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Jaan Kross: Kolme katku vahel; Balthasar Russowi 2 (Between Three Plagues: A People Without a Past)

This is the second of four volumes of Jaan Kross’ historical novel, based on the (real) chronicle of Balthasar Russow, who lived in sixteenth century Tallinn. The first novel left Balthasar studying theology abroad. The Teutonic Order had been driven out and replaced by the Swedes under King Erik XIV. Balthasar has returned to Tallinn at the beginning of the novel. He is surprised at how shabby and run-down it looks, now that the Germans have left. As he comments this is a land where nothing is remembered (hence the English-language subtitle of this book). On return he is soon appointed pastor of the Holy Ghost church and treasurer of the diocese, with both jobs keeping him busy.

The key feature of this book is Balthasar starting the chronicle that will make him famous (at least in Estonia). He starts writing down notes of things that his father told him , as well as his own reminiscences. He even makes an arrangement with one of the councillors to receive copies of key documents so that he has an accurate and impartial chronicle. This works well initially but the councillor soon withdraws his consent but Balthasar finds other ways of getting the documents.

As usual, turmoil reigns in the region. The key event in the early part of the book is the invasion of Magnus, Duke of Holstein. Ivan the Terrible has crowned him King of Livonia and he sets off with a large force to capture Tallinn. His initial tactic is a siege of the town. We follow the siege in considerable detail, not least because the defenders decide to destroy the village of Kalamaja, just outside the town, to deny Magnus’ force access to building materials and cover. Kalamaja is the home village of both Balthasar and Jaan Kross, and neither is very happy with this decision.

One of the results of the siege is the plague. No-one can escape and, with the people crowded together in unsanitary conditions, it soon spreads. Balthasar is kept busy ministering to the sick. The other effect of the siege is to delay Balthasar’s wedding. He has met and fallen for Elsbet, the daughter of the local furrier. Her father is not too keen on having Balthasar as a son-in-law, so looks for an excuse to postpone the wedding, to Balthasar’s chagrin.

The town seems to be under constant attack. The initial siege by Magnus is lifted but the Russians keep returning, attacking the city in various ways and creating mayhem inside. However, they never manage to enter the city, though they do cause extensive damage, including to Balthasar’s house, which gets a direct hit. Fortunately, no-one is hurt. Similarly, the plague disappears and then returns.

Politics, both internal and external, are key to this book. As one of the councillors says, there are five powers vying to rule Estonia: Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Poland and Duke Magnus. All have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on your political views. The Russians, for example, seem much more sympathetic to the peasants than some of the others. Various factions are trying to play off one against another, not very successfully.

Balthasar is writing his chronicle and, indeed, will finish it during the course of the book. However, the chronicle gets caught up in the politics of the day. Balthasar claims that his chronicle is telling the truth but as one wise councillor asks, whose truth? As mentioned above getting the documents is not always straightforward. Initially, no-one is allowed to read it but when his assistant and his wife read it they are concerned that it could upset one or two influential people. One of the councillors, well aware that it is being written, tries to sabotage it. Indeed, he suspects that Balthasar’s request to see documents is really a subterfuge to pass on these documents to one of the parties seeking to control Estonia. Even when Balthasar is able to ensure him that that is not the case, he still feels that Balthasar is not going to be impartial. Balthasar himself applies a bit of self-censorship.

The Peasants’ Revolt, which took place in the previous volume, was never fully elucidated in that volume. here, we learn a lot more about it and, in particular, about Balthasar’s role in it. All the leaders of the Revolt were arrested, tortured and executed. Balthasar managed to escape and return to Germany, where he finished his studies. He has always maintained, even to his wife, that he was never in Estonia at that time but in Germany. He has managed, more or less, to keep this fiction but both his chronicle and a witness threaten to reveal all.

The other issue is Balthasar’s social standing. He is of Estonian stock and therefore, as far as those of German origin are concerned, of a lower social standing. This becomes an issue in his dealing with the powerful men of Tallinn but it even becomes an issue with his wife (who is of German stock) and her father. Indeed, she compares him unfavourably with his assistant, who is also of German stock.

Once again, Kross tells a lively story of both the internal and external politics, as well as of Balthasar’s colourful and varied life. We see bits of the chronicle but Kross gives us only the more interesting and/or controversial bits. Much of the book, as with the first volume, is about Balthasar, who has now changed from a young man, still somewhat wet behind the ears, to a more worldly (though certainly not too worldly) pastor, husband and local leader.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by Eesti Raamat
First published in English 2017 by Maclehose Press