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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History Judges But Who Is Presiding?

A commonly used phrase in political debate is “History will judge.” For example, in 2011, in a comment on ending the Iraq war, President Barack Obama stated that “History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also used the phrase, for example in July of 2013 when he, according to The Washington Times, stated that “history will be the judge of his record in office.” Several others, ranging from journalists and pundits to politicians and writers, use the phrase on a recurring basis.

As an historian, the phrase intrigues me. It seems as if history somehow is seen as a person with a law degree.

Gavel_&_Stryker
Gavel and stryker.
Source: KeithBurtis

What does the phrase “History will judge” actually mean? And why would an historian worth his or her salt never use it?

First we need to take a closer look at what history actually is.

I define history as an academic discipline that researches the human condition through the study of written documents. History is the study of events connected to one another within the framework of human society, interpreted from the viewpoint of the individuals participating in those events as they happen.

Consequently, based on this definition of history we can determine what history is not.

History is not the same thing as time.
In other words, history does not begin when time begins. Neither does history end if or when (depending on your belief system) time ends. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were voices who declared “the end of history,” as if historical research, indeed human society as we then knew it, had lost its reason for existing.

History is not the same thing as all human activity.
History is only interested in those human activities that contribute to the creation of human society, expressed in writing in a literate society. Study of the human condition and the creation of human society within a non-literary context belong to research disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology.

History is not the same thing as retrospect.
When looking at past events it is easy to take the outcome or result of those events and extrapolate them to a time before the events took place, as if the people involved would have known what we know. However, this is not possible when researching history. Neither is it possible to predict what events will become historical. At the same time as President Obama stated that history will judge the reasons for the Iraq war, he also said that ending the war after nine years is “a historic moment.” Unfortunately, this is something that not even the President of the United States of America can decide.

The phrase “History will judge” indicates that history is all-encompassing and omnipresent in human society. It also indicates that eventually it will be decided if actions taken and decisions made were right or wrong.

However, it is only possible to judge actions or decisions to be right or wrong if you base that judgment on a set of moral and ethical values. Such values, as we all know, change. For example, less than one hundred years ago it was normal that all women, as well as men below a certain level of income, were not allowed to vote in political elections. Less than fifty years ago it was normal for school children to be hit by their teachers. Today neither of these practices are acceptable. In certain parts of the world, I might add.

Ali G interviews Sir Rhodes Boyson on British Education (YouTube)

The phrase “History will judge” also indicates that sometime in the future there will be someone who makes the judgment as to what actions and decisions were right or wrong. When people say that history will judge, who do they envision making that judgment?

Based on the above definition of what history is or is not, I would argue that if history judges, those presiding will be the historians doing research at that time. The reason for this argument is that what we know about our past is based on information found, interpreted and analyzed by historians.

The only problem with this statement is that if the true judges of history are the historians, the bench will be empty when the court is in session. Any historian who takes his or her work seriously would never pass judgment on past events, processes, or individuals. In other words, an historian would never state whether something is right or wrong, but rather present the context in which an event took place and draw conclusions from there. However, this is not to say that historians accept or condone atrocities, such as, for example, The Holocaust or the Genocide of Rwanda.

Therefore, in public debate, whenever a biased statement on past events is made, that person is either not an historian, or an historian with an ulterior motive.

Next time you hear someone use the phrase “History will judge” or declare a moment to be historic, ask yourself: Who is saying it and why?

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

Sources:
Politico Obama: “History will judge Iraq” war
The Washington Times George W. Bush: History will be the judge; as for opinion polls, “I could care less”
Wikipedia End of history

Note:
Image of gavel and stryker downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Previous posts on related topics:
The Historian as Time Traveler
Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity
Historical Science in Science Fiction
Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History
Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

 

 

 

World War Z and the Definition of War

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Zombies are all the rave and no one knows the zombie apocalypse better than Max Brooks, lecturer on zombie apocalypse survival skills and author of the best-selling books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. An Oral History of the Zombie War.

World War Z is a compelling read, inspired by the journalism of Studs Terkel. But there is something that bothers me with this book and that is how the story brings the zombie apocalypse to an end. The brave, new post-apocalyptic existence is difficult to believe in because the solution to end the war is not plausible.

As an historian I study what it is that makes us human. One of the things that separates human beings from other living creatures is that we wage war against one another. In other words, a big part of an historian’s job is to study warfare.

World War Z chronicles the world war against a zombie infestation through survivor testimonials. We follow the spread of the global epidemic from its outbreak until its fragile containment through stories told by all kinds of people, from the teenager who watched her parents’ reaction to the outbreak to the government representative who was given the task of finding a solution to an insoluble situation.

To understand the problem we must first look at what war actually is. On the surface level “war” is two entities fighting each other with lethal means by using specialized groups. In other words, war is soldiers, guns and ammo.

PEO_Fires_Inaugural_Light_Machine_Gun_Shot
Source: http://www.pica.army.mil/PicatinnyPublic/news/images/highlights/2011/Maddux_gunrange.jpg

But for there to be soldiers, guns and ammo, there needs to be a society whose sole purpose is to support the ongoing war. That is to say, a society’s entire economic and political structure needs to be geared towards war. Industrial production, food distribution, financial investments and recruitment of the work force need to be adjusted to provide a steady supply of soldiers, guns and ammo until the conflict ends. This is why we talk of a society being in a “state of war”.

The turning point of the zombie war in North America comes when the government decides to change its war tactic. Backed up against the wall of the Pacific Ocean, what remains of the United States of America decides to strike back by supplying unlimited guns and ammo to those of the remaining population who are willing to fight. Piece by piece the lower 48 are reconquered from the zombies and the United States then goes on to offer other countries help in their fight against the plague.

The problem with this end to the war is that the zombies have turned North America into a wasteland. In other words, there are few soldiers and there is no industry, no agriculture and no financial sector to secure the production of guns and ammo.

Brooks admits this to be the case but goes ahead with the solution anyway, drawing a parallel to World War II. According to one of the testimonials, during the zombie apocalypse, the United States were in the position of the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy) whose resources were limited in comparison to the Allies (mainly the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Soviet Union), here represented by the zombies. However, this parallel is not sustainable since the Axis Powers did have resources to maintain an offensive war strategy as long as the United States and the Soviet Union stayed out of the conflict. The Axis Powers ran into trouble after 1941 when new strength and new resources (combined with Italy defecting to the Allies) were added to the already ongoing conflict. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Allies took over or destroyed Japanese and German industrial facilities, some of which were located in areas taken by force and staffed with slave labor.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/PERSONALITIES
The leaders of the Allies — Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin Roosevelt (USA), Joseph Stalin (USSR) – at Yalta, Crimea, 1945.
Source: DefenseImagery.mil (US Department of Defense)

In World War Z, it would be as if the North American reconquest began at the point in time when the Red Army was knocking on the door to Berlin and the United States were about to launch their final offensive against Japan. By that time the days of the Axis Powers were numbered and everybody with their heads screwed on right knew it.

It is obvious that Brooks has a passion for history and I’m glad that he has chosen this way of expressing it because World War Z is a good book. But still, as a writer of fiction you can’t skip over certain facts. In this case that the state of war engages a society’s entire structure and that soldiers, guns and ammo are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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

Note:
Images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

450px-Constitution_of_Belarus
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.

IMG_7807
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.