What I’m Reading: Setting the East Ablaze

Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia is a thoroughly-research book from 1984 by Peter Hopkirk. It covers the efforts of Communist Russia from 1918 to the beginning of World War II to spread its gospel of communism, by persuasion and by force, in Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Far East. It also covers–and this is what transforms what could have been could a dry text into a rollicking, almost Indiana Jones-style adventure–the resistance to Russia’s advances by a mix of dashing British Secret Service agents, Scandinavian emissaries, local warlords, and virulently anti-Communist Islamic visionaries. Altogether, it makes for a heady brew of intrigue and action along the old Silk Road.

I think my favorite part of the book is the chapter on Baron Ungern-Sternberg, known as the “Mad Baron” for his reckless bravery and extravagant cruelty. Ungern-Sternberg was the scion of an old Latvian family that had allegedly founded Riga and certainly had a history of military service. Much of the information about him is little more than rumor, and various stories of him contradict one another, even regarding his very appearance, although all agree that his appearance was striking, particularly his eyes, which were nearly hypnotic.

In the late Czarist era, the Baron either left or was kicked out of the Russian Navy, eventually finding himself in Mongolia, where he discovered a real affinity for the people and their lifestyle as fierce desert nomads, even converting to Buddhism (although it hardly seemed to make him peaceful). He became renowned in World War I as a fierce fighter, though his frequent drunken fights with other officers nearly got him kicked out of the army numerous times. During the Russian revolution he sided with the anti-communist Whites. Some said the communists had killed his wife and children, but in any case, he was virulently opposed to the Bolsheviks. After the Whites were defeated, he managed to attract a small band of Cossacks and White soldiers and fought his way to Mongolia, where the Bolsheviks were trying to depose the local Chinese governor.

There he put together an army, promising the Mongolians they would kick foreigners out of their land, and imagining it as the core of a new Mongolian empire that would stretch all the way to Moscow. He embarked on a campaign that at first met with much success, always checking with his team of Buddhist soothsayers to ascertain if it was an auspicious day for a battle. After winning a battle, he would dispose of enemies in elaborately gruesome ways–burying alive, burning at the stake, strangulation. He did manage to conquer Mongolia and even advanced some way into Central Asia, but was eventually defeated by the Red Army and killed by his own officers.

Setting the East Ablaze is full of such stories. Other notable characters include Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Bailey, an English secret agent who traveled around the region in a variety of disguises to gather intelligence for Britain; M.N. Roy, a charismatic Indian revolutionary close to Lenin who led repeated attempts to start an uprising in India; Enver Pasha, an Ottoman general disgraced after the Ottoman Empire’s loss in World War I who tried to create a new Islamic Empire in Central Asia; and many others.

It was a chaotic era and a lawless border area where China, British India, and Russia met, but none quite controlled the territory they allegedly ruled, providing fertile ground for adventurers, religious fanatics, outcasts, and power-hungry dreamers. Eventually the Soviet Union asserted its control and put an end to the lawlessness (though armed opposition to Soviet rule in Central Asia persisted into the 1930s). The book is fast-paced and full of big personalities and outsized aspirations. For those who enjoy history, I highly recommend it.

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