The area between the Elbe and the Gulf of Finland emerged from prehistory and travellers' tales comparatively recently. It was never part of the ancient Roman Empire, and it joined the Holy Roman Empire only between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Hence information from ancient chronicles and from the day-to-day observations of letter-writers, diarists and satirists is lacking until late in the history of the area. Until recently, historical accounts have tended to be biased. The imperial powers - Church, Germans, Scandinavians, Russians - who fought to control the area overlooked the independent history of its inhabitants, and later nationalistic movements among the once-colonised peoples tended to exaggerate their own achievements. With the weakening and collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1980s, independent historical investigation has once more become possible, and we write at an early stage in that process.