From history to fiction and back again

On writing, uses and abuses of Balthasar Russow’s Livonian Chronicle

Balthasar Russow’s Livonian Chronicle was not only popular at the time when it was written, but continues to fascinate the readers up to the present. This article is firstly sketching the circumstances of the multiplication of Russow’s own text, secondly mapping the uses of Russow’s Livonian Chronicle in historical fiction and folklore, and thirdly pointing at some features of the chronicle which may lay behind its popularity throughout the centuries.

Both, in the Baltic German and Estonian literature there are numerous examples, where the material from the chronicle has been used in fiction (e.g. Theodor Herman Pantenius, Eduard Bornhöhe, Enn Kippel, Gert Helbemäe, Jaan Kross et al). Some episodes of the chronicle have even been recorded in the folklore. In contemporary culture the impact of fiction is deepened by different media, most notably by films. There is no doubt that Russow and his Chronicle have important place in the Baltic cultural memory.

Russows chronicle is easily accessible because printed and translated into many languages. Some of its attractiveness is undoubtedly in the aesthetics: story-telling of Russow is catching, his irony enjoyable, his preaching of morals not wearying. Although Russow is addressing wider audience and includes curious episodes and gossip, it has not influenced his reliability as a historical source.

Above all, many aspects in Russow’s position as the author, enables the readers to share his views. For a Baltic German liberal or Estonian nationalist it is easy to agree with Russow’s humanistic criticism towards Livonian elites who failed in their government. Russow’s viewpoint as a Lutheran patriot of Livonia has been crucial. Estonian and Baltic German literatures may have sometimes modified his judgements, but they are certainly both in their ways attached to the same patria, Russow is writing about.