appaling times

Does this sound like an awesome book, or what?
The atmosphere was apocalyptic, right down to the cheapness of human life. Millions had died on the Western front. Russian nobles were fleeing with their jewels to China. Local Buddhist rulers were vicious and corrupt. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was being read by everyone from the imprisoned czarina downward.

Engines plated with steel and equipped with weapons ripped from the gunboats on the Siberian lakes rammed back and forth along the trans-Siberian railway line, dragging behind them mobile towns of czarists, with opulent dining cars, theater cars, printing shops, brothels — and torture chambers. Prisoners were packed into waterless cars and left to die in sidings. The Whites simply ran amok. Pirates in command of these dreadnoughts of the steppe, but incapable of winning hearts and minds, they spent as much time hunting out Bolshevik spies — and torturing and killing the locals — as they did fighting the Reds. Ungern himself carried this sadistic paranoia to fever pitch.

His specialty, though, was Mongolia. He spoke the language, was an idiosyncratic Buddhist and liked the Buriats — nomads he always trusted over ordinary Russian peasants. Hence the increasingly Mongolian nature of his escapades. He was able to seize the Chinese-held town of Urga (Ulan Bator) with an army of some 6,000 men and to reinstate its ruler, the Bogd Khan.

With its panoply of outlandish tyrants, fortune tellers, mounted tribesmen and wild dreams advanced against absurd odds, the whole story could have possessed the makings of a glorious offshoot of the Great Game, had Ungern been anything more than a murderous sadist. His chief contemporary biographer, the Polish author Ferdinand Ossendowski, ladled on the trappings — the messianic visionary who stood too firm for czar and the right of kings. Presumably Ossendowski saw beyond the torture, the firing squads, the casual executions; perhaps he was not unduly fazed by Ungern’s command to exterminate all the Jews, down to their children. Like many mad people, Ungern had the glittering eye and the gift for wandering prophecy that could, at a pinch, be taken for inspiration; and for a while his life seemed to be demonically protected. But it would be more true to say that the times brought forth the man, and these were appalling times.
It's a NY Times review of the biography of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg. This crazy setting is also the background for the marvellous graphic novel Corto Maltese in Siberia by Hugo Pratt, which was also made into a film at some point. It features Ungern-Sternberg as a major character.


Blogger suttonhoo said...

in a bizarre coincidence I'm presently researching Mongolia in anticipation of traveling there soon.

February 28, 2009 4:18 am  
Blogger Mikkel said...

In an even more bizarre coincidence, I'm presently having tea with emperor Mong of Mongo.

February 28, 2009 10:04 am  
Blogger mrtn said...

In an absolutely unfathomable coincidence, I happen to be wrestling a mongoose that I plan to be cooking for dinner.

Also: I *just* had a cup of tea. What are the odds???

February 28, 2009 7:31 pm  
Blogger Stein said...

...or what.

March 05, 2009 11:01 pm  
Blogger bigsoxfan said...

Strangely enough, I'm considering stuffing a marmot with hot stones for Sunday dinner. Unfortunately, I'm in the off season. Madmen and scorched Marmot, forever!

March 12, 2009 6:06 am  

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