delanceyplace.com 3/2/09 - poltava!

In today's excerpt - 300 years ago, Sweden was the terrible and terrifying power of Northern Europe—the best fighting machine in Europe—and Russia was an uncivilized backwater. Then on June 27, 1709, at the Battle of Poltava, Tsar Peter the Great bested Sweden's Charles XII, and Russia emerged as a major European power:

"Charles XII inherited the crown of Sweden in 1697 at the age of 15. He ... was determined to emulate the feats of his great predecessor Gustav II Vasa, ... (1611 to 1632) ... Protestant hero of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) [who] had established the greatness of Sweden. ... [Gustav] had forced European monarchs to accept this ruler of a remote northern land as an equal and had established the basis of an empire which by 1697 embraced Sweden, Finland, Lapland, Karelia, Ingria, Estonia, Livonia ... and the bishoprics of Breman and Verden, facing the North Sea. The Baltic had, in effect, become a Swedish lake and Charles's navy was able, very largely, to control the commercial relations of Poland, the north German states and Russia with the outside world.

"Peter I became sole ruler of Russia in 1696 at the age of 23. ... He understood well the importance of international trade. ... The problem was that Russia was virtually land-locked. ... Peter needed a Baltic outlet. ... He created and equipped a new-style army and built a Russian navy from scratch. He was determined to challenge Swedish supremacy. ... [The port areas in] the northwestern tip of today's Russia on which St Petersburg now stands - had been a bone of contention between the two countries for centuries, having passed back and forth between them. Since 1617 it had been under Swedish dominion and had become a region marked by bitter rivalry between Orthodox residents and Lutheran rulers.

"In 1699 Peter allied himself with Sweden's other enemies, Denmark and Saxony, and declared war. [In the conflict] Charles quickly disposed of Denmark and turned his attention towards Tsar Peter. ... Charles regarded himself as embarked on a Protestant crusade against a decadent, heretical oriental for whom he had no respect. ... The Swedish soldiers were devoted to their king and he turned them into a fighting force without equal ...

"[But the Russian winter became the would-be conqueror's nemesis as he advanced against Peter.] A Lutheran pastor with the Swedish army [wrote]: 'The spittle from mouths turned to ice before it reached the ground, sparrows fell frozen from the roofs to the ground. You could see some men without hands, others without hands and feet, others deprived of fingers, face, ears and noses, others crawling like quadrupeds.' ...

"By the end of the winter the Swedish army had been reduced almost by half ... [as Charles] brought his army up to the small fortified town of Poltava situated at the point where the Kharkov road crossed the river Vorskla. ...

"By midday it was all over. The shreds of Charles' army were hurrying southwards. The king himself only narrowly avoided capture; his litter was smashed by a cannon ball and several of his bearers were killed. ...

"All Europe was stunned by the news from Poltava. The statesmen knew that a major player had entered their game. It was still several years before Sweden was forced to admit defeat but its empire was crumbling. As the European map was redrawn, kings and princes scrambled to grab territory. One man commanded a foremost position in the negotiations Tsar Peter of Russia."


author:

Derek Wilson

title:

'Poltava: The Battle that Changed the World'

publisher:

History Today

date:

March 2009

pages:

23-29
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