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RT.com / RT projects / Russiapedia / Foreigners in Russia / Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchausen

Foreigners in Russia: Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchausen

May 11, 1720 – February 22, 1797

Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchausen was a cuirassier rittmeister under Duke Anton Ulrich in the Russian army.  Born near the German town of Hannover, after his service in the Russian Army, he achieved notoriety and renown as the infamous “Baron Von Münchausen”, teller of tall tales and impossible escapades.  Though his stories have lived after him, inspiring films by Russian director Mark Zakharov and British director Terry Gilliam, the publication of his exaggerated tales grieved Münchausen deeply, acquiring along with his fame a reputation for exaggeration and eccentricity.

Birth, early years, and Russian service.

The Baron was born near the German town of Hannover, and as a teenager was taken as a page into the entourage of the Duke of Brunswick Ferdinand Albert II.  In 1738, the 18 year old became, at his own request, a page of the second prince Anton Ulrich, the son of Duke Ferdinand and the groom of Empress Anna Ioannovna’s cousin, Anna Leopoldnovna.  Anton Ulrich had been travelling back and forth to Russia since 1733 in order to become better acquainted with Anna Leopoldovna, his fiancée in an arranged marriage that was supposed to strengthen the bonds between the Romanov and Habsburg houses.  In 1738-1739, Prince Anton Ulrich II made the move permanent, and Münchausen travelled with to Russia to serve in its army under Ulrich’s command. 

Ulrich was promoted to generalissimos in 1739, and under his orders, Münchausen fought with the Turks in the Russo-Turkish war in 1739 as the newly promoted lieutenant of the Brunswick Cuirassier regiment.  The Baron was also stationed with the regiment in Riga in 1740.  After Ulrich was imprisoned by Empress Elizabeth in 1741, he remained in the service of the Russian army until 1750.  Soon after receiving the rank of Rittmeister, he petitioned for leave, and went back to his homeland, where he extended his leave, not wanting to be separated from the Army.  After four years of ‘discharge’, Münchausen was excluded from the list of officers of regiment.   

Teller of tall tales, and the legend of Baron Von Münchausen

The Baron was a master story-teller, and expert improviser.  He regaled with great pleasure fairy-tales and impossible stories of his adventures in Russia to his neighbors and friends in a hunter’s pavilion constructed by Münchausen himself in Bodenwerder (his hometown near Hannover) known as “The Pavilion of Lies”.  The other favorite place for him to weave his fantastic tales was a bar in the hotel “The King of Prussia” located in the neighboring town of Göttingen.   His tales included the impossible feats of travelling by sleigh pulled by a wolf to Saint Petersburg, travelling to the moon in a storm, and finding an island of cheese in a sea of milk.  The Baron’s tales amongst his circle of friends gained much popularity, until the appearance of writer Rudolf Raspe, who also took an interest in the Baron’s tales.  Raspe was so taken with the Baron’s stories, that he wrote them down, and when fate brought him to London, anonymously published a book about the adventures of the Baron.  The book became such a sensation that a year later, a German translation of Raspe’s anonymous book was published in Germany under the title the “Marvelous Travels on Water and Land: The Campaigns and Comical Adventures of the Baron of Münchhausen as commonly told over a bottle of wine at a table of friends”.   The German version was even further expanded and exaggerated.  Münchausen felt his honor wounded and reputation at stake.  He attempted to take the translator, Godfried Burger, to trial.  However, the case was thrown out, as the judge stated that Burger had merely translated the work of an unknown author in England, and therefore was not at fault for any damage to Münchausen’s reputation.  The trial never advanced beyond this point. 

From that time on, the Baron knew no rest:  he had been ridiculed and accused of lying, and had to hire servants to chase away gawkers from his estate with sticks, curious fans hoping to get a glimpse of the ‘King of Lies’.    

It has been reported that the Baron suffered greatly from his new reputation of being insane, dying alone and childless in his home town of Bodenwerder.  His stories leave a legacy of the tale of a man trying to regain his dignity from the world around him, and at the same time they inspire future generations of imagination with their impossibility, wit, and magic.  

Written by Adam Muskin, RT

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