[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Lanzillotti on Sunderland, 'The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Nov 6 13:48:42 MST 2016

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Sun, Nov 6, 2016 at 10:58 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Lanzillotti on Sunderland, 'The Baron's
Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Willard Sunderland.  The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian
Empire in War and Revolution.  Ithaca  Cornell University Press,
2014.  xiv + 344 pp.  $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5270-3.

Reviewed by Ian Lanzillotti (The Ohio State University)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Willard Sunderland's _The Baron's Cloak _uses the cosmopolitan life
of the Baltic German baron, Roman Ungern-Sternberg, to tell a larger
story of late imperial and revolutionary Russia's multiethnic and
multi-confessional empire. This important work is more microhistory
than biography because the actions, decisions, and interiority of the
historical figure around which Sunderland's book is structured take a
backseat to the era's larger imperial, trans-imperial, national, and
transnational processes. The titular cloak is the Mongolian _deel_
stitched with Russian military insignia that Ungern wore in 1920 and
1921 as the fiercely anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik commander of the
Asiatic Division--a motley multiethnic splinter force of the White
Army that established a short-lived military dictatorship in Mongolia
with the hope of using it as a base for the conquest of the nascent
Soviet state and the reestablishment of Russia's imperial order with
a Romanov back at the helm. It is for this "Mongolian campaign," with
its aura of extremism and exoticism, that Ungern, dubbed "the mad
baron of Mongolia," has become a notorious and legendary historical
figure. Sunderland uses Ungern's _deel _as a metaphor for the
patchwork of imperial cultures and places that influenced Ungern, and
Ungern, in his turn, as a lens into the diversity of the empire and
the cultural hybridity of its peoples.

In following Ungern's life trajectory--a progressively eastward,
trans-imperial journey from its beginnings in the Austrian imperial
city of Graz and Russia's Baltic province of Estland (present-day
Estonia) to Mongolia and Siberia in the year of his execution by
Bolshevik forces--Sunderland's "goal [is] to use Ungern's life to
offer a tableau of the Russian Empire" (p. 229). The book's eleven
chapters are organized around the key sites of Ungern's life. Each of
these sites, with their distinct ethno-social hierarchies and mixes
of peoples, reveals an important part of the story of the twilight
years of a Russian Empire struggling to maintain its cohesion and
very existence as it is gripped by processes of modernization and
nationalism. The consequences of these processes--Russification, war,
and revolution--link these geographically and contextually disparate
stories together. A few examples can serve to illustrate Sunderland's
approach. In chapter 2, where Ungern's childhood takes us to Russia's
Baltic province of Estland, Sunderland explores the ethnically
stratified social structure of the region and how Russificatory
policies were unsettling the imperial status quo by diminishing the
position of the once-dominant German nobility (to which Ungern's
family belonged) within it. Chapter 4 follows Ungern on a circuitous
path to the Imperial College of Naval Cadets in the empire's
cosmopolitan capital, the Manchurian front of the Russo-Japanese War,
and back to St. Petersburg. This phase in Ungern's life highlights
the role that Russia's military academies played in advancing the
cause of Russification while at the same time forging transnational
imperial identities and dynastic loyalty among an ethnically diverse
officer corps. Sunderland explains that "rather than losing or
rejecting his former identity, [Ungern] simply continued adopting
another, becoming, in effect, a cross-cultural hybrid with
attachments to both cultures" (p. 61). By following Ungern to the Far
East during the Russo-Japanese War, Sunderland explores geopolitical
competition between empires, the Russian colonization of "Asiatic
Russia," and the role of the Transiberian railway in these processes.
In chapter 5, we find Ungern stationed along the Argun River in
eastern Siberia beginning his career as an officer with the
Trans-Baikal Cossacks. Here Sunderland offers an ethnography of the
Trans-Baikal and uses the region as a window on the multicultural
world of that quintessential borderland community--the Cossacks.

In following Ungern's trajectory, Sunderland demonstrates the
diversity of the lived experience of empire and the flexibility of
tsarist policies in response to a dizzying array of unique imperial
situations. In contextualizing Ungern's service with the Trans-Baikal
Host, where he "found himself in a different environment of
Russification than those that he had known in Estland or St.
Petersburg," Sunderland highlights "the fact that every region of the
empire--even every local or institutional setting--was defined by its
own mix of ethnicity, history, and geography, which in turn affected
the way in which Russian authorities interpreted their interest" (p.
76). Sunderland's study of Ungern's journey, however, also brings
pan-imperial trends into focus (for example, Russification was
everywhere, just in different forms) and, more important,
demonstrates just how integrated and interconnected Russia's
multiethnic and multi-confessional empire was. The stops on Ungern's
journey become the pieces of a puzzle of empire, and Sunderland's
contribution is to demonstrate how "the various parts ... fit
together" (p. 6). He uses "the knots of connection [across the
empire] to explain how the empire 'worked'" (p. 10).

In using Ungern to explain the functioning and unraveling of Russia
as a multiethnic, dynastic empire, Sunderland brings his previous
project on Russia's "people of empire" to fruition.[1] Ungern was a
man of empire par excellence. It was people like Ungern who made the
empire "work" in the era before nationalism. He was a loyal servant
to the dynastic state and its ideal of a vertically segmented
society. He did not represent or reflect a particular national
culture and he was fundamentally anti-national. He was not rooted to
a specific part of the empire; rather, he developed connections to
people, places, and cultures across Russia's diverse lands. But the
world that created imperial people like Ungern was going through a
rapid transformation, of which the cataclysms of war and revolution
were the last phases, and Ungern was incapable of changing with the
times: "Ungern was operating within a very old system of political
values, one that even the conservative tsarist empire had started to
question as it cut its complicated imperial path through the national
age" (p. 224). The Bolsheviks, though also "imperial people with
diverse ethnic backgrounds and long-standing habits of mobility and
cross-cultural combination," Sunderland notes, "appreciated the power
of the 'national question' and used it to their advantage" by touting
their support for national self-determination (pp. 221, 223). To the
bitter end, which came at the hands of the Soviet Cheka, "the link
that mattered most [to Ungern] was the one between the emperor and
his servitors, which was not a bond of nationality but of dynastic
allegiance" (p. 223). Militarily, both Ungern and his Red opponents
operated with a mercilessness learned through years of total war and
used the forces of a shattering frontier zone to their advantage. The
key difference between the two was that the Bolsheviks also had a
political program and an understanding of the problems of governing
that were well suited to the twentieth century. The Bolsheviks had
"organized party cells, implemented programs, indoctrinated an army,
and adopted a state-centered language of territorial sovereignty,
class interests, and national liberation, all of which allowed them
to impose themselves on the frontier in a way that Ungern never
could" (p. 226).

The most innovative and engaging studies of Russia as a multiethnic
empire to be published over the last several years have been
biographic microhistories.[2] If this is indicative of a trend, it is
indeed a welcome one because these studies provide readers with a
sense of the lived experience and the interconnectedness of Russia's
Empire in a way that traditional monographs are unable to do. For
this reason and for its overall accessibility, _The Baron's Cloak _is
an excellent point of entry for nonspecialists looking to understand
the dynamics of late imperial and revolutionary Russia as a
multiethnic and multi-confessional empire. This book is also ideally
suited for a general audience, because, in addition to providing
readers with an understanding of the central issues of diversity in a
dynastic empire in the age of nationalism (cultural mixing, hybrid
identities, official nationalism, and Russification), Sunderland's
work also offers broad overviews of other key historical processes
along the way: modernization; geopolitics; and, of course, the
dynamics of war (the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and the Russian
Civil War) and revolution (1905 and 1917). Indeed, one of the aspects
of _The Baron's Cloak _that makes it so unique is that it highlights
the centrality of the multiethnic empire to the big questions of late
imperial and early Soviet history. In this regard, _The Baron's Cloak
_could arguably be used as a substitute for a portion of a textbook
or, perhaps more appropriately, as an ideal supplementary text in
tsarist and/or Soviet survey history courses. Sunderland writes in
clear and exciting prose and he does not assume a large degree of
prior knowledge on the part of his reader. That said, readers well
versed in the literature on empire and nationalism in tsarist Russia
will find this work illuminating, because, by following Ungern around
his paths of empire, Sunderland ties together what scholars, at least
implicitly, often treat as unrelated and disconnected.


[1]. Sunderland and Stephen Norris edited an illuminating volume of
biographical sketches of Muscovite, imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet
figures who reflect the cultural diversity and interconnectedness of
Russia's enduring imperium. _Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories
from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present _(Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2012).

[2]. In addition to this book and Suderland and Norris's _Russia's
People of Empire_, Michael Khodarkovsky's excellent work on the
Caucasus deserves mention here. See his _Bitter Choices: Loyalty and
Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus _(Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 2011).

Citation: Ian Lanzillotti. Review of Sunderland, Willard, _The
Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and
Revolution_. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44285

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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