The Battle of Poltava: the decisive clash between Russia and Sweden for hegemony in Northern Europe

Ukraine was three hundred years ago the scene where Carlos XII and Pedro I faced each other in the greatest campaign of the Great Northern War

On July 8, 1709, the fate of northeastern Europe was settled in the steppes of the Ukraine, a few kilometers north of the small town of Poltava. That morning there was the decisive clash between the armies of Charles XII of Sweden and Peter I of Russia, called the Great, the only two monarchs still on the warpath after nine years of battles, sieges, marches, famines, pestilences and winters. glacialin the so-called Great Northern War. Overshadowed in our eyes by the contemporary War of the Spanish Succession, this conflict pitted the hegemonic power in the Baltic, Sweden, against a powerful coalition formed by Denmark, Russia and the dynastic union between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Saxony. Against all odds, the young Carlos XII, barely seventeen years old at the beginning of the war, but raised from childhood for war, defeated his enemies one after another. Denmark fell first; then Poland-Lithuania, and finally, in 1706, Saxony knelt . He only had to defeat Pedro.

The tsar, who had risen to power by dodging revolts and court intrigues, always in search of a balance between tradition and modernization, was held in little by the European powers. It is enough to quote Voltaire’s words about the Muscovite soldiers: “Barbarians forcibly removed from their forests, dressed in animal pelisses; some armed with bows and arrows, others with clubs . Exaggeration aside, the truth is that in 1700 Russia still had much to learn.

After the crushing Swedish victory over the Tsar’s forces at Narva, the Tsar is said to have stated: “The Swedes will beat us for a while, but in the end they will teach us how to beat them.”. His high command took a hard look at Swedish tactics, in which shock to cold steel prevailed over firepower. Peter purchased 30,000 flintlock muskets from England, increased the volume of artillery by casting one out of every four church bells in Russia, and ordered mass-produced muskets with keys copied from French models. He also raised numerous units of dragoons – mounted infantry, which in practice fought and acted as light cavalry – to counter the Swedes and made clever use of field fortifications. All this led to the triumph of his forces in the decisive battle.

Combat between Swedish and Russian cavalry, detail of the diorama of the Museum of the Battle of Poltava, opened on June 26, 1909 in the city of Poltava, Ukraine

Combat between the Swedish and Russian cavalry, detail of the diorama of the Museum of the Battle of Poltava, inaugurated on June 26, 1909 in the city of Poltava, Ukraine 

Charles XII’s enterprise in Russia began well, but the lack of supplies for his troops, caused by the poverty of the country, led him to the more fertile Ukraine, and where he was joined by the Cossacks of the hetman Iván Mazepa –today, a national hero Ukrainian–. The fate of the war was decided near Poltava. To force the Tsar to accept battle in what he hoped would be a decisive victory, the Swedish monarch laid siege to this city, an important regional center. Pedro crossed the river Vorskla with his army, ready to prevent the fall of the square.

At last, Carlos had his rival where he wanted. After multiple skirmishes and a chaotic advance through a line of advanced Russian redoubts, the Caroline army spread out against the Russian. “The Swedes and the Muscovites – wrote an observer of this battle – collided with each other in a bitter action”. The charge of the infantry of Charles XII, synthesized in the Swedish expression “Gå-På” (“forward”), which Marshal Magnus Stenbock described as “a combination of uncontrollable onslaught and perfectly controlled discipline”For nine years, he had hitherto subdued and put to flight every force—Russian, Saxon, Polish—that stood in his way. It was not so in Poltava. Though the Tsar’s infantry were not far from relenting, he had inflicted such punishment at a distance on the Swedes that he held out, repulsed the attack, and went on the offensive with unstoppable force.

A few hours were enough to end the Swedish hegemony. Following the defeat, Charles fled to the Ottoman Empire while his Polish puppet, Stanislaus Leszczyński, was deposed by supporters of Augustus of Saxony and the Swedish Baltic provinces of Estonia and Livonia capitulated to the Tsar’s armies. The obstinacy of the Swedish king prolonged the war for another decade, but in the end, defeat was inevitable . Russia thus became the major power in the Northeast, not only because of her army and navy, but also because of her political influence, especially in an internecine Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The consequences of Poltava are still felt today, when Ukraine has once again become the scene of a fateful conflict.

Previous articleBiden ignores Spain and celebrates “Italian immigration” on Columbus Day
Next articleWhen the corsair Francis Drake tried to conquer Las Palmas for England and failed