This series has eight easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Peter of Russia Turns Towards Sweden.
In 1700 Sweden, like Prussia were major powers mostly because of their armies. In geo-politics power comes from many sources: land, population, culture, finances and geography. A great power can loose an army, even their main army and fight on, their other sources of power sustaining them and allowing them to rebuild and fight to victory. This story about the fate of army of Sweden shows what happens. After this battle, Sweden sank to the second rank of the powers of Europe while Russia joined the great powers and stayed there despite many reverses in the following centuries.
This selection is from Peter the Great by Kazimierz Waliszewski published in 1898. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
The battle of Poltava was selected by Sir Edward Creasy as one of the fifteen great decisive contests which have altered the fate of nations. His able narrative of the battle has been superseded in scholars’ eyes by the more modern work of the great Russian authority, Waliszewski
Place: Poltava. Central Ukraine
Before 1709 Sweden still held the rank to which Gustavus Adolphus had raised her in the Thirty Years’ War. Her prestige had been a little dimmed by the victories of the “Great Elector” of Prussia; but her ally Louis XIV had saved her from any considerable diminution of the extensive territories which she held on the mainland to the south and east of the Baltic Sea. About 1700 the young and gallant warrior, Charles XII, the “Madman of the North,” reasserted her prowess, made her once more the dictator of Northern Europe, one of the five great powers of the world.
Meanwhile Peter the Great was progressing but slowly with his transformation of Russia. His people had little confidence in him; his armies were half-barbaric hordes. When he ventured into war against Sweden Europe conceived but one possible result: these undisciplined barbarians would be annihilated. At first the expected occurred. Again and again large Russian armies were defeated by small bodies of Swedes; but with splendid tenacity Peter persisted in the face of revolt at home and defeat abroad. “The Swedes shall teach us to beat them” was his famous saying, and at Poltava he achieved his aim. From that time forward Russia’s antagonism to her leader disappeared. His people followed him eagerly along the path to power.
It would appear that it was not till Peter’s visit to Vienna, in 1698, that he conceived the idea of attacking Sweden. Up till that time his warlike impulse had rather been directed southward, and the Turk had been the sole object of his enmity. But at Vienna he perceived that the Emperor, whose help he had counted on, had failed him, and forthwith the mobile mind of the young Czar turned to the right-about. A war he must have of some kind, it little mattered where, to give work to his young army. The warlike instincts and the greed of his predecessors, tempted sometimes by the Black Sea, sometimes by the Baltic and the border provinces of Poland, had, indeed, always swung and turned back and forward between the south and the north. These alternate impulses, natural enough in a nation so full of youth and strength, have, since those days, been most unnecessarily idealized, erected into a doctrine, and dignified as a work of unification. It must be acknowledged that every nation has at one time or the other thus claimed the right to resume the national patrimony at the expense of neighboring peoples, and Peter, by some lucky fate, remained in this respect within certain bounds of justice, of logic, and of truth. Absorbed and almost exhausted, as he soon became, by the desperate effort demanded by his war in the North, he forgot or imperilled much that the conquering ambition of his predecessors had left him in the South and West. He clung to the territory already acquired on the Polish side, retired from the Turkish border, and claimed what he had most right, relatively speaking, to claim in the matter of resumption, on his northwestern frontier.
On that frontier the coast country between the mouth of the Narva, or Narova, and that of the Siestra, watered by the Voksa, the Neva, the Igora, and the Louga, was really an integral part of the original Russian patrimony. It was one of the five districts (piatiny) of the Novgorod territory, and was still full of towns bearing Slavonic names, such as Korela, Ojeshek, Ladoga, Koporie, Iamy, and Ivangrod. It was not till 1616 that the Czar Michael Feodorovitch, during his struggle with Gustavus Adolphus, finally abandoned the seacoast for the sake of keeping his hold on Novgorod. But so strong was the hope of recovering the lost territory, in the hearts of his descendants, that, after the failure of an attempt on Livonia, in Alexis’ reign, a boyar named Ordin-Nashtchokin set to work to build a number of warships at Kokenhausen, on the Dvina, which vessels were intended for the conquest of Riga. Peter had an impression, confused it may be, but yet powerful, of these historic traditions. This is proved by the direction in which he caused his armies to march after he had thrown down the gauntlet to Sweden. He strayed off the path, swayed, as he often was, by sudden impulses, but he always came back to the traditional aim of his forefathers — access to the sea, a Baltic port, “a window open upon Europe.”
His interview with Augustus II at Rawa definitely settled his wavering mind. The pacta conventa, signed by the King of Poland when he ascended his throne, bound him to claim from the King of Sweden the territories which had formerly belonged to the republic of Poland. For this end the help of Denmark could be reckoned on. The Treaty of Roeskilde (1658), which had been forced on Frederick III, weighed heavily on his successors, and the eager glances fixed by the neighboring states on Holstein, after the death of Christian Albert, in 1694, threatened to end in quarrel. There were fair hopes, too, of the help of Brandenburg. When Sweden made alliance with Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon, that country abandoned its historic position in Germany to Prussia. But Sweden still kept some footing, and was looked on as a rival.
Further, Augustus had a personal charm for Peter sufficient in itself to prove how much simplicity, inexperience, and boyish thoughtlessness still existed in that half-polished mind. The Polish Sovereign, tall, strong, and handsome, an adept in all physical exercises, a great hunter, a hard drinker, and an indefatigable admirer of the fair sex, in whose person debauch of every kind took royal proportions, delighted the Czar and somewhat overawed him. He was more than inclined to think him a genius, and was quite ready to bind up his fortunes with his friend’s. At the end of four days of uninterrupted feasting, they had agreed on the division of the spoils of Sweden, and had made a preliminary exchange of arms and clothing. The Czar appeared at Moscow a few weeks later wearing the King of Poland’s waistcoat and belted with his sword.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history