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Jaan Kross: Kolme katku vahel; Balthasar Russowi 1 (Betweeen Three Plagues: The Ropewalker)

This is the first of four novels, based on the life of the very real Balthasar Russow. It was long thought that Russow was German but research revealed that he was born in Kalamaja, a fishing village outside Tallinn, where Kross himself grew up. He is best-known in Estonia for his Chronica der Provintz Lyfflandt (Chronicle of the Province of Livonia), first published in 1578. (The book is still in print in German; though it has been translated into English, it is less easy to obtain.). (Livonia corresponds roughly to present-day Estonia and Latvia). The chronicle recounts the history of Livonia from 1156 to 1583, though this book focusses on Russow’s life (1536-1600).

The period described in Russow’s book saw huge turmoil in the region with many of the major powers fighting over what we now know as the Baltic states. These included Russia, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. At the start of the book, the country is under the control of the Teutonic Order and therefore the country is subject to German control and German ways. As we shall see, this is not welcomed by the local populace.

Kross wrote many historical novels, though he considered this his best. The reason for writing historical novels, apart from the obvious ones, was, of course, because Estonia was under Soviet control and the censors would clearly not allow him to directly criticise either the ruling powers or the Soviet Union. In this book, however, he can and does criticise the Russians (who were threatening to invade Estonia) and the ruling elite (who were German). His readers would have been well aware of whom the criticism was aimed at.

The four books describe Balthasar’s life in a period of upheaval (though sadly, much of Estonia’s history has seen upheaval). When the book starts, he is still a boy, receiving education at a local school and, apparently, doing fairly well. However, the future chronicler is very much interested in what is going on in the town of Tallinn and in the region and more than once skips school to investigate. Indeed, the book opens with the eponymous rope-walker (there are actually two of them). They are part of a travelling Italian family and a rope has been set up, starting at the steeple of the church, for two boys to walk across. Balthasar and his age group at the school have been given strict instructions not to watch the rope-walking but Balthasar not only skips school to do so but manages to creep up into the steeple and watch from very close by. Kross’ description of the whole ceremony is the first of many superb descriptions of events throughout the book.

Balthasar’s teacher, Frolink, is interested in Balthasar, as the boy has shown himself to be quick-witted and curious. As a result, when the boy skips school, he decides to tell his father. Balthasar’s father is a waggoner. Many of the Estonians in the book are peasants and subjects to harsh discipline and heavy taxes by the lords of their manors. Those that have managed to get their freedom (peasants cannot move without their lord’s permission, rarely granted) are either small craftsmen, like Balthasar’s father, or small traders. Most of the major traders, professions, clergy and ruling classes are German, though other nationalities appear.

It is when going to talk to Balthasar’s father that Frolink meets Balthasar’s sister, Annika. The two soon become friendly and get married. They are given a house, known as the Bishop’s House to live in and Balthasar soon moves in with them, to be nearer to his schooling. The house is bought by a doctor who, while he is a doctor, and encourages Balthasar to study medicine, also appears to be a very influential man. Through him, Balthasar meets other influential men in the town. He also meets the doctor’s much younger wife, who tries to seduce him.

The political situation is deteriorating and Kross gives us some excellent descriptions of what is going on both locally and further afield. Moscow, under Ivan the Terrible, wants paying off but the town has no money so the Russians invade. The Doctor, who seems to know everybody sends Balthasar off on a mission to Turku, in Finland, to enlist the aid of the Swedes. Kross even manages a little joke, as Balthasar arrives in what seems a small village which, he learns, is called Helsinki. We follow in some detail what happens in the conflict and Balthasar’s involvement in it.

The Doctor is very generous and gives Balthasar money for his various missions, which is intended to help him in his studies, so he sets off for what we now know as Szczecin but is called by its German name, Stettin, in this book, where he is to study theology. But though he is eager to study, his wandering character soon comes to the fore and he is sent on another mission, this time to Narva, which had been occupied by the Russians. Inevitably, he takes a detour to Tallinn, where he is caught up in a peasants’ revolt against their German overlords.

For a historical novel to work, it has to tell a good story, and not just a list of historical facts. Usually this means having a character through whose eyes we see what is happening. In addition, it has to have a rich range of characters, who are neither stereotypes nor all similar. Kross, who has shown over his career that he is a first-class writer, manages to do this most successfully. Balthasar is clearly a lively and interesting character and, as a future chronicler, has a good eye for what is intriguing, be it the tightrope walking at the beginning or the peasants’ revolt at the end. The book is also a Bildungsroman for Balthasar, who grows from a curious boy to a man who seems to get involved in a host of political events.

For most English-speaking readers, the history of Estonia and the region in the late sixteenth century will be completely unknown, probably limited to a viewing of Ivan the Terrible. However, you do not need any knowledge, bar a rudimentary idea of the geography, to appreciate this novel. Many of the key tropes – a peasants’ revolt, foreign overlords, invaders from the East, a rigid class system and the natives oppressed and unhappy about it, can be seen in the history of many other countries. This period, as mentioned above, saw considerable upheaval in the region and Kross fills us in on all the colourful details, with the various key players – German, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Lithuanian and, of course, Estonian – all involved. The obvious references to the period when the book was written, with Estonia under Russian control, as also mentioned above, also make this book pertinent. All of this makes for a very enjoyable read with the action never flagging and Balthasar being an excellent guide for the reader.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Eesti Raamat
First published in English 2016 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher