WILLARD SUNDERLAND. The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution

Willard Sunderland

The Russian Empire once extended from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan and contained a myriad of different ethnicities and nationalities. Dr. Willard Sunderland‘s The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2014) is an engaging new take on the empire that explores the tumultuous history of its final decades through the life of a single imperial person,  the Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a Baltic German aristocrat and tsarist military officer who fought on the side of the Whites in the Russian Civil War and, briefly – and strangely – became the de facto ruler of Mongolia in 1921.

Following Baron Ungern through his youth and subsequent military career, the reader is treated to an adventure across Eurasian space.  The first chapters take us into the peoples and politics of Russia’s western borders and the grand imperial capital of St. Petersburg.  We then shift thousands of miles eastward to Siberia and the faraway territories where Russia bumped up against the edges of Mongolia and China.  Indeed much of the book unfolds as an attempt to make sense of the movements and connections between east and west that at once held the empire together and, paradoxically, helped to undermine it as well.

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Using Ungern as a guide to the empire,  Sunderland’s detailed research exposes the Russian government’s interactions with its far-flung borderlands and in the process challenges some of our assumptions both about borders themselves and about the complicated politics of nationalism and imperialism that defined the history of Eurasia at the dawn of the twentieth century.  This is a very readable study, which comes across as both history and biography and is a welcome addition to the rich new scholarship that has appeared on the tsarist empire in recent years.