In the spring of 2010, before sending my complete manuscript of Autocrat of the Desert—my book about the anti-Bolshevik warlord Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg—to the publisher, I reread and revised the text one more time. My Natasha had left for Moscow, and I was living alone in Petersburg, sitting up at the computer late into the night. It was early May. Bright and cold.
At the end of the first week, I came to the chapter on the death of the Jews who had been living in Mongolia’s capital, Urga. On Ungern’s order, nearly all of them had been killed after he had stormed the city and driven out the Chinese forces.
The Asiatic Division entered Urga on February 4, 1921. Immediately, a witness writes, “a group of men were seen vying to find Jewish homes.” First, they looked for the homes of Trans-Baikal merchants and cattle dealers who had fled the Bolsheviks for Mongolia, although according to Ungern they were in no way chiefly responsible for the revolution. Serving as his point man was a favorite of his, Dr. Klingenberg, from Kyakhta, who brought the Cossacks to his former patients and watched as the men were hacked to death and the raped women poisoned with strychnine. As his reward, he was given beautiful furnishings for his apartment at the Russian consulate and many valuables. Ideological considerations aside, the murderers were moved by practical interest: they got to keep two-thirds of the victims’ property. One-third was supposed to be handed over to the division treasury, but they only turned in junk and kept everything of value for themselves. Later, useless “heaps of worn clothing” from the dead were left lying about the quartermaster’s storehouses.
Ungern spared a few “useful kikes,” a dentist, for instance. A few managed to run away, but two Jewish families—a total of eleven men, women, and children—found refuge with Prince Togtokho, the national hero of Mongolia. This stern warrior had begun the war of liberation against Peking long before Ungern, but he was getting on in years and had stepped back from politics. He spent most of the year in the steppe but had a winter home—a beishin—in the capital. That was where he hid the Jews. Now they were considered the host’s guests and could count on his protection. Evidently, Togtokho had promised that, when the turmoil died down, he would help them get out of the city and reach the Chinese border.
These people’s disappearance became known, and the search for them began, searches led by Colonel Sipailo, chief of counterintelligence and, in contemporaries’ opinion, a man with “sadistic tendencies.” Ungern had appointed him commandant of Urga.
Soon after, Sipailo was apprised as to who was hiding the missing Jews, but he couldn’t barge into Togtokho’s home and seize them. The proprieties had to be observed with respect to the legendary prince. His fame and the authority he enjoyed among the Mongols ruled out any direct violence.
Sipailo paid him a visit and the prince denied everything. They didn’t dare conduct a search, but they did set up covert surveillance on the house. Finally, proof of the Jews’ presence was obtained and shown to Togtokho, who was forced to admit everything. However, he categorically refused to give up the fugitives, stating that to do so would cover his name with “indelible shame.” Sipailo left empty-handed, but everyone understood he had no intention of backing down.
“The woman’s name remains a mystery. She probably had two names: a Russian name for her husband and neighbors; and a similar-sounding Jewish one—for her dead parents, sisters, and brothers.”
One night, a group of Cossacks rode up to the prince’s beishin, supposedly on their own initiative, rather than on orders from their superior. They either got the prince out of bed, or called him outside the gates, or simply shouted under his windows, threatening to punish him if he didn’t give up the hidden “kikes.” Sipailo would not have allowed them to follow through on these threats, but the provocation was successful. When Togtokho was briefly away from the capital, his terrified family forced the Jews to leave the compound. If this is true, then the prince’s departure was no coincidence, and the householders were acting if not on his instruction then with his knowledge. The pressure on him had increased, and eventually even he succumbed.
There is one report which says that no one drove the Jews out, that they left themselves, not wanting to destroy their protector, but I did not believe in their voluntary exodus. Single individuals are capable of impulses like that, but not fathers of families who know their wives and children will die with them.
According to another version, Togtokho wasn’t frightened by the threats, didn’t succumb to provocation, and didn’t violate the laws of hospitality. Sipailo had pretended to make his peace with this, but did not remove the ambush by the house. The men sitting there patiently waited out their prey. A little while later, once things had calmed down, late one evening, in the dark, when there wasn’t a soul outside, the Jews went out past the gates for the first time in many days to stretch their legs and breathe the fresh air. And were seized.
A couple of days later, their bodies turned up at the municipal dump by the Selba River. This was where the bodies of those executed were usually left for Urga’s scavenger dogs to eat. Burying them was forbidden.
Several memoirists wrote about all this, differing only in minor details, but no one mentioned something I learned from an anonymous item in a 1922 issue of the Harbin newspaper Dawn. The anonymous author, who for some reason had not wanted to sign his opus with his initials or a pseudonym, reported that one of the Jews who had hidden with Togtokho, a young beauty, had been saved by a young officer in the squad under Commandant Sipailo’s command. Together, they fled to Manchuria. The officer fell in love with the young woman he’d rescued and married her, but now she had murdered her husband, unable to forgive him the death of her relatives, who had fallen at his hand.
I had doubts as to whether to leave this story in the book or delete it after all as unconfirmed by other sources. I turned off my computer and stood by the window with a cigarette.
My window looked out on a courtyard—not the classic Petersburg airshaft but an open space with annexes and single-story utility buildings, between two parallel streets. From the fifth floor, I could see a cluster of roofs covered in rusted sheet iron that in a couple of years would be zinc and an enormous pale sky pierced in the foreground by a dozen tall, brick chimneys with half-collapsed tops in various stages of symmetry.
On the windowsill, facing the room, stood an iron figurine of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, the feminine incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. I’d bought it on Mokhovaya, at a hobbyist’s antique stall that had opened randomly in a grocery store, next to the dried fruits and nuts department, and had disappeared just as randomly. In her left hand she held a lotus blossom on a long stem, and her right was raised in a gesture of blessing. When I brought her home, I found inside, rolled into a tube, a dirty piece of paper left, evidently, not by whoever brought the iron goddess to the shop but by previous owners. It was a brief instruction on how to make contact with Guan Yin.
One had to picture the absolute emptiness of the world, and in it a blue-black sky, and in that a milk-white moon encircled by a soft glow, and when the moon began to look like a large pearl, discern in it the goddess of compassion. You weren’t supposed to address her until you saw tears of happiness welling in her eyes at the opportunity to help in someone’s misfortune.
Inside her she heard the prayers addressed to her, which was why my Guan Yin, as a mark of her concentration and detachment from the world, had her eyes nearly shut, and under her heavy eyelids, curved like lotus petals, one could see only narrow strips of rust-tinged whites. The Jews might have seen the same kind of figure—except bronze, not iron—on Togtokho’s home altar.
He survived them by six months. After the Reds captured Urga, Togtokho was accused of collaborating with Ungern and executed without trial.
A single photograph of him has been preserved. In it, the prince is also captured with eyes closed. The photograph was taken the moment he blinked.
The escape of the officer and the Jew was not mentioned in any of the émigré papers that came out in China other than Dawn, or in the notes of witnesses to and participants in the Mongolian events, or in the transcripts of Ungern’s interrogations, or in the documents of Asiatic Division headquarters, or in the reports from the Soviet agents who were sent to Urga and survived when Sipailo was exterminating imaginary Bolshevik spies by the dozen. Nonetheless, I was inclined to think the escape did take place. About ten years ago, the granddaughter of a Russian colonist who had been living in Mongolia at that time wrote to me about it from Canada, but I decided it was just a legend. Now I did not have that same confidence. Instances of desertion from the Asiatic Division were always painstakingly concealed, and Sipailo of course made every effort to keep this perfectly scandalous story from getting out beyond his close, narrow circle. Even Ungern might not have known about it.
Believing that the rescued young woman had killed her rescuer was harder. The Harbin press of the day fed on rumors. Someone buried by one newspaper was resurrected in another, and the ghosts of the dead wandered among the living, but the item in Dawn did not fall into this category due to the simple fact that it named neither the perpetrator nor her victim.
Maybe, I thought, the author worked for the police or was a police agent and was taking the interests of the investigation into account. For the same reasons, he could have been silent, too, about what happened to the murderer, whether she had fled or been arrested, but this shaky hypothesis could not explain what had compelled him to hide the means and weapon of the crime.
Gun, knife, poison?
Not a word.
It was simplest to suppose that the item combined two oral stories acquired from different sources: in one instance, rumor corresponded to reality; in the other, it didn’t. I wanted to believe that the dashing officer was able to save the young woman and she did not kill him, and my intuition told me that if the former was true, then so was the latter.
The longer I thought about this pair, the more their anonymity bothered me. I wanted to identify them somehow, so that they ceased to be simply the officer and the Jew. I knew neither their names nor their biographies nor really anything that would allow me to look under these general, mass-produced masks, but I did guess that they were both very young. This said no less about them than his shoulder straps and her ethnicity.
I tried to picture what this young woman looked like if the officer, having barely seen her, decided to risk his life for her sake. He had no time to hesitate—a day or two. No more. How had she bewitched him? With her beauty, yes, but what kind of beauty? Based on the fact that she later had the resolve to kill her husband, I saw her as tall and slender but not frail, with Jewish, green or brown eyes: if the former, then mysterious and alluring; if the latter, either burning or sad. Otherwise she had nothing typically Semitic about her, otherwise the officer would not have been captivated so headlong by her. Possibly, on the way from the prince’s beishin to the commandant’s building, faint from horror, she had found the strength to flirt with him, in hopes of catching his fancy and securing protection for her family.
Having lived through the death of her parents and sisters or brothers, she probably was in shock at first, but the necessity of staying in the saddle, the cold, and the danger of pursuit brought her to consciousness. They spent the night by campfires, pressed close together. They came across no yurts. During the battles outside Urga, the Mongols gathered up their herds and flocks and moved away from the capital.
I didn’t know how quickly she made her peace with the fact that her rescuer was the murderer of her family, but in the desolate winter steppe she had no other choice. He took care of her, fed her, protected her from the cold, guarded her sleep, and sooner or later stopped arousing fear-laced revulsion. Later still, in Manchuria, out of gratitude to him, she converted and went to the altar with him but was never able to respond to him with love, although she doubtless made an honest attempt to do so, trying to convince herself that he wasn’t to blame, since if he’d refused to carry out Sipailo’s order they would have killed him, too. She slept with him, and that was his sole prize in this game in which he had bet his own life.
They fled Urga in late February or early March of 1921, and the Dawn notice appeared in August 1922. These two were together for a year and a half—a considerable length of time for young people. She might have taken her revenge on an abductor who had killed her family and not let her die with them, but not on her husband. She was not so cold-blooded as to hatch her plan of vengeance for more than a year and wait for the right moment to carry it out. Or have I underestimated her tenacity, her gift for pretense, her ability to keep her feelings on a slow flame for months, concealing their temperature?
Maybe, weary of her coldness, he had begun to cheat on her? Her wounded pride exalted the blood he had shed, the blood that divided them, and the bloody shadows of her near and dear rose before her through the sleepless nights, and she heard their voices and on one of those nights did what they demanded of her.
Did the officer regret, perhaps, not that he’d saved her, but that he’d married her?
Did she repent?
It’s likely she killed him in a daze and afterward couldn’t regain her stifled affect of gratitude for her husband, which had told her everything it could have said even at the moment of the killing, given a chance.
One could fantasize endlessly about their relationship. By an effort of will I brought myself back to the reality given me by my impressions, reread the item, and once again, as in the first reading, this bizarre text evoked an inexplicable confidence.
The impersonal expressions in which it abounded, as if it were talking not about people but about natural phenomena, created the impression that both the young woman and the officer she killed, who had previously served on the execution squad, were mere playthings in the hands of the elements that controlled them, which were much mightier than their personal desires and passions. True, this was contradicted by the author’s assertion that it was by no means the voice of the blood in her veins that had dictated to this woman the decision to kill her husband. The author felt sorry for the dead man but made it clear that the perpetrator evoked his compassion rather than condemnation. Even for the liberal Dawn, which was owned by Jewish businessmen, his position was much too radical. In its tone, the item recalled a lawyer’s speech in court.
In and of itself, the story’s ending could have been made up by the reporter, whose assignment was to submit sensational material for the issue quickly, but then he would have written something melodramatic, in the spirit of silent movies, or, on the contrary, used a purely procedural style, so that by contrast with the dryness of the exposition the essence of the matter would create more of an effect. The item was written as if intended for a literary anthology, not a police blotter. A staff reporter would have taken this run-of-the-mill job less seriously, and the use of general phrases instead of concrete facts indicated that it had been written not by a professional, who would have easily made up any details, but by someone afraid to say too much.
The Dawn story stayed in my book, but with the qualification that it had not been confirmed. The book came out in the fall, and in the spring I received a letter from journalist Batozhab Radnaev in Ulan-Ude, who wrote that the fate of the officer and the Jewish woman he saved was recounted in a book published in 1965, in Sydney, by the émigré Nikolai Gomboev, Hunters of Manchuria. Attached to the letter was a scan of that slim memoir, as well as information about the author and his not entirely typical genealogy.
In 1839, after a sentence of hard labor, the Decembrist Nikolai Bestuzhev was exiled to Novoselenginsk, a settlement in the Trans-Baikal region. Here for many years, up until his death, he lived with a Buryat woman, Dulma Sabilaeva, and had children with her, but never did marry her. Nikolai Gomboev was his great-great-grandson, the great-grandson of one of Bestuzhev’s daughters. Gomboev’s father, a Sinologist, worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and his mother, Ekaterina Georgievna, née Ershova, graduated from medical school. The future author of Hunters of Manchuria was their younger son. They lived in Petersburg, but in 1918, the head of the family took his wife and children to the land of his ancestors, Novoselenginsk. A year later he died, and Ekaterina Georgievna, not waiting for the Reds to arrive, took her sons to Mongolia, to Urga, where she worked as a doctor in the municipal hospital. Of his whole Urga life, ten-year-old Kolya Gomboev recalled especially vividly how he and the other boys would go trout fishing in the Tolya and chase the shaggy black Mongol dogs, which, after the city’s capture by Ungern, gnawed on the corpses of Chinese soldiers lying in the streets.
“I immediately noted several discrepancies in it but wrote them off to the corrosion any oral tale undergoes after years of being handed down from one listener to another and written down by him only several decades later.”
In the summer of 1921, Ungern was finally beaten, and the Fifth Army’s Expeditionary Corps and Sukhe-Bator’s soldiers entered Urga. Shortly before this, Ekaterina Georgievna had changed her place of residence for the third time in three years. Either she was afraid of the new regime or else she was caught up in the stream of refugees. In Harbin, she was at loose ends for a long time and was happy finally to be offered a post as a doctor at Halasu, a small station on the western branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway, somewhere halfway between Harbin and Hailar.
Ekaterina Georgievna and her boys arrived there in the winter or early spring of 1922, and in the late summer or early fall a young Russian couple settled in Halasu—the Mogutovs. The husband’s name was Peter, but Gomboev had forgotten the wife’s.
Only many years later did his mother tell her adult son that Mogutov’s real name was Kapshevich and that the wife was a Jew whom he had wrested from death’s claws. Ekaterina Georgievna saw her in Halasu for the first time, but she had met Second Lieutenant Peter Kapshevich, who had studied at but not graduated from Kharkov University, in Urga. The whirlwind of the Civil War had borne him from Ukraine to the Trans-Baikal region, and from there he had come with Ungern to Mongolia. This young man spoke English well, but where he had learned it and how Ekaterina Georgievna had learned this about him is not known.
In Urga, Kapshevich had probably gone to her for medical assistance, and in Halasu he ran into her on the street or at the station, recognized her, and asked her to keep his real name secret. She gave her word and kept silent for as long as there was any point in doing so. If Kapshevich’s reasons for changing his name were ever disclosed, Gomboev, at that time a 12-year-old boy, had no idea what they were.
He heard the story of his former neighbors from his mother, and she from Kapshevich himself. Gomboev recounted the following.
When the Jews who had hidden with Togtokho were captured, Ungern ordered Kapshevich to shoot them. Kapshevich reported to the baron that his order had been carried out, but the next day, while riding on horseback on the outskirts of Urga, Ungern noticed the fresh corpses, counted them, and discovered that there were ten bodies, not eleven as there should have been. Missing was the body of the beautiful young woman he remembered when examining the still living captives. The baron returned to the city, called in Kapshevich, and demanded an explanation. Kapshevich exclaimed: “That can’t be, Your Excellency! This is some kind of misunderstanding! I’ll look into it right away and report.” He jumped into his saddle and galloped to the execution site. “After that, Second Lieutenant Kapshevich was no longer in the baron’s army,” Gomboev ends his ingenuous tale.
I immediately noted several discrepancies in it but wrote them off to the corrosion any oral tale undergoes after years of being handed down from one listener to another and written down by him only several decades later.
After giving the order to murder the Jews, Ungern certainly no longer concerned himself with their fate, did not speak to any of them, and could not have remembered that young woman. He took solitary horseback rides regularly, but his route could scarcely have passed through the disgusting municipal dump on the Selba where the executed Jews’ bodies lay. And he definitely would not have counted them, let alone turned them over on their backs to determine from their faces who was missing. There is abundant testimony to his pathological squeamishness for all things bodily.
The executions took place in the cellar of the commandant’s building. Rather than shooting them, the death squad usually hacked them with their swords. The bodies were carried away on carts, but even if in this case this procedure was violated for some reason, it is doubtful that Kapshevich alone was assigned to take a group of eleven people out of town and execute them. Had subordinates or any of the officers been present, he would have been able to save the young woman’s life only on the condition that they all agreed to shut their eyes to it, but even asking them for such a favor could be fatal. No one would have responded to his request, but in the morning it would have become known to Sipailo and would have been the end of Kapshevich.
How he dragged his chosen one out of that slaughterhouse I did not understand, but in any case, if he was to save her, he had to kill her family, something she could not have failed to know. True, I was almost certain they did not perish in front of her. Obviously, Kapshevich came up with some trick to spare her that spectacle, otherwise purely physically she could not have lived with, to say nothing of married, him. It was one thing to know it, even directly from him, that is, in a softened, embellished version, and another to see it herself. The only question was whether he managed to tell her in advance that he planned to save her or she had lost hope and was preparing to die.
Had they fled Urga immediately after Kapshevich’s conversation with Ungern, they would have been caught in no time. Obviously, no one noticed the disappearance, and he hid the young woman somewhere in the city. For their escape, they had to prepare a change of horses, fur parkas or warm deels, and dried meat and flatbread, otherwise death threatened them both in the steppe. Getting hold of all this in Urga without arousing suspicions was not easy. They fled later, but where they stayed and what they did up until they got off the train in Halasu is cloaked in obscurity.
Kapshevich had some money on him. He rented a house, purchased hunting gear, and began disappearing in the taiga for long stretches. His wife kept house. She got to know her neighbors and, Gomboev writes, everyone came to love her. Kapshevich did not abuse alcohol and the couple lived peaceably.