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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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