The Russo-Swedish Border in Finland, 1703-1721

Ending two decades of conflict, the Treaty of Nystad, issued as an eternal peace and thus as a permanent and fundamental law of the newly established Russian Empire in 1721, ceded the acquisitions of territories and jurisdictions around the Baltic Sea to the Swedish and Russian crowns. While the provinces at the southern shore of the Sea were simply given away to the respective monarchs in their entirety, an accurate division line made its appearance at the heart of the Karelian Isthmus. At this ephemeral battlesite, the Great Northern War effected a hitherto unknown concern of both monarchs with their territorial sovereignty. With regard to Russia, the Treaty of Nystad marked a new stage in an evolving conception of territory that came about as the ascendent empire had to resolve its conflict about the contested (Baltic) Sea with Sweden.

An explanation for the divide on the Karelian Isthmus and the tsar‘s developing territorial understanding of his rulership requires an examination of the ways in which the Russian monarch defined and justified his newly made conquests and annexations throughout the entire course of the Great Northern War. As the tsar, his military officers, soldiers, diplomats and geographers were fighting, debating, and negotiating their territorial claims, ambitions and cessions around the Baltic Sea with the kings and ministers of Northern Europe for more than twenty years, Peter I advanced and deepened his arguments and ideas about the relationship between a ruler and his realm and thus defined fundamental elements of his rulership that eventually entered into the discussion about the boundary on the Karelian Isthmus.

Reasoning about the lands in Russia‘s north-west, Peter resumed a centuries-old debate that became inherently entangled with developments on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea right from the outset of the war. Yet the eastern littoral of the Gulf of Finland to Lake Ladoga was fundamentally different in kind from the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. Most importantly, and in crucial distinction to Estonia and Livonia, the hostile terrain of the Karelian Isthmus formed the only commonly shared military frontier between Russia and Sweden. In 1323, the treaty of Schlisselburg/Oreshek had defined the river Systerbeck/Sestra as a customary boundary to divide Swedish and Novgorodian respectively Muscovite domains. Over the course of the next centuries constant attempts to gain control of this cardinal site established the lands east of Swedish Vyborg up to Lake Ladoga as a defense zone, designed for military purposes and facing an enemy. The post-Stolbovian order temporarily removed the medieval boundary but did not question neither its significance nor recognition. As soon as the war began in Ingria, military operations and attacks by Russian soldiers into Karelia and constant Swedish assaults to maintain control over the Neva culminated in the establishment of a Swedish military guard along the old Systerbeck boundary in 1703, thus demonstrating that the protection of newly founded Petersburg made control of Swedish Vyborg paramount. It was at this point that Peter escalated the ancient debate over a customary military boundary deep in the Finnish forest to a political affair of state significance.

In contrast to Livonia and Estonia Peter never developed any formal plans to annex Sweden‘s Finnish province in its entirety although he was firmly in control of it after the battle of Hangö (1713). Jointly with his anti-Swedish allies in Northern Europe, the tsar had put Sweden‘s provinces and cities around the Baltic for mutual exchange on the marketplace. As he negotiated and bargained land or the cession of land for military as well as diplomatic assistance and money, he formulated, overthwarted, and reaffirmed his territorial claims in the case of a peace agreement. But throughout the next eight years he consequently upheld his claims to the lands immediately to the north-west and so dangerously close to Petersburg. In fact, until the Treaty of Nystadt no issue was more ferociously discussed among the peace negotiators than the status of Vyborg and the district that was to be ceded to Russia on the Karelian Isthmus.

Justifying Russian rulership over Sweden‘s ancient and treasured most eastern outpost proved particularly difficult. In blatant manipulation of historical facts, Peter highlighted hereditary-dynastic rights, resorted to geography, and eventually upheld the idea of the medieval historical divison of the Isthmus while invoking waterways as natural borders. Historical and geographical assertation notwithstanding, both monarchs were constantly preoccupied with military and strategic concerns. It was as a result of historical and geographical claims, military concerns and diplomatic struggle that the Russian and Swedish plenipotentiaries at Nystad, Heinrich Ostermann and Johan Lillienstedt, negotiated an accurate territorial division line on the Karelian Isthmus that was to be defined by specially nominated commissioners in separate negotiations.

Recognizing the political division of the isthmus, however, military officers, diplomats, and geographers were not necessarily thinking in territorial dimensions. Yet once the problem of territory was posed, it needed to be developed with respect to the conflicts of those who lived in it and to the question of how the inhabitants thought about themselves in relation to the ruler to whom they now belonged. The end of the period in which the military frontier dominated the Karelian Isthmus thus came to mark the beginning of a lengthy process of constructing the political boundary between Russia and Sweden.

– Charlotte Henze, Universität Basel

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