Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Symbolical Babylon?

Last weekend was a multimedia feast on the romantic figure of Baron Ungern von Sternberg. Why multimedia? Because I read a book, I read a comics book and I saw a film where either a leading or leading/supporting role was played by the White baron.

The book was Leonid Yuzeforitch's "Le Baron Ungern, Khan des Steppes" (bought in a recent foray into the Salon du Livre, at Porte Versailles, dedicated this year to Russian Literature). The 'bande déssinée' was Hugo Pratt's "Corte sconta detta arcana" (the original Milano Libri Edizioni big-sized first coloured version) more familiar under the name "Corto Maltese en Sibérie". The film is the animated version of the Siberian adventure "Corto Maltese: La Cour Secrète des Arcanes" .

The Baron was the last white White general to be captured - and executed on 17 September 1921- by the Reds, during the Siberian final spasm of anti-Bolshevik resistance, or counter-revolutionary activity, depending on the viewpoint. (The last White, but non-white, General to be captured was Grigory Mikhailovitch Semenov, in 1945, in the very same Manchuria from where he had vanished in September 1921, running for his emígré life).
I'm told there are other biographies available, including Rhys Hughes' "The Brutal Buddha: Baron von Ungern-Sternberg", all very much based on a little book published in the 20s by a political journalist who shared some weeks in Urga with the mad Baron and on the 'compte rendu' of his interrogation by the Soviets, shortly before the firing squad. Corto Maltese interaction with the Baron in the original comics book is a bit unfair, stressing the madness of the character, while in the animated film version we have an improved viewpoint, more sympathetic to the tragic dimension and the sheer size of the pressures he had to undergo.
Well worth spending sometime with. (There is even a freakish and perhaps scientifically relevant detail to explain his behaviour: "after the execution his brain was removed for study by doctors and it was disclosed that his left lobe, now considered the hemisphere of identity, existed only as a shriveled root". I'm quoting from a google quick search here:
Corto is of course a classic and a must in Western romantic adventure literature(Pratt is up there with Jack London or Neville Shute or Emilio Salgari, although in a different medium) but Sternberg deserves some research too, particularly in today's time of civilizational clash (for post-Huntington puppies) or "Alliance of Civilizations" (to use ZP's preferred foreign policy mantra).
When asked by his Bolshevik interrogators what he though of Communism the Baron's answer was typically vague and symbolical: "The International was conceived three thousand times before Christ in Babylon". Possibly a reference to the internationalist Babel Tower but also a tangencial quoting of the biblical reference to Babylon, as a symbol of the satanic power: "the house of the demons and where all malign spirits had converged" (Apocalypse St. John, XVIII, 2). That reminds me a big banner in an anti-globalization demonstration I witnessed on the eve of the European Council of Gotheborg: "Bush is Babylon". When one thinks that a couple of years later President Bush directed the wrath of the US armies to modern times Babylon one wonders... Are all those big-picture conflicts to be apprehended at the level of symbols and near-mythical struggles? Just like Ungern saw it.


ballerina said...

Yes, I do read it.

Just in case you were wondering. It's a bit like your quest for the meaning of Art through Velasquez: I may need a few more trips to feel comfortable enough to comment. Always missing you,

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