Book Review; The Baron`s Cloak


BookReview The Baron’s Cloak

TheBaron’s cloak A history of the Russian empire in War andRevolution, is a book by Willard Sunderland that gives the events ofthe Russian empire in its final times in the arc of a Barons life. Inits movements Russian empire bumped into three other states in itsmultinational borderlands where violence was unleashed by revolution,imperial collapse and war.

Thebook gives detail of the far flung life of Ungern on imperial successand failures. Sunderland in his book tries to capture the construedunity, diversity and plural identities of Russia’s borderlands. Hecaptures the Russian empire and its collapse in the face of civil warand revolution. In his effort to explain the Russian empire,Sunderland chose the noble Baron Ungern who was a Mongolianhistorical figure known for his megalomaniacal, murderousanti-revolutionary, cruelty and anti-Semitism and bad leadership. Hewas a white soldier in the civil war and had in the last year of hislife sought to counteract the scourge of Bolshevism. He wanted torestore the empires of Russia, China and Mongolia. He however failedin his campaigns to defeat the ‘contagion’ of Europeanrevolution instead he was captured and shot dead. Sunderland inbringing out the success or failures of Ungern, he shows Ungern’sintention to campaign to be less intention than it is normallyaccredited, in any case Ungern’s success was partial because afterall his Country Mongolia gained semi-autonomy that last preceded thesoviet era.

Sunderlanduses Ungern to bring about the imperialism of the people he takeshis life as a lens to which we can view the Russian empire in a timeof great instability. This makes it a micro history of his life ofwhich Sunderland argues that it offers a diverse view on the historyof the empire. He also puts this idea upfront that it is not helpfulto focus on the disparities that multinationals have but why they fittogether as a larger whole and also how individual persons likeUngern were an integral part in making different ethnics cometogether as a whole and in an articulate way.

Sunderlanddoes not focus on Ungern’s late life but rather on the border sweepof events. Sunderland’s tries to show that multinationalistic,sociopathic, ever bored life of Ungern was apt. This is because thereare very few documents on Ungern exist thus there is very little toknow about Ungern. In his campaigns Ungern wore a cloak that wasMongolian that was embellished with his tsarist army medals andepaulettes for those who had tried to capture and executed him inthe1991, they were Bolsheviks. The cloak signified the eccentric andthe deep reactionary ideas. However Sunderland puts across anothermeaning of the cloak which symbolizes the Russian empire and itsporous frontiers, fusion of cultures and imperial people who unifiedthe empire. The cloak which he chose for himself also symbolizes hismultinationalistic thereby being a cross cultural choice of uniform.This choice of clothing as well reflected the possible potential ofthe empire becoming a multi society.

Sunderlandin his arguments brings out the historical works of Russian empireand civil war in a way that is insightful. He incorporates the eventsfrom the conquest of Siberia to the Civil war in a narrative manner.He argues that coherence can be found where it dint exist, he revealsthat unpredictable and unbelievable coexistence of imperial rule inthe age of nationalism, of which it proved that it can last for along time even in the current times. This multi ethnicity changed thesocio ethic structure of the whole empire which has led to the growthof literacy, competition in the age of industrialization and creationof national Intelligentsias. The revolution led to the dismantling ofTsarist autocracy and ultimately creation of Union of SovietSocialist Republics. In his arguments Sunderland shows us how thepeasants took over and redistributed land as they moved in citiesamong national minorities throughout the empire.

Duringthe revolution food had become a problem and Sunderland argues thatthe reason for the peasants facing a high cost of living is becauseof the inflation. Prices had gone up and the peasants could not makeany sales as they depended on the middlemen.

Inhis book Sunderland brings out the theme of multi ethnicity by usingUngern’s life. This is mostly because he was from a multinationalbackground and thereby bringing of the empire together would pose apotential possibility of becoming a multinational society. Forinstance, Ungern’s Heritage is based in German while he took hiseducation in Russia. He was however living in Austria and Estland andgrew up in the German aristocracy. He thereby rose to be nationalistand enjoyed the cosmopolitan autonomy provided by the cultures.Sunderland points out that Ungern could live two or even morenationals without any constraints or contradiction. Sunderland showsclearly and blends the incomprehensible surroundings around Ungernwith his life who was in the moment encountering historic change inthe same environment. Though he would have ruled the empire, hisdream was cut short when he was captured and shot.

Ungernhad a soft spot for the eastern cultures, this came about when he wasstationed in a borderland where Mongol, Russian, Manchu and Chinesehad mixed. He believed that the Eastern people had preserved theirtraditions and their cultures could preserve the humanity. This wasbecause even though the other leaders looked down upon the Asians.

Oneof the main things that Sunderland misses out on his book iscomparative study Sunderland did not do any comparison of Ungernwith another great leader in the Russian empire. Through a comparisonthen we would have an easy time knowing the achievements, tactics andstrategies that Ungern used and the other leader dint to emerge as ahero of the day. Likewise Sunderland should have compared the Russianempire with another Revolution across the globe and we would clearlysee why the USSR Revolution is the greatest of all.

Thedifference between Ungern and Hadji Murat is that Ungern was unifyingwhile Hadji Murat was defecting from the Russian empire. Muratsupported the Russians to counter threats from Muridism for a whileuntil feuds broke between him and Shamil when he wanted to defect. IfMurat was to have a conversation with Ungern he would ask him to stepaside and fight the Russians rather than re uniting the nationals,they would not get along because they had different ideologies.

Bazarovon one hand was a philosopher and an ideologist who has roots inRussia, his nihilism is traced back in the days when he waspolitically involved with Turgenev his friend. Turgenev wasnted tocreate a young revolutionist out of Bazarov. Ungern given hisintentions would tell Bazarov to stick by him since they bothadvocated for destruction for the sake of a totally different andtransformed society.

Catherinethe Great is known for her thirst to expand the Russian boundariesand also progress with the westernization of her adopted country. Herruling was at a time when conquests and diplomacy was at its peak andher manifesto was that of freeing nobility which changed the face ofRussia. Catherine given her love for modernization and freedom of thestates would think Ungern in a very positive manner. Ungern foughtfor the peoples’ freedom and so did Catherine during her reign asthe empress. She also dragged Russia out of the medieval age tomodern age and maintained friendly neighborhoods with Russia’sneighbors for instance France, Austria and Prussia.

Peterthe great during his reign run a cultural revolution, this revolutiondid away with the traditional and medieval cultures that were inRussia and were replaced by scientist and westernized social andpolitical systems. In his efforts to make Russia a maritime power andintroducing westernized reforms, Peter the great faced a lot ofopposition but he suppressed all the rebellious lots. In a bid tomodernize Russia he went ahead and introduced paying of taxes if onehad long beards, this way many people shaved their beards to avoidbeing taxed. Peter would overly be impressed with Ungern becausedespite all the opposition, Ungern did not give up on his mission tobe a hero and unify the Russian empire.


Sunderland, W.(2014). The baron`s cloak: A history of the Russian Empire in warand revolution.

Lieven, D. C. B.(2003). Empire: The Russian empire and its rivals. London:Pimlico.