Von Ungern Sternberg
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Basic Information

Amongst the many interesting and colourful characters of the 20th Century Baron Roman Fyodorovich Von Ungern Sternberg stands out as one of the more psychotic. Born into a family of Baltic German nobles in 1886 - and thus a vassal of the Russian Tsar - he grew up as a dedicated monarchist with a contempt for the working class and an admirer of horse-borne nomads that he called "cavalry peoples". Even as a child he demonstrated the telltale signs of bullying, casual violence and cruelty to animals that tend to indicate sociopathic tendencies and was functionally expelled from military school due to persistent brawling and disobedience.

In 1905 he was sent to participate in the Russo-Japanese War - no records exist of him having actually been engaged in combat (or at least not with the Japanese) but he was awarded the campaign medal in 1913, so obviously someone thought he had been involved. Also in 1905 a massive peasant revolt swept across his family estates, leading to massive destruction, the deaths of many of his peers and, what he took as confirmation of his prejudices. It is also not recoded whether this gave him an opportunity to kill people as well.

1906 saw him back at school - this time as an Army officer cadet - where he was much more successful, and developed an interest in the occult, including some of the more esoteric forms of Buddhism. Following graduation he, predictably, joined the cavalry and was attached to a variety of irregular units, primarily cossacks, where he renewed his romantic fascination with horse-nomads. In 1912 he took this further by transferring to the reserves and moving to Mongolia where he became involved with local nationalist sentiments. Throughout this his career continued to be dogged by heavy drinking and violence and achieved an impressive facial scar.

Again, unsurprisingly he was recalled to duty in 1914 and sent to the Galician Front where he gained a reputation for suicidal heroism and was heavily decorated, but in 1916 was arrested and imprisoned for attacking a fellow officer in a drunken rage. He was released in 1917 and sent to the Caucuses where made friends with General Semyonov and was heavily engaged in raising, training and commanding irregular forces. They were then sent to Siberia, to raise more irregular forces, and were still there when the Tsar was deposed and the nation fell rapidly into civil war. Unsurprisingly they remained loyal to the monarchist cause and fought for (but not with) the White Cause. "For but not with", primarily due to their refusal to co-operate in any meaningful way with Admiral Kolchak who was the nominal head of the White Russians. What they did do was occupy a large chunk of the trans-Siberian railway, including a base at Dauria which Roman turned into a private military hell where both known and suspected Reds, plus anyone else he took a dislike to was prone to arbitrary arrest, inhumane detention, torture and summary but unpredictable execution. They also looted passing trains more or less at will, although most of their depredations fell on civilian traffic, leaving the supply chain of their co-belligerents in the White Faction (mostly) undepleted.

Eventually, with Kolchak defeated by the Reds, Semyonov retreated into Manchuria, whilst Von Sternberg took the opportunity to revive his allegiances with the Mongolian nationalist cause. Effectively deserting in the company of more or less a full division of irregular cavalry he rode into Mongolia which was then technically under Chinese rule, but in practice cut off and occupied by an abandoned Chinese Army … China having other things on its mind at the time. Here he married a Mongolian Princess named Ji, and threw in his lot with the Bogd Khan, the hereditary secular and spiritual leader of the Mongols. Capturing the capital Urga (now Ulanbaator) in brutal fighting he restored the Bogd Khan to his throne and established a bizarre hybrid state in Mongolia on his behalf, which combined economic reforms and European ideas of public hygiene with absolute monarchy a brutal secret police equal to anything he had operated in Dauria. Here he also delved deeper into occultism, a variety of Eastern mystical traditions and fringe forms of Buddhism and here he was recognised by some authorities as being the incarnation of a Buddhist War-God. Oddly enough, Semyonov also sent him a promotion to Lieutenant-General despite his apparent desertion … possibly because he recognised the value of being able to call upon what was effectively now the Commander in Chief of the Mongolian Armed forces as a potential subordinate … or at least an ally.

Contrary to rumour, even bad things come to an end eventually and not only did the locals get sick of him, but the Red Army, growing in strength, invaded Mongolia. Despite their advantage in numbers and, by now, in heavy equipment including aircraft, they were unable to inflict a decisive defeat. Driven out of Urga he took to the field and waged a brutal guerrilla campaign, hoping that Semyonov, or the Japanese expeditionary force serving the dwindling hopes of the Entente Powers could be persuaded to assist him. They were not - probably not regarding him as a safe or reliable bet at this point - and he appeared equally unwilling to conform to their plans. Eventually, his own men, demoralised, provoked by the increasingly harsh and unpredictable discipline he used to keep them on task and despairing of his apparently insane strategic desires, abandoned him to the Reds and fled. He was quickly taken, given a more or less token trial and shot on 15 September 1921. He was mourned, possibly alone, by the Boghd Khan who commanded funeral rites to be performed for him at every temple in Mongolia.


1. Beasts, Men and Gods Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski's sometimes fantastical pseudo-autobiographical novel including references to his time spend as a subordinate of Sternberg's … and allegedly one of the few men he ever considered a friend.

Game and Story Use

  • If anyone recalls the character Otto from A fish called Wanda, they may see certain similarities. Especially when it comes to their take on Buddhism.
  • Perhaps his occultist/shamanistic interests were effect rather than cause and his "drunken rages" were actually the result of a close relationship with one or more particularly violent spirits and that he was possessed rather than mad … possibly the drink may also have reduced his ability to resist the spirit's control.
  • His occultism also makes him a firm favourite for pinning all sorts of supernatural nastiness onto his regime. All of that blood and suffering might have been for a purpose.
  • In Charles Stross's Laundryverse at least some of his crimes were motivated by the worship - or at least propitiation - of a Great Old One to which the Boghd Khan had a spiritual connection. He also had a TEAPOT, but that's a spoiler for the novels.
  • Being so magnificently, horribly insane he makes an impressive, if possibly less than credible, villain - Pulp Era players might be entirely shocked to find their adventures in the back of beyond plagued by more than a few dirty reds.
  • Alternate histories where he retreated into China and/or received Japanese support could be so much worse.
    • Hanging around until WW2 might also complicate things - the Eastern White Russians weren't that big a deal in our timeline, but with him about? Although what he would have made of some dirty little Bavarian pleb usurping the divine rights of the German Emperor and going on about "the rule of the people" (as though "the people" were capable of ruling anything beyond their immediate livestock!) would be anyone's guess. Himmler, with his (slightly) higher social class and similar barking mad obsession with the occult might have been (a bit) more to his taste.
  • All sorts of early 20th century occultists floated in and out of the Far-Eastern Buddhist sphere - albeit mostly around Tibet, which Sternberg contacted only by letter. Alternate history might change this - when his men finally gave up on him, his plans to perform an epic retreat into Tibet had a certain amount to do with it - but since he is arguably as likely to have killed any given one of them as co-operated with them the outcome is far from predictable.
  • Another potential victim of The Emerald Lama - he was said to have corresponded with the then Dalai Lama but who knows what can happen to a letter on a long journey…
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