Reading: James Palmer — The Bloody White Baron

This is one that fell into my reading list in a couple of disparate but connected ways. The first, or rather more direct, being the author James Palmer, is also responsible for Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China, which is on my upcoming reading list. The second, but chronologically earlier (as in read before, though published after The Baron) is Charles Stross.

Science-fiction to insane White Russian nobility seeped in revolution-era apocalyptic Buddhism? Well, it all started in the Laundry, and to paraphrase somewhat, … Eldritch Abominations, the Wall of Pain on the dead plateau wherein the Sleeper lies imprisoned in the pyramid, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the Eater of Souls, “Stop Teapot … Before he makes tea.”

(I have a feeling I’ll be reading The Fuller Memorandum again shortly.)

And we do meet Teapot. And he is making tea.

Back in the slightly more real world, The Bloody White Baron is the biography of one Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximillian Ungern von Sternberg, of Baltic-German noble descent who found his way through life with such an unfailing fondness for brutality (he would take walks in the fields around his battles, littered with bones and butchered corpses fed upon by wolves and carrion birds, because he found it peaceful and calming), and ripened with a demented, anti-Semitic, Buddhist shamanism, that the character Charlie grows from the real Ungern and places in a Lovecraftian universe of horror from other dimensions doesn’t seem so unlikely at all.

The actual book is more in the line of Peter Hopkirk, slightly sensationalist but rollicking-good story of Central Asian and far-East Orientalism adventurism in the last days of Empire, which is to say despite the endnotes, this is more a generalist work than my usual tendencies towards academic-ish texts.

Not to imply this isn’t well-researched (as far as I can tell; Russia and north of Tien Shan not being a region I know much about) and James does a commendable job of balancing the hysterical complexity of multiple falling empires, revolutionary nationalists, upstart imperialists, straggling enclaves and exclaves of the former, and various Mongolian and Steppe groups and religious powers all variously forming shifting alliances and slaughtering each other.

I was often reminded, during reading this (yes, I’ve already finished, so this is a quasi-/crypto-review) the similarities between eastern Europe and eastern Siberia, Mongolia and the Steppe; both being ground underfoot repeatedly by advancing and routed ideologies, and both to this day having their histories unwritten, commensurate to say, Germany or China. As he points out in the epilogue, exactly what happened to Mongolian Buddhism in the ’20s and ’30s under Soviet-led or -inspired communism happened in Tibet under Mao. The difference being the latter is something Brad Pitt gets banned permanently from China for (I watched Seven Years in Tibet last night as a distraction), whereas the former is a footnote.

James Palmer — The Bloody White Baron
James Palmer — The Bloody White Baron