under the White Admiral Kolchak.

But she was captured by the Reds inside of a year, and sentenced as an enemy of the people.

There’s an interesting open-access academic article about Bochkareva and the woman-soldier phenomenon here, as well as a larger bibliography here.

A few topical books

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1919: Mehmed Kemal, for the Armenian genocide

3 comments April 10th, 2010 Headsman

Ninety-one years ago today,* the tottering Ottoman Empire hanged one of its officials in Istanbul for his role in the mass slaughter of its Armenian minority during the First World War.

Kemal Bey’s hanging in Bayezid Square occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Here, on its last legs, the remains of a sultanate splintered apart in the war instituted tribunals for wartime offenses by the Young Turks who had run the government during the war — a sop to the British occupying forces making worrying noises about international trials for much bigger fish.

Much testimony at the trial pointed to the governor’s fervor for massacres; an Armenian priest who survived the slaughter later wrote that a Turkish officer had told him that Kemal “made a vow on the honor of the Prophet: I shall not leave a single Armenian alive in the sanjak of Yozgat.”

A response to the New York Timesreport of the hanging noted that “his part was that of an executioner. The originators of the plan to exterminate the Armenians were primarily Enver, Tallat, and Djemal.”

These “Three Pashas” who had driven Ottoman policy during the war had fled abroad. They would be condemned to death in absentia, and though none would hang, neither would they outlive Mehmed Kemal by as much as four years.

They were among the many unpunished perpetrators of the slaughter hunted down by Armenian assassins. The latter two were avenged by Operation Nemesis; Enver Pasha died in battle in Tajikistan during the Russian Civil War.

Though overshadowed in historical import by those three, our day’s principal is distinguished as the first person executed for “crimes against humanity.”

This novelty, combined with the trial’s victor’s-justice character, were immediately controversial, and remain so in the fraught politicking around the genocide. (This genocide-denialist paper describes, on page 13, the rowdy funeral scene that erupted the next day, also attested** by annoyed British officials.)

Events would soon outstrip these tribunals and lay waste to all parties’ plans for the Ottoman carcass, incidentally leaving the Armenian issue permanently unresolved.

The month after Mehmed Kemal swung, western allies went one dismemberment too far by backing the irredentist Greek state’s landing at Smyrna — an intervention that was to backfire catastrophically for the Greeks, and help birth the Turkish Republic.

* A few secondary sources say April 12 rather than April 10, but the earlier date appears much better attested.

** e.g., a diplomatic note cited in The Burning Tigris, p. 337: “Not one Turk in a thousand will think that any other Turk deserves to be hanged for massacring Christians.”

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1918: The 26 Baku Commissars

2 comments September 20th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1918, 26 Bolsheviks and Left SRs were shot in what is now Turkmenistan, their bid to establish Soviet power in Baku defeated — temporarily.


The Execution of the Twenty-Six Baku Commissars, by Isaak Brodsky (1925)

The 26 Baku Commissars were the men of the Baku Commune, a short-lived Communist government in 1918 led by the “Caucasian Lenin,” Stepan Shahumyan. (He was a good buddy of the Russian Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.)

In a cauldron of ethnic violence and against the military interventions of Turkey and Britain, these worthies were tasked with extending Soviet writ to the stupendous Azerbaijani oil fields* — the predominant source of tsarist Russia’s oil, and destined to be the engine of Soviet industry as well.

The Baku Soviet was expelled by the British, who inherited the bloody fight against an advancing Ottoman army.

Shahumyan and his fellow commissars, meanwhile, fled by ship across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan), where they fell into the hands of a the anti-Soviet factions — backed, once again, by the British — of a brand new locale’s incarnation of civil war.

The commissars’ “presence in Krasnovodsk was a matter of great concern to the [anti-Bolshevik] Ashkhabad Committee, the members of which were seriously alarmed that opposition elements in Transcaspia might take advantage of the presence of the Commissars to stage a revolt against the government.” Said concern was relieved by the expedient of escorting the Baku Soviet to the desert and shooting them en masse.

The Red Army recaptured Baku in 1920, this time for good, and Shahumyan and friends were raised to the firmament of Communist martyrology, and not only in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Streets and schools throughout the USSR bore their names.

As with many Soviet icons, the commissars had a rough come-down after the Iron Curtain fell. Their monument in Baku stood untended for many years, its eternal flame extinguished … until it was finally (and somewhat controversially) torn down earlier this year.


The Baku Commissars’ monument and its dead eternal flame, prior to its early 2009 demolition. Image (c) denn22 and used with permission.

* The Nobel family, which established the Nobel Prize, had a significant presence in the Baku petrol industry.

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1946: Grigory Semenov, anti-Bolshevik

1 comment August 30th, 2009 Headsman

At 11 p.m. this date in 1946, White general turned Japanese collaborator Grigory Semenov (or Semyonov) was hanged for a generation’s worth of anti-Soviet depredations in the Far East.

The tsarist officer Semenov joined the Russian Civil War as a notoriously vicious White commander with the grandiosely retro title of Ataman of the Baikal Cossacks.

According to G. Patrick March, Semenov’s “penchant for killing, torturing, and looting” extended to executing a captured socialist by tossing the man into his locomotive’s fuel chamber.

Although also a rival in the suicidally fractious White political jostle, Semenov was the designated successor of Aleksandr Kolchak when the latter was shot in 1920, but by that time there wasn’t much left to succeed.

Knocking around the interwar era in gloryless exile, Semenov was an easy recruit for the Japanese war machine, which was in the market by the late 1930’s for locals with command experience and a grudge against Moscow and put him on retainer in Manchuria. Like the Soviet-Japanese front in general after Khalkin Gol, nothing much came of that enterprise; the Ataman’s last great hurrah was but a footnote for Japan, and his death would be a footnote in the annals of postwar victors’ justice.

Having picked a loser two wars in a row, Semenov was captured during the short-lived Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the tail end of the war and packed off for the inevitable. Five co-defendants, including Semenov’s son Mikhail, suffered death as well — although they were simply shot, while Semenov was ignominiously hanged. (According to White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, the hanging was either botched or engineered to be an ugly strangulation job.)

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1920: The White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak

3 comments February 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, White commander Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak was shot in Irkutsk.

Absent the Russian Revolution, Kolchak‘s epitaph would read “naval officer and arctic explorer.”*

After the Russian Revolution touched off civil war, Kolchak became Supreme Ruler — and ruthless dictator — of an anti-Bolshevik government stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean.

It didn’t last.

Fleeing east, Kolchak was arrested by a Bolshevik-allied government in Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. The White army mounted an offensive to retrieve him — leading the Soviet government to order his immediate execution, along with one of his government ministers, Viktor Pepelyayev. Unable to bury them in the frozen soil, their captors unceremoniously dumped the corpses in the Ushakovka River.


A monument to Admiral Kolchak in Irkutsk, Russia. Image courtesy of Jack Sheremetoff of Baikaler.com.

* An inhospitable Arctic island he helped explore was named (and is now again named, following a Soviet change of moniker) for Kolchak.

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