How Russia took Finland away from Sweden (PICS)

Helena Schjerfbeck
For the Swedes, losing Finland to the Russian Tsar was their greatest tragedy, but the Finns, in sharp contrast, saw it as an opportunity to one day in the future create their own national state.

When an independent Finland was born out of the ruins of the Russian Empire in 1917, it didn't come out of the blue. The political freedoms which the Finns had enjoyed under the Russian tsars in the century during which they had been part of Russia allowed them essentially to create "a state within a state". For many centuries prior to this, the Finns had lived under the rule of the Swedish kings and could not even have dreamed of such a thing as independence.

Swedes surrender in Finland in 1808.

On Sept. 17, 1809, Sweden lived through one of the darkest days in its history. Under the terms of the Treaty of Fredrikshamn, which ended the 1808-09 Finnish War between the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Sweden, Finland became part of the Russian Empire. For over six centuries the Finnish lands had been an integral part of the Kingdom of Sweden and no one in Stockholm could have imagined that one day they would be lost and the borders of a hostile state would end up so near to the Swedish capital.

Battle of Ratan in 1809.

It is paradoxical that the opportunity for Emperor Alexander I to annex such vast territories and make them part of his empire emerged as a result of defeat. The smashing of the Fourth Coalition allied against France forced him to sit down at the negotiating table with Napoleon. The peace treaty signed in Tilsit on July 7, 1807, obliged the Russian Empire to join the Continental Blockade of Britain, completely abandoning trade with its main economic partner and former ally. Furthermore, the Russians were also obligated to force the Swedes, still loyal to their alliance with the British, to act in the same vein. At the same time the French emperor gave St. Petersburg a completely free hand regarding its northern neighbor.

Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit.

Under diplomatic pressure from the Russians, Swedish King Gustav IV Adolf found himself in a difficult position. On the one hand, he had been an implacable enemy of Napoleon and revolutionary France for many years, and trade with the British was vital for Sweden. Moreover, Britain conspicuously demonstrated its strength when in August-September 1807, having learnt that Denmark could join the blockade, a British squadron delivered a devastating bombardment of Copenhagen and captured the Danish fleet. On the other hand, a failure to yield to Tsar Alexander could lead to a situation whereby not just the French but also the Russians would become the enemies of Sweden. In the end, Gustav IV Adolf remained loyal to London - a decision that would cost him his crown.

Gustav IV Adolf.

The true goal of the Russian Emperor, who launched a war against Sweden in February 1808, wasn't at all to force the latter to join the blockade and fully close the Baltic Sea to Britain, although this was the declared aim. Alexander wanted once and for all to resolve the issue of the security of the capital, St. Petersburg, which was in dangerous proximity to Swedish lands. Russian troops had already seized Finland twice before: During the Great Northern War (1700-21), and the Russo-Swedish War of 1741-43. On both occasions, it was given back to Stockholm after the end of hostilities. This time the plan was to hang on to it.

The crossing of the Kvarken Straits in 1809.

Despite Russia's numerical superiority (24,000 soldiers against 21,000 on the Swedish side), the war was not a walkover for the Russian army. The Finnish partisans, operating to good effect under the command of Swedish officers, were a particular headache. The situation could have become even worse in May 1808 when a 14,000-strong British army corps commanded by Lt-Gen John Moore arrived in Göteborg. Luckily for Russia, King Gustav IV Adolf and the British commander could not agree on joint actions, and the soldiers of His Majesty George III were sent to fight the French in Spain. 

Contrary to general belief, "General Frost" does not always act in Russia’s interests. Here is a description of the campaign of late 1808 in Finland by Thaddeus Bulgarin, who fought in the ranks of the Russian army: "There were many days when each one of us would have given away all their money for a piece of bread and a few hours sleep on some straw in a warm peasant hut!... The north wind burnt like a flame. Almost all of us had cheeks covered in scabs. It was impossible to protect ourselves as each breath of wind burnt the skin on our faces… We had to leave men on duty to walk to and fro to wake officers and men when they spotted signs of frostbite. We would then leap to our feet and hastily rub snow in our faces."

Despite some small successes by the Swedish army, it could not stem the onslaught of the Russian forces (which numbered around 50,000 by the end of the war). After seizing the whole of Finnish territory, they occupied the Aland Islands on March 18, 1809, and the next day they appeared on the outskirts of Stockholm. Even before these events, on March 13, King Gustav IV Adolf had been deposed in a coup, whose aim, according to the plotters, was to "bring back peace to our unhappy, broken, dying Fatherland". The new monarch, Charles XIII, had no choice but to agree to talks with Russia.

The arrest of Gustav IV.

A peace treaty ending the war between the two states was signed in the town of Fredrikshamn (today's Hamina) on Sept. 17, 1809. One of the Swedish participants in the talks wrote: "As the Lord is my witness, I would rather sign my own death warrant than this peace treaty." Sweden lost the whole of Finland and the Aland Islands - a third of her territory and a quarter of the population (more than 800,000 people). If the Great Northern War had deprived the country of its status as a great power, the war of 1808-09 relegated it to the ranks of secondary powers, henceforth playing no substantial role in European politics. Since 1814 the country has adhered to a policy of neutrality, which continues to this day.

The Treaty of Fredrikshamn.

The "greatest national disaster in the long history of the Swedish state" unexpectedly had favorable consequences for the Finns. Acknowledging the local population's strong propensity for partisan warfare, Alexander I decided to integrate the region cautiously into the Russian Empire. The Finns not only preserved all their rights and privileges, but, with the proclamation of the Grand Duchy of Finland in September 1809, received autonomy for the first time in their history. What is more, two years later the Tsar gave them Western Karelia - so-called "Old Finland", which had gone to Russia following the 1741-43 war. (It was this territory that the two countries would fight over in the 20th century.) And so it was that, in becoming part of Russia, the Finns came as close as possible to the establishment of their first national state - something that did indeed occur in 1917.

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