The Great Northern War 1700-1721

Peter I was main curator of Russian success in the Great Northern War

During the Modern ages the Latvian land was hit by three large international wars.  The Livonian war , Swedish-Polish war and the Great Northern War. All three wars were fought between rival empires in the Baltic region. The Livonian war made Poland-Lithuania as the main power in the Baltic region. Also Sweden took first steps to empower their dominance in the Baltic Sea. Russia did not gain anything, despite the fact that they started the war in the first place. Swedish-Polish war weakened Polish position in the region making Sweden the main player in the Baltic Sea. For 80 years Baltic Sea became “Swedish lake” because Swedes took power over many important Baltic ports. Swedish dominance was watched with envy from Poles but even more envious were rulers of Russia.

17-18 century was time of empire and absolutism. Kings of France, Austria, Spain and others took all power in matters of the state. The old feudal system was replaced by mercantile economy and colonization. European powers who in the past were less advanced than China started a wave of modernization that made them key players in the world scale. Europe became the center of the world. However at this time, Russia was still underdeveloped and far behind from other European rivals. Russia became united country under brutal rule of Czar Ivan IV Terrible who removed Mongols from power and started to interfere in European politics. However Ivan IV left no successor and Russia was thrown into civil war and attacked by the Poles.  Time of 1589-1613 was known as the Time of Troubles. In the end Russians managed to push away Polish invaders and elected Michael Romanov as Czar. He was succeeded by Alexis who first challenged Sweden in 1656. His army captured Dorpat (Tartu) but lost numerous battles near Riga and in 1658 was forced to give up. This showed that Russia needs strong modernization and political reform to equally rival the European powers.

Nothing much was done until new Russian Czar Peter I took power in 1682. Peter was a strong man with ambitions and will for knowledge.   He was crowned at age of ten years. His first year of title was colored in blood because of the inner family rivalries between ex wife’s of Alexis that resulted Strelsty uprising. Peter witnessed the bloody events and that left a deep scar in his personality. He was forced to wait many years for his full rights for power. At this time he got interested in ship building, army commanding and other military activities. In 1696 Peter I officially became the sole ruler of Russia.

Sweden in 1617 gained lands around Ladoga Lake that stripped Russia completely from the Baltic Sea. Peter I was obsessed with “carving a window to Europe”. The window was the shores of the Baltic Sea. Peter organized alliance against Sweden and succeeded by allying with Denmark and Saxony. In 1700 all three sides declared war on Sweden.

War first came to Latvian land when the Saxon army attacked Riga in February 1700.  Saxons attempted to capture Riga using disguise. At this time Riga was celebrating the Faslam celebration. Saxons hoped to disguise as peasants and enter Riga when its guards were at lowest attention. However they were discovered by Swedish patrol and alarm was raised. Then the Saxons attempted to cross the river Daugava and block the city. Finnish soldiers held the fortress of Dünamunde (Daugavgrīva) and inflicted heavy casualties on Saxons but were forced to surrender at the end. But the Saxons were too weak to make direct capture attempt on Riga and started a siege. Saxons lacked heavy artillery so the siege was hopeless.  In March Swedish king Carl XII ordered to send forces to Riga. A Swedish army came in March but did nothing despite the fact that their army was larger than the Saxons. In September Russians sent few formations to Riga but nothing happened. Then the Saxons decided to quit the blockade and return to Koknese. In November 19-30 Sweden defeated Russians in Battle of Narva. That was a heavy blow to Peter I but he was not ready to quit.

A Swedish army crosses the River Daugava to attack Saxons at Spilve

In 1701 Saxons again headed to Riga. A Swedish army prepared Riga for a coming battle very well. Carl XII was about to enter Riga himself to command the battle. His army arrived in June. He ordered to make landing boats to move troops and cannons across Daugava. When the king learned that strong wind has turned to the north, he ordered to send boats filled with humid burning straws and hemps in front of his landing force, to weaken visibility for the Saxons. In noun of June 9 Swedes crossed river Daugava and attacked the Saxons in grasslands of Spilve. In two hours Saxon army was split in half and was forced to retreat. About 400 Russian troops remained encircled in island of Lucavsala and fought for their lives two more days. Saxony was out of the game so Carl XII now decided to get down with Poland (king of Saxony Augstus Strong was also king of Poland) and then with Russia.

Russian army in 1701-1702 started to gain first victories in Estonian lands and in Vidzeme. The Russian army under command of Sheremetev destroyed Vidzeme. Russian army burned villages, churches and looted everything. People were captured and sold as slaves in Russian markets. Old people and children were killed and burned alive. Russian Feldmarchal Sheremetev reported to Peter I “Almighty God and Our Lady has fulfilled your wish. There is nothing to destroy in enemy land anymore. From Pskov to Dorpat, down by River Veliky, across the Lake Peipus to mouth of river Narva, across Dorpat and from Riga to Valka, everything has been destroyed. Castles have been blown up. Nothing has been saved except Pernau and Revel and some mansions near the seaside.  Everything from Revel to Riga has been cut out. Inhabited places are only found on the maps for now.”   Russians deported 12 000 people from their homes. Even more deadly was a Black Death epidemic that took the lives of 60% rural citizens.   Vidzeme and Courland was torn apart for many decades.

A Swedish army took too much time in Poland and in the depth of Russia. Peters I army grew stronger and confident and finally in 1709 Swedish army was destroyed in the Battle of Poltava. This marked end for Baltic provinces. Sheremetev’s forces marched to Riga. In October the hostilities started. Peter I himself came to Riga and ordered to siege. Riga was under heavy bombardment. Not only that – the explosion in Riga fortress caused heavy damage. In January 1710 encircled city lacked reserves of food and fuel. People died from starvation and frost. City streets were filled with bodies. The Siege continued until June because Russians themselves suffered from food shortages and heavy cold. The Russians decided to flat-out Riga and force it to surrender. In June 29 defenders of Riga finally decided to surrender. In July 10 last 5132 Swedish men most of them sick left Riga. In  July 14 Sheremetev entered Riga and received the keys of Riga. Fortress of Dünamunde resisted until August 8.

The war officially continued until 1721. But in Latvia it was all but over. Vidzeme and Riga were added to the Russian Empire. Peter I established a new capital in the territory that belonged to Swedes. It was named Petersburg. Peter I fulfilled his dream of making Russian empire and made Russia the global player in the  Earth. That was done by inflicting massive casualties on people of Estonia and Latvia. The Great Northern War was the most destructive wars in history of the Latvian nation. Only Second World War was more catastrophic to Latvia than Great Northern War.

Selected Sources:

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1962) Latvijas vēsture, 1600-1710. Stockholm: Daugava.

Lācis, Visvaldis (2001) Latviešu zemes un tautas vēsture. Rīga : ASF Saules koks : Vieda.

Frost, Robert I. (2000) The Northern wars: war, state and society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. Harlow: Longman.


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