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?
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.
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.
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.
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.