Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy.

 

 

On December 10, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich will receive the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Here is an article I wrote about how awarding the Prize, the Swedish Academy continues its tradition to support the work of dissidents within the region that used to be the Soviet Union.

Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy

Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich

According to the last will and testament of Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded an author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” With her collected testimonies creating a history of emotions located at the intersection of fiction and reality, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich fulfills this criterion in a way few other authors do.

Named as one of the favorites to receive the 2014 Nobel Prize, this year’s decision places Alexievich in the company of other literature laureates whose work has forced them into exile. Moreover, the Academy’s decision highlights the importance of sanctuaries for writers as well as the commitment of the Swedish intelligentsia in supporting the critics and dissidents of Belarus, Europe’s only dictatorship.

Born in 1948, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. Already at a young age she noticed the discrepancy between the personal experiences related by the adults who surrounded her and the official version of events put forward by the Soviet government. From the very beginning of her career as a writer, the urge to expose this gap has been her driving force.

To be able to do so, Alexievich has invented a new literary genre where real-life testimonials are written as prose. Her books are based on interviews with people who participated in important historical events, such as World War II, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The interviews are detailed and in-depth; Alexievich estimates that it takes her between five and ten years to finish a book. Literary critic Kristoffer Leandoer writes in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet how his wife, Elsa, became part of Alexievich’s source material when the couple was living in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in the late 1990s. Alexievich spent an entire weekend interviewing Elsa, going over details while drinking copious amounts of tea.

But telling the story of the everyday human experience as opposed to the narrative of a totalitarian system can be difficult and dangerous. Kajsa Öberg Lindsten, Alexievich’s Swedish translator, writes in the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten that the Soviet authorities banned Alexievich’s first book. Instead, Öberg Lindsten continues, War’s Unwomanly Face became the book that introduced Alexievich as a writer. Finished already in 1983, an edited version of War’s Unwomanly Face was published in 1985, riding on the wave of glasnost and perestroika.

Whereas War’s Unwomanly Face revealed the story of women soldiers at the Soviet frontlines during World War II, Alexievich’s second book, Zinky Boys, took on the subject of the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. The official death toll is 50,000 soldiers, but, as Alexievich says herself, everyone knows that number to be a fabrication.

Zinky Boys exposes the human suffering during a war that the Soviet government pretended did not exist as it was going on. When the book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1989, it caused an uproar. In 1992, Alexievich was put on trial in Minsk, accused of slander against the heroes featured in her book.

By the time of Alexievich’s trial, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist after Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine declared independence. In the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse, Belarus was transitioning towards a democratic society. But the mentality of the Soviet Union still lingered, and it was only because of international pressure that the charges against Alexievich were dropped.

But Belarus never became a democracy. In the 1994 presidential elections, former kolkhoz chairman Alexander Lukashenko took power and has ruled the country ever since. In a column in Göteborgs-Posten, Alexievich describes Lukashenko as a man attuned to the changing currents of politics. Once he stood side by side with Russian president Boris Yeltsin, speaking about democracy and western values. But as faith in democracy faded in the former Soviet states, Lukashenko changed his tune. Now, his greatest heroes are Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin.

Under Lukashenko Belarus has become a society with no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly. Belarus imprisons and executes critics of the government. Authors, journalists, and human rights activists are persecuted. The secret police is still called the KGB.

After publishing her third book, Voices from Chernobyl, which contains interviews with survivors and evacuees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, the pressure exerted by the Lukashenko regime became too much to bear. As the 1990s came to a close, Alexievich went into exile.

At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl was a power plant located in the Soviet Union. But Chernobyl is in fact located in Ukraine, in close proximity to the northern border of Belarus. The dramatic event of when the nuclear reactor exploded is arguably the largest peacetime disaster in modern Belarusian history. In spite of this, the Lukashenko regime is investing heavily in the region that took most of the radioactive fallout.

According to Johanna Lindbladh, senior lecturer in Russian literature at Lund University, the regime responded harshly to Voices from Chernobyl because by portraying the human suffering caused by the disaster, Alexievich exposes the weaknesses of the state. To a totalitarian regime that is not only a humiliating insult, it is also a challenge to the status quo.

Support for Lindbladh’s conclusion can be found in an article in Politico, written by Joerg Forbrig, director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Forbrig claims that Alexievich has been able to tap into the post-Soviet era mindset of the Homo Sovieticus. It is this mindset that has given rise to the development seen in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

The former Soviet Union looks the way it does, Forbrig explains, because of a “social consciousness that remained widely unreformed and that dragged down attempts at building open societies and polities.” This social consciousness fosters an attitude of cynicism, hatred, and suspicion. Its moral compass has stopped functioning and in its stead a longing for power, respect, and stability has developed alongside a genuine fear of change.

Alexievich would go on to spend the next twelve years in exile. Two of those years were spent in Gothenburg, Sweden, which has been a city of refuge for persecuted writers since 1996. Alexievich herself has declared that without cities such as Gothenburg, she would not have been able to continue her work as a writer. Moreover, Alexievich’s stay in Gothenburg served to strengthen the already established ties between the Swedish and the Belarusian intelligentsia. Because of these ties, Alexievich has become a regular contributor to Göteborgs-Posten, whose main office is located in Gothenburg.

In 2012, Alexievich decided to voluntarily return to Belarus. She says she moved back because she needs to hear the voices of the Belarusian people and spend time among them so that she can finish what she considers her life’s work–a book about love in the former Soviet Union.

Alexievich’s reason for returning home underlines a recurring misconception about her work, namely that she is a critic of Russia and Vladimir Putin. It is true that the sharp point of her pen often points in the direction of Belarus’s neighbor and its leader, but Alexievich is a Belarusian author. It was the Belarusian regime that forced her into exile, not the government of Russia. It is the Lukashenko regime that has banned her books from being distributed and prohibited her name from being mentioned in public. It is the Lukashenko regime that considers her a non-existing person.

It is within this post-Soviet Belarusian context that the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Alexievich the Nobel Prize should be viewed. Since the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901, the Swedish Academy has given four dissident writers from the now-defunct Soviet Union the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first one was Ivan Bunin in 1933, who at the time lived in exile in Paris. In 1958, the award went to Boris Pasternak. Still living in the Soviet Union, the authorities pressured him into declining the award. In spite of this, the official records of the Nobel Prize still names Pasternak as the recipient of the 1958 award. In 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize, but did not accept it in person until he had gone into exile in 1974. The last of the Soviet Union dissident writers to receive the Nobel Prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987. Forced into exile in 1972, Brodsky lived most of his life in the United States where he passed away in 1996.

By naming Alexievich the 2015 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy has used the international prestige of the award to back Lukashenko into a corner, forcing the regime to acknowledge her existence. Following the announcement, Belarusian state media mentioned Alexievich’s name for the first time. On October 9, Alexander Lukashenko issued an official statement, congratulating Alexievich on the award, saying that her “creative art has touched Belarusians and readers in other countries alike.” He claimed to be happy for her success and expressed hope that the award would benefit the Belarusian nation and its people.

Furthermore, the Swedish Academy’s announcement could not have been more opportune. On October 11, presidential elections were held in Belarus. Leading up to the elections, Lukashenko presented them as fair and open. A number of political prisoners were released to show his good intentions. In order to maintain this facade, Lukashenko had no other choice than to congratulate Alexievich on the award.

Moreover, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize comes at a delicate time in the diplomatic relations between Sweden and Belarus. In 2012, the Swedish ambassador to Belarus, Stefan Eriksson, was asked to leave the country and the Swedish embassy was closed. The Swedish government answered in kind and the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm closed its doors. The Swedish foreign minister at the time, Carl Bildt, was quoted by Reuters, saying that the actions taken by the Lukashenko regime “is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus.” The Swedish embassy in Minsk reopened in 2013, but it is not until this year that negotiations concerning the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm are underway.

Even though the Swedish Academy has been criticized for pandering to totalitarian regimes–the latest example being Chinese author Mo Yan as recipient of the 2012 award–this year’s decision is a clear statement in favor of democracy and freedom of speech.

Meanwhile in Minsk, Svetlana Alexievich held a press conference after the award had been announced. She told reporters that the eight million Swedish kronor that come with the award would buy her the freedom to complete two more books that she is planning. When asked about the presidential election, she answered that she would not participate in an election where the result is predetermined.

As voting began on October 11, reports of voter fraud immediately began pouring in. By the end of the day, Lukashenko had won a fifth term as president with more than 80% of the votes.

Freedom from dictatorship might seem far off in the future for the people of Belarus. But with every author given the freedom to write–be it at home using the money from a prestigious award or in exile in a city of refuge–the day when the dictatorship will come to an end is still within our grasp.

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

 

 

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The Reign of Karl XIII. Or Napoleon, the Swedish Revolution, and the Prince Who Fell Off His Horse

By far the most popular name for a Swedish king is Karl. There is Karl XII who lost Sweden’s Baltic empire and who according to legend is responsible for making stuffed cabbage a mainstay on Swedish dinner tables. There is Karl XIV Johan, the patriarch of the current royal dynasty, the Bernadottes. There is Karl XV who supposedly sired illegitimate children all over the realm. And last, but not least, there is the current king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf.

But what about Karl XIII? Who was he?

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Karl XIII of Sweden, painting by C.F. von Breda.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Karl XIII (1748–1818) was king for a brief time. He ruled Sweden from 1809 to 1818 and Norway from 1814 to 1818. As king, Karl XIII has left few traces behind. I have only come across one public building mentioning his name. The building is a church tower belonging to a church located not far from where I grew up in Sweden.

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The church tower at Västra Tunhem, Sweden. The plaque above the door reads: “In the year of 1810 during the reign of King Karl XIII this tower was built from the ground up.”
Photo: EH Kern

To understand why Karl XIII’s reign in hindsight may seem to have been of little consequence, we have to go back to the year 1792.

In 1792, King Gustav III is assassinated and his son, Gustav IV Adolf, becomes king. However, Gustav IV Adolf was a minor. Karl XIII—at this point in time known as Duke Karl—expected to be appointed guardian since he was the brother of Gustav III. But the relationship between the two brothers was strained. On his deathbed, Gustav III made an addendum to his last will and testament, prohibiting the appointment of Karl as Gustav IV Adolf’s guardian. After Gustav III had passed away, Karl managed to have this addendum annulled and consequently became the legal guardian of his nephew and the de facto ruler of Sweden.

Karl’s guardianship lasted for four years. During those years, Karl was a weak ruler and instead his personal favorite and adviser, G.A. Reuterholm took the reins.  In 1796 Gustav IV Adolf came of age. Karl lost all of his influence and he retired from politics.

Gustav IV Adolf became king during the height of the French Revolution. His response was to explicitly distance himself from what happened in France. By 1796, France’s army, under the leadership of Napoléon Bonaparte, had begun its advancement across Europe in a military conflict that would spill over into the European colonies in North America and Africa and continue unabated until the defeat of France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Because of his opposition to Revolutionary France, Gustav IV Adolf allied himself with France’s enemies. The result of this was war with Russia, at this time an ally of France. For Sweden this war ended in disaster. In 1808, Russia invaded Finland and advanced as far as northern Sweden. In the ensuing peace negotiations of 1809, Finland and the Åland Islands were handed over to Russia. Finland had been a part of the Swedish kingdom since the middle of the twelfth century and constituted half of the kingdom’s surface. Needless to say, the outcome of the war was crushing and Gustav IV Adolf took the blame.

In May 1809, following a military coup, Gustav IV Adolf was forced to abdicate. This coup is the only one of its kind in Swedish history and is viewed as the closest that Sweden has come to a revolution. In the aftermath of the coup, an extra-ordinary parliament (riksdag) decided that neither Gustav IV Adolf nor any of his descendants were allowed to ascend the throne of Sweden.

But the kingdom still needed a king.

Enter Karl.

Karl XIII was elected king in 1809 on the condition that he accepted the new constitution that regulated royal power in relationship to the power of the riksdag.

However, at this time Karl XIII was an old man without heirs. This meant that an heir to the throne had to be located.

In an attempt to convince Norway to become joined in a union with Sweden, Prince Kristian August was appointed heir to the throne. Everything seemed to have been solved for the best, when in 1810 Kristian August during a military drill fell off his horse and died from his injuries.

The search was on again. A new candidate was located, ironically in Napoléon Bonaparte’s France. The man was one of Napoléon’s Field Marshals who had fallen out of grace with the French Emperor. His name was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, son of a middle-class lawyer from the town of Pau in southwestern France. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was legally adopted by Karl XIII as his heir and in 1818 he ascended the throne in Sweden as Karl XIV Johan and in Norway as Karl III Johan.

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Jean Baptiste Bernadotte/Karl XIV Johan. The portrait was painted by Fredrik Westin in 1810, when Bernadotte was known as Prince Karl Johan.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

As king, Karl XIII showed the same traits of political weakness as he had as Gustav IV Adolf’s legal guardian. In fact, he was opposed both to the constitution of 1809 and to Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, but lacking political strength he had no other choice but to concede. Moreover, in 1809 he suffered from a stroke and during the final years of his reign he was incapacitated by health issues and incapable to rule.

During his lifetime, Karl XIII was a dedicated free mason. His legacy as such lives on in the Carl XIII’s Order (Carl XIII:s Orden), awarded Swedish and foreign masons of Protestant faith.

Karl XIII passed away in 1818 and lies buried in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm.

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

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIII
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Gustaviansk tid (1772–1809)
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Nytt statsskick
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Tronföljarval och utrikespolitiskt systemskifte
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIV Johan
Wikipedia Carl XIII:s Orden

Note:
In English, Swedish kings by the name of Karl are called Charles. Here, I have chosen to use the Swedish names.

 

 

 

Happy First Anniversary, The Boomerang!

On June 5, 2013, I published the first post on my new and first-ever blog, The Boomerang. The post was a short but sweet thought-piece about Rihanna’s album Rated R, the songs of which have spawned several science fiction stories revolving around a recurring group of characters. Hopefully, you will soon be able to read these stories in some kind of publication near you.

The Boomerang got its name from a catch phrase used by a Swedish comedy team in the 1990s. Each episode ended with the host sitting in an armchair, holding a boomerang. He said, “In the words of my friend, the Australian, I will be back.” I have taken that catch phrase, changed it slightly to not sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, and made it my sign off phrase after each blog post I publish.

I chose the name and the catch phrase because I love these comedians and because my blog was intended to be a place to where I could return to express my thoughts.

So, how has The Boomerang been doing during its first year?
Here are some stats that might be of interest.

Number of views June 2013: 131.
Number of views May 2014: 708.

The Boomerang experienced a spike in views when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, separating the region from Ukraine, and information on the history of the region was scarce. I was happy to see that The Boomerang could fill a part of that void.

Over the course of this first year, these are the three most popular posts on The Boomerang.
Most popular post: HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race.
Second most popular post: Iron Maiden and the Crimean War.
Third most popular post: Five Reasons You Should Go to Mississippi.

I started The Boomerang as a place where I could find my voice as an historian and as a writer. I am grateful to all of you who have decided to give me and my posts a piece of your time and your thoughts.

I am looking forward to a second year with The Boomerang.
I hope you will join me.

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The 20th Anniversary of the Democratic Constitution of Belarus

During the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, one European former Soviet republic has kept a low profile. I am talking about Belarus. Belarus borders on Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and is a dictatorship run by Aljaksandr Lukashenka. But twenty years ago, Belarus was headed in the direction of democracy and on March 15, 1994 adopted a constitution to fulfill that goal. What happened?

Belarus is approximately one third of the size of Ukraine and has a population of 9,441,000 (2013), 1.9 million of which live in the capital Minsk. Belarusians constitute the largest ethnic group, followed by Russians. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belarus. The Belarusian language is the official language but Russian is used on all levels of society.

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The location of Belarus is marked in red.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Throughout history Belarus has been a region located in between the cultural and economic regions of the Baltic and the Slavs. From the middle of the ninth century, the area that was to become Belarus was part of the state of the Kievan Rus, originating in present-day Ukraine. Kievan Rus collapsed when the Mongols invaded and during the thirteenth century, Belarus constituted the western-most part of the Mongolian realm. Meanwhile, Lithuania on the Baltic increased in political power and during the course of the fourteenth century, Belarus instead became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1386 entered into a political union with Poland. This political union lasted until the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) when the Polish-Lithuanian area was divided in accordance with Russian interests.

Due to Polish-Lithuanian governance, Belarus became integrated into the Polish-Catholic cultural sphere while distancing itself from the Slavic-Orthodox. This development is confirmed by the fact that during the Middle Ages, Belarusian towns and cities adhered to the so-called Magdeburg Law. The City of Magdeburg, today located in east Germany, was an important trading place at the intersection of the Germanic and Slavic regions. Towns and cities of lesser importance and stature adopted the city laws of major cities to be able to participate in European trade and exchange. Magdeburg was a city whose law was adopted by several other cities. Lübeck, on the German Baltic coast, was another such city. The fact that Belarusian cities adopted the Magdeburg Law indicates their affiliation with the European continent rather than the landmasses ruled by Kiev and Moscow.

Following the partition of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and continued as such until the Empire’s collapse during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918–1920). During this period, Belarus, together with Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, declared independence. Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, once again after being divided, this time in accordance to the borders between Russia and Poland as constituted by Poland’s First Partition in 1772. The new borders of Belarus was determined by the Treaty of Riga, signed by Russia and Poland in 1921. Of these new-born independent states, Finland was the only one not to become part of the Soviet Union.

800px-Flag_of_Belarus.svg
Current flag of Belarus.
Source: Zscout370

800px-Flag_of_Belarus_(1991-1995).svg
Flag of Belarus, 1918–1921, 1991–1995.

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was because the Soviet Republic of Belarus, together with Ukraine and Russia, agreed to create a Commonwealth of Independent States instead of the Soviet Union. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were soon joined by other Soviet Republics and the CIS began functioning on December 21, 1991, with its administrative center located in Minsk.

Soon after independence work on drafting a constitution began. While working on the new constitution, the legislators looked towards the legal foundations of sovereign states such as the United States, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, while constructing a legal system based on the principle of the Russian Federation. The constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.

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Constitution of Belarus. Title written in Belarusian, followed by Russian.
Source: Zscout370

The constitution created the office of President as the new nation’s leader. In July 1994, Aljaksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post and has ruled the country ever since, amending the democratic constitution through two non-transparent and highly criticized referendums in 1996 and 2004, respectively.

Today, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. The country has no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization and its domestic economy is in shambles. Its prisons hold political prisoners and the government has executed several of its imprisoned dissidents.

To stay in power Aljaksandr Lukashenko needs both Ukraine and Russia. Lukashenko needs Ukraine because that country is one of Belarus’ main trading partners. Therefore, Lukashenko needs to stay on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Kiev.  Lukashenko needs Russia because Russia is one of his few supporters. But Russia’s support of the Lukashenko regime is based on strategic interests. If Russia loses interest in Belarus as an ally, Lukashenko’s days are numbered.

And that is why no voice on the Ukrainian crisis is heard from Minsk.

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

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Vitryssland
Nationalencyklopedin Litauen: den ryska tiden
Nationalencyklopedin Magdeburg
Britannica.com Belarus
Britannica.com Commonwealth of Independent States
Wikipedia Constitution of Belarus
Belarusbloggen Varför tiger Lukasjenka om Krim?

Note:
There is no standard set for transcribing Belarusian names in English.
Images of Belarusian flags and constitution downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

When the Russians Beat the Swedes in Ukraine

A news broadcast on Russian TV has claimed that Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was recruited by the CIA in the 1970s and that Sweden now, together with Poland and Lithuania, seek to take revenge on Russia for losing the Battle of Poltava in 1709. This statement is an example of what I have discussed on this blog before, namely that history is political. No other science or academic discipline is used for political purposes the way history is used.

So what is the Battle of Poltava?

Poltava is a city in central Ukraine with a population of 303,600 people. In 1709, Poltava was the scene of a military battle between the Russian forces of Czar Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) and the Swedish forces of King Karl XII (r. 1697–1718). The battle was part of the Great Nordic War (1700–1721) which was fought over supremacy in the Baltic and eastern Europe.

800px-Poltawa-Ukraine-Map
Map of Ukraine with the city of Poltava marked in red.
Source: Skluesner

During the 17th century, Sweden was the dominating force in the Baltic, controlling most of the coastline from the Gulf of Bothnia to Germany. Russia had no port to the west other than Archangelsk in the Arctic. The capital was in landlocked Moscow.

During the reign of Peter the Great, Russia gained ground in the region. One important aspect of the increased Russian influence is the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. St. Petersburg was founded at the location of a Swedish fortress, Nyen, which Peter the Great had conquered. The purpose of St. Petersburg was to become Russia’s new capital and to secure Russian access to the Baltic.

402px-Swedish_Empire_Map.svg
The Swedish Empire in the Baltic after 1658. The location where St. Petersburg was later founded in the Gulf of Finland is controlled by Sweden.
Source: Fenn-O-maniC

The Battle of Poltava is arguably Sweden’s most crushing military defeat. The Swedish army consisted of 29,000 men while the Russian army consisted of 45,000 men. For the Swedes, the Battle of Poltava ended in carnage with 8,000 men killed and 3,000 men taken as prisoners of war. The victory enabled the Russians to march to the Baltic and take control of what remained of the Swedish territories there. When Karl XII died in battle at Fredrikshald in Norway in 1718, all Swedish possessions in the Baltic were lost and Russia dominated the region. This domination would continue until the declaration of independence of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia in 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992.

400px-Karl_XII_Kungsträdgården_December_2012_01    Peter_der-Grosse_1838
Statue of Karl XII pointing east, by     Peter the Great. Portrait by Paul Delaroche.
artist Johan Peter Molin,                   Source: Anathema
Stockholm, Sweden.
Source: AvildV

The current crisis in Crimea demonstrates the importance of knowing history. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine on the one hand, and Russia and the Baltic with Sweden on the other, go back several centuries and is both complicated and complex. It is a near impossible task to explain the historical process within the confines of a news broadcast, a newspaper article or a blog post for that matter.

The first casualty in a conflict is the truth.
The prime instrument in a propaganda campaign is history.

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

Sources:
SVT Russian News Broadcast Accuses Carl Bildt
Nationalencyklopedien Poltava
Nationalencyklopedien Stora nordiska kriget

Note:
The maps of Ukraine and the Swedish Empire as well as the portraits of Karl XII and Peter the Great were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

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?

IMG_7755
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

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.