- Category: General
Prospect Avenue Books presently offers two books. The books are available in both paperback and Kindle format.
- Yesterdays Sandhills by Rita Baltutt Kyle – The story of the family of Rita Baltutt at the end of World War II in the eastern part of Germany. In 1945, Rita and her three sisters were effectively orphaned when their parents were taken for forced labor into the Soviet Union. This is the story of their struggle for survival.
- The Bones of My People by Gertrud Baltutt – The story of the capture, imprisonment and survival of Gertrud Baltutt, a German civilian transported into forced labor into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
For more information about these two books, please see the Books menu item. Some background information about the geography and the history surrounding the events in the books can be found in the World War II menu item.
- Category: General
At sundown on the 21st of January a refugee train left Osterode on it's way north towards Elbing, from where it would have turned westwards towards Berlin. This one left a few hours before the train which would carry the Baltutt family. On this train was the family of young 19-year-old Anna Badziong. She recalled:
It was in the evening of Sunday, January 21, 1945, at Osterode’s main train station, that my family and I got on board a train. I was then 19 years old. Because of the constantly nearing front this train was fully loaded with refugees, and it wasn’t until Monday, the 22nd of January 1945 that it arrived in Mohrungen. There it stood waiting for many hours. During this time I got off and looked up and down the tracks for another train. On one of the spurs I found an open boxcar in which there were laying a number of frozen old people. The sun was Going down before the refugee train finally got under way. Because of enemy action it had to stop multiple times on the way to Grünhagen.
The village of Grünhagen in the Prussian Holland district of East Prussia lay westwards of the railway line headed northwards towards Prussian Holland, 7 kilometers distant. Its train station was actually located southwest of the town proper. Surrounding the town were hundreds of family farms which used Grünhagen as a supply center and local market.
Around 11 pm on January 22st a German Army hospital train filled with wounded soldiers had pulled up to the platform of the Grünhagen train station and halted in order for the train drivers to inquire of the station master what conditions existed on the railroad ahead. Because the Soviet Air Force was in the air looking for targets of opportunity, even at night, all trains were moving or standing with minimal illumination, and this one was no exception. No one thought to set out watchers along the track in either direction to warn oncoming traffic of the hospital train standing at Grünhagen.
And it happened that the refugee train that had left Osterode at sundown on the 21st, and that had stood at Mohrungen for most of the day, was also approaching Grünhagen around 11 pm in the deep darkness. All trains in the region were operating without signals, and were supposed to be traveling under "visual rules", meaning very cautiously and slowly. But the operator of this train was not following the rules: he was moving at a speed not appropriate for the conditions. The train's driver must have seen the end cars of the hospital train suddenly loom out of the darkness, but there would have been no time to come to a stop. It plowed right into the standing hospital train.
Anna Badziong reports:
At Grünhagen our train collided with a military hospital train that was standing at the station. There were many dead and wounded. The last cars of the hospital train and the first cars of our train were rammed together. After the collision my family and I went to the train station itself to await a rescue train. Men of the Volkssturm (People’s Forces) tried to use the telephone system to request another train to take the refugees further, but the phone lines were down.
The trailing cars of the hospital train and the locomotive and leading cars of the refugee train took the bulk of the damage. The refugee train's locomotive was of course destroyed, but so were several of the following cars, with many killed and wounded. There were also many killed and wounded in the trailing cars of the hospital train.
The survivors from the damaged hospital cars were transferred to the undamaged ones. It was during this process that the second refugee train from Osterode arrived, barely stopping in time to prevent another collision. Otto Baltutt and the other able-bodied men were called out to help extricate and transfer the wounded. While the refugee train was no longer capable of moving forward, the same could not be said for the hospital train. The undamaged portion of the hospital train was able to leave the station around 2 am on January 23, 1945.
After the Baltutt family departed from the scene of the train wreck, heading towards Prussian Holland, most the survivors of the wrecked trains and the many of the passengers on the second, unwrecked train from Osterode, started gathering in and around the train station buildings. Others dispersed, including some who began walking back to Osterode or Mohrungen, and others who began trekking northwards towards Prussian Holland, like the Baltutts. But by most estimates there remained from about 4,000 to 7,000 refugees standing by at the train station's immediate vicinity, waiting for the hoped-for replacement train. It never arrived.
All these refugees waited in the early morning hours in the dark and cold (it was about –20° C to –25° C or -4°F to –13°F), wind-whipped snow). And then the Soviets arrived. Anna Badziong reports:
As the early morning light broke, in the fog I saw two tanks approaching, which then separated and came at the station from two sides. In the tank coming from the direction of Prussian Holland I saw 2 Russian soldiers in German uniforms. Everyone waiting at the station believed that these were German tanks, until it became clear that they were Russian, followed by Russian troops carrying rifles and machineguns.
Another eyewitness, Erwin Kreft from Saalfeld, reports as follows:
It was already light; suddenly there was a tank on the road next to a curve. It fired once; the shell must have exploded farther away in the forest. Then the tank started to move again and more tanks with linen cloths around their cannons appeared near the curve on the road. I counted 5 tanks; small tracked vehicles filled with soldiers were driving between the tanks. They were still quiet because the German soldiers among the refugees did not budge. Well, it was rumored that those could only be German tanks. The soldiers climbed out of the tracked vehicles and ran across the fields to the abandoned first refugee train, which was about 200 to 300 meters away from the crowd. And then everyone saw that those were Russians. Panic broke loose; everyone ran about; it was total confusion. Women were screaming for their children and children were screaming for their mothers. Many ran for the forest that was located a few hundred meters away. I ran, too, and stumbled trough the deep snow across fields and through corral fences trying to reach the forest. Many mittens were hanging on the barbed wire fences. Their owners had lost them while climbing through.
The attack was unnecessary: there was no-one shooting at them, and there were so many obvious civilians standing around in the open. Anna Badziong described the attack, and what happened to her family:
The Russian tanks and troops began firing at the people waiting at the station and those refugees still in the train. The people who had sought shelter in the wagons were much worse off than those who had hidden behind the rail embankment. I received wounds to my left arm and fingers, and a piece of shrapnel struck my left breast, where it still sits today. My mother was shot in the belly and died two days later. Two of my brothers and a sister were killed outright – only my youngest sister, 14, was unhurt in the attack. All this was especially tragic, considering that my father had died three months previously, and two older brothers had been killed in the war.
After the shooting stopped, there were at least 140 dead, with more to follow from their wounds. The wounded were treated in the station under primitive conditions by a 42-year old nurse named Kaminski. Another nurse, who wore religious vestments (a nun or deaconess), was struck by one of the tanks and died two days later. With no bandages available, linen sheets from the railway supplies were torn into strips to bind wounds – some of those who were lightly wounded sought other places to stay, such as with family members in the area, while the badly wounded stayed in the station buildings. The main station building consisted of an equipment room, ticket office, and waiting room. Next door stood two residences for station personnel. Every room was overcrowded.
The Russian troops passing through behaved themselves variously. Some treated the refugees neutrally or kindly, while others were rough and cruel. Many times the wounded were required to take their bandages off to prove they were actually wounded (by this time the Russians were already starting to take adults into custody for forced labor). Anna Badziong said that the Russian Cossacks were the worst; many were drunk and they would indiscriminantly beat refugees with their rifle butts, or even shoot them — their officers would then intervene and take them away. The Russians did set a watch over the station, and none of the refugees remaining were permitted to leave for a week, and so there were problems obtaining food. Occasionally, these guards did provide some food for the refugees.
In all this, there was a need to dig graves for those who had died, and a mass grave, shallow due to the frozen ground, was dug and the victims of the train wreck and the Russian attack were buried.
Once the Russians left off from guarding the station, the refugees were able to move about the area in the search for food, or move on to wherever they thought best.
Because of agreements among the Allied Powers that took effect once the Soviet Army took the area from the German Army, the ground is now under Polish administration, and no Germans remain. Grünhagen has a new name, Zielonka Pasłęcka, as do the other towns mentioned in this narrative. Osterode kept its name, now spelled and pronounced slightly differently: Ostróda. Prussian Holland (Preussisch Holland in the original German) is now Pasłęk. And Mohrungen is Morąg.
- Category: General
January 1945 East Prussia
It was one of the coldest winters in memory. On New Year's Day the Baltutt family of Osterode, East Prussia was listening to der Führer's New Year radio speech, a rambling address proclaiming that despite the setbacks there will be ultimate victory: "The present German Reich, like all great states of the past, may meet with setbacks on its path, but it will never stray from this path."
Like most war-weary German families, the Baltutts listened to the speech without much conviction. Father Otto was home from his munitions factory job for the holidays, but would be leaving for the week once again in a few days. They didn't realize that this was the last speech that they would hear from the Führer's own mouth; when the Führer spoke to the nation for the last time on January 30, they would be far behind Soviet Army lines and Adolf's irrational pronouncements would be the least of their concerns.
The Military Situation
Things on the Eastern Front in January 1945 were looking decidedly grim. On January 9th Heinz Guderian, one of the few German generals with the courage to openly disagree with and even argue with Hitler, arrived at Hitler's war headquarters in central Germany, called the Adlerhorst or Eagle's Eyrie, to make him aware of the danger.
Guderian's staff had developed an estimate of what the Army faced in the east, and the numbers were chilling. The Soviets outnumbered the Germans heavily in all respects: troops; tanks; artillery; aircraft; and supplies. Guderian attempted to convey the gravity of the situation, but Hitler and his sycophants, Göring and Keitel, refused to believe this "defeatist" talk. After a brief outburst between der Führer and Guderian, Hitler denied permission for some absolutely necessary front line adjustments, and so the disgusted general prepared to return to his headquarters.
Before Guderian departed, however, Hitler attempted to soothe his general's ruffled feathers by complimenting him on his work in developing a strong reserve on the Eastern Front. But Guderian is not charmed. He states flatly: "The Eastern Front is a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse." He returned to his headquarters in Zossen in a very black mood. His words would prove to be prophetic.
Guderian's staff had a good idea of when the Soviets would open their expected winter offensive, and it had become clear that it was only hours before the assault would begin. The reports were that the Soviets were shifting from a defensive to an offensive posture: they were clearing their defensive minefields at night, and tank formations had begun moving forward, closer to the bridgeheads leading into East Prussia. It was almost time.
And in the early morning hours of January 12th, far south of Osterode it began, and soon the entire Soviet encirclement of East Prussia began to actively press inward.
No Defeatism Allowed
The civilian leader of East Prussia was a cruel Nazi Party hack named Erich Koch, whose civil position carried the title Gauleiter. His competence consisted almost entirely of keeping Hitler happy; otherwise his leadership served primarily to increase civilian casualties and waste scarce resources. While serving as the Imperial Commissar for the Ukraine his regime had been so oppressive that he had been dubbed "the second Stalin", a nickname of which he was reportedly quite proud. This man had put out the order that no civilians were permitted to either flee or even prepare to flee without orders. To do otherwise was to show a lack of faith in the German military, and was defeatism — something punishable by death.
Marshal Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front had been heading northwest towards the Vistula River, but on the 20th he unexpectedly received orders to change the direction of his assault to directly northwards. Now his forces were pointing directly at the city of Elbing, and this put Osterode and the Baltutt family squarely in his path.
On this day, by a coincidence, Gauleiter Koch finally issued the order that civilians were now permitted to flee. It was however too late for an orderly evacuation, and the civil services became quickly overwhelmed by the huge number of those wishing to evacuate. Coupled with the panic caused by the speed of the Soviet advance, civilians caught in the middle of combat, and the bitter winter weather, many thousands of refugees died during the evacuation period.
The Refugee Train
Gertrud Baltutt and her four girls had walked to Osterode's main train station in order to see if they could board the train that was now there. Miraculously, this train had apparently come from East Prussia's capital of Königsberg, where Herr Baltutt worked during the week, and Otto found them waiting on the platform. This was an unexpected relief, since he should have been home three days earlier, and Gertrud was afraid she would never see him again. Rejoicing to be back together, they all returned to the house. The train was not expected to depart for some hours.
At the station Otto had been surprised that the family did not have any luggage or anything packed for the journey, but his wife informed him that they had been instructed to leave their traveling packs at the curb, where it was to be picked up by the Hitler Youth for delivery to the train station. He shook his head at this idea, since he knew that virtually nothing was going according to plan, so they headed back to the house. Of course the packs had remained where they had been laid. They retrieved the packs, got the sled and loaded everything they needed on it, and returned to the station. The train stayed in the station until after dark, and then finally departed — the next stop was Mohrungen, 20 km north.
Just about the time the Baltutt family was boarding the train, the Soviet Army completed its capture of the town of Tannenberg, just a little more than 20 kilometers to the south-south-east of Osterode. Tannenberg's capture was a small milestone for the Soviets, since it contained a victory memorial to the World War I battle, the Second Battle of Tannenberg, in which German forces decisively defeated a Russian army. Now, it was turn-about.
It took nearly 18 hours of stop and go travel for the Baltutt family's train to reach Mohrungen. While Mohrungen was only 20 km north of Osterode, as the crow flies, the distance as the train rolls was more like 30 km. Once in Mohrungen, the train sat on the rails near the town's main train station until near sunset before setting forth again, its next destination being Preussisch Holland, another 20 km to the northwest.
About the time the train departed Mohrungen, the first Soviet tanks arrived in Osterode, passing through without resistance. Rokossovsky's change of direction had caught German forces by surprise, and there were few combat units in a position to oppose him.
The Grünhagen Train Accident
Because of wartime conditions, at night the trains had to travel "on sight", meaning lighted signals were kept dark, and the trains themselves kept their all their lights off, including their headlights. This avoided possible attack by enemy aircraft flying at night. Of course it also slowed the journey enormously, and increased the likelihood of collision.
This danger was realized in the darkness of the early morning of January 22nd , as the train carrying the Baltutts came to a sudden halt. It was an emergency stop, and just managed to avoid ploughing into the back of another train which was stopped because it had earlier run into another train. The stop was sudden enough that everyone in the family thought that they had collided with another train.
What had happened was this: a military hospital train had been stopped at the Grünhagen train station when a refugee train driven by a less careful engineer failed to stop in time. The resulting accident had railcars piled up "as high as houses", as Gertrud said, with many killed and severely wounded. Not long after the Baltutt family's train had come to its screeching halt, a few German officers came to require able-bodied men to come to help with moving wounded and dying soldiers and civilians away from the wreckage. Otto Baltutt was one of those who went forward to help. The others waited for two or three hours in the cold and dark.
Onward on Foot
Finally, Otto returned and told the family that they had to get off the train because it was going no further. Until they could find some kind of motor transport, the rest of the way was going to be on foot. They piled out of the car, loaded the two youngest daughters, Irmgard and Waltraut, onto the sled with most of their supplies and extra clothing, and started out for Preussisch Holland. They had one additional member of the party who joined them from the train: a young woman named Grete, whose elderly father had died on the train, and whose mother had urged her to continue onward alone.
Otto led the family group so as to avoid the sight of the train accident, and they headed northwards, roughly paralleling the railroad tracks. It was still quite dark, and very, very cold as they trudged through the snow. They passed one farmstead after another with lights on, but they found that nobody was home in any of them. Finally they came to one which was still occupied. This one was lit and warm, and the family there was welcoming to refugees (of which there were a number taking temporary shelter from the weather). So the Baltutts stopped there for a few hours to rest and warm up.
After the sun was up, they left the farmhouse and headed onward to Preussisch Holland, which was a just kilometer or two further on. Before they arrived they noticed battle noises for the first time in the distance behind them, and then they came to a road which was being used by other refugees streaming westwards. The road was densely crowded with people walking, on horseback, and riding in horse- or ox-driven wagons — it wasn't safe to try to cross to the other side, since no-one would pause in their flight to make way. So the family simply joined with the stream of refugees that was headed into town.
By the time they had entered the outskirts of town, the distant battle noises were approaching closer, and because she was cold and wet Gertrud decided that it was time to seek shelter. This was just as the family had reached a neighborhood with some rather large and fancy houses. Otto wanted to continue on — there had been talk at the site of the train accident that another train might be waiting at Preussisch Holland's train station — but his wife refused to move one step further unless they took shelter in one of the houses they stood among. So the matter was settled.
The house they selected was fairly freshly abandoned — based on tire tracks, the occupants had fled just a few hours before. Otto broke out one of the small glass panes in the front door, reached in to unlock the door, and they were in. They found that the home had belonged to a very well-off family, the father being the chief chimneysweep for the town and the area around it. The furnishings and decorations were very upper middle-class, and the Baltutt family were feeling very out-of-place there, so much so that rather than exploring the two story home, they first stayed in the front room and kitchen, as if they were just visiting and expecting the owners to return any moment.
Except for a company of Russian tanks which drove around the town in a reconnaissance towards the city of Elbing on that first day, it wasn't until the next day that the first Soviet troops arrived in Preussisch Holland. A Soviet tank drove down the street and stopped in front of another nearby house owned by a mother and her two daughters. They had apparently waved at the tank's occupants as they drove by, whereupon they stopped for a visit. After they moved on it was discovered by other residents that the women had been molested and were then either murdered or they committed suicide. This was a foretaste of what was to come.
The Russians are Coming
The next day, mother Gertrud had gone outside to collect some snow to melt for water, when she was approached by a Russian soldier pointing his submachine gun at her and shouting in Russian, which she didn't understand. She stood there in fear, but all the soldier did was rip her earrings out of her ears, and move on. She quickly returned to the house.
The family had by now gotten semi-comfortable in the house, and all had been sleeping in the master bedroom on the ground floor. But as Soviet troops began to stream through town, looting and smashing, the family now stayed huddled in the bedroom.
The first troops to burst into the home held the family at gunpoint, and having seen what was to them the opulence of the house, demanded if they were capitalists and the owners of the home. Fortunately, Otto had learned Russian from prisoners he had worked with at the factory in Königsberg, and he spoke to them and told them that they didn't own the home, and were a common worker family who had merely taken refuge there. Since the photos of the owners were upon the walls, and the Baltutts were clearly not them, the Russian soldiers took them at their word, and spared them. They did, however, take whatever movable items of value there were in the house, and smashed much of what they couldn't carry away.
More troops followed these first ones, and each time Otto had to explain to them the story that it wasn't their house, and no they weren't capitalists. This ability to speak their language largely protected the family from the soldiers who were streaming through town on their way to the front, in these first couple of days. For Grete, however, and from this time forth, life became a living nightmare.
Whereas there were many Soviet soldiers who treated the German civilian population appropriately, incidents of rape were legion. British historian and author Antony Beevor describes it as the "greatest phenomenon of mass rape in history", and has concluded that at least 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia alone. In many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. In some cases, girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 were victims. This made Grete's attempt to disguise herself as an old woman quite hopeless, and until Otto and Gertrud were able to build a hiding place for her in the coal cellar, she was constantly in danger.
Gertrud herself might then have become subject to rape after this, as a substitute for the now-missing Grete, but for a happy event: the house was fortunately commandeered for a headquarters by a rather humane Russian officer named Shakirov.
I've spent a good deal of effort trying to find out more about Officer Shakirov, but with little success. Neither Gertrud nor Rita described anything about him that I could follow up on, except for the fact that he had been a tailor in civilian life. I don't know what his military rank was, what unit he belonged to or commanded. He was some kind of authority in an armored unit, and from the way he was described, he was probably a senior staff officer, and most probably either the commander of a regiment or the chief of staff of a larger unit, such as a division or corps. It is clear that his unit was part of the 5th Guards Tank Army. In any case, for a period of about two weeks the Baltutt family was under his protection.
When the house was taken over for a headquarters, Shakirov came to Otto and offered his wife the job of serving as the cook for his staff officers. In return they could stay in the house for the period it was being used as a headquarters, and would be under his protection. This protection wasn't perfect, however. For one thing, Grete seemed to be outside of it, and she had to stay hidden. But the one time a young Soviet soldier tried to take Gertrud away to take the place of Grete, she was able to intimidate him with the name of Shakirov.
The Soviet officers in Shakirov's unit frequently invited Otto and Gertrud to eat and drink with them, and some of them also enjoyed playing and singing with their little daughters. They seemed to be particularly entranced by the youngest one, little 4 year old Waltraut. Rita and Gertrud both remember one particular officer who had gathered all four little girls around him and in his arms, telling about how he much he loved children, and that he had lost his own little children to German soldiers who had drowned them in a bathtub.
Shakirov Moves On
Eventually Shakirov's unit had to move on. By this time the German forces in East Prussia had been cut off from the rest of Germany by overwhelming Soviet force, and now it was time for the 5th Guards Tank Army to redeploy in the direction of Berlin. Officer Shakirov came to Otto and explained that the family now had to leave. The house would be taken over by an infantry unit for its headquarters, but this new unit did not want to have any Germans living in the house. So the family gathered their scarce belongings together, and went out towards the main part of town looking for another place to stay. Much of the town had been destroyed by this point, but not all of it, and they were quickly able to find a residence above a furniture store.
They were only in this new residence for a week when they discovered that there was a demand for German civilians to register with the town Kommandanteur. A Russian officer had shown up a few days after they took up residence above a furniture store, and informed them of this demand, but neither Otto nor Gertrud had taken it seriously. But when out scavenging for food a few days later they found posters in both German and Russian giving that date, February 13, 1945, as the deadline for civilians to register. And the punishment for failure to register was to be summarily shot.
Otto wanted to go do this immediately, but Gertrud was not convinced. The fact that the penalty for not registering was death finally convinced her, and telling the girls what they were about to do, off they went. They expected to register and then come back right away. But they never returned.
What Otto and Gertrud hadn't known was that the Allied leaders had gotten together in the Russian seaside resort town of Yalta, in the Crimea, to discuss what would happen after the Nazis were defeated. One of the points they agreed to was that each Allied country would have the right to take German civilians to use as forced labor to help rebuild their countries after the war. It was this forced labor provision that put the Soviets on the hunt for as many Germans as possible that they could ship eastwards.
It was also at Yalta that it was decided that the eastern parts of Poland would be given to the Soviet Union, and in compensation, Poland would receive the southern half of the German state of East Prussia, as well as the German states of Silesia and East Pomerania. So the ground on which they stood on that day was, after over 700 hundred years of German rule, now Polish territory.
It is at this point that the family's story splits into three parts. The four children continued on living in the house over the furniture store, with the two older girls scavenging food from places in the town, and their parents being separately carried into the Soviet Union. One day about two weeks after their disappearance, a boy came as a messenger from a Herr Baltutt, asking for Frau Baltutt to come and bring some food. The two oldest girls excitedly spread a few slices of bread with lard, and hurried to where they had been told their father was.
Otto was at that time working with a number of other forced laborers clearing rubble and debris from a street in the town, while under armed guard. Edith and Rita were able to speak briefly with him, telling him that their mother had also not returned. This news was hard with him, but all he could do was tell his daughters that "one of these days we shall be together again". They were then directed by the guard to depart the area. On subsequent days they searched again for him, but fruitlessly. To this day no one knows what happened to him, except that he never returned.
Gertrud spent 3½ years in the Ural Mountain area of the Soviet Union doing things like logging, making bricks, constructing log barracks, harvesting crops, digging peat, and clearing roads. She was fortunate to return! Of the nearly half-million German civilians who were taken into the Soviet Union for forced labor, nearly half died there. And a large number of those died before they ever reached their destinations. Gertrud tells us that she was loaded into a car of a train at least a couple of miles long, and that every car was stuffed with a couple of hundred people — so many that in the beginning no-one could sit or lay down, but only stand. These were mostly women. It took about six weeks for the train to reach its destination in the Ural mountains, and besides being given little to drink and eat, they also suffered dysentery and cholera, so that by the time they reached their labor camp, there remained alive only three Russian and three German women in her car. All the rest had died, and their bodies tossed out beside the train at various stops along the way.
As a side note, the Russian women had been captured by the Germans and brought to Germany to work as forced laborers, and their "liberation" by their own people had resulted only a change of scenery. Stalin regarded those who worked for the Germans, even at gunpoint, to be traitors, and these were sent to the labor camps.
The story of the four sisters is contained in the book, Yesterday's Sandhills, by Rita Baltutt Kyle. Mother Gertrud did survive her experiences in the Soviet Union, and eventually returned to Germany, where she was able to be reunited with her daughters. Her story is told in The Bones of My People, which is based upon a recording that her daughter Rita made of her telling her story, and which was later translated into English by Mike and Waltraut Clark. This rough story was then edited by Mike Clark into its final form.
A Note About East Prussia
During the time of World War II, East Prussia was a state or province of Germany, just like California is a state of the United States.
Because the English place names "Prussia" and "Russia" are so similar, many Americans think they refer to the same place. This is not the case at all. The problem grows out of the difficulty of pronouncing foreign words and place names, and so alternatives come into use in many languages. For example, there is a large city in Germany called Köln. The "ö" sound in German is unfamiliar to English speakers, and so they use the French name, "Cologne" (pronounced "Kuh-loan" in English), in referring to this city. Another example is the Italian city the Italians call Venezia; in Germans it is "Venedig", and in English it is "Venice".
"Prussia" is the English version of the old Germanic kingdom named "Preussen". This is actually pronounced: "Proy-sen". So, it doesn't really sound anything like "Russia".