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Great Northern War


The Great Northern War (17001721) was the main military conflict of Peter the Great's reign, ending in a Russian victory over Sweden that made Russia an important European power and expanded Russia's borders to the Baltic Sea, including the site of St. Petersburg. The war began in the effort of Denmark and Poland-Saxony to wrest control of territories lost to Sweden during the seventeenth century, the period of Swedish military hegemony in northern Europe. When the rulers of those countries offered alliances to Peter in 1698 and 1699, he saw an opportunity to recover Ingria, the small territory at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland that Russia had lost to Sweden in 1618. Possession of Ingria would once again give Russia access to the Baltic Sea, which seems to have been Peter's principal aim. To achieve this aim Peter built a European-style army and a navy based in the Baltic. The war also served as a major stimulus to Peter's reforms.

The initial phase of the war (17001709) was marked by Swedish successes. Peter's attempt to capture the port of Narva in Swedish-held Estonia ended in catastrophic defeat on November 30, 1700, at the hands of Charles XII, king of Sweden. The defeat meant the destruction of most of Peter's new army, which he then had to rebuild. Fortunately, Charles chose to move south into Poland, hoping to unseat August II from the throne of Poland and expand Swedish influence. In 1706 Charles succeeded in forcing August II to surrender and leave the war and to recognize Stanislaw Leszczynski, a Swedish puppet, as king of Poland. In 1707 Charles moved east through Poland toward Russia, apparently hoping to both defeat and over-throw Peter and replace him with a more compliant tsar from among the Russian boyars. Charles also managed to convince Ivan Mazepa, the Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks, to join him against Peter, but in Russia itself there was no move in favor of Charles. Instead, the Russian army retreated before the Swedes, acquiring experience and mounting ever more effective resistance. Charles was forced south into Ukraine during the fall of

1708, and Peter's defeat of the Swedish relief column at Lesnaya (October 9, 1708) left him without additional food and equipment.

The battle of Poltava (July 8, 1709) proved the turning point of the war. The Swedish army suffered heavy casualties and fled the field southwest toward the Dnieper River. When they reached the banks with the Russians in hot pursuit, they found too few boats to carry them across and had to surrender. Only Charles, his staff, and some of his personal guard escaped into Ottoman territory. Thus the way was clear for Peter to occupy the Baltic provinces and southeast Finland, then a Swedish possession, in 1710.

By the end of 1710 Peter had achieved his principal war aims, for these conquests secured the approaches to St. Petersburg. In 1711 the outbreak of war with the Turks provided an unwelcome distraction, and he was able to turn his attention to the Northern War only in 1712. His allies now included the restored August II of Poland-Saxony, as well as Denmark and Prussia. Russian troops moved into northern Germany to support these allies, and Sweden's German possessions, Bremen, Stralsund, and Stettin, fell by 1714. In 1713 Peter managed to occupy all of Finland, which he hoped to use as a bargaining chip in the inevitable peace negotiations. Charles XII, who returned to Sweden from Turkey in 1714, would not give up. Ignoring Sweden's rapidly deteriorating economic situation, he refused to acknowledge defeat. Peter's small but decisive naval victory over the Swedish fleet at Hangö peninsula on the Finnish coast in 1714 preserved Russian control over Finland and allowed Peter to harass the Swedish coast. A joint Russo-Danish project to invade Sweden in 1716 came to nothing, and the war continued until 1721 with a series of Russian raids along the Swedish coast. The death of Charles XII in 1718 even prolonged the war, for Great Britain, worried over Russian influence in the Baltic region and northern Germany, began to support Sweden, but it was too late. In 1721 the treaty of Nystad put an end to the war, allowing Russia to keep southeast Finland (the town of Viborg), Ingria, Estonia, and the province of Livonia (today southern Estonia and Latvia north of the Dvina river).

Peter's victory in the Great Northern War radically altered the balance of power in northern and eastern Europe. The defeat of Sweden and the loss of most of its overseas territories other than Finland and Stralsund, as well as the collapse of Swedish absolutism after 1718, rendered Sweden a minor power once again. The events of the war revealed for the first time decisively the political and military weakness of Poland. Russia, by contrast, had defeated the formerly hegemonic power of the region, recovered Ingria, acquired the Baltic provinces and part of Finland, and founded St. Petersburg as a new city and new capital. These acquisitions gave Russia a series of seaports to support both trade and a naval presence in the Baltic Sea, as well as a shorter route to Western Europe. Victory in the war justified Peter's military, administrative, and economic reforms and the Westernization of Russian culture. It also enormously reinforced his personal prestige and power.

See also: lesnaya, battle of; peter i; narva, battles of; poltava, battle of; sweden, relations with


Bushkovitch, Paul. (2001). Peter the Great. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Hatton, Ragnhild. (1968). Charles the Twelfth. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Frost, Robert I. (2000). The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Paul A. Bushkovitch

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