- The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution by Willard Sunderland
Willard Sunderland recently noted the irony that the imperial turn in Eurasian historiography, although often dated to Andreas Kappeler’s sweeping synthesis, has generally produced works focused “on breaking things down rather than building.”1 While Sunderland’s new bookis certainly the deeply researched microhistory that he claims it is, it is also more. The Baron’s Cloak builds, and it offers an important new interpretation of key issues in the late imperial period from colonialism and modernization to Russification and nationalism.
The owner of the cloak – Baron Nikolai Roman Max von Ungern-Sternberg – is the ostensible subject of the book, but Sunderland superbly demonstrates the rewards of seeing a life as a microhistory. He distances himself from biographers who, he claims, write with the conviction that a life has at least some value in and of itself; instead, Sunderland uses Ungern to write the story of the Russian Empire. In his mobility, Ungern shared much with the subjects of a growing number of “imperial” or “transnational” lives.2 If diversity is to be part of the definition of empire – as Sunderland insists (P. 5) – no location or tribe can be taken as representative. And though the category of the imperial life is first a challenge to narrative structured by ethnic or national identity, movement has become an all but requisite component. While plenty of imperial lives were defined by immobility, mobile men and women provide narrative focus for the circulation of bodies, goods, and ideas that transnational historians highlight as evidence of the interconnectedness of places in the past.
Ungern was born in 1886 in what is now Austria, spent his childhood in what is now Estonia, trained to be [End Page 557] an officer in what is now once again St. Petersburg, and is best known for leading troops that captured what is now the capital of Mongolia. He was shot in 1921, shortly after the last feat, and most historical accounts focus on the end of this story. Sunderland, however, strives to pay equal attention to each phase in Ungern’s life. The absence of reliable sources for the earlier years is both obstacle and opportunity.3 Each chapter is devoted to a particular geography, and with few documents for Ungern’s time in many of these places, Sunderland is able to choose stories that allow him to engage most productively with the existing historiography. Ungern’s childhood in Estonia presents occasion to analyze the dilemma that local “subcontractors” faced in an increasingly homogeneous imperial order; service in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War is reason to tell the story of the Trans-Siberian railroad and Russia’s “pivot to the East” as a part of a new, more racialized imperialism; and Ungern’s 1913 journey through Mongolia allows Sunderland to advance an argument about the emergence of Russian “neocolonialism.”
But if the documents for Ungern’s story are scarce, Sunderland has been meticulous in reconstructing the places he moved through. The sources are in many languages, from across the breadth of the Russian Empire: Estonian reveals key information about the burning of Ungern’s childhood home (P. 59 n. 61) and Chinese does the same for negotiations in Kiakhta in 1921 (P. 193 nn. 7–8). Sunderland makes this a wonderfully textured history by drawing on nontextual sources as well. His reading of the eponymous cloak presages his close reading of photographs and the physical spaces of Ungern’s journey. Throughout, the detail is more than window dressing and becomes a part of Sunderland’s analysis.
By his own words, Sunderland set out to “offer a tableau” (P. 229) and to “take the measure” (P. xii) of the Russian Empire; fittingly, therefore, the arguments emerge gradually. Sunderland contends that the Russian Empire must be understood as part of European imperial history. Ungern’s Habsburg origins set the stage for the theme of...