The History of Finland
From Swedish dominance to Russian Grand Duchy to Independence

The creation of the Swedish-Finnish Baltic Empire

The union between Sweden and Finland began as Medieval crusades. While other nations sent their warriors to the Holy Land, the Swedish kings sailed over the Baltic Sea to fight the heathen finns. The Finns were Christened at swordspoint. Russian missionaries were also working in Finland, but by the 1170's Sweden finally gained the superiority in the country, annexing it into the Swedish kingdom. Sweden protected its new claim by building fortresses, the most famous of this, the castle of Viborg - on the Karelian Isthmus - which was founded in 1293. In 1362, Finland was formally incorporated into the Swedish empire, the finns receiving the same rights as Swedish nationals. From then on we speak of the Swedish-Finnish union.

The first skirmishes between Swedes and Russians also took place in the Middle Ages. In 1495 the Russian Czar Ivan III tried to conquer Viborg to secure the trade in the inner parts of the bay of Finland. The small garrison withstood one of the most horrible sieges in the history of the castle. The Russian troops later retreated, under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

The border to Russia was finally officially established in 1617 at the peace treaty of Stolbova, where king Gustavus Adolphus (Gustav II Adolf) ended one of the many wars against Russia. Gustavus Adolphus (See the picture above) - as is very well known - then turned south to aid the Protestant side in the German Thirty Years' war against the Catholics. In this bloody religious war, Finnish troops became well-known throughout all of Germany. Alongside the Swedes they fought victoriously at Breitenfeld (1631) and Lützen (1632), turning the tide of war in favour for the Protestants. The Swedish Era of Greatness began on the foggy fields of Lützen, which also became Gustavus Adolphus' last action, as he died in battle.

The peace of Westphalia in 1648 established Sweden's leading role in the Baltic Sea, a position that would be fiercely contested by Denmark, Holland and later also Russia over the coming seventy years. Today Denmark and Sweden build bridges over Öresund, in the 17th century the two countries were trading shots over the same area. And Sweden was too weak and poor to maintain its leading position; its enemies too many, its king too despotic and its government and aristocracy too egoistic. The so called "Era of Greatness" (Sw. Storhetstiden) was mostly found in the minds of the politicians, it was never a true reality. Although this, the Swedish armies were performing great deeds during this time, delaying the inevitable total disaster that was to come. Denmark, Brandenburg (future Prussia) and Poland were defeated in a succession of wars. In 1658 the Swedish king Karl X Gustav performs a military operation that is near to legend in Swedish history, marching his army over the frozen waters from Fyn to Sjaelland and taking positions only 20 kilometres from the Danish capitol Copenhagen.

The Swedish era of greatness also coincided with the Dutch Golden Era, and supported by Denmark, Holland became one of Sweden's greatest rivals over the trade in the Baltic Sea. Great Dutch naval squadrons joined up with the Danish during the Scanian War of 1675-79. The Dutch-Danish superiority at sea was finally achieved at the battles of Öland (1676) and Köge Bugt (1677). Only due to the fact that Sweden enjoyed the friendship of France, from which the Swedes got rich subsidies, and England, which did not want to see a major change in Power in the Baltic region, Sweden got away lightly. This relationship was best demonstrated at the "Concert in Hague" in 1659, where the English and French, threatening with open war, pressed Holland to aid them in the attempts to achieve peace between Denmark and Sweden, although Holland had been fighting in the war against Sweden. The balance of power was to be maintained in the north, precisely as England and France wished. The English and French intervention were the one single most important factor why the Swedish Great Power survived for so long. For Finland, the Era of Greatness was one of prosperity and peace though - the wars were fought in far-away lands. This was all to change.

Russian and Swedish interests in the Baltic region had, as said, clashed many times before. Ever since the Middle Ages in fact. But under Peter the Great, Czar of Russia 1682 to 1725, the real struggle began. Peter the Great modernized Russia - whether it wanted or not - and transformed this great nation at the outskirts of Europe to become a Great Power in the east to certainly be reckoned with. Turkey and Sweden were the principal targets for the expansion of the new Russia. The Great Northern War (1700-21) between Sweden and all those allied with Russia, including Denmark, was to follow.

It took one great "military hero" to throw the whole Swedish Great Power into utter shambles. Charles XII (Karl XII) went to history as the Alexander of the North and the Last Viking. Charles' military adventures are without doubt an exciting read; the battle of Narva in 1700, saw the overthrow of a far superior Russian enemy, the campaign in Poland and Saxony, where he retook Sweden's leading position in Germany. Diplomats from both the French and Allied side in the war of the Spanish Succession visited him in Germany, trying to persuade him to join the Western European war. But Charles went East. 1708-09 he fought his way into Russia, where Czar Peter the Great had reformed the Russian army totally. Charles met a worthy enemy. The Swedes were annihilated at the legendary battle of Poltava in 1709, the first Russian disaster in modern times (the second disaster befell Napoleon in 1812, the third The Wehrmacht in 1941-45). Charles fled to Turkey.

While all this was happening, the understanding between the Western Powers was broken. During the 17th century France and England had often come to Sweden's aid against its enemies. Now France and England (from 1707 the United Kingdom, Great Britain) were locked in a bloody war in Western Europe, the War of the Spanish Succession. The Franco-British understanding was all gone as interests clashed in economic, military and colonial matters. As the Swedish Great Power was left without political protectors and friends, it fell apart in the great disaster that had been inevitable.

While Charles was away, Sweden was rotting from within. He tried to lead the government from his position in Turkey with disastrous results. The Baltic provinces were occupied by Russian armies. The fight was also going on in Finland, where the Russian troops were growing in number and making incursions far into the country. By 1714 the final battle of the Great Northern War in Finland was fought in Österbotten. General Armfelt tried desperately to block the Russian advance, but was defeated in a fierce winter-battle and had to retreat west where the remains of his army were finally evacuated to mainland Sweden, and Finland was left to Russian occupation. In the waters outside the Finnish coasts, Russian and Swedish naval vessels clashed, giving birth to the idea that Sweden needed a coastal navy to protect these coast lines. The coastal navy would become a priority in Swedish defence politics during the continuing 18th century and would play a vital role in the Final War of 1808-09 as well.

Charles XII stayed on in Turkey until 1713 when the Turkish Sultan finally had had enough of the Swedish king and his party. The Swedes were thrown out in - for Charles - a most unsatisfactory manner. Charles and a few of his trusted men actually barricaded themselves in one of the houses at the Swedish camp at Bender and there tried to resist a major Turkish army force. Charles defended himself until the very last; the Turkish actually had to twist the sword out of his hand. Try that in the international politics of our early 21st century. Upon his return to Sweden - after an adventurous ride through all of the centre of Europe to Stralsund in Northern Germany - Charles started to plan for an attack on Norway. He was killed in battle in Norway in 1718, shot through the head under mysterious circumstances that still fascinate historians to our time.

The peace of the Great Northern War was signed between Russia and Sweden at Nystad in 1721 and Sweden was thereby stripped of all its Baltic possessions, which came under the Russian eagle instead. From now on the contest between Russia and Sweden stood over Finland. The expanding Russian empire created fear in Sweden and many politicians wanted revenge for the defeat in the Great Northern War. In particular, one political party, the Hats as it was called was arguing for a new war on Russia. During the Age of Freedom, as the period between 1718 and 1772 is called in history, two major parties were formed in Swedish politics - these were called The Hats and The Caps. The war of the Hats was fought 1741-43, ending in Swedish defeat and further losses of territory in eastern Finland.

Gustav III - The new Despot

Gustav III wanted to make himself into a Swedish version of the French "Sunking" Louis XIV. To do this, he needed total power, therefore he committed a few Coups d'Etat and ended the Age of Freedom in Swedish history. The following age, during his own time as well as during his son's - Gustav IV Adolf's - reign is called the Gustavian Era. As the political squabbling was then over, Gustav III commenced a lot of good social reforms; tended to the poor and weak in society, bettering conditions in prisons and so on. During Gustav III Swedish culture flourished as he was its most generous sponsor. He actually earned the nickname The Theatre King.

Gustav III's realism in foreign affairs was not so good though. In 1788 the king provoced a war with Russia and Swedish troops went over the eastern border in Finland. The war plan was to use the navy to land troops outside St. Petersburg, the capitol of Russia in the deepest area of the Bay of Finland. The landwar soon bogged down though and the coastal navy fought the most important engagements (For more on the seawar, see the article on the Swedish Navy) and did a jolly good job at that. At the personal command of the king, the Swedish Coastal Navy fought and won the greatest seabattle in the history of the Baltic Sea, the Battle of Svensksund. The Russo-Swedish war of 1788-90 ended in a draw. Many of the most important Swedish officers who would later take part in the 1808-09 war, were also active during Gustav III's war, gaining experience in the field. For an example, Georg Carl von Döbeln received his famous wound and black band at the battle of Porrassalmi. All in all, the war of 1788-90 was just a general rehearsal.

Gustav III was murdered in 1792, picturesquely while attending a masquerade, but the despotism survived him. His weak son Gustav IV Adolf took the throne, early showing the world exactly what a disillusioned and sad ruler he was. He pulled Sweden into the Napoleonic Wars, fighting French troops in Northern Germany with no great success.

The Napoleonic Wars reach Scandinavia

More information on the Napoleonic period in Scandinavia is found elsewhere on this website, so let us only - for the sake of continuity - deal with this in a not-so-detailed fashion. The main outlines follow.

Sweden entered the Napoleonic wars as a neutral state though, being one of the founding members of the Armed Neutrality of the North, which also included Denmark and Russia as well as later, Prussia. Although the declared Neutrality, Gret Britain with its superior navy was quick to react. In 1801 Copenhagen was attacked and Denmark was effectively forced to surrender. This attack, in conjunction with the assassination of the Russian Czar Paul I, ended the Armed Neutrality of the North. Denmark was forced closer to France, while Sweden, led by king Gustav IV Adolf, continued its anti-French policies. Gustav IV Adolf actually imagined himself to be the saviour of Europe, who was destined, in a biblical sense, to fight the "French beast". The illusions of the king was to lead Sweden on a very dangerous path indeed.

The Napoleonic Wars raged on. Russia fought France at Austerlitz and there suffered a severe defeat; in 1806 the turn had come for Prussia to yield. French troops marched through Berlin and took control of all of Northern Germany. At that time, in 1806, Swedish Pomerania in Northern Germany was occupied by French and Dutch troops. In 1807 Denmark was finally forced into open alliance with France, after the second British naval attack on Copenhagen, and Denmark thereby became Napoleon's most faithful ally.

Having been defeated at Friedland in 1807, Czar Alexander asked the French for peace. Napoleon and Czar Alexander met on a raft on the river Niemen in July of that year and there signed the peace treaty that would also include the secret division of Europe. It befell Russia to force Sweden into the Napoleonic Continental Blockade by conquering the Swedish eastern province of Finland. This was therefore done in the war of 1808-09. According to its alliance with France, Denmark also declared war on Sweden and Franco-Danish troops prepared for an invasion in southern Sweden. This never came to be though, as the Spanish part of the French expeditionary force defected and were evacuated on British ships upon hearing the news of the outbreak of the Guerilla in Spain. The French troops were commanded by marshal Bernadotte (!). Some fighting was actually done though on the Swedish-Norwegian border during the war of 1808-09.

Finland and Sweden then went separate ways. Finland became a Grand Duchy with the Czar himself as Grand Duke. After having deposed king Gustav IV Adolf, Sweden elected a French marshal, Bernadotte, as crown prince, who although his French origin chose to incorporate Norway into Sweden instead of reconquering Finland. Sweden remained neutral in 1812 as Napoleon marched to Moscow, but then took part against France in the wars of liberation on the continent 1813-14. Many of the old Swedish generals of the war of 1808-09 took part in that campaign as well. By 1814 Sweden established the peace that has lasted to our time.

Finland as a Russian Grand Duchy

First of all I would like to stress that Finland under Russian rule was very contented. During this time (1809-1917) the Finnish nation had some of its most peaceful, prosperous years. The superiority of the Czar was not contested, although there were radical political elements even here. Finland and its stern populace showed its loyalty to Mother Russia and the Czar many times. Finnish troops, even civilians, fought off British and French attacks on the mainland during the Crimean War of 1853-56, regular Finnish soldiers took part in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78.

This era in Finnish history is one of cultural advance and greatness. Finns excelled in many areas; in literature authors like Runeberg, Topelius and Lönnroth wrote their masterpieces; in music Jean Sibelius appeared; in painting and the visual arts Gallén was active. The industrialization of the country was also going on. By 1900 12% of the populace were working in industries, suffering from poor working conditions though. Socialism was introduced. All this work in the cultural and economic areas assured the growth of a Finnish nationality. Finland soon became aware of its own national feeling.

Happy times indeed, but terror was to come. During a few years in the beginning of the 20th century Finland struggled with Russia as its unnatural enemy. All due to the Czar and his corrupt regime.

About 1898 the terror started. This year, the Czar appointed general Nikolai Bobrikov General Governor of Finland. A worse choce had not could been made. At the beginning of 1899, the Russian government proposed that the Finnish troops should be incorporated into the greater Russian order of battle, and only a affirmation was asked from the Finnish Lantdag. However, the Lantdag immediately went to correct parliamentary work. But the Czar already had his mind set. By February that year, the so called "Manifest of February" was proclaimed. This Manifest stated that the Czar and his State Council were the ones who would form the policies and only an affirmation was required from the Lantdag. In practice this was a Coup d'Etat in Finland.

In only ten days more than 520.000 Finnish names were signed on the petition that was to be brought to St. Petersburg as a protest against the Manifest. The Czar, however, refused to receive the delegates as they brought the list of protest forth. At this time Bobrikov started his policy of "Russification" in Finland, as he was determined to crush the Finnish special position as Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire; news papers were forbidden, only the Russian language was to be used in the administration. We were now on the road to hell.

By July 1901 the Czar affirmed a new law of conscription, transforming the in Finland recruited troops into regular Russian ones and not as earlier, a separate body. The protests were large in Finland against this new law. The Finnish recruits ordered for inspection of the year 1902 stayed home - only 40% of them turned up. At the same time uprisings and civil unrest occured in all of the land. All demonstrations were oppressed brutally though. Bobrikov started working, clearing out Finnish officials in many districts and giving positions to pro-russo or Russian officials instead. This caught the eye of the weak Czar and all his bad, false advisors. By 1903 Bobrikov had achieved the position as dictator de-facto in Finland. Inevitably Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov was murdered by a Finnish student, Eugen Schauman, on the 16th of June 1904. Schauman was considered a national hero. At this time the Russo-Japanese war was being fought and Russia was on the retreat on all fronts.

Nonetheless, the regime of the Czar had gone overboard. All of Russia, certainly not only Finland, was in uproar against him and his weak and corrupt regime. The developments over the coming fifteen years would show the weakness in the Russian Czar-government. World War One was the final nail in his royal coffin. Lenin's great Revolution and the installation of a strong Socialist government was to follow, the execution of the Czar and his family and the creation of the Soviet Union.

By then Finland was no longer there. It had joined the family of independent nations.

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