November 01, 2020

Russia's Munchausens

Russia's Munchausens

Fantastic stories from “the most truthful man in the world” about a wolf pulling a sled, a stag growing a cherry tree between his antlers after being shot with a pit, an eight-legged rabbit, and a horse tied to the top of a belltower, are the stuff of childhood in Russia. The improbable adventures of the legendary Baron von Munchausen have inspired more than six hundred books, as well as countless plays and films.

Interestingly, this wildly popular product of fiction had a very real prototype – Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen (1720-1797), from the German Electorate of Hanover. For more than a decade, he served in Russia, where he first arrived as part of the entourage of Duke Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick. Münchhausen took part in the 1735–1739 Russo-Turkish War and distinguished himself during the 1737 capture of the Ottoman fortress at Ochakov. Official records attest that he was a brave and resourceful officer. In 1750, Münchhausen retired with the rank of captain to his native town of Bodenwerder. An exemplary family man and exceptional host, he was renowned for the food, drink, and amazing tales with which he entertained his guests. His storytelling prowess drew visitors from across Germany.

His rise to fame was helped along by various writers who had scant regard for accuracy. Taking advantage of the Baron’s reputation for stretching the truth, they stretched it even further, attributing to him all sorts of incredible feats far beyond what Münchhausen himself was concocting. The Baron’s international renown was achieved with the 1785 publication in London of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. This book, written by fellow Hanoverian Rudolf Erich Raspe (1737-1794), was an overnight sensation and sold out of bookstores in a week. As literary scholars discovered, the tales represented Raspe’s creative reworkings of comic tales in a number of genres, from sources as diverse as Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and Germany past and present.

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Tags: history

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