Willard Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in Warwas a pleasure to read. Sunderland, a professor of Russian history at the University of Cincinnati, adds a valuable perspective on the late Russian Empire’s chaotic transition to the USSR. The Baron’s Cloak is an example of innovative historical analysis and compelling writing. As far as history goes, this book is a “real page turner.”
Sunderland introduces readers to the life of Baron Roman Feodorovich von Ungren-Sternberg, a member of the Russian petty nobility. Ungren was a fascinating character for many reasons. He occupied a liminal position within the imperial hierarchy, being both a member of the Russian elite but still an outsider. He was a Baltic German, Lutheran, spoke Russian as a second language, and was the eldest son of a broken marriage. Ungren attended an exclusive military academy in St. Petersburg but was a lackluster student. His military career coincided with the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century. He served in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. He was an officer in Cossack regiments serving in the east. He fought as a mercenary for the Mongols in a war of independence against Qing dynasty. With the outbreak of World War I, Ungren served three years fighting on the Eastern Front. Following the February Revolution, Ungren fought for White Russian forces in the Trans-Baikal region and ascended to a division commander. His campaign against the Bolsheviks is fought in the borderlands of Mongolia and Russia. Ungren’s division is eventually defeated by the Red Army and he is captured, tried, and executed. The “cloak” from the book’s title refers to a Mongolian kaftan Ungren was wearing in photographs.
Sunderland follows Ungren’s life in The Baron’s Cloak, however this book is not a biography. Sunderland’s true subjects are the Russian Empire, its collapse, and its transition to the USSR: a monarchical state sitting atop a multicultural, multilingual, multi-confessional collection of nations yielding to the communist experiment after years of war. Rather than writing a political/traditional history, Sunderland takes a social historic approach and utilizes the Ungren’s microhistory as a framing convention for this era of Russian history. Of course, the collapse of the Empire, the Russian Civil War, and the rise of the USSR are huge, complicated subjects that have been confronted by hundreds (thousands?) of historians. The historian runs the risk of getting lost in the immensity of historical material yet still risks the end result of inessential scholarship. To avoid these traps, Sunderland uses Ungren’s travels through the empire to drive an historical narrative—basically, “Here is where Ungren went. This is what was going on in this region at this time.” Again, this is not a biography; Ungren’s microhistory is a framing device to examine the Russian Empire and its collapse.
Ungren was a creature of empire offering both capabilities (culturally fluency, languages, fighting skills) and fervent ideological beliefs (Czarist and Qing dynastic statism, anti-liberal and anti-nationalist, desire to preserve religious orders). After the Russian Empire collapsed, Ungren aligned with the White restorationist cause that had been driven to the Russian periphery—the borderlands of empire where Ungren excelled. This allowed him to take political leadership positions in the White cause and, in the end, attempt to enact his own vision of Romanov and Qing revanchism.
Sunderland delivers a compelling portrait of an empire in decay: the operations of institutions both dying (the Baltic aristocracy and Cossack status) and emerging (the Cheka, the Red Army), the (d)evolution of imperial law and policy, and the intertwining of ethnicities and religions comprising imperial society (amidst Russification—a last ditch attempt of modernization and state-building). Sunderland observes that Russian imperial modes, practices, and concepts did end with the founding of the USSR; rather, elements of empire shaped the newly emerged federated communist state.
In addition to effective historical framing, Sunderland’s writing is clear, measured, and avoids needless intellectualizing and abstraction. Much of this The Baron’s Cloak’s success stems from the novelistic quality of Sunderland’s world building. The reader gets a strong sense of time and place as Sunderland recreates the imperial hinterlands of Ungren’s travels.
World building is an aspect of historical writing that overlaps with fiction. All novelists and short story writers construct worlds for their stories, especially in historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. However, while the novelist has license to create a world as a means of telling a story, an historian has to be more cautious in re-creating a world as a means of writing history. It is easy to blur these lines. Fortunately The Baron’s Cloak does not have this problem. I’m allergic to the lack of written and other hard evidence in works of history. This tends to be a hazard in social history, where lack of hard evidence combine with an historian’s point of view to produce something that is uncomfortably close to historical fiction.
Thinking about Sunderland’s world building reminded me of reading Wendy Anne Warren’s “The Cause of Her Grief”: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England. Warren writes about the life of a nameless female slave who was likely raped by a houseguest of the family that owned her. The article is excellent as far as its description of 17th century Massachusetts. Nevertheless, Warren left me with more questions than answers given her historical subject’s “sole appearance in historical documentation occurs in one paragraph of a seventeenth-century colonial travelogue.” I understand the lack of primary sources and the argument that “systems of power” tended (and tend) to preserve the records of elites and the more privileged members of society. I also think it is important to provide a voice for a nameless person subjected to an awful life and victimized in a horrible crime. But none of those things justify writing fiction and calling it history. Warren simply went too far in this article, her creativity pushing her from historian to fabulist. To her credit, towards the end of the article she discloses that she’s used a great deal of invention, but the confession is unnecessary as any reader could see she expressed as much imagination as research in the article. The article breaks down due to its over dependence on little rhetorical tricks, smuggling in fantasy laundered as hard historical evidence. Warren inserts purely imaginative descriptions prefaced with the magic words “may have.” She poses multiple rhetorical questions that also function as begging the question: the conclusion is assumed in the premise of the question. Warren’s thumb is firmly on the scale as she deals with the historical actors, whether its speculation tinged with presentism or pure psychologizing—all of it is hyperbole.
I only discuss Warren’s article as an example of the kinds of traps Sunderland could have fallen into. In this respect, Warren is more the pure social historian who errs on the side of activism on while Sunderland is more a traditionalist who errs on the side of objectivity (in the contemporary sense of that concept). I believe pure objectivity in history is a false standard and an outdated idea; however, objective processes, standards, and behaviors are good for the profession (I wrote a longish paper on Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream—just skip to the conclusion).
Despite limited historical evidence on the Baron’s life, Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak is intellectually cautious and avoids the quasi-fictional pitfalls I saw in Warren’s article. Sunderland did not overuse “may have” sentences or resort to psychologizing him. I do not recall Sunderland speculating about aspects of Ungren’s life where there was no historical evidence. For example, the author could have engaged in all manner of speculation about Ungren’s views on race and ethnicity as well as gender and sexuality. I’m sure every graduate school discussion about this book went to those topics. Sunderland’s discipline in sticking with historical evidence to tell Ungren’s story allowed for a clearer focus on the author’s true historical subject: the environment of the late Russian empire.
Beyond Russian history, this is a good book for those interested in the history of empire. I think The Baron’s Cloak can also be considered borderlands history. From the standpoint of a state, borderlands are distinct from the predominant society and culture, typically contest with another state with varying levels of political control. On one hand, borderlands may be places of trade, cultural exchange, and societal blending; on the other, borderlands may have violent clashes of culture and be sites military conflict arising from state ambition. There are many examples of differing ethnic and religious groups eventually learning how to coexist in borderlands—perhaps not entirely peacefully, but largely free of massive societal disruptions. In contrast, state policies and political power struggles often unleash the violent potential underlying borderland regions. In The Baron’s Cloak, Ungren tended to excel at the edges of the empire’s borderlands: the Trans-Baikal region, zones of conflict with the imperial armies Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, and Outer Mongolia. In the end, Ungren was an agent of violence who helped to unleashed conflict in the Trans-Baikal and Outer Mongolia borderlands.
Finally, I have to praise Sunderland on the depth, breadth, and diversity of his research. He had to delve into multiple archives using multiple languages and, I assume, dialects. He had to travel to one of the least accessible parts of the world, navigating two fairly oppressive states (maybe three—I don’t know anything about contemporary Mongolia).