Illustration: Riber Hansson

Essays A Triangular Drama. at the Periphery of a World War

The struggle for control among the Great Powers in the Nordic region during the 19th century focused on the dissolutions of unions and on nation-building. Russia and Napoleon were strong players. Sweden and Finland had a close relationship.

Published on on February 9, 2010

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The Napoleonic wars brought enormous changes to northern Europe. Of these, the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the drastic elimination of German political entities have stood the test of time; so did the creation of the new entities at the northern periphery of the continent, that is, Norway and Finland. Other political units created by Napoleon and the Vienna Congress, such as Illyria, the United Netherlands and the Grand Duchy of Warzaw, proved more ephemeral.

”The Nordic rockade” divided the declining great powers, Sweden and Denmark. Sweden lost Finland, but was united with Norway in a loose-linked union. Denmark lost Norway, but kept its — originally Norwegian — Atlantic possessions. These changes created, or laid the basis for,”the new North”. Norden, as it was called, gained institutional shape in the so-called Nordic Council, instituted after Norway, Finland and Iceland had achieved independence in the 1900s. During the nineteenth century, the Nordic nations had tried to create a common identity and sense of community through a combination of Scandinavianism, old Norse literature and Viking romanticism. When all is said and done, however, what did most to unite the three countries was, perhaps, their strategic insignificance, their relative ethnic homogeneity and the fact that they were small states located at the periphery of a continent that to a large extent was dominated by multi-national empires.1

The new Norden was also new in that earlier, during the eighteenth century, Russia, Poland and Prussia had been included among the ”Nordic powers”, in accordance with an older, north-south division of the continent. As the east-west division gained in salience, Russia gradually became the core in a slavonic Eastern Europe, while Germany was seen as a part of Central Europe. The new Nordic countries were thus redefined as a sort of residual category, with Finland as a borderline case, linguistically as well as politically.2

For the Nordic countries, the most dramatic event had been Finland’s severance from Sweden during the Napoleonic Wars. Norway’s separation from Denmark, after three centuries of being part of the Danish commonwealth, was also dramatic; but the new union with Sweden had, after all, allowed the country to regain its long-lost position as an individual nation. As a relatively equal partner, the union also allowed Norway to exercise a large measure of self-government. For Finland, being torn loose from Sweden meant the end of six or seven centuries of Finnish integration under Swedish rule — the end of Finland’s and Sweden’s common history.

One can view the epoch of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in many different ways. It is inherent in the logic of historical narration that different perspectives create new narratives with new climaxes, main characters and environments.3

The Thirty Years’ War was a devastating European civil war. So were the Napoleonic Wars. These, however, also represented a globalization, a move in the direction of the World Wars of the twentieth century. Napoleon invaded Egypt and occupied Moscow. There were rebellions in the Caribbean. Haiti became independent in 1804; this was a first step on the path towards independence for the South American colonies, which followed a few decades later. England acquired the Cape Colony, Trinidad and Tobago, Ceylon and Singapore.

Even if one focuses exclusively on the regional, Swedish-Finnish context of the 1809 ”break-up” — rikssprängningen, a term minted by the Finnish-Swedish historian Eirik Hornborg4  — one can or must, still, make a choice among different historical perspectives:

The defeat of Sweden — which meant, for Finland, being torn loose from a community that had in the words of J. L. Runeberg in ”Björneborgarnas marsch” (The March of the Pori Regiment) been formed on ”Narva’s moorlands and Lützen’s hills” as well as through the Finnish trade in fire-wood and Baltic herring in Stockholm. The peace terms were the most severe ever imposed on Sweden. The treaty sealed Sweden’s fate, finalizing the decline that had begun at Poltava in 1709. Sweden lost about one-third of its area and population. Sweden could still call itself a rike, which can mean both Kingdom and Empire, and it also kept Stockholm, its old ”imperial” capital, but it lost both its dynasty and constitution. Bernadotte’s ”Little Sweden” — ”Lillsverige” — was just as much of a new creation as was the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland.

A Russian victory — which meant, for Finland, unification with a multi-national empire. For Russia, the conquest of Finland was overshadowed by the great struggle against Napoleon, described by Tolstoy in his epic War and Peace. Russia’s victory has been incorporated into the master narrative of Russia’s growth in power, an expansion that was to make it Europe’s dominant power in the years between Catherine II and Nicholas I, a period during which Russia — notwithstanding the opinions of the Marquis de Cuistine — had, perhaps, a more Western outlook and image than it had ever had before, or would have again. Few ethnic Russians advised Alexander I at the Vienna Congress; his advisors bore names such as Nesselrode, Czartoryski, Capo d’Istria, Stein and Laharpe. For Finland, the union with the Russian Empire — an empire that, in the words of Zachris Topelius, reached ”from the rocks of Åland to Sitkas” — opened up new opportunities. Russian Alaska has had two Finnish governors; ”the father of the Finnish elementary school”, Uno Cygnaeus, found employment there as Russian Alaska’s first Lutheran priest. Looking back on his Russian years, Marshal Mannerheim noted in his memoirs: ”New views and conditions had opened up for me, which gave me a broader outlook on things than I could have gotten in Finland in the decades around the turn of the century.” Those who stayed at home also had their outlooks broadened, at least those who lived in the larger cities. While Sweden, in the years between 1809 and the mass emigration in the late nineteenth century, was exceptionally introverted, Helsinki and Viborg could be experienced as surprisingly multi-national. Within a short time, the capitals of the thoroughly Lutheran Grand Duchy became home to two orthodox churches, a Catholic church, a synagogue and a Muslim house of worship.

The birth of the Finnish nation. In 1809, Finland changed from constituting one-third of a centralized, homogeneous state, to being a small (or at least thinly populated) autonomous Grand Duchy within a great multinational empire. In one sense, the timing was fortuitous. Russia under the early reign of Alexander I was experimental or ”liberal”, a period interposed between the two centralizing reigns of Catherine II and Nicholas I. Alexander I actually consulted with representatives of Russia’s minorities, that is, people such as Czartoryski, Capo d’Istria and Gustav Mauritz Armfelt.

One must also remind oneself that a part of the Grand Duchy had been on the side of the victor. The county of Vyborg, which the Russians after 1809 called Old Finland, had become Russian in 1721 and 1743, and had, in Petersburg’s shadow, oriented itself towards the empire’s capital. David Alopaeus, the Russian ambassador to Stockholm and later peace negotiator in Fredrikshamn, was the son of Viborg’s cathedral dean. While ”Swedish” or New Finland was allowed to keep its laws and its accustomed, Swedish social structure, Old Finland, which was with rather a hard hand added to the Grand Duchy in 1812, was forced to conform to ”Swedish” conditions in Finland.

This was the basis upon which the subsequent creation of Finnish institutions, state and nation was founded. As a result, Finland in 1917 had virtually all the features and institutions found in an independent state — separate from Russia and to a great extent built on traditions derived from centuries of union with Sweden. The creation of the new central bureaucracy laid the ground for the nation’s administrative organization. For several decades, the new central bureaucracy embodied Finland. It became the frame within which both nation and civil society developed. At the national jubilees celebrated in 1859, 1909, 1959 and 1984, Finland’s government authorities stressed that the country has unusually old and unbroken state traditions, dating back to 1809 — that is, they predate the nation’s independence.

The perspectives outlined above are not in themselves theoretical constructs, but rather reflect the praxis of former jubilees, providing us with different ”places of commemoration”. The Swedish defeat, which Finland’s national poet J. L. Runeberg redefined as a Finnish moral victory in his tremendously influential The Tales of Ensign Stål, can best be com–
memorated in the battlefields. Amost all the battlefields have been given monuments, those raised before 1917 as part of an everlasting tug-of-war with the Russian authorities. The Russian victory is best commemorated in Fredrikshamn, where peace was concluded in September 1809. Finland’s birth as a nation is best celebrated in Borgå, where the lantdag (an Estates Parliament, modeled on the Swedish four-estate Riksdag) swore allegiance to the Emperor and he, in his turn, proclaimed that he had ”raised Finland to count as one in the number of nations”; or in Turku, where Finland’s new state bureaucracy started its work in early October 1809.

The chief question really concerns the meaning of the course of events that we could call ”From Tilsit to Fredrikshamn”. In Finland, one can distinguish between three basic, sharply divergent but not necessarily incompatible views on Finland’s separation from Sweden and unification with the Russian Empire (1808–1809). One gains additional perspective if one adds the Swedish and the Russian views on the subject. The Finnish-national view (conception/paradigm) emphasizes national continuity. This viewpoint was minted by the historian Yrjö Koskinen a century and a half ago, but it is still legal tender, especially as time has relieved it of some of its metaphysical5 content.  This approach emphasizes the nation as based on language. The nation is virtually eternal and proceeds through an organic process of maturation, according to its own specific logic. A nation can, like Sleeping Beauty, fall into centuries of enchanted sleep; but this is nothing more than a state of rest. In this view, the foundation of the Grand Duchy in 1809 is an important landmark, and yet is also a logical, necessary stage in a process that is almost law-bound. As Fabian Collan put it in 1841:

But also [and] particularly with respect to the Finnish people’s national culture, the catastrophe of 1809 was of almost incalculable importance. With the knitting of the new bond, an older one had to be broken off; and the Finnish cultural spirit, which for centuries, without a direction of its own, had walked in leading strings belonging to an alien, who was superior to it, now found itself thrown back on its own resources: it was the child who must be weaned; for the time was now due. 6

This weaning could have happened earlier, or later, and in other guises, but the nation would have taken equivalent steps sooner or later, because this was its destiny. Viewed from this perspective, 1809 is important — yet it is just one episode in the nation’s long master narrative.”The national awakening” had to come sometime, because it has been programmed into the nation’s internal logic. If not Napoleon and Alexander in Tilsit in 1807, then somebody else at some other time — History, or the National Spirit, would have found an appropriate tool. From this perspective, Russia
functioned as the National Spirit’s or the Finnish people’s unwitting redeemer.

The second variety of a narrative of continuity, which might be termed the parenthesis conception, or the constitutional interpretation, focuses on continuity on an administrative-judicial level. The continuity referred to is the Swedish7 — or Western — judicial legacy, which, according to this view, was in hibernation during ”the Russian parenthesis” (an expression minted by Bernhard Estlander in the 1920s)8.   From this point of view, Finland did indeed belong to the Russian Empire for some time, but on terms that meant that the country ”really” was, in fact, the fourth Nordic nation. Despite the long period 1809–1863 (stadsnatt) when the Diet was not convened and there were constitutional conflicts, the young republic was, in 1917, able openly to resume its true historic path. In this perspective, 1809 denotes an episode — a regrettable, but luckily non-decisive and temporary discrepancy. In this perspective, too, Russia emerges as a threat: it represented a divergent tradition.

These two views can, roughly, be equated or tied to the political dividing line that was created by Finland’s language issue and its political relations to Russia. Old Finns tended to emphasize the Finnish language and nation when establishing national continuity, while New Finns, and others with loyalties to Sweden, saw continuity as depending on the country’s particular legal legacy and state. The two groups differed in their views of history. The Finnish-national concept found national continuity to extend far back into pre-history, at least as far as the Finnish people’s migration into Finland is concerned. The Swedish conquest in the early Middle Ages was, according to this perspective, a misfortune that ended the Finnish people’s independence. In 1809, the nation of Finland was in fact liberated from the Swedish — that is, alien — strangle-hold. For those who emphasized judicial continuity, on the other hand, Finland’s history began, and was set on its proper path, when the Finnish tribes (these became ”the Finnish people” only after the Swedish conquest) were incorporated into Sweden on terms of equality with those who lived in the commonwealth’s center. This incorporation into the West (the Western church, constitutional state government and free peasant population) provided Finland’s history with its content. In this perspective, 1809 was a threat; for although the constitution protected a large and central part of the country’s legal legacy, it was not shared by the overwhelmingly larger Russian Empire. Indirectly, its legal continuity gave Finland the role of ”guardian in the east”, an antemurale christianitatis, a role somewhat similar to that claimed by the two noble-estate-based nations Poland and Hungary in relation to Russians and Turks.
Even if the Finnish-national and the constitutional perspectives differed, or even opposed each other when it came to key points, they are identical in that both are essentialistist and teleological. Finland’s history and the Finnish people have an essence, something that makes up the core of the nation’s existence and history — for history, in its turn, has both direction and final goal. The essence can be either the nation, the people or the legal legacy; the purpose of Finland’s history is the full realization of this potential.

A perspective that emphasizes discontinuity, going so far as to explain the events of 1809 as the outcome of random chance, does not acknowledge this type of essence. It may be possible to include a sense of historical direction, as provided by Russia’s increasing power and penetration of the Baltic Region, highlighted, in its turn, by the foundation of Petersburg in 1703. But Finland’s transfer to the Russian Empire was, after all, the result of accidental power shifts in great-power relations, of political constellations affecting the relationship between Napoleon and Alexander — reminiscent of the constellations that produced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. In both cases, indeed, the signing of an initial treaty was followed by a Russian attack on Finland. In neither case did Russia see Finland as a primary or independent war objective.

The outcome was something  no one in Finland had asked for, and something that — at least as long as the Napoleonic Wars endured — might have been reversible. But once the outcome was certain, it was of decisive importance. According to this view, 1809 is not only an important turning point in Finland’s history, it is the defining event — Year Zero. The year 1809 marks Finland’s birth as a nation. This was the year that the Finnish state came into being; and the state, in its turn, defined the contours of the nation that grew up in its shelter. Accordingly, 1809 is, indirectly, the year of birth of both the Finnish state and the Finnish nation. This meant that as of 1809 — or, to be quite exact, as of 1812, when Russian or Old Finland was incorporated into the Grand Duchy — Finland acquired a history, stretching both backwards and forwards in time. The argument was put into concrete terms in Topelius’s answer to his own question, ”Do the Finnish people have a history?” As a young Hegelian, he answered ”no” (that is, no history until 1809, since Finland had not previously been a state); as a history professor, he set out to write it.

After a short period between 1809 and 1812, during which there was talk of ”both Finlands” — Old Finland (the county of Vyborg, which was united with the Grand Duchy in 1812) and New Finland — the geographical and political/institutional entity emerged within which Finland’s history unfolded. It did so somewhat incongruously, as the country combined the traits of a nation-state and those of an area within an empire. The history of that new entity was now written — that is, it and its borders were now projected back through time. In this perspective, 1809 is Finland’s Archimedian point. From here, one can move the world; from here, a history is constructed — as all history is constructed — both forwards and backwards in time. But the events of 1809 also had their own repercussions. Out of the vagaries of chance and construction there developed — under the protection of a manifold Empire — a reality so convincing that Finnish nationalists were, after half a century, no longer able to imagine anything other than that its center, the nation, had existed forever.

The emphasis on the political constellations includes an implicit acknowledgement that Finland’s borders could have been drawn in other ways. In that case, that which we know, today, as Finland, might never have emerged. The deep woods had, as yet, no economic value, and the Russians’ strategic interests directed their attention to the southern coast. The Russian war-plans were premised, during much of the nineteenth century, on the idea that the inland was dispensible and the west coast indefensible. A border drawn according to these logics — say, from Turku to Kajana — would have given us a completely different Finnish history.

In this perspective, which emphasizes the role of the hand of Fortuna, or God, Tilsit becomes decisive. There was no main goal, and therefore, no alternative, substitute routes to this goal. It had to happen there and then, otherwise there never would have been a Finland — at least, not as we know it today. The old Swedish Realm had been divided against the will of the inhabitants, and the Finns were given an embryonic state they had never requested. This reality is not affected by the fact that both sides, Swedes and Finns, soon convinced themselves that the processes that had put an end to the entity in which they had lived for six centuries were both unavoidable and beneficial – when the ”ultramarine” possessions fell away, what remained was the ”true” Sweden. As Ernest Renan pointed out, a nation is created, not least, by forgetting aspects of history together.

The years preceding Tilsit had given Napoleon a virtually unbroken series of triumphs. In 1805, he destroyed the third coalition against him, in his victories at Ulm and Austerlitz. Napoleon initiated a new political order in Germany by raising Bavaria and Württemberg to the status of kingdoms, and by assembling his vassals and dependents in the Confederation of the Rhine. Prussia opposed him, but Napoleon vanquished the famous Prussian army at Jena and Auerstädt in October of 1806. The Prussian king fled to Königsberg, where he was protected by the Russian army, at least for a while; but after the inconclusive battle at Eylau and the victory of Friedland on June 14 1807, Napoleon forced Alexander to enter into peace negotiations.

Napoleon came, then, to Tilsit — at Njemen on the border between Prussia and Russia — at the peak of his power, as the ruler of Europe. Only one power stood against him. The battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 had destroyed the better part of the French and Spanish fleets. This had ruled out an invasion of England, which in its turn meant that Napoleon’s grip on Europe was under threat. Napoleon’s counter-strategy was economic warfare — or ”liberation of the seas”, as he called it. The Continental Blockade, formally proclaimed in Berlin in November 1806, was to exclude English goods and English trade from European harbors, and thus force the country to its knees. In Tilsit, Napoleon made sure of support from Russia and Prussia; but Portugal, Denmark and Sweden remained to be persuaded. Portugal was attacked by the French army in Spain, and Denmark changed sides after the British attack on Copenhagen and the British confiscation of the Danish fleet. But what about Sweden?

Napoleon, thus, had two closely related goals to achieve in Tilsit: to regulate his relation to Russia and Prussia, and to complete the Continental Blockade by closing the last harbors that remained open to British trade. Alexander had very different goals. His priorities were Constantinople and the Duchies on the Danube (Moldavia and Wallachia). Napoleon spoke grandly of a common attack on India, of the division of Europe into westerly and easterly empires, and of Russia’s future in the East; but he proved unwilling to give anything away, or to accept Russian expansion without compensation. It proved very difficult to get him to agree to the continued existence of a maimed Prussia, as a buffer-state between himself and Russia; he did leave behind an occupation force. At the same time, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was created out of Prussia’s Polish possessions; this was to provide a French bridge-head against both Prussia and Russia. Alexander, as the vanquished party, had to content himself with the assignment of forcing Sweden to join the Continental Blockade.

Finland played no role in these deliberations, except indirectly. As a part of Sweden, its harbors, too, were of course to be closed to the British; and any future Russian military pressure on Sweden could only be exerted through Finland. These types of self-evident facts were not even written up in the minutes, either in the conference’s official documents or in secret agreements. There is no indication, in the conference material, that Finland was even discussed.

The concessions in Tilsit were extremely unpopular in Russian public opinion, not least because of the rapid reorientation from British to French alliances and disappointment that the Danubian Duchies, which were occupied by the Russians, were not to be definitively annexed by Russia. After the Empire’s expansion and strengthened international status under Catherine II, the Corsicans had humiliated the country on the battle field and nullified the goals that had directed its foreign policy for a lengthy period. Although one cannot speak of ”Russian public opinion” in the modern sense, still there were opinions held and aired in the army and the court; the discontented, assembled around the
Emperor’s mother, held that Russia should not have given up, it should not have demeaned itself by becoming Napoleon’s tool in the north. This was not just a question of Napoleon’s power, but of a tug-of-war: the French made it clear that if Russia did not take measures against Sweden, it would get nowhere on the question of the fate of the Danubian Duchies.

The resultant war was, likewise, very unpopular in Russia. The Winter War of 1939 was overshadowed by the Great Patriotic War; similarly, the Finnish war was overshadowed by the great patriotic war against Napoleon. It is striking that this war has not been given any standard name in Russian or in Russian history; one speaks, rather generally, of the ”War of 1808–1809”, ”Finland’s unification” with the Empire; in some contexts one finds the term ”the Finlandish war”. The French envoy in Petersburg, General Caulaincourt, reported that Petersburg opinion was ”strongly” against the war, and that all eyes were directed towards Wallachia.

The reactions to the conquest of Finland were also negative. The acquisition was felt to be a ”gift” from Napoleon (the Beast of the Book of Revelations), and many felt that an injustice had been done towards Russia’s former ally, Sweden. This feeling was apparently widespread, even among the common people. Erik Gustav Ehrström was in Moscow, on a language stipend, and was evacuated to Nizny Novorod during Napoleon’s attack. After the burning of Moscow and the meeting between Alexander I and Bernadotte, in his new capacity as Swedish Crown Prince, in Turku in 1812, he wrote in his diary:

I have scarcely spoken to anyone who has not admitted that the Swedes are a brave people and who has not spoken respectfully of the unfortunate Gustaf Adolf — ”Our Government did the Swedes a great injustice, by taking away Finland” I have many time heard whispered. — The Swedes’ most recent choice of Crown Prince made an unpleasant impression on the Russians, not only for political reasons, but also, and perhaps still more, for moral reasons. — ”Thus will also this proud and independent Nation bow down under Napoleon’s oke” was the general voice. — The more recent events justify Sweden.9

The Swedes had, to be sure, chosen a French revolutionary Marshal and one of Napoleon’s men for the Swedish throne, but it transpired, in the end, that he — and the Swedes — had in fact chosen wisely.

The Contintental Blockade was central to the Peace of Fredrikshamn. The first two treaty articles deal with the restoration of peace and concord. In the third, the King of Sweden promised — as a convincing response to the country’s desire to establish a relation of trust – to join the ”Continental System with the adjustments the particulars of which are to be determined” in coming negotiations between Sweden, France and Denmark. After ratification, the Swedish harbors were to be closed to both British war and merchant ships. Not until the fourth article do we read of stipulations of territorial concessions of Finnish counties as well as Västerbotten as far as Torne River. The peace treaty concerned itself strictly with the conditions of peace and certain liquidation issues, but in addition the treaty quietly notes that the Emperor has already regularized his relations to his new subjects.

Since His Majesty the Emperor of all the Russians has already given the most manifest proofs of the mercy and the justice, with which His Majesty has decided to govern the inhabitants of the country He has newly acquired, in assuring them, generously, voluntarily and of his own will, of the free practice of their religion, their property rights and privileges, His Swedish Majesty sees himself thereby relieved from his otherwise holy duty, to make reservations concerning these things to the benefit of His former Subjects. (Art. VI.) 10

The article was referring to the Diet (lantdag) at Borgå, and meant that the Emperor considers his relationship to his new subjects as regulated, bilaterally, at Borgå; this was no longer something that concerned Sweden. The Swedish King’s inability to affect the course of events was veiled by the statement that the generosity and honor of the Emperor had, he felt, freed him from his duties towards his earlier subjects.

On the other hand, precisely because Tilsit was a disappointment, and unpopular, it was important that Alexander be able to show that Russia had gained something by the treaty — the Continental Blockade benefitted only Napoleon. Caulaincourt emphasized to Napoleon that Alexander really needed to be able to point to concrete progress when faced with those who accused him of being cheated at Tilsit. Evidently, Caulaincourt wanted to throw Finland as a bone to satisfy the Russian ministers. The discontent among the aristocracy and the army should be stilled at Sweden’s expense, not Turkey’s.

This is what lies behind Rumjantsev’s proclamation, which, after a month of war, declared that Finland had been incorporated into the Russian Empire. This put the invasion beyond the point of no return. This time, Russia did not intend to draw itself back after it had occupied the country, or content itself with a little strip of Finland (as it had done in 1721 and 1743).

This scenario unavoidably makes Finland seem like a sort of consolation prize. This is underlined by Alexander’s complaint that they had tried to tempt him with ”a waste-land which no one wants”. The statement mirrors the Russian picture of Finland as an empty waste consisting of granite cliffs and impenetrable woods.

We have, thus, on the one hand, something that appears to be a pure matter of chance: for lack of anything better, and for the sake of the Continental Blockade, Alexander was forced into Finland. On the other hand — Alexander’s statement about Finland was part of his negotiation strategy; it was no sudden whim that made the Russians attack Finland’s southern coast.

The acquisition of Finland in Fredrikshamn looks quite different if one places it in an alternative narrative, a long line that could be called ”the issue of Petersburg’s security”. In this perspective, 1703 becomes more important than either 1807 or 1809. The founding of Petersburg in our part of the world is one of these hinges upon which history turns. Once it has turned, nothing is like it was before. Petersburg’s elevation to the capital city and its rapid growth created the need for an ever-larger security zone. Napoleon mentioned that Swedish canon fire should not be allowed to disturb the sleep of the ladies of Petersburg. What role this factor has played is unclear, but as Stalin noted in 1939, Russian strategists found it an unacceptable thought that an enemy power — or any power which was not, beyond possible doubt, willing and ready to guarantee peace and security — should have a national border that ran so close to Petersburg.

Just a few years after its founding, Petersburg, the new capital of the Russian Empire, was a geopolitical reality that could not be ignored, neither by those who sat in the Winter Palace nor by those who sat in Stockholm. As P.D.A. Atterbom put it in 1844, some hundred years after the founding of Petersburg:

For from this moment, when the latter Empire had its new capital city situated right next to Finland’s border, the desire to gain power over Finland at the first suitable opportunity, became, unwaveringly, one of the Russian Government’s main goals […] In a few words: as soon as Petersburg lay at the gulf that is called the ”Finnish”, it became, for Russia, just as pressing a necessity to only admit the Baltic Sea itself as its natural border on the Swedish side, as it had formerly been for Sweden, to never let Petersburg come into existence. 11

This view became, with time, as a consequence of the politics of 1812, a piece of wisdom that the Swedes took to heart — to the extent that many of them doubted whether Finland’s independence was at all possible, or, if it was achieved, whether it could be maintained. The former Foreign Minister Albert Ehrensvärd stated in 1915:

Tsar Peter’s choice of capital city has made it a matter of life and death for the Russian Empire to be master of the Gulf of Finland. Finland’s endurance as an independent state will be possible only in a world where the lamb and the wolves peacefully graze side-by-side. 12

Because vegetarianism had not yet become current among states, Russia, at least with its capital at Petersburg, and Sweden had contradictory interests when it came to Finland. From a strategic perspective Finland was much more than an uninteresting wasteland. Of this the Russians were fully aware in 1809. In an essay, as yet unpublished, Osmo Jussila has quoted a comment made by the General Lieutenant L.I. Golenitsev-Kutuzov, a relative of the famous Field Marshal M.I. Kutuzov, who led the Russian army in 1812 at Borodino and Smolensk. Golenitsev-Kutuzov noted in his diary:

Monday, September 6. A great piece of news. Peace has been concluded. An illustrious,  honorable and really useful peace.  If those who are dead knew, what has passed here, then Peter and Catherine would be joyous at what they then would see, that their dearest dream has become reality — Sweden has been reduced to a nullity. The conquest of Finland — is doubtless the most valuable acquisition since the taking of the Crimea, because Finland is a border country, not to mention that it has value, also, in itself. 13

We are far, here, from the ”worthless wastelands” and a shameful territorial expansion. Kutuzov evidently represented a minority opinion among his contemporaries, but it is, on the other hand, scarcely insignificant that this judgment was passed by a military man in a high position, used to thinking in terms of large-scale strategy. Both the Swedish ambassador Curt Stendingk and Caulaincourt — both of them generals — spoke in their reports from Petersburg of Finland as something that Russia had long dreamed of taking over.

The eighteenth century laid, precisely because of the founding of Petersburg, the basis for a sharpened struggle for control over, first and foremost, the Gulf of Finland. The Swedish wars of aggression in 1741 and 1788 and the building of Sveaborg fortress outside Helsinki demonstrate this. As the Russian historian Zlobin wrote, the Russian government paid particular atttention, throughout the eighteenth century, to the relationship between Sweden and Russia:

The reason for this was not Sweden’s power, or the extent of the trade relations between these two relatively poor states, but the circumstance that the Empire’s new capital city lay only a few versts’ distance from the border of that state, which more than any other had suffered from our mother country’s rapid growth and bloom and which, in consequence, could not harbor friendly feelings towards us.14

In Swedish historiography, the wars of the 1700s, especially the one initiated by the so-called Hats in 1741, are often presented as pathetic failures. But as Zlobin puts it:”Finland’s position was such that it seemed to be made for an enemy landing with the intention to operate against St. Petersburg.” Zlobin repeated Napoleon’s words about Sweden as Russia’s geographical enemy. In 1788, Gustav III had — drawing on Swedish resources alone — threatened Petersburg. The fortification of the Kymmene-river line after the war, for some time under the leadership of Generalissimus Suvorov himself, showed that Russia took the threat seriously.

Finland was perhaps a consolation prize, but by no means a worthless one. Russia did not acquire Finland ”in a fit of absentmindedness”, as — supposedly — Britain did its empire, but in order to remove a Swedish threat and to secure Petersburg. The Russian war plans during the nineteenth century were based on the idea that an attacker — who, when he landed, might be backed by Sweden — could be stopped at the earliest at Helsinki, and must be stopped at the latest at Vyborg.

With Finland’s southern coast secured, Russia became a satisfied power in the North, at least until the rise of Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. This, and Sweden’s ”neutralization” after the political events of 1812, created a favorable foreign relations climate for Finland. If Sweden had, after 1809, decided to follow a revanchist political line, as did, for instance, Hungary in the inter-war period, Finland’s nineteenth century would have been very different. The ”Pax Russica” of 1809–1914 was interrupted only by the British fleet’s attacks on the coast during the Crimean War, and was Finland’s longest period of peace.

The second precondition for the extension of Finnish autonomy was the fact that Russia was not a nation-state but an empire, with its own logic and its own, long-established ways of dealing with territorial growth and the co-optation of the elites in newly acquired areas. The Empire’s character as a conglomerate state made it possible to extend Finland’s autonomy on the basis which had been laid during the six preceding centuries shared with Sweden. After 1809, Finland built further on that foundation in its own direction, yet there is much truth in Harald Hjärne’s — perhaps overly drastic — statement, made in May 1918: ”It is the old Sweden that has arisen again, divided to be sure, but still, re-awakened to new life. […] Hereafter there exist, we can with all justification say, two Swedish states, on either side of the Bothnian Gulf; Finland and the modern Kingdom of Sweden.”15 This view holds that the old Swedish rike that had gone under in 1809 had two successor states. To this should be added that Finland — in addition, and with very significant consequences for the country’s twentieth-century history — inherited the security problems that Russia thought that it had solved in 1809. ≈

* The essay is based on a lecture for the Swedish National Committee for the Key Year 1809, under the chairmanship of Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

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