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Book Review


Sunderland, Willard, The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp.xiv+344. $35.00 (cloth).

     Baron Roman Nikolai Max von Ungern-Sternberg (1885–1921) lived a relatively brief life. But he lived it on an imperial scale. Born into a well-connected family of German nobles in Graz, Austria, he grew up in Estland, then part of the Russian Empire (and now Estonia), before attending an elite military school in St. Petersburg. He left the latter because of his poor performance, going on to volunteer for service in the Russo-Japanese War—which ended before he reached the front. He then served as a lieutenant in the Trans-Baikal Cossack Host, followed by a stint among the Amur Cossacks, before he suddenly resigned from the army in 1913 to fight as a volunteer among Mongol forces seeking independence from China. After the outbreak of the Great War, in which he saw action in Prussia, Poland, the Carpathians, and Persia, he returned to Siberia, where he fought against the Red Army—and for the principle of monarchical rule. In 1920 he led his men into Mongolia, taking control of the capital, Urga (now Ulaanbaatar), before launching an ill-fated attack on the Red Army outside the Russian border town of Kiakhta. Captured months later, he was put on trial on in front of a packed theater in the Siberian boomtown of Novonikolaevsk (now Novosibirsk). His judges paraded him onto the stage in his deel: the traditional cape of Mongolian nomads, this one in the orange-gold color reserved for nobles, and with European-style army epaulettes on the shoulders. To those assembled for the show trial, he must have fully looked the part he was staged to play: an idiosyncratic, violent, anti-Semitic exemplar of the Baltic barons—"parasites," in the words of his prosecutor, "who literally latched themselves to the body of Russia and then sucked on [it] for centuries" (220). And then, of course, he was shot.

     The baron's strange, fascinating, and, above all, imperial life is at the center of this marvelous book. Willard Sunderland follows "Ungern," as he refers to his subject, with a wide lens, exploring the many places that together shaped him, but focusing throughout on the larger tapestry of the late Russian Empire—and, indeed, on the interconnected world of empires of which it was a part. The result is a splendidly readable microhistory that brings together much excellent recent work on the multiethnic, imperial history of Russia—a literature to which Sunderland has been a leading contributor—to show how "the personal experience of empire has much to tell us about the bigger picture." "Surveying empires from the great vantage of policies, structures, or ideologies, as historians usually do," he explains, "we perceive one set of truths, but stepping into the shoes of imperial people, we see another" (6–7).

     So what do we see? Above all, a world in which the imperial condition provided the context in and through which people lived and made sense of their lives. Previous treatments of Ungern have tended to focus on his role in Russian Civil War and on the Mongolian adventure, emphasizing his brutality and anti-Semitism. Sunderland instead devotes more or less equal attention to the entire sweep of Ungern's life, through which he examines the life of the Russian Empire itself in its final decades. This approach provides a more complex and compelling picture, not least because it situates sweeping narrative against particular experience—the key task of a microhistorical study. When Ungern famously took the Mongolian capital of Urga, Sunderland explains, he did so in pursuit of an "imperial restoration that would begin in Mongolia but then move from there to the rest of the former Qing world and, in time, to Russia and Europe" (184). In retrospect, the plan seems unhinged, the quixotic final paroxysm of a man who epitomized what the Bolsheviks would call byvshie liudi, or "former people." Sunderland's exploration of Ungern's entire life, however, suggests that a certain logic animated Ungern's actions. Sunderland admits that the sources on Ungern are relatively sparse and that some of his conclusions must therefore remain tentative. But his aim in studying Ungern is a larger one: to provide a better understanding of the world of empires that was Ungern's home. For Ungern, he explains, the autocracy "stood for order, stability, history, divine grace, the greatness of Russian power. How could one simply choose to do away with it?" (144). The question is a useful one not least because it prompts us to keep in mind the difference between embedded experience and post-facto analysis. As Sunderland explains in a catching passage emblematic of many others in the book:

One of the remarkable effects of revolutions is the ability to make themselves seem inevitable. The old regime had rotted to bits and was fated to fall. The people were oppressed and had to rise. Modern revolutionaries are the master editors of time, eliminating contingency and replacing it with the rock-hard certainty of their version of progress. But when we step around what the revolutionaries are telling us and move back into the moment of revolution itself, rather than solid ground, what we usually find is confusion and unpredictability. The world might indeed be tipping into something new, but it might just as readily be about to move sidewise or slip back in the other direction. This was Ungern's situation in Urga. The defining quality of the moment was its unsettledness. Nothing was certain. All futures were possible, including ones that replayed the past. The empires around him had unraveled, but the important point was that they had just unraveled. (189)

     The Baron's Cloak, though a microhistory, also does a remarkably effective job of introducing many key themes from recent scholarship on Russia's multiethnic, imperial history and the complex place of nationalism within it. Given the dizzying diversity and size of the empire, this is a particularly challenging subject for the newcomer, but Sunderland's use of Ungern as a "guide" provides an accessible, yet arresting introduction. Ethnic Russians accounted for less than half of the Russian Empire's population. Too often, however, commenters frame the empire in the essentializing terms of nationalism, speaking, for instance, of "the Russians" as an actor in in WWI. In reality, of course, the Russian Empire was run by a cosmopolitan imperial family—Nicholas II and Alexandra spoke English at home—who relied intensively on Baltic Germans, among others, to rule their subjects, of whom ethnic Russians were merely the largest group. The Russian language captures such complexity more effectively than English, as it has two words for Russian that distinguish between Russian as an ethnic maker (russkii) and Russian as a marker of belonging in the imperial community (rossiiskii). Ungern, a native German speaker born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was "Russian" in the latter sense (rossiiskii). And this was an identity with which he actually identified: service to tsar and empire was a crucial source of meaning for him, as it was for many of the Baltic Germans who played key roles in running the empire.

     One of Sunderland's key themes is the meaning of empire in an age of burgeoning nationalism. The Russian Empire was a place in which hybridity and difference were the norm; different groups existed under different laws. The standard narrative of the late imperial state seeking to turn its diverse subjects into subjects more akin to the ethnic Russians, Sunderland emphasizes, needs adjustment. Russificiation, he argues, was "the government's earnest if uneven attempt to modernize the empire by reinforcing the power of the state and making diversity more workable from the state's point of view" (127). The goal was the preservation of empire, rather than the creation of a nation-state. Such a goal made eminent sense to Ungern, who can hardly be said to have belonged to any "nation" as traditionally understood:

Ungern may have reflected on the curiousness of the situation he found himself in—a Baltic German transnational cosmopolitan aristocrat serving in the Russian army with a corps of semi-Russian, semi-Buryatized cavalrymen on a section of the Chinese border that was, in fact, only a border for certain people and not really much of one for others. Though, then again, if he never reflected on such things, this, too, would not have been surprising. The curious pathways of the Russian Empire seem odd to us now because we are so far removed from them. (79)

     Sunderland adroitly utilizes the circumstance of Ungern's having lived in many different places, then, not only to offer engaging portraits of those places, but to show how, together, they were the home that no "national" identity could capture.

     In sum, this is an exemplary and engaging study that newcomers to Russian history and the broader history of empires will find accessible and interesting—and that more seasoned readers will find enormously insightful. It deserves a very wide readership.

Mark A. Soderstrom is an assistant professor of history at Aurora University in Aurora, IL. His primary research area is Imperial Russian history, and he teaches a range of courses on Russian, Environmental, East Asian, and World History. He can be contacted at


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