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.

Iron Maiden and the Crimean War

British heavy metal band Iron Maiden is arguably one of the biggest and most influential bands in the world of the past four decades. Founded in London in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, the band has not only changed the musical landscape and helped define an entire genre of music, they continue to appeal to several generations of fans all over the world. Moreover, Iron Maiden is a band proud to be British and they do not hesitate to incorporate British history into their songs.

One such song is “The Trooper” from the band’s third album, Piece of Mind (1983). “The Trooper” is written by Steve Harris. When writing the lyrics, Harris took inspiration from the poem Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). A Light Brigade in the British army consisted of cavalrymen on fast horses. They were lightly armored and their weapons consisted of lances and sabres. Due to a miscommunication during the Battle of Balaclava (1854) this cavalry unit was ordered to charge a heavily defended Russian position. The charge ended in disaster. Tennyson wrote his poem in honor of the fallen men.

Iron Maiden “The Trooper” Live Rock in Rio, 2001

The Battle of Balaclava was one of many battles during a war called the Crimean War. In itself, the battle achieved very little. The Russians attempted to take the city of Balaclava, which served as a supply port on the Crimean Peninsula for British, French and Ottoman Turkish forces. They did not succeed. However, the British supply route from Balaclava to the Russian-held city of Sevastopol, also on the Crimean Peninsula and which was under siege by British forces, was cut off.

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Map showing the location of the Black Sea and some of the large or prominent ports around it. Source: User:Norman Einstein
Note: the Crimean Peninsula is the large peninsula in the northern part of the Black Sea where Sevastopol is located.

In our twentieth-century centric view of history, we focus most of our attention on the larger military conflicts of that century, World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939-1945). However, these two conflicts were not the first to involve several different countries and to play out in different parts of the world. Arguably, the first world war could  have taken place already in the eighteenth century, when Britain and France with their allies fought each other in Europe, North America and the Caribbean. European historians call this war the Seven Years War (1756-1763) while in North America it is known as the French and Indian War (1754–1763). During the first decades of the nineteenth century were the Napoleonic Wars. The Napoleonic Wars is a collective name for a series of wars during the period 1792 to 1815. These conflicts, too, involved parts of the world where France, Britain and their allies had political and military interests. In the 1850s, the Crimean War broke out between Russia and Britain, France, the Ottoman Turks and Sardinia. The Crimean War has been given its name due to the fact that most of the military action took place on the Crimean Peninsula in present-day Ukraine. The war was caused by the power struggle between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Turks in the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Probably due to the fact that the cause of conflict was unresolved at the end of the war, today the Crimean War is one of the least known major military conflicts, but we still live with some of its consequences. Here are five of those.

The first consequence of the Crimean War is how we consume news from war zones. The Crimean War was the first military conflict to use the telegraph and photography to spread information. In other words, one could say that on the battle fields of the Crimean Peninsula the profession of the war correspondent was born.

The second consequence of the Crimean War is the use of railways in war logistics. Later on, railways played an integral part in both World War I and World War II. For example, in implementing the Final Solution, today more known as The Holocaust, the Nazis relied heavily on the use of railways to move Jews between ghettos and labor camps.

The third consequence of the Crimean War is military hospital hygiene. During the conflict approximately 250,000 soldiers died on both sides. Most of these casualties did not occur in battle but in the hospitals and camps where soldiers succumbed to various hygiene related deceases. Due to the hard work of nurse Florence Nightingale the number of deaths caused by poor hygiene decreased significantly during the course of the Crimean War and set the standards for military conflicts to come.

Florence Nightingale brings us to the fourth consequence of the Crimean War, which also constitutes the birth of yet another professional group: the war-time nurse. During World War I, working as a nurse in military hospitals became an important aspect of women’s war effort. In time, it proved to be one of the important stepping stones towards women’s liberation later in the twentieth century.

And finally, the fifth consequence of the Crimean War that we live with today: the demilitarization of the Åland Islands. The Åland Islands is a small group of islands located in the Baltic between Stockholm (Sweden) and Turku (Finland). The Åland Islands came under Russian rule in 1809 when Sweden lost the grand-duchy of Finland to Russia as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Contrary to what had been agreed, Russia built a garrison on the Åland Islands, known as the Bomarsund garrison. During the Crimean War, the Bomarsund garrison was destroyed by British and French forces. In the peace treaty signed in 1856 it was decided that the Åland Islands would become a demilitarized zone, which they are to this day. When driving east on the Åland Islands toward the island of Vårdö the road passes through the still remaining ruins of the garrison.

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Bomarsund, Åland Source: MrFinland

Lord Tennyson is considered to be one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian Era. When comparing the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade with the lyrics of “The Trooper” not much of Tennyson’s mode of expression remains. However, had Tennyson been a heavy metal bass guitarist in Great Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the outcome would have been similar to Harris’ mode of expression.

The first stanza of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade reads as follows:
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns! he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

The first verses of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” reads as follows:
You’ll take my life but I’ll take yours too
You’ll fire your musket but I’ll run you through
So when you’re waiting for the next attack
You’d better stand, there’s no turning back

The bugle sounds the charge begins
But on this battlefield no one wins
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As I plunge on into certain death

Credit should be given to Steve Harris for historical accuracy. While Tennyson in his poem only refers to the Russian cannons, Harris’ lyrics are more detailed, specifically naming the musket, which was the standard issue fire arm of the Russian forces during the conflict.

Sources:
Iron Maiden “The Trooper” Piece of Mind (1983) Lyrics and music: Steve Harris
Alfred, Lord Tennyson Charge of the Light Brigade (1855) http://poetry.eserver.org/light-brigade.html
http://www.britannica.com Charge of the Light Brigade
http://www.britannica.com Battle of Balaclava
http://www.britannica.com Crimean War
http://www.ne.se Bomarsunds fästning
http://www.ne.se Krimkriget

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

Note:
The live performance of “The Trooper” is linked to YouTube http://www.youtube.com
The map of the Black Sea and the photograph of Bomarsund have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.