The Real Life Courier of the Czar

The Åland Islands is an autonomous region within the republic of Finland, located in the Baltic between Stockholm and Turku. The islands are a demilitarized zone with their own parliament, their own flag, their own stamps, their own national holiday and they are the only region in the European Union where you can still shop tax free. Unlike the rest of Finland, the Åland Islands have only one official language — Swedish. Why then are the islands littered with red-painted markers indicating distances in Russian miles?

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The official flag of the Åland Islands
Photo: EH Kern

To find the answer to this question we have to go as far back in time as the twelfth century, which is when the Swedish king Erik Jedvardsson, also known as St. Erik, went on a crusade to what is today Finland and incorporated the west coast into the developing Swedish kingdom. Over time Finland and the Åland Islands became an integral part of Sweden, given as a duchy to royal sons and serving as a bulwark to the developing kingdom of Russia in the east.

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The location of the Åland Islands is indicated with a red circle.
Source: Nationalencyklopedien

As I have written in a previous blog post, during the seventeenth century, the Swedish kingdom expanded, mainly through military conquests in the Baltic. Because of this expansion, the need for a reliable and speedy postal service became apparent. Consequently, Queen Christina (1633/1644–1654) ordered the creation of postal routes, one of which ran from Turku to Stockholm across the Åland Islands.

Delivering mail before modern transportation was not an easy task. To transport the mail from Turku to Stockholm, so-called postal farmers were appointed. These farmers were responsible for delivering the mail for a certain distance when it passed through their area.

A letter written in Turku addressed to Stockholm would first have to be transported over land to the town of Gustavs. From there it was taken by boat to the Åland island of Brändö. From Brändö the letter was transported by boat and by land across the islands of Kumlinge and Vårdö, through Bomarsund to Eckerö. At Eckerö in the west, the mail was loaded onto row boats that crossed the sea to the town of Grisslehamn on the Swedish east coast. Today, it takes two hours by ferry from Eckerö to Grisslehamn. The time it took to row across — no matter the weather or the season — in the seventeenth century, I can only imagine.

Finland, and the Åland Islands, were lost to Russia in 1809 as a result of Sweden’s participation in the Napoleonic Wars (1798–1815). One of the most famous battles during the Napoleonic Wars is the battle of Waterloo (1815). The postal route across the Åland Islands remained and was extended to St. Petersburg. To mark the route, red-painted markers were placed across the islands, giving the distances in the unit used in Imperial Russia: verst. One verst equals 1.066 kilometers.

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Postal route marker in Russian verst, Vargata village, Vårdö Island
Photo: EH Kern

The postal route across the Åland Islands was in use until 1910. In 1917, during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, Finland declared itself independent from the Russian Empire. Despite several invasion attempts by the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Finland has remained an independent nation.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Note:
Michael Strogoff or The Courier of the Czar is a novel by French author Jules Verne written in 1876. The novel is about Strogoff who is a courier for Czar Alexander II. However, Strogoff does not carry his message between Turku and Stockholm, but between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk.
If you would like to read classic Russian literature where distances are given in verst, I recommend Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedien Åland
Nationalencyklopedien verst
Wikipedia Postvägen Stockholm – Åbo

The Grave of the Unknown Sailor

Growing up I spent my summers on the island where my grandmother was born.The island is called Vårdö and is one of the 10,000 islands than constitute the Åland Islands, an archipelago located in the Baltic between Stockholm and Turku. One of my pastimes was to go to the cemetery. So much can be understood about a community’s history by reading headstones. In particular, one grave always made me stop and pause. It was the grave of an unknown sailor.

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Photo: EH Kern

The cross reads,

Here rests an unknown sailor found dead by Väderskär at Simskäla May 6, 1945. Known by God.

Historian Maths Bertell has informed me that on the island of Föglö, located further east in the Åland archipelago, there are similar graves of unknown Estonian sailors from the Second World War. Perhaps this man was Estonian.

As I have written in a previous blog post, since the end of the Crimean War the Åland Islands are a demilitarized zone.The islands are not allowed to be fortified and there is no draft for the Finnish army. Still, being located in the middle of the Baltic, the islands were affected by military conflicts in the region. Moreover, during the Second World War, the independence of Finland, and consequently the Åland Islands, was in danger when the Soviet Union invaded in what have become known as the Winter War (1939–1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944).

Living on an island such as Vårdö or Föglö means to have a close relationship to the sea. You are dependent on the sea for your survival while at the same time, the sea can end your life at any time. This is demonstrated at Vårdö by a memorial erected directly inside the cemetery gates.

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Photo: EH Kern

The memorial reads,

In memory of our perished sailors

followed by a Bible verse (Revelations 21:1). Wherever you go on Vårdö you see the Baltic Sea. It is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

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Photo: EH Kern

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.