In This Review

The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution
The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution
By Willard Sunderland
Cornell University Press, 2014, 368 pp.

Rare is the book this creative, engaging, and written with such unpretentious grace. The baron of the title is Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. He was born in 1885 in Graz, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to an aristocratic Baltic German father, and was raised in what is now Estonia. He received military training in St. Petersburg and went on to make a career as an officer in the tsar’s army, stationed mostly on Russia’s border with Mongolia. Ungern-Sternberg’s life spanned great events: the intense Russification of the tsar’s sprawling empire in the late nineteenth century, the rising revolutionary tide of 1905, World War I, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the subsequent civil war. 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.