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The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution Hardcover – May 8, 2014
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Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (1885–1921) was a Baltic German aristocrat and tsarist military officer who fought against the Bolsheviks in Eastern Siberia during the Russian Civil War. From there he established himself as the de facto warlord of Outer Mongolia, the base for a fantastical plan to restore the Russian and Chinese empires, which then ended with his capture and execution by the Red Army as the war drew to a close.
In The Baron’s Cloak, Willard Sunderland tells the epic story of the Russian Empire’s final decades through the arc of the Baron’s life, which spanned the vast reaches of Eurasia. Tracking Ungern’s movements, he transits through the Empire’s multinational borderlands, where the country bumped up against three other doomed empires, the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Qing, and where the violence unleashed by war, revolution, and imperial collapse was particularly vicious. In compulsively readable prose that draws on wide-ranging research in multiple languages, Sunderland re-creates Ungern’s far-flung life and uses it to tell a compelling and original tale of imperial success and failure in a momentous time.
Sunderland visited the many sites that shaped Ungern’s experience, from Austria and Estonia to Mongolia and China, and these travels help give the book its arresting geographical feel. In the early chapters, where direct evidence of Ungern’s activities is sparse, he evokes peoples and places as Ungern would have experienced them, carefully tracing the accumulation of influences that ultimately came together to propel the better documented, more notorious phase of his career.
Recurring throughout Sunderland’s magisterial account is a specific artifact: the Baron’s cloak, an essential part of the cross-cultural uniform Ungern chose for himself by the time of his Mongolian campaign: an orangey-gold Mongolian kaftan embroidered in the Khalkha fashion yet outfitted with tsarist-style epaulettes on the shoulders. Like his cloak, Ungern was an imperial product. He lived across the Russian Empire, combined its contrasting cultures, fought its wars, and was molded by its greatest institutions and most volatile frontiers. By the time of his trial and execution mere months before the decree that created the USSR, he had become a profoundly contradictory figure, reflecting both the empire’s potential as a multinational society and its ultimately irresolvable limitations.
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[The Baron's Cloak] demonstrates just how important an understanding of the multinational and frontier aspects of the imperial state are to a comprehensive view of its last years, and perhaps even more importantly, to the transition from tsarist to Soviet empire.... Perhaps most significant is this work's contribution to our understanding of the process of imperial collapse through its analysis ofthe faliure of Ungern's efforts in Mongolia, in particular his attempt to reunite the various nationalities of the Russian state and reinstate imperial rule by bringing them together under the banner of loyalty to the monarchy.― The Russian Review
The Baron's Cloak succeeds in drawing our gaze away from the metropolitan centres in which we conventionally chart the upheavals of the 'Russian Revolution' to a periphery that turns out to have been far from peripheral. The revolution was an intrinsically imperial affair. The Baron's Cloak―a vastmulti-ethnic and multi-confessional state pulled apart by messy conflicts across fractured frontiers; a new one forged and contested by men and women with their own multilayered local, regional and imperial identities. Willard Sunderland's innovative analysis of the dynamics which both destroyed the Russian Empire and shaped its Soviet successor is a triumph of scholarship and imagination.― Times Literary Supplement
A specialist on the Russian Empire and borderlands, the historian Willard Sunderland in The Baron's Cloak draws on his considerable talents as a storyteller to craft a fluidly written and engaging account of the twilight of the Russian Empire as it succumbed to the hard-hitting blows of war, revolution, and civil war.― Journal of Modern History
In this magnificent book, Willard Sunderland, Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, invites the reader to perceive the Russian Empire from a different perspective. Rather than surveying it from the vantage point of 'policies, structures, or ideologies, as historians usually do,' we should step into the shoes of imperial people and look for another set of truths.... The result is an engaging combination of micro-history, historical geography, and insightful travelogue.― Journal of Historical Geography
Many scholars have analyzed the peculiar dynamics that make up the vast, diverse world of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union, but few have produced works as engaging and insightful as Willard Sunderland's book, The Baron’s Cloak.... Centered on one man, the Russian-German noble, Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, Sunderland’s work is a brilliant portrait of the Russian Empire and its collapse in the face of revolution and civil war. With eloquence and wit, The Baron’s Cloak brings a complex historical epoch to life and provides a highly readable primer for anyone seeking to understand the Russian Empire and the legacies of imperial rule across Eurasia.― Origins
Rare is the book this creative, engaging, and written with such unpretentious grace. The baron of the title is Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.... After the Bolsheviks took power, Ungern-Sternberg attempted to establish an independent state in Mongolia ― a monarchy that he himself would rule. In 1921, that dream was crushed by the Red Army, which captured and executed the baron. Sunderland does a remarkable job of blending Ungern-Sternberg's life story with an exquisite portrait of the far-flung reaches of the Russian empire, producing an utterly absorbing tale of one man encountering historic change in almost incomprehensibly complex surroundings.― Foreign Affairs
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.... 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.― World History Connected
This book is a genuine page-turner and a scrupulously researched microhistory, a finely-stitched tapestry that captures well the loosely construed unity, diversity, and plural identities of Russia's borderlands of empire.... The book has lucid and elegant prose, and a deep sense of place. The Baron’s Cloak is full of insight and logistical sophistication, and Sunderland proves equal to the task. The final result is a gripping Bildungsreise (educational journey) and a model text for how historians should interrogate sources, depict the back-stories of scenes, change course, reconstruct identities, and tentatively formulate new questions about world history.― American Historical Review
This work is an imaginative kind of history in how it reveals the historian's craft, a sort of 'laying bare his technique,' as the Russian formalists who emerged from this same period would have expressed it. Sunderland not only paraphrases or translates from archival documents but he often traces how those documents got to the archive and what sorts of notes and marginalia he finds in them. He also reminds us how incomplete the archival record on his subject is, and he does a very conscientious job of finding alternative sources to help us better enter [his subject's] many intersecting and overlapping worlds. The Baron's Cloak is beautifully written and a wonderful contribution to borderlands history, to the history of empire and nation, and to the history of war, revolution, and civil war.― Slavic Review
The Baron's Cloak offers an important new interpretation of key issues in the late imperial period from colonialism and modernization to Russification and nationalism. The Baron's Cloak is a delight to read, and Sunderland's ability to combine forceful argument with a careful historian's circumspection is admirable.― Ab Imperio
"Willard Sunderland's The Baron’s Cloak is a wonderful and an important book. Beautifully written, with an abundance of photographs and maps, it tells one man’s life story as a prism as way to explore the Russian empire at its twilight. Baron Roman Fedorovich Ungern-Sternberg was both a fascinating and appalling individual. (Imagine a character from a Dostoevsky novel transposed to the borderlands at the twilight of empire, in conditions war, revolution, ruin, and chaos.) Sunderland uses Ungern-Sternberg's life to illustrate the far-flung empire that made the life possible. His book unfolds almost cinematically across Eurasia: Graz, Austria; the Baltic Provinces; St. Petersburg; Manchuria; the Russian Far East; the killing fields of the First World War in Prussia, Galicia, Persia; climaxing with Ungern-Sternberg’s doomed campaigns in Mongolia and Siberia. Sunderland is the first to understand Ungern-Sternberg as a type, an imperial cosmopolitan. His book is compelling reading not only for Russian and Soviet historians but also for any reader who seeks to understand the full scope of the Great War’s imperial apocalypse."-- Peter Holquist, University of Pennsylvania, author of Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921
- Publisher : Cornell University Press; 1st edition (May 8, 2014)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0801452708
- ISBN-13 : 978-0801452703
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Item Weight : 1 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.54 x 1.08 x 9.46 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,683,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #331 in Central Asia History
- #790 in Historical Russia Biographies
- #4,089 in Russian History (Books)
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At the center of The Baron’s Cloak lies the argument that connections (or linkages) within the Russian Empire and between Russia and other states can serve to demonstrate how the Russian Empire functioned, fell apart, and was reconstructed by the Bolsheviks (10). Sunderland describes Imperial Russia as “a puzzle of accommodations made between the tsars and the different peoples of the realm, reflecting the alternating stages of the empire’s history and its varied physical and cultural environments” (6). He also argues that Imperial Russia was able to exist for so long due to the balance of “violence and exploitation” and “recurring accommodations” between the center of the Russian Empire and its’ peripheries (230). Sunderland reveals that one of the important connections of the empire came in the form of a multi-ethnic nobility, which, as a Russo-German, Ungern was able to embody. Yet, with the rise of nationalism and the ensuing programs of Russification, the “supranational ambiguity that had been a mainstay” of the Russian Empire’s success for centuries had weakened (128). This led to an exacerbation of “divisions within national and imperial communities,” resulting with the demise of Russia, along with other multi-ethnic empires, during or at the end of World War I (128-29). As the empire crumbled around him, Ungern attempted to restore the old autocratic government by joining the Whites in the Russian Civil War, and by raging a campaign of destruction in Mongolia and Siberia. Unfortunately for Unger, the Bolshevik leaders were able to effectively reestablish many connections of the old empire, including material connections such as the trans-Siberian railway, and were effectively able to combat the Whites and capture Ungern, executing him shortly thereafter.
In attempting to be both it fails to be either. However, it remains an interesting book and if you're interested in the Russian Civil War you will undoubtedly be interested in this small sideshow.
For Ungern, notorious for his cruelty, anti-Semitism, and ruthless leadership as a White commander during the Russian Civil War, that nation was Mongolia, and he (almost unwittingly, it seems) sought, in the final year of his life, to make it the vanguard of a new Asiatic power to counteract the scourge of Bolshevism. He failed in his “campaign” to take Mongolia (which Sunderland shows to be far less intentional than has been ascribed), was captured and shot. Yet he also partially succeeded, in that Mongolia gained a semi-autonomy that lasted through the Soviet era.
Unlike other accounts of Ungern, Sunderland does not give overmuch attention to this final year of his life, instead focusing on the broader sweep of events, on the full arc of Ungern’s life from Austria to Estland, from Trans-Baikal to Mongolia. In part, this is because there is really very little to know about Ungern, but also because Sunderland wants to show how the multinational, ever-bored Ungern was an apt, if sociopathic, mirror of his times. The effort succeeds and this is a fine history of the era.
As reviewed in Russian Life magazine