This is an excerpt from
Mongolia: Nomad Empire of the Eternal Blue Sky.
As mentioned in a Previous Post I recently visited the former monastery and now museum at Mandshir Khiid, on the south side of Bogd Khan Uul, the huge massif which looms over the southern horizon of Ulaan Baatar. Among the dozen or so ruins scattered around the Mandshir Khiid area are the remains of the Богдын Шар Хүрээ, or Bogd’s Yellow Palace, built in 1770 to serve as a secondary residence and retreat for the Bogd Gegeens, who normally dwelt in Örgöö, now Ulaan Baatar
Roman “The Bloody Baron” von Ungern-SternbergDespite his highly checkered past the Baron was at first welcomed into Mongolia. According to Ladislaus Forbath, a Hungarian living in Örgöö (Ulaan Baatar) at the time:
The Baron claimed to be a Buddhist, the self-styled leader of an “Order of Buddhist Warriors,” and reportedly the 13th Dalai Lama had declared that he was an emanation of Mahakala. It was also averred that he was an incarnation of Chingis Khan and/or Tamurlane.Mahakala
He [Ungern-Sternberg] made speeches to the inhabitants of the frontier villages, declaring that he had come to the country in order to liberate it and drive out all foreigners, and calling upon the people to join him as a patriotic duty. He also promised again and again that once the liberation of the Mongolia people were [sic] accomplished he would organize a mighty Mongolian army, lead it into China, and after restoring the Emperor to this throne, attack Europe with a combined Sino-Mongolian army and ‘wipe out the revolution-mongers among the white races.’When he first entered Mongolia the Baron’s army consisted of a ragtag assortment of White Russian soldiers-of-fortune and refugees; displaced Cossacks; desperados, criminals, and psychopaths of various hues; along with a leavening of Central Asian riffraff, including a detachment of Bashkir Moslems. By means of his pro-independence propaganda the Baron quickly attracted an ever-larger following of Mongolians. D. P. Pershin, a White Russian also living in Örgöö at the time reported:
Mongols who had secretly slipped through into Urga said that everywhere along the way the Mongols assisted the Baron in whatever way they could; particularly in recruiting young men, and requisitioning horses and furnishing provisions. The Baron always paid in gold coin for whatever he took from the population and he did not permit his soldiers to be violent towards or outrage the peaceful inhabitants. The population looked upon the Baron with great favor, while one wealthy Mongolian, Taiban-Teregun [?] gave his considerable support. Many Mongols joined the general as volunteers . . .Ungern’s first attempt to take Örgöö was launched on September 24, 1920. His 2700-3000 troops were unable to dislodge the entrenched Chinese garrison of 10,000 and finally on November 7 he admitted defeat and withdrew his troops to Khökh Nuur (Dalai Nuur) in what is now Inner Mongolia in China.
While his army set up camp here Ungern traveled west into Mongolia itself to meet with delegations of Mongolian nobles, included the Setsen Khan, ruler of the Setsen khanate which at that time occupied much of eastern Mongolia and the territory around Khökh Nuur. Soon a plot was hatched to make another attempt on Örgöö, with the ultimate goal of expelling of the Chinese from the territory of Mongolia and the creation of an independent country. The 8th Bogd Gegeen, already the nominal leader of the Mongolian people, was to be declared the king of this newly-independent Mongolia.
The 8th Bogd Gegeen, the 23th Incarnation of Javsandamba, was at that time living in Chinese-occupied Örgöö, held under virtual house arrest by the Chinese authorities. During the winter of 1920—apparently after the Baron’s first assault on Örgöö, although the chronology remains uncertain—he had been forcibly removed from his palace and placed under guard in a residence in the Polovinka quarter of town. “This was, for the Urga population, thunder out of a clear blue sky, and now all awaited extraordinary events,” noted Pershin, who was in Örgöö at the time. He continues:
No one understood the grounds for his arrest. It was believed the Chinese generals wished to show the people their power and their importance and that they could do anything with impunity. It was also believed that the generals intended this to be a lesson to all who expressed discontent with the Chinese authorities: if the Bogdo [the 8th Bogd Gegeen] could be treated without ceremony, there could be no question of the others. And the garrison was to be convinced that the deity Himself remained helpless before military force and that consequently there was nothing to fear in either the incantations of the lamas or their moaning and roaring horns . . . .After fifty days in detention the Bogd Gegeen was allowed to return to his Winter Palace, but it was clear to all that he was still under house arrest, a hostage to the demands of the Chinese administration in Örgöö. Inside the Winter Palace the Bogd Gegeen was surrounded by his own retinue of lamas and bodyguards, but outside a Chinese detachment of 350 soldiers remained constantly on guard.
It was extremely necessary for Ungern to kidnap lest the latter become a hostage in the hands of the Chinese authorities. If that were the case the Chinese would be in a position to demand many things from the Mongols, knowing full well in advance for the sake of the Bogdo the Mongols would make all sorts of concessions.With the assistance of Setsen Khan the Baron managed to infiltrate into Örgöö secret emissaries who were finally able to arrange a meeting with the Bogd Gegeen. The details of this operation remain vague, but apparently the agents were either lamas or men posing as lamas who were able bypass the Chinese guards by claiming that they needed to talk to the Bogd Gegeen about religious matters. In any case they obtained the Bogd Gegeen’s agreement to play a passive role in his own kidnapping and, perhaps more importantly, were able to convince the entourage of Mongolian lamas and bodyguards surrounding him to assist in the plot.
The Bogd Gegeen had to be seized before the actual attack on Örgöö began and for this Ungern-Sternberg needed confederates within the town itself. His network of agents within Örgöö soon managed to recruit a Buryat named Tubanov, according to Pershin “a local desperado of unsavory reputation and repulsive exterior.” Tubanov in turn recruited cohorts from the so-called Tubuty, a colony of Tibetans who lived by themselves in a special quarter near the Zakhadyr market and subsisted by trading in Tibetan goods and money-lending. Pershin relates:
Of these tubuts Tubanov selected a gang of about sixty of the hardiest and bravest men who since childhood were accustomed to climbing their native Tibetan mountains and, what was more important, were fanatical lamaists: for the sake of serving the faith—in this case rescuing Bogdo—they would go against any odds and perform miracles of bravery. The selection was undoubtedly correct, as no one could have carried out this task better than these Tibetans; the more so as they hated the Chinese as oppressors of Tibet and outragers of the Dalai-lam [Dalai Lama] . . . . The Tibetans were particularly inspired by the thought that they were not only performing a feat of godliness and devotion, but were also helping their national cause, as the Bogdo-Gegen Jebusan-damba-Khutukhtu was of Tibetan origin and consequently a countryman of theirs . . .Once recruited into the kidnapping plot, the Tibetans, who according to Pershin “knew how to keep their tongues between their teeth,” maintained absolute secrecy while sneaking out of their quarter “to investigate at night all the nooks and crannies, trails, paths, and projections of the Bogdo-ula along the route which they later used to carry the kidnapped Bogdo-Gegen in their arms, from the palace to the monastery of Manchushry-lam [Mandshir Khiid] on the other side of the range.” (Alioshin makes the claim that the “Tibetans” in Tubanov’s posse were actually Tanguts from the ancient realm of Xi Xia, in what is now China. In any case, they practiced Tibetan Buddhism, probably spoke Tibetan, and were no doubt indistinguishable, at least to most foreigners, from real Tibetans from Tibet.)
Meanwhile the Baron instituted a regime of psychological warfare against the Chinese garrison in the city. Pershin describes in detail one of his first gambits:
In broad daylight the town, which had been declared to be under martial arrest and even under a state of siege, and in any case supposedly under reinforced guard and teeming with soldiers, was visited personally by none other than his Excellency Baron Ungern. He called on the manor of the main representative of authority, Chen-Yi, and thereupon returned to his own camp . . . Baron Ungern wore, as usual a bright cherry colored Mongolian robe with a tall white fur papakha [Russian hat] and carried a tashur [long bamboo riding stick]. He rode his speedy white mare at a middling trot, along the main street of the Polovinka towards Chen-Yi’s residence. In the courtyard, the Baron dismounted leisurely, motioned to a soldier of the ever present guard to come to him and ordered him to hold his horse by the bridle. He the quietly walked around the house, returned to his horse, glanced carefully at the entire surroundings, tightened the saddle-girth, mounted and rode unhurriedly out of the yard in the direction of the Consular settlement and his camp. On his way back he noticed a sentry asleep at the gates of the prison. Such a breach of discipline revolted the Baron and, without dismounting, he rewarded the sleeping soldier with several blows of his tashur. The frightened soldier could not collect his wits and stood perplexed, whereupon Ungern (who knew a little Chinese) explained to him that a sentry must not sleep at his post and that for such a breech of discipline, he, Baron Ungern, had punished him personally. The scared sentry raised an alarm, but by that time the Baron was far away.Word of this incredible stunt soon spread all over town and the superstitious soldiers in the Chinese garrison quickly concluded that the Baron must possess supernatural powers.
This was just one of the Baron’s ploys intended to demoralize the Chinese forces before his attack on the city. He also dispatched his men in groups of three to built campfires on the side of Bogd Khan Uul. Soon the mountainside was ablaze with hundred of campfires, creating the impression that a much larger army was camped above the city. Also, according to Pershin, the fires “were given a grave and mysterious meaning: the Baron up there was offering sacrifices to the host spirits of the mountain so that they might send various calamities upon those who had insulted Bogdo, the exalted protector and lord of all the surrounding country.”
By now the Chinese garrison was thoroughly rattled. Still, the Chinese generals did not suspect that the 8th Bogd Gegeen could be snatched away from under their very noses. As Pershin noted:
The whole Tola [Tuul] valley was open on every side, with not a single shrub or structure in sight. The valley nowhere afforded any protected approach to the palaces of the Bogdo, while the steep, stony fastnesses of the Bogdo-ula seemingly excluded the possibility of approaching from that side . . . Under such topographical conditions to kidnap the Bogdo from his palace was an exploit of great difficulty if not entirely impossible . . . But Ungern was a warrior to the marrow of his bones, and a gifted military chieftain at that. The harder the problem, the more zest he had for tackling it . . . .The abduction was scheduled for February 1. This date had been arrived upon by the concerted prognostications of the whole pack of fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, mystics, and mental cases which the Baron retained in his entourage. Special importance was given to the pronouncements of lamas skilled in the art of divining the future from the scorched shoulder blades of sheep. Alioshin noted, “According to Mongolian fortuning telling and learned prophesies, the Living Buddha was supposed to be liberated from the Chinese on the first day of the battle, February 1, and we had to make the prophecy a reality at all costs.”
The Bogd Gegeen’s Winter PalaceAt the appointed hour the Tibetans appeared at the Winter Palace in monk’s dress, appearing at first to be lamas seeking an audience with the Bogd Gegeen. Monks in the entourage of the Bogd Gegeen who were already inside the palace and who had secretly been supplied with weapons quickly disarmed and tied up the Chinese guards. The Tibetans rushed into palace and grabbed the blind Bogd Gegeen, who was waiting for them warmly dressed and equipped for a trip over the mountains. Two monks held the Bogd Gegeen under each arm and helped him onto a horse. One group of Tibetans lead the Bogd Gegeen up Zaisan Valley and to the ridgeline of Bogd Khaan Uul. “Another group of Tibetans, armed to the teeth, waited until the Bogdo was out of the palace, when they opened fire with automatic rifles upon the exterior guard of the palace to prevent them from pursuing the kidnappers . . .” The Chinese soldiers, “lacking all incentive to climb the steep, unblazed, hillside,” as Pershin put it, made no real attempt to pursue the Tibetans and the Bogd Gegeen. Alioshin claims that Tubanov and his men captured several machine guns from the Chinese guards and turned them on the Chinese themselves, killing over a thousand, although this sounds like an exaggeration.
The Bogd Gegeen’s throne, now in the Winter Palace
(See More About the Winter Palace)
The Bogd Gegeen’s throne, now in the Winter Palace
(See More About the Winter Palace)
By chance, at about four o’clock on the afternoon of the kidnapping, the author of these memoirs [Pershin writing about himself here], was looking out of his window through his Zeiss binoculars, and observed some movement on the Bogdo-ula mountainside. He did not pay much attention to this, believing that the dots moving up the hillside were Mongol guards patrolling the mountain. Besides, these dots could be observed only when they were in the snow-covered clearings. Later it transpired that they were the kidnappers of the Bogdo-Gegen.The Bogd Gegeen, meanwhile, was handed off to a succession of relays who escorted him to Mandshir Khiid on the south side of Bogd Khan Mountain, a distance of 9.2 miles ASCF south of the Winter Palace. There he was deposited in the Yellow Palace (Shar Khüree) which had been built as a residence for the Bogd Gegeens in 1770. Here he resided while the Baron secured the city.
This 19th century painting shows Ikh Khüree at top-center, the Winter Palace at bottom left and Mandshir Khiid, on the opposite side of Bodg Khan Uul, at bottom right. The green cone-shaped hill, bottom-center, is presumably Zaisan Hill, site of the current War Memorial.Although the abduction was a carefully planned and executed commando raid, in the minds of the populace of Örgöö the episode soon came to resemble, as Pershin pointed out, “a magic tale rather than reality.” People opined that the kidnapping was “not accomplished without the intervention of some supernatural force.” Pershin elaborates:
“Of course,” someone would say and others repeat, “Don’t you know that the kidnappers penetrated in broad daylight the palace which is in plain view of everyone, disarmed or, when necessary, killed outside and inside guards, took Bogdo and carried him in their arms out of the palace and across a high-steep and nearly inaccessible mountain, while most the guard either remained inactive or ran away—it is not a miracle? No, no, this never could have happened without the intervention of some special force! They used sorcery to divert all eyes, there is no other explanation.” Such reasoning could be heard among the Russians, Chinese, and Mongols and evoked a feeling of wonderment mixed with fear.Indeed, the seizure of the Bogd Gegeen seems to have completely demoralized the Chinese garrison. The next day a diversionary attack by units of Ungern’s army was launched on the Chinese district of Maimacheng out near Uliastai Gol, on what is now the eastern edge of Ulaan Baatar. That same day the now totally unnerved Chinese officers and civil authorities fled the city, leaving the troops to fend for themselves. The next day, Februrary 3, the main body of Ungern’s army attacked Urga proper and quickly overran what remained of the Chinese garrison, most of which had fled in the night. A three-day orgy of pillage, plunder and murder commenced against rich Chinese, Russian, and other foreign traders; suspected Bolsheviks; and especially Jews, toward whom the Baron had a diabolical hatred. Alioshin, an eyewitness to the pogrom—he is a bit coy about the degree of his own participation—describes with all too much relish the horrific atrocities visited on the victims. This gruesome catalog of crimes need not be recounted at length here; one detail reported by Alioshin will suffice: “The humiliation of the women was so awful that I saw one of the officers ran inside a house with a razor and offer to let the girl commit suicide before she was attacked. With tears of gratitude she said a simple thanks and then slashed her own throat.”
After three days the Baron called an abrupt halt to the pogrom and any of his soldiers who disobeyed his order met much the same fate as their victims a few days earlier. Having satisfied his own bloodlust on his perceived enemies the Baron allowed the Mongolians to organize a new government. On March 21, 1921 the independent country of Mongolia was reborn, and the Bogd Gegeen was proclaimed ruler with the title of the Bogd Khan. “The actual coronation of the Living Buddha was an intricate religious ceremony requiring many hours to complete,” historian Thomas Allsen tells us. The Bogd Gegeen granted Ungern and Rezukhin, one of the General’s chief officers, the princely title of Gün as a reward for their services. As Allsen points outs, “The Living Buddha was delegated supreme secular and religious powers. However, as supreme military commander of the Mongol armies, Ungern decided all matters major or minor. The Living Buddha’s addiction to heavy drinking and his total blindness further enhanced the Baron’s position.” Ungern would remain the real ruler of Mongolia until dislodged from the country by the Bolsheviks, who in the end executed the Bloody Baron. One of Ungern’s riding boots, apparently stripped from his body when he was captured, can now be seen in the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulaan Baatar.