Finland and the Swedish Empire

Finland Table of Contents

During his reign, Gustav I Vasa concentrated on consolidating royal power in the dynasty that he had founded and on furthering the aims of the Reformation. In the process, he molded Sweden into a great power, but he wisely avoided involvement in foreign wars. His successors, however, sought, through an aggressive foreign policy, to expand Sweden's power in the Baltic area. This policy produced some ephemeral successes, and it led to the creation of a Swedish empire on the eastern and the southern shores of the Baltic Sea.

Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, Sweden's ambitious foreign policy brought it into conflict with the three other main powers that had an interest in the Baltic: Denmark, Poland, and Russia. These three powers fought numerous wars with Sweden, which was at war for more than 80 of the last 300 years it ruled Finland. Finland itself was often the scene of military campaigns that were generally conducted as total war and thus included the devastation of the countryside and the killing of civilians. One example of such campaigns was the war between Sweden and Russia that lasted from 1570 to 1595 and was known in Finland as the Long Wrath, because of the devastations inflicted on the country. Sweden was also heavily involved in the Thirty Years' War (1618- 48), in which the Swedes under King Gustavus II Adolphus thwarted the advance of the Habsburg Empire to the shores of the Baltic and thereby secured the Swedish possessions there. Finnish troops were conscripted in great numbers into the Swedish army to fight in this or in other wars, and the Finns often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The Great Northern War began in 1700 when Denmark, Poland, and Russia formed an alliance to take advantage of Sweden's apparent weakness at that time and to partition the Swedish empire. Sweden's youthful king Charles XII surprised them, however, with a series of military victories that knocked Denmark out of the war in 1700 and Poland, in 1706. The impetuous Swedish king then marched on Moscow, but he met disaster at the battle of Poltava in 1709. As a result, Denmark and Poland rejoined the war against Sweden. Charles attempted to compensate for Sweden's territorial losses in the Baltic by conquering Norway, but he was killed in action there in 1718. His death removed the main obstacle to a negotiated peace between Sweden and the alliance.

The Great Northern War ended on August 30, 1721, with the signing of the Peace of Uusikaupunki (Swedish, Nystad), by which Sweden ceded most of its territories on the southern and the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Sweden was also forced to pay a large indemnity to Russia, and, in return, the Russians evacuated Finland, retaining only some territory along Finland's southeastern border. This area included the fortress city of Viipuri. As a result of the war, Sweden's power was much reduced, and Russia replaced Sweden as the main power in the Baltic.

Finland's ability to defend itself had been impaired by the famine of 1696 in which about one-third of the Finnish people died of starvation, a toll greater than that caused by the Black Death in the fourteenth century. The war's greatest impact on Finland, beyond the heavy taxes and conscription, was caused by Russian occupation from 1714 to 1722, a period of great difficulty, remembered by the Finns as the Great Wrath. The hardships of being conquered by a foreign invader were compounded by Charles XII's insistence that the Finns carry on partisan warfare against the Russians. Much of the countryside was devastated by the Russians in order to deny Finland's resources to Sweden. Of the nearly 60,000 Finns who served in the Swedish army, only about 10,000 survived the Great Northern War. Finland's prewar population of 400,000 was reduced by the end of the war to about 330,000.

Charles XII's policies led to the repudiation of absolute monarchy in Sweden and to the ushering in of a half-century of parliamentary supremacy, referred to as the Age of Freedom. One major characteristic of this era was the strife between the two major political parties, the Hats, representing the upper classes, and the Caps, representing the lower classes. These political parties, however, proved no more competent in the realm of foreign affairs than the kings. In 1741 the Hats led Sweden into a war with Russia in order to try to undo the result of the Peace of Uusikaupunki. Russian forces thereupon invaded Finland and began, virtually without a fight, a short-lived occupation known as the Lesser Wrath. In accordance with the Peace of Turku signed in 1743, Russia once again evacuated Finland, but took another slice of Finnish territory along the southeastern frontier.

King Gustav III, who in 1772 had reimposed absolutism in Sweden, also tried to alter the verdict of the Great Northern War. In 1788 Sweden declared war against Russia with the intention of regaining territory along Finland's eastern frontier. A significant incident during that war was the mutiny of a group of Finnish military officers, the Anjala League, the members of which, hoped to avert Russian revenge against Finland. A leading figure in the mutiny was a former colonel in the Swedish army, Göran Sprengtporten. Most Finnish officers did not support the mutiny, which was promptly put down, but an increasing number of Finns, especially Finnish nobles, were weary of Finland's serving as a battleground between Sweden and Russia. Because of Russia's simultaneous involvement in a war with the Ottoman Empire, Sweden was able to secure a settlement in 1790 in the Treaty of Varala, which ended the war without altering Finland's boundaries.

Sweden's frequent wars were expensive, and they led to increased taxation, among other measures for augmenting state revenues. A system of government controls on the economy, or mercantilism, was imposed on both Sweden and Finland, whereby the Finnish economy was exploited for the benefit of Sweden. In addition to hindering Finland's economic development, Sweden's wars enabled Swedish aristocrats and military officers to gain large estates in Finland as a reward for their services. The Swedish-speaking minority dominated landholding, government, and the military. Although free of serfdom, peasants paid high taxes, and they had to perform labor for the government. Through the provincial assemblies, the peasants retained a small measure of political power, but the Swedish-speaking nobility held most political and economic power in Finland.

Throughout this period, the peasantry continued to be the backbone of Finland's predominantly agrarian society. The frontier was pushed northward as new stretches of inland wilderness were settled. The potato was introduced into Finnish agriculture in the 1730s, and it helped to ensure a stable food supply. Although Finland's trade in naval stores--timber, tar, pitch, resin--was expanded considerably, the growth of an indigenous Finnish middle class was retarded by the continuing dominance of foreign merchants, especially the Germans and the Dutch.

The centuries-old union between Sweden and Finland came to an end during the Napoleonic wars. France and Russia became allies in 1807 at Tilsit, and Napoleon subsequently urged Russia to force Sweden into joining them against Britain. Tsar Alexander I obliged by invading Finland in 1808, and, after overwhelming Sweden's poorly-organized defenses, he conquered Finland in 1809. Sweden formally ceded Finland to Russia by the Treaty of Hamina (Swedish, Fredrikshamn) on September 17, 1809.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress