The Russian Mile Post, or Finland, the Åland Islands, and the Russian Empire in the Baltic

The Russian Imperial mile post at Vargata, Vårdö,
the Åland Islands. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Outside the general store in the village where my grandmother was born stands a wooden post painted red with seven white signs nailed to it. At the top of the pole is the sign with the name of the village, Vargata, spelled the old way with a W. Below it is a sign that gives the distance from Vargata to the city of Turku, Finland. To the left of the Turku sign are three signs pointing east to St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and the island of Kumlinge. To the right of the Turku sign, two signs point west, to the island of Eckerö and the village of Mångsteckta.

There are several peculiarities with this wooden post and its signs, the most obvious being that the distances given are in versts, the Russian Imperial unit of length, equaling 1.1 kilometers or 0.66 miles. The second peculiarity is that this Russian Imperial post stands in the middle of a village in the Åland Islands, a Swedish speaking autonomous region of Finland, located in the Baltic, equidistant to Stockholm in Sweden and Turku in Finland.

The post is a remnant of a once vast postal system that connected this village to the wide reaches of the Russian Empire, the very same empire that Vladimir Putin says he intends to resurrect, starting with Belarus and Ukraine.

Between 1809 and 1917, after having been conquered from Sweden as part of the larger military conflicts of the time collectively known as the Napoleonic Wars, Finland with the Åland Islands were part of the Russian Empire. As part of the Russian Empire, Finland with the Åland Islands became a grand duchy placed directly under the Czar but with its own Senate and citizenship.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution left a temporary power vacuum before the Bolsheviks took a proper hold of political power. As a result, the Russian Empire disintegrated. Several imperial regions took the opportunity to declare independence, among them Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland. Of these newly born nations, only Finland escaped becoming part of the Soviet Union.

But the Soviet Union never forgot about Finland. In November 1939, two months after Nazi-Germany invaded Poland and sparked World War II, the Soviet Union launched an attack war on Finland with the intention of bringing the country into the Soviet fold. Two wars were fought at great human and territorial cost for Finland, but in the end, Finland prevailed and remained independent.

Still, the Soviet Union continued to pressure Finland, and Finland was forced to contend with that pressure, which gave rise to the term “Finlandization.” Finlandization is when a country is forced to adapt its foreign policy and practice self-censorship to navigate the relationship with a more powerful geopolitical neighbor. A pejorative term for a policy created out of necessity to survive, Finland shed the yoke of Finlandization when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, in turn, fell apart. Since then, Finland has come into its own with a strong military and as a member of the EU and EMU.

Now, Vladimir Putin’s statements about wanting to rebuild the Russian Empire, of which the infiltration of Belarus and the invasion of Ukraine are two important parts, is forcing Finland to once again deal with its unpredictable neighbor. For example, already in 2017, the Finnish military adopted the policy of not hiring personnel with dual Finnish-Russian citizenship.

Ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

As for the Åland Islands, there is no immediate threat because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the islands’ government will be following the instructions of the Finnish government, if any were to be issued. Meanwhile, the islands still bear witness to the time when they were part of the Russian Empire. Ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund, blown to smithereens as a result of the battle fought there in 1854 as part of the Crimean War, still dot the landscape, surrounded by the cemeteries with the soldiers who died, divided by religious creed–Catholics, Protestants, Russian Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims.

And at Vargata, the Russian mile post stands as a testament to the time when the vast machinery of the Russian Empire reached all the way to even the smallest village in the Baltic.

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

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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