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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 6 (July 1999)
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A New Universal History of Infamy:
The Brutal Buddha, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg

By Rhys Hughes

[ED NOTE: This is Rhys Hughes's attempt to complete an unfinished series of "fictional essays" by Borges.
-- Jeff VanderMeer]

The Blank Page

In the history of Mongolia, the blankest page is the 19th century. After the collapse of the amiable Ming dynasty, the usurping Manchus consigned the country to an obscurity which made its name synonymous with the edge of nowhere: the economy was handed over to unscrupulous traders who used a loophole in the law to blackmail the populace. When a Mongol fell into debt, a merchant would threaten to kill himself. A man who drove another to suicide was charged with murder.

In the grasp of the businessmen, the capital, Urga, enjoyed immense debasement and impenetrable mystique. Two Europeans who managed to visit it during this time were Luigi Barzini and Scipione Borghese, an Italian journalist and count who were racing an automobile from Peking to Paris. This was in 1907, when Urga was still a town of filth and decay. Streets were infested with dogs who attacked any commuter not equipped with that essential part of everyday attire: a stick barbed with iron. Disposal of bodies was a relatively painful affair: dying relatives were simply left out at night for the hungry hounds.

Here we have another clue as to the eccentric legal system favoured in Old Mongolia. A corpse untouched by dogs was deemed extremely unlucky and the surviving family of the deceased was in danger of being arrested for spreading dissent. Urga's prison was rated as the worst in the world and each room of the complex was piled high with wooden crates less than four feet in length. These coffins served as cells - unable to sit up or lie at full length, the hapless and starving prisoners were also weighed down with lead chains and manacles.

When the Mongolian people finally took the chance to revolt against foreign rule, a king was chosen - Boghd Khan, eighth reincarnation of an ancient Buddhist deity. Independence lasted only two years. The Russians and Chinese united to divide the country between them and the Boghd Khan devoted himself to the genus of debauchery that was to leave him a blind syphilitic within the decade. It was at this point, in the early 1920's, that two idealists came to his aid.

The first, Dambijanstan, was a bandit who heaped humiliation on the Chinese by defeating their armies in the western deserts. Stealing sight was the speciality of this ambiguous hero, who employed sheep's knuckles for the purpose: bound at the temples and tightened with a dozen twists, they caused the eyes of his victims to bulge sufficiently for them to be snipped free with a pair of scissors. Dambijanstan was very careful with his trophies, storing them in the lining of his tent until the smell and staining of the silk became unbearable. Then he would catch the culprits of this desecration - the men he had blinded - and punish them by making furniture-covers out of their skin.

Worse than Dambijanstan was the man responsible for ruining the bad name of Mongolia. Ostensibly a freedom-fighter and friend of the people, he turned out to be their rival, unwittingly pushing them into the hands of the communist Red Army and ensuring that the nation became the second Marxist state, at complete cost to a millennia-old culture and heritage. For the span of a single year he carved out what can be described as the most anomalous system of government in the modern era. During his reign, this remote realm exchanged dominion by imported tyrants for a nightmare perversely based on Buddhist faith.

The Baron

Roman Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg was an archetypal 'White' Russian extremist. Born in 1886, a Baltic German, he claimed descent from a long line of military men, including Attila the Hun. During the Crusades, his ancestors gained the reputation of being in league with Satan. Certainly they were mentally impeded. Ungern-Sternberg himself was the proud owner of an atrophied brain, a feature he used to demonstrate his relationship with the dwarfish Attila. It was housed in an unnaturally small cranium, described by one follower as being cloven by "a terrible sword cut which pulsed with red veins." An ascetic and lopsided expression combined with broad shoulders, disordered blond hair and lipless mouth made him appear like an excruciating example from the local demon pantheon. Fortunately, no photographs of his visage exist.

Ungern-Sternberg served with another vicious 'White', the notorious Grigory Semenov. They fought together in the Carpathians and were posted to Siberia at the same time. One of Ungern-Sternberg's favourite hobbies after he was promoted to the rank of Major-General was to enter taverns, consume enough vodka to achieve double-vision and then fire at the other patrons, logging how many he could hit. To his astonishment, it remained a constant fifty-percent of those he aimed at. Despite his tiny head, it took enormous quantities of alcohol to make him drunk. After a few years of developing his hobby, drinkers across Siberia learned to flee when he kicked open cafe doors with a boot.

The Baron felt the pull of the east: the mountains, rolling steppes and icy wastes of Genghis Khan's stamping ground. He studied the tactics used by Mongol warlords and was fascinated by their courage and stamina. When his total of dead customers became too high for his addled brain to recall, he was struck with a revelation. He later compared this blast of insight with satori, the enlightenment experienced by Buddha. This noble divulgence was as follows: by slaying people he was doing them a favour. If they were unable to protect themselves, it meant they were feeble and living under poor Karma. By dying in a state of innocence, they improved their position on the rungs of the cosmos. It dawned on Ungern-Sternberg that his tawdry victims were destined to be reborn as greater beings. He was thus the agency of their improvement, a holy man destined to aid all those who still clung to such material values as air. In the blink of an ill-set eye, the Baron became a convert to the eightfold-path, preaching respect for life with a bullet. In his newfound wisdom, he realised that he must interpret the scriptures in his own manner. For good measure, he dissolved a dose of apocalyptic Christianity into the brew, like a pinch of arsenic in a dish of butter-tea.

Search For Meaning

Now the Baron had belief, he also had a purpose. The Bolsheviks, already sweeping Marxist-Leninism to every corner of the empire, were a tangible manifestation of Mara, the evil essence. They had to be exterminated: by dying in agony they would be reborn as superior 'White' Russians. Unable to make calculations more complex than those which could be performed on his unnaturally long fingers, the Baron reasoned that for every 'Red' he murdered, his own ranks would swell with two more soldiers. The dead man counted both as one away from the enemy and one for himself. When it was pointed out that the souls were not reborn into maturity, but as babies, he hired soothsayers by the score for elucidation. These also counselled caution; with inherited and borrowed wealth he conscripted them into the nucleus of his private bodyguard.

To take on the Red Army, however, was above even Ungern-Sternberg's delusions. Nor could he stay longer in Russian territory. The answer was simple - he would ride into Mongolia, destroy the Chinese administration and set up a personal kingdom. Then he would forge a Pan-Asiatic empire, including Manchuria and Tibet. As his magical powers increased in tandem with his military strength, a proper invasion of his motherland could be undertaken. At this stage, his scheme included the dismantling of Moscow and its replacement with a city of tents. He saw stone cities as hubs of evil; their solidity made concrete the miseries of existence. An officer under his command remarked on his genuine conviction that he was a force for good in the universe. In the Baron's words: "Only evolution leads to divine truth; I am that process."

The Holy Plan

When Ungern-Sternberg had managed to enlist over three hundred devotees, he baptised them in vodka and hashish and gave them a name: the Order of Military Buddhists. To prove the mind stronger than the flesh, the Baron decided to reverse Buddha's moral guidelines. Narcotics were to be taken at least once a day but celibacy was mandatory. Any true follower of the path shuns the first but is not strictly required to forsake the latter. The reasoning of the Baron was that if he could sin against his religion and yet preserve his faith, he was more than a disciple; he was a saint. The Order of Military Buddhists dazedly entered Mongolia in 1920, partly chased out of Russia by Bolsheviks.

On horseback, they reached Urga in February 1921. Mongolian winters are incredibly severe: temperatures of minus 40 are not uncommon. Unable to launch his attack without astrological guidance, Ungern-Sternberg set up camp outside the gates, awaiting a beneficial alignment of the stars. Eager to taste the heated delights of the city, his soldiers whiled away the hours by debating the virtues of necrophilia. Finally, at a divinely ordained moment, the Baron released his frostbitten crew of savages upon the capital. They encountered scant resistance as they stampeded through the narrow alleyways and courtyards. Baffled imprecations from merchants formed the biggest counter-attack. The carnage was atrocious: an orgy of rape and looting lasted three days.

One of the Baron's officers, Dmitri Alioshin, left a garish account of the assault and its aftermath. The soldiers broke into shops, dragged priceless silks into the dirty alleyways and swathed themselves in grimy finery. The small Jewish population was completely exterminated, in true Russian style. "Drunken horsemen galloped along the streets shooting and killing at their fancy... The humiliation of the women was so awful that I saw one of the officers run inside the house with a razor and offer to let the girl commit suicide before she was attacked..." This was a trick as celibacy applied only to relations with living women. A new method of executing men was invented - they would be forced to stand at one end of a street while a rider armed with a block of wood swept past and smashed them in the face. One Military Buddhist, a Cossack, started shooting his own men in mistake and was retired.

The Aftermath

After cleansing Urga of Chinese influence, Ungern-Sternberg settled down to the business of consolidating his victory. To prove his skills in the field of peace, he restored the Boghd Khan to the throne and disinfected the city sewers. Then he embarked on a sequence of reforms, which helped to turn the picturesque and dangerous capital into the soulless place it has remained since. But positive results came from some of his ideas. He introduced paper currency, built bridges and arranged a public transport system. He founded a library of religious texts and opened schools where Mongols could study their culture.

There have been many autocracies throughout history, but surely few as outlandish, in both senses, as the one inaugurated by our Baron. Most dictatorial crimes spring from egos which have spiralled out of control; Ungern-Sternberg wanted nothing to do with his own ego. A fine Buddhist, his mandate was to free himself and others from the fetters of identity. He was fond of tapping his head, with its duelling scar, and exclaiming: "Even this is too big for my needs." Thus his outrages were conducted in the spirit of violent serenity. Death was the reward for good behaviour; to catch the favourable karma before its owner could negate its effects. Wrong behaviour was also punishable by death, a slower one. Citizens who used his bus service but disembarked at the "rebirth station of the day" were suspended from a tree and gently lowered into an enormous fire. The Baron termed this a "return fare."

It is said that Urga's children in the summer of 1921 were superbly educated. Food was scarce in the city at that time - school-dinners were not readily available. At the end of each morning, those dunces still at the back of the class became main course for the more capable. But those at the very front became pudding. It was a question of moderation in all things, including arbitrariness. Secular thieves were believed to suffer from a virus caught from the Chinese. The Baron devised an original form of complimentary medicine to treat such patients. His range of cures was remarkable, from "funnel-consumption" of arkhi, the local brew fermented from mare's milk, to "sewing mice into the liver." Most reliable of all, was the big enema with turpentine.

Whether every tale which surrounds the Baron's excesses is entirely factual is open to debate. Bolsheviks surely played up his monstrousness after his death. One grotesque fabrication worth mentioning is his habit of wriggling inside a horse's stomach to look for "equanimity." He could enter the beast from either end. "With his minuscule head, hardly bigger than a man's fist, it was little trouble for him to climb his way into a snorting steed." He started asking his own men to donate their skeletons for the construction of a "multi-jointed Bodhisattva." Unanimously, they refused. Ungern-Sternberg wept for the lost chance to skip reincarnation and achieve instantaneous Nirvana.

The Kettle Demon

Rumours are lies in fog, but independent witnesses attest to the cruelty of his two favourite minions. The first of these, Colonel Sepailoff, was given the rank of Commander of Urga. Suffering from a form of Tourette's Syndrome, "always nervously jerking his body", he sang wordless songs as he killed people. The second lackey was a man who had forgotten his name in the long ride across the Mongolian steppe. As no-one else recalled it and he was always brewing tea, he received the nickname 'Teapot'. He was the Baron's constant companion. Whenever a Mongol applied for a job with this new administration, Ungern-Sternberg would personally interview the candidate. If he requested a cup of tea during the proceedings, 'Teapot' would move behind the job-seeker and strangle him with his steamy hands. Expiry did not necessarily disqualify the candidate from being offered a position, nor from earning a wage.

The Collapse

Naturally a government run by lunatics and rotting cadavers could hardly hope to be accepted seriously on an international stage. The British had lined the pocket of the Baron's acquaintance, the demented Semenov. When this money ran out, Semenov crumbled. In a similar way, Ungern-Sternberg managed to last eight months merely because of financial assistance from Japan. The details of this assistance are unknown; undoubtedly Tokyo saw an independent Mongolia as a useful bulwark against the Russian bear and Chinese dragon. Power politics in the area at this time remain extremely shady, like a mirror in a dungeon.

The demise of Ungern-Sternberg was precipitated by his treatment of the Boghd Khan. The Baron had embarked on a campaign to improve the soul of Urga. This involved incarcerating each citizen in turn in the prison. The captives were supposed to remain in the crates until someone came to buy them out. This served both to raise revenue and earn "wondrous karma all-round." The person who paid the money gained one share for freeing a soul in torment; the individual in the cell earned another for being the cause of the former's altruism; the Baron also earned a part for setting up the system in the first place. The Boghd Khan asked the Baron if this was pushing liberal religion too far. Ungern-Sternberg patted him on the head and announced that he would take up his objections with Buddha when he visited Heaven. "But first you must lend me your loftiest ladder," he continued, glancing up at a cloud.

This was too much for the king, who issued a request for aid to all who felt strong enough to offer it. A young communist heard the plea and took up the flag of justice. Sukhe Bator was everything Ungern-Sternberg was not: disciplined, courageous without being reckless, possessed of an ordinary head. A former dispatch-rider, he was the founder-member of the secret People's Party, an opposition group based in the desert. With six representatives, including the insane Choibalsan, Sukhe concealed a copy of the Boghd Khan's request in the handle of a bull-whip and smuggled it to Russia. When he came back, it was at the head of a Red Army division. For Mongolia, it was the start of seventy years of different intolerance and anguish as a Soviet satellite.

The Broken Talisman

Ungern-Sternberg did not wait to welcome defeat in the ruins of Urga. He decided to take the fight to the Bolsheviks. He rounded up his followers and charged north. To prepare for the impending conflict, double rations of vodka and hashish were issued. His drugged army was quickly decimated by a communist patrol. The survivors mutinied and attempted to shoot the Baron. He fled, without hat or clothing, into the night. One description endures from this period: "On his naked chest numerous talismans, charms and medals were hanging on a yellow cord. He looked like a reincarnation of a prehistoric ape-man. People were afraid to even look at him." As he sought to evade capture, Sukhe Bator invaded Urga, renaming it in honour of himself - Ulan Bator. One by one, Ungern-Sternberg lost his remaining men. He was the last to be caught.

He was taken to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk by train. At every station he was exhibited on the platform as a freak in a cage. No charge was levied to stare at him. His trial was swift and callous, yet for the first time in his life, he spoke coherently. He remained unrepentant but the mysticism had evaporated. He was the last 'White' general to trouble Lenin; the revolution was settled.

In September 1921 he was sent before a firing squad, still weighted down with talismans. His last utterance was to accuse his judge of being "too red." His head was much too small to make a suitable target, so the marksmen aimed for his chest. Shrapnel from a charm seriously injured at least one of them. His brain was removed for study by doctors and it was disclosed that his left lobe, now considered the hemisphere of identity, existed only as a shrivelled root.

Coda

When the news of his demise reached the Boghd Khan, the king prepared an elaborate memorial service to be held for the benefit of his ghost. Some of the prayers spoken that evening were attempts to ensure the Baron was never reincarnated anywhere in Mongolia. The Boghd Khan led a procession through the city streets in an ox-powered automobile, a present from the Russian ambassador, who had neglected to explain how to start the motor. Devastated Urga had not yet escaped Ungern-Sternberg's malign influence. Further structural damage was caused by the all-night beating of massive silver gongs and improbable drums.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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