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.

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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