Three Hundred Years Ago Today - The Battle Of Poltava

Some watershed events in history are generally well-known, while others remain obscure, perhaps known only in a particular geographic region. However, some of these seemingly-obscure events deserve more attention – as much of the present situation in many parts of the world owes a great deal to those events.

Today happens to be the 300th anniversary of one of those little-known watersheds – the Battle of Poltava.

Poltava represents a critical breakpoint in the history of eastern Europe; it shattered forever the power of Sweden, marked the rise of Russia as a major power, provided a poignant note that Poland was in terminal decline, and sparked the rise of Prussia that would eventually lead to the emergence of Germany as the other major power in eastern Europe.

But getting to Poltava…. that was the culmination of an accumulation of events over a number of centuries – one of history’s more chaotic stories.

We’ll tell that story below the fold.

Many moons ago, when I first read of the Battle of Poltava, I was struck by one strange incongruity that was made obvious by a simple examination of a map.

Poltava is nowhere near modern Sweden. Poltava is way out in the far eastern part of what is now Ukraine, not too distant from both Kharkov and Dnipropetrovsk. Today, one of the main roads running out of Kharkov is “Poltava Boulevard.” What was a Swedish army doing all the way out there?

I realized immediately that the story behind this event had to be extremely interesting. And it is.

Prior to the 16th century, there were two major factors along the northern coastline of Europe – particularly along the Baltic coastline.

The first was that the overwhelming, dominant state was Denmark. Denmark was for many centuries a great superpower, possessing nearly all the territory on both sides of the both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The Danish empire stretched from Greenland in the west all the way to Estonia in the east. “Estonia” (“Eesti” to Estonians) in fact draws its name directly from the resulting Danish name for the region of “Estland” – the “East Land” of the Danish kingdom. (Tallinn’s Estonian name is “Tallinna” – which literally means “Danish town.”) And, according to legend, during the Danish siege of Tallinn in 1269, what is now the Danish flag fell from heaven to the Danish troops – the spot of this event is still marked in today’s Tallinn. Danish control even extended at times into the British Isles.

Despite the far-flung nature of its possessions, Denmark’s critical “resource” was one tied very much to its own heartland. The Danish kings controlled the critical strait linking the North Sea and the Baltic Sea – and their ability to extract tolls of passage from passing merchant vessels provided fabulous wealth to Denmark.

It was that trade that indicates that a second critical factor was also at work. Along the southern coastlines of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, trade was dominated by the merchant guild of the Hanseatic League. Centered around its original (and “base”) city of Lübeck, the Hanseatic League was a collection of cities that had formed a “trading privileges” network. By the 15th century, the Hanseatic League had grown to include cities as far afield as Dinant on the Belgian coast and Narva (which now sits on the Estonia/Russia border); affiliated representative offices spread even further afield – as far as London in the west and Novgorod in the east.

Operating as a medieval guild allowed the Hanse merchants to exercise a near-monopoly on trade in the port cities that were members of the Hanseatic League; that trade was voluminous and lucrative, and the Hanseatic cities and Hanse merchants became very wealthy from this trade. The splendid “old towns” of Tallinn and Gdansk provide two examples of the wealth that flowed to the cities of the Hanseatic League – and the merchants who operated in those cities.

Along the southern coastline of the Baltic Sea and in the interior hinterland, various modest kingdoms – Poland, Lithuania, Livonia (the remnant of the “Teutonic Knights”), and Muscovy among them – existed, but were not very strong. The main beneficiaries of the arrangements were the Hanseatic League cities and their Hanse merchants (which/who controlled the trade), and the Danish crown (which controlled the “tollbooth” at the straits).

However, the key underlying factor behind this arrangement involved the relationship between the Baltic coastline (the Hanse port cities) and the hinterland. The hinterland was extravagantly rich in a great variety of resources – and it was the collection of those resources and their trade that was making the Hanse cities so rich. The rulers of the hinterland wanted to gain more control over the resources of their own territory – so that they (rather than just the Hanse merchants) could benefit from them.

As the 16th century began, the hinterland rulers began to assert more control over their resources; the volume of trade through the Hanse port cities continued to increase – but the profits of the Hanse merchants began to erode. This decline in the profitability of trade along the northern shore of Europe also cut into the toll-revenues collected by the Danish kings.

This made the earlier arrangements increasingly untenable and shaky – and in 1523 a seemingly unrelated event was to have consequences that tipped over that whole system.

Beginning in 1397, Denmark and Sweden had been in a loose confederation – with powerful Denmark as the clear “senior member” of that confederation. However, in 1523, after some deft political maneuvering, Sweden broke away from the confederation with Denmark and became fully independent. This Swedish kingdom was rather different than the Sweden we know today; it controlled none of what is now southern Sweden (which was a part of Denmark), being more centered further north and east – containing the territory around and north of Stockholm, and also controlling what is now Finland. Sweden’s only “good” (outside the straits) port was on the North Sea at Älvsborg; territorially connected to Sweden proper along only a narrow strip of territory surrounded on both sides by Denmark, and located close the Danish coast, Älvsborg was very vulnerable to Danish blockade (or seizure) in time of war.

The new Swedish kingdom didn’t seem terribly promising. However, over the next century and a half, Sweden and Denmark would become deadly enemies – and Sweden would expand to a large degree at the expense of Denmark.

At first, however, Swedish expansionism was directed eastward. At the same time, Muscovy (proto-Russia) was expanding westward. In 1554, Sweden and Muscovy fought an inconclusive war that was settled in 1557; nothing important had happened, but the stage was being set for a century and a half of turmoil.

In 1558, Muscovy invaded Livonia. At Ermes, the Muscovy army annihilated the last army of the Livonian Order, and thus wrote the final line if the story of the “Teutonic Knights.”

This created a power vacuum – one that Muscovy appeared to be ready to fill. However, this notion frightened other kingdoms in the area, who took action in response.

Depending on how one evaluates the details, Poland and Lithuania had been in a loose confederation of the two kingdoms for a couple of centuries. However, with the elimination of the Livonian order and Muscovy aggressively moving into the vacuum, the two kingdoms were jolted into action. In 1569, Poland and Lithuania formalized the confederation into a single nation, with the Polish king as head of the new state.

The newly combined Poland/Lithuania immediately attacked Muscovy in Livonia – joined from the north by their now-ally Sweden. Polish armies pushed the Muscovites out of Livonia, gaining control as far north as what is now southern Estonia. Swedish forces moved south, and occupied what is now northern Estonia. Rather than Muscovy, in the end it was principally Poland that benefited from the destruction of Livonia, with Sweden gaining some of the northern pieces.

During the remainder of the 16th century, Sweden continued to be aggressive and expansionist – expanding further via wars with Denmark (1563 – 1570) and Muscovy (1590 -1595).

In the meantime, the consolidated Poland/Lithuania became a very rich and powerful state – the largest in Europe at the time. Its territory reached from the coast of the Baltic Sea, far to the south and southeast – nearly reaching the Black Sea.

As the 16th century drew to a close, Sweden and Poland/Lithuania were the dominant powers in eastern Europe. Muscovy was weak and its control had been confined to the east of the two more power neighbors.

However, in 1598, a very strange event was to occur – one which if it had succeeded would have had drastic implications that certainly would still be evident today. However, played out against the backdrop of other currents in Europe at the time, it was to have disastrous consequences.

In 1598, the Swedish crown was unclaimed. Through the connivance of some local sympathizers, the crown was given to King Sigismund of Poland – briefly unifying Poland and Sweden. This superstate would have been so powerful that it is difficult to see how it would not have become a superpower even into the 20th century.

However, the underlying fault line was one that was slicing its way across Europe. Sigismund, King of Catholic Poland, had been given the crown by a remnant group of Swedish Catholics. Most of Sweden had been swept up in the Reformation and become Lutheran – and Sweden at the time could fairly be described as “militantly Protestant.” This touched off a brief but vicious civil war in Sweden – one that the small number of Catholics could not win. A year later, in 1599, Sigismund lost the Swedish crown, and the original (Protestant) royal family of Sweden regained power.

Not surprisingly, this created incredible anger in Sweden – that Polish Catholics had connived with dissident Catholic Swedes to try to essentially seize Sweden by a coup de main. This immediately (1600) touched off a long war between Sweden and Poland – one that lasted until 1629.

The main theme of this war was very aggressive Swedish moves southward against Poland. For a time, Sweden gained footholds all along the Baltic coast, as far west as Pomerania. Poland managed to rally and stem the Swedish onslaught; however, Sweden gained considerable ground in the north, expanding to take what is now Latvia at Poland’s expense.

In the midst of this, from 1609 – 1619 Poland had better luck against Sweden’s ally Muscovy. Polish troops took Smolensk, and moved on to occupy Moscow from 1610 to 1612. When the war wound down in 1629, Poland’s eastern frontier had moved quite far east at Muscovy’s expense. The humiliation of having the Kremlin itself occupied by Polish troops was a sting that the Russian princes of Muscovy would not forget.

At the same time, the early part of the 17th century also saw the bursting into flames of the long-simmering Catholic/Protestant divide in central Europe in the Thirty Years War. Swedish troops became the scourge of the German battlefields of that war.

The Thirty Years War ended in 1648, and central Europe became quiet.

However, in that same year, new events further east were to add further to the growing chaos in eastern Europe.

In 1648, a great Cossack revolt, led by Bohdan Khmelnitsky, shockingly freed Ukraine from Polish rule. This was clearly a temporary victory – one that could easily be reversed once Poland had the time to marshal resources and bring them in. Looking for help, Khmelnitsky tried to form an alliance with the prince of Muscovy – who was now the Tsar of Russia. When Khmelnitsky was informed that the Tsar did not accept allies, only vassals, he stormed away in disgust. However, after stewing for several days, he realized that his options were limited; he could either do nothing and wait for the inevitable massive Polish counter-invasion, or he could became a vassal of the Tsar. The latter option seemed less onerous, so that is what Khmelnitsky chose (with sorrow) to do; his great rebellion, which had seemed to put independence within reach, ended up transferring the Ukrainian Cossacks from the control of one outside kingdom (Poland) to another (Russia). This was a watershed event, in which Ukraine became a part of Russia until the tail end of the 20th century.

In 1655, the old resentments flared up again, and Sweden and Poland went back to war. However, with the loss of Ukraine, Poland was now a weaker state – and the war with Sweden was a catastrophe for Poland.

Under the talented leadership of King Charles X, Swedish troops swept all resistance before them as they marched through Poland – quickly taking Krakow. Poland was completely defeated, and in 1657 the Danes panicked and declared war. To the surprise of everyone, Charles X moved northward to come in Denmark’s back door; in February 1658, in one of the most daring maneuvers in military history, he moved across the frozen sea between the Danish islands, reached Zealand, and moved quickly into the suburbs of Copenhagen. Stunned, the Danes sued for peace.

The peace agreement of 1660 acknowledged what was already obvious – Sweden was now far-and-away the dominant power in the region, while both Poland and Denmark were greatly weakened.

In 1674, Sweden and Denmark went to war again – and by the time this war ended in 1679, it was another disaster for Denmark. Sweden seized all of the remaining Danish territory on the eastern side of the strait, bringing Sweden’s southern extent to that which it retains to this day. This also ended the Danish monopoly control of the straits – the monopoly on toll-collection that had enriched the Danish crown.

By 1700, Sweden was in a dominant position in northern Europe. It had expanded in every direction at the expense of all of its neighbors – none of whom could challenge Swedish power. It had replaced Denmark as the regional hegemon, and seemed to be in an unchallengeable position.

However, Swedish expansion had spawned festering resentment among all those neighbors at whose expense it had grown powerful.

The Danes chafed at the loss of the monopoly control of the straits – and the loss of the revenue that position brought.

The nearby Germanic princedoms – such as Saxony – resented the dominance of Sweden along the Baltic coast.

Poland resent the humiliating thrashing it had taken a few decades earlier – leaving it a weak shadow of its once-strong self.

And Russia resented Swedish control of the eastern rim of the Baltic – which had blocked Moscow’s long efforts to reach the sea, acquire a good port, and join in the lucrative Baltic commercial trade.

All of these aggrieved parties began to coalesce into a potentially powerful anti-Swedish alliance. Despite its powerful and dominating position, this put Sweden into a potentially dreadful situation – war on three fronts (west, south, and east).

Fortunately for Sweden, its royal line continued to produce kings who were also exceptional military leaders.

Charles X’s son Charles XI had modernized and built up the Swedish army into a formidable fighting force. He passed this force on to his son Charles XII, who found himself in the ominous situation of a three-front war.

But Charles XII proved to be gifted, adept, and energetic. As the coalition gathered against him, in 1700 Charles XII decided to strike first – launching what has come to be known as The Great Northern War.

First, Charles struck at the traditional enemy, Denmark. In July, he moved troops (by ship) across the strait, eluded the Danish navy, landed his army on Zealand, and (like his grandfather Charles X) moved on Copenhagen. Stunned once again by this sort of lightning-warfare, Denmark sued for peace and dropped out of the war in August. In less than two months, Charles had already knocked one foe out of the war.

Charles next moved against Russia. In late November, Charles’ army confronted a Russian army three times its size at Narva. Like most eastern Europe leaders, Charles knew that populous Russia could create armies of considerable size – but that they lacked training, discipline, and quality. Thus, despite being badly outnumbered, Charles launched an all-out attack on the Russian army – which quickly collapsed and fled. This quick victory effectively knocked Russia out of the war for the time being.

However, Russia’s young Tsar, Peter I (later known as “The Great”), took the lessons of Narva to heart. He realized that no matter how large the armies Russia could put in the field, they were no match for well-trained, well-armed, properly disciplined troops. While Charles was occupied elsewhere, he used the breathing space to completely re-engineer the Russian army – redeveloping his forces as fully “modern” in the contemporary European sense. This was eventually to change the balance of power in Europe for good.

In the meantime, Charles was on a roll – and he kept rolling. Moving south, Charles reeled off four years of spectacular successes against Poland. By 1704, he had taken Warsaw, Krakow, and all the other important Polish cities. Poland was prostrate, and Charles even installed his own client king on the Polish throne. Poland was finished and was out of the war for good, with no prospect for immediate recovery.

In 1706, Charles invaded Saxony, and quickly forced the Saxons to make peace and abandon the war.

In seven amazing years, from 1700 to 1706, Charles had run off a spectacular series of successes. Denmark, Poland, and Saxony had been completely defeated and forced out of the war; only Russia remained as an adversary.

However, as noted above, with Charles occupied in Poland and Saxony, Tsar Peter used the breathing space wisely. While rebuilding the Russian army to be the equal of other European armies, Peter also began to encroach on Swedish possessions along the eastern shores of the Baltic.

In 1703, Peter advanced to the eastern end of the Baltic Sea; there, he quickly began to build his new capital city of St. Petersburg – which would allow Russia to become a player in the Baltic commercial game and connect Russia more closely to Europe. In 1704, Peter moved south and retook Narva and Dorpat (Tartu). While all his erstwhile allies were defeated and no longer of consequence, Peter had quietly managed to restore Russia’s position. The Great Northern War had now boiled down to being a great war between Sweden and Russia.

Charles realized that that was the case – he now had to deal only with Russia, so he set himself to that task.

In 1707, Charles left Saxony and began to move east to deal with Russia. As he advanced eastward across what is now Belarus, Peter refused to engage him. Instead, Peter pioneered a strategy that future Russian leaders – later to deal with invasions by Napoleon and Hitler – were to adopt; Peter applied a “scorched earth” technique of either removing or destroying anything that could be of use or sustenance to Charles’ army. It was a frustrating summer for Charles – as he tried vainly to force Peter into battle, while his army was always short of supplies due to the “scorched earth” methods of the Russians. Charles may have been the first European invader to be gobsmacked by the unexpected vastness of the Eurasian plains – but he would not be the last.

The summer of 1708 thus found Charles stuck in Lithuania – wanting frantically to invade Russia, but unable to do so due to lack of supplies. He waited there for supplies to arrive from further west – and with summer waning, it seemed that he would have to winter there, build up his supplies, and then try to attack eastward in the spring of 1709.

Charles was bold and brilliant – but he also had a streak of rashness. That rashness was to come to the fore in September of 1708, when what he thought might be an opportunity led him to miscalculate badly.

As Charles tried to decide what to do – as the campaigning season of 1708 wound down with him frustratingly unable to take any action – word arrived of a new Cossack revolt in Ukraine. The Cossacks had united under Ivan Mazepa, and more-or-less thrown off Russian rule.

To Charles, frustrated and edgy from a summer of inaction, this seemed like a golden opportunity that was not to be wasted. Rather than wait until spring 1709, then to begin a direct attack toward Moscow, he would instead act immediately. Although it was already September, he would move south – leaving orders for the supply train that was on its way to him to follow. He would link up with Ivan Mazepa and his Cossacks in eastern Ukraine, winter there, and then move in a united front against Russia in the spring of 1709.

Charles’ bold plan quickly went awry. Peter got wind of what was going on, and managed to bring his army around to ambush and capture the supply train that was trying to catch up with Charles. Thus, Charles had to take his army into winter quarters with a critical shortage of supplies. In addition, Peter’s army was now behind Charles and across his lines of communication; that meant that the reinforcements that “his” Polish king was trying to send would be unable to reach him.

Charles had managed to reach eastern Ukraine and link up with Ivan Mazepa and the Cossacks. But he was effectively trapped, and his army was grossly undersupplied – and the Cossacks could not make that good. Charles’ army suffered a miserable winter in eastern Ukraine – losing thousands of men to disease; by the time spring arrived, Charles’ army was not only smaller – the survivors were weakened, and morale had suffered accordingly.

Charles needed to reap a quick success – both to gain supplies, and to restore the morale of his men. To that end, when spring 1709 arrived, he and his Cossack allies laid siege to the largest town in the area – Poltava.

As campaign season opened, Peter moved his revamped army southward, and took up a position north of Poltava. The decisive moment of the Great Northern War had arrived.

Charles and Peter were both men of action, not men of words. Neither of them left any sort of substantial paper trail, so we can only guess at what they were thinking and (perhaps more importantly) what they were assuming.

Given the drastic change in the strategic circumstances, both Charles and Peter were likely fully aware that the situation of the prior year had largely reversed itself – with Charles’ army now far from its base of supplies and isolated in a far corner of Ukraine. Both of them were certainly also aware of how the Swedish army had suffered a terrible winter and was in a weakened condition.

Peter’s army had spent a comfortable winter, and was in very good shape. The wild card – known to Peter, but perhaps unknown to Charles – was that this was a completely different Russian army than any that had previously appeared. Peter had studied his European peers and rivals with great care, and had built up an army that was well-armed, well-trained – and well-generaled.

In contrast, Charles must have found himself in a completely frustrating situation. As was his aggressive fashion, he had tried for two years to come to grips with Peter’s army – to defeat Russia and put a victorious end to the war (on Sweden’s terms). His ongoing attempt to take Poltava had obviously been prompted by the need to raise supplies locally for his army. But his continued dallying there through spring and into summer is somewhat puzzling. Was he still using his old playbook, and hoping to lure Peter into the final decisive battle? Was he confused by (for the first time) trying to lead a badly weakened army?

Given the situation, Charles should probably have tried to effect a retreat to friendly territory – to rest, re-arm, re-supply, and re-group. But, of course, that wasn’t Charles. And given past history, he may have been expecting that even in a weakened condition and badly outnumbered, his army would be – as it had been at Narva nearly nine years earlier – overwhelmingly superior to what he probably thought was the latest large-but-incompetent Russian army to appear against him.

The position that Peter’s army took up north of Poltava indicated that Peter’s officers had fully imbibed their recent training. That setting was designed to mask their real positions and confuse their adversary. There were fortified positions in the forest for most of the troops, with redoubts placed out in the open areas in front of the forest; the main position was a fortified encampment in the rear of the forested area.

The Russians took up their positions – and waited.

As June wound down, Charles had had enough. In the pre-dawn darkness of June 28th, 1709, the Swedish army assembled to make its attack.

Given past history, Charles was probably expecting that he could use his usual tactics – tactics which had quickly smashed a much larger Russian army at Narva. His crack troops would attack like a storm, and blast the Russians off the battlefield and into flight.

However, when his troops advanced at dawn toward the Russian redoubts and the forest beyond, it quickly became clear that something was different this time. The Russian troops either moved into the redoubts, or melted back into the forest. The redoubts were too strong to take quickly, so Charles’ troops quickly moved northward into the forest.

It was only when they reached the forest that they realized the complexity of the Russian position – with the Russian troops having withdraw into their main fortresses. Charles was able to ascertain that the key to the Russian position was the main fortified camp at the rear of the forest; however, his army was spread out too widely to make an effective attack. Charles gave the order for his troops to withdraw from the forest back into the open; there they would consolidate, and then make a rapid strike at the main fortified Russian camp.

However, things quickly went wrong. One of the best contingents in the Swedish army – 4,000 strong and led by Charles’ best field commander – got lost in the forest. As they blundered around, they moved in the wrong direction – and were soon surrounded by Russian troops; Peter’s officers now knew how to exploit a lucky opportunity when it came along. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and low on ammunition, this contingent was forced to surrender.

Charles waited for a crucial hour, hoping that this contingent would appear. Eventually – and from the sounds that likely drifted across the fields and forests – he had to have (at least) guessed about what had happened. It was now or never.

Charles attacked again. But this time, the Russians were ready for him.

The Swedish attack came under withering Russian artillery fire; despite efforts to press the attack, the Swedish lines wavered, and then retreated.

Now, Peter had the upper hand – and he used it well. His men filed out of their fortifications and formed up in a conventional line of battle. As they did this, it was quickly obvious to both Swedes and Russians that the numerical disparity between the two sides was now overwhelming – and unlike past times, this Russian army was a good one.

The Russian lines advanced, and in short order the exhausted (and depleted) Swedish army was routed and put to flight. Events had come full circle, and Peter’s new army was victorious.

It was a great victory for Peter and the Russians, and a completely catastrophic defeat for Charles and the Swedes – and for Charles’ Cossack allies.

Charles and the remnants of his army fled south, pursued by the Russians. Most of the remainder of the Swedish army surrendered a few days later, but Charles and a few of his officers and staff managed to reach relative safety in Ottoman-controlled Moldavia – where he was politely detained and forced to cool his heels for five years before being allowed to return to Sweden.

But the Swedish army that had been built up by a succession of Swedish kings and been the unbeatable scourge of the European battlefield for nearly a century was no more. Sweden’s army was gone, and Swedish power was broken forever.

The signal change in the political landscape of northern Europe was confirmed in the spring of 1715, when the tiny duchy of Prussia declared war on Sweden. This tiny starting point was to be nurtured along by a series of able rulers – including, some 50 years later the gifted Frederick II (soon to also be called “The Great”), who forged a formidable army, made Prussia a power in central Europe, and laid the foundation for what would eventually become the German Confederation.

By that time, Charles had finally been able to return to Sweden. With all the Swedish troubles, Denmark had re-entered the war, hoping to regain full control of the straits once again. Charles, ever energetic and ever imaginative, tried to counter the Danes by attacking (Danish-controlled) Norway; however, he was killed in battle there in November of 1718.

Sweden was now completely spent. It no longer had an army worth speaking of, or an officer corps – or even a capable leader. Sweden’s little remaining power was now completely broken.

Following Charles’ death, peace came – but for a somewhat odd reason. The war allies had suddenly more than achieved their aim of destroying overbearing Swedish power; however, the smashing of Swedish power had ended up being mostly a Russian doing – and therein lay the problem. Among all the other allies – and also some non-belligerents with interest, such as Britain (which was making inroads into Baltic sea commerce) – there was a fear that Sweden was perilously close to a complete collapse; this would leave a vacuum – one that only a suddenly-strong (and menacing) Russia could fill.

Pushed in particular by British diplomacy, Sweden and Russia reached a peace agreement in 1721. Russia had occupied Finland, but returned it to Sweden. Sweden ceded all its former territories to the south and east – Estonia, “Latvia,” Karelia, and the area around St. Petersburg – to Russia.

Diplomacy had managed to prop up Sweden, to a degree sufficient to – at least for the moment – contain the newly-aggressive status of Russia. Sweden was never again to come even close to attaining its prior powerful status. However, the notion of a revival persisted in Sweden throughout the 18th century; it was only in 1809 when Sweden lost Finland to Russia (somewhat compensated by one last victory over its old rival Denmark, in which Denmark finally lost Norway to Sweden in 1815) that Sweden finally gave up notions of trying to regain what it had lost.

As noted above, the main consequence of Poltava (and its aftermath) is that it marks a watershed in the history of eastern Europe. Sweden was destroyed forever as a major power, and now followed Poland into decline. A new order had emerged – one in which Prussia and Russia became the dominant players – a situation that continued (at least) well into the 20th century.

And as the 18th century unfolded, Sweden survived – but Poland did not. Growing weaker amidst powerful neighbors, pieces of what had been Poland were partitioned off – by Prussia, Russia, and Austria’s Hapsburg. With the third partition in 1795, Poland completely disappeared from the map – not to re-appear until 1918.

Another devastating outcome of Poltava was that it signified the crushing of Ivan Mazepa’s Cossack rebellion by Peter and the Russians. Ukraine was now firmly a part of the Russian Empire – where it would remain for another three centuries. As a consequence, the events surrounding the Battle of Poltava remain an irritant in Ukraine-Russia relations to this day.

Poltava provided one final irony for modern Ukraine, beyond the simple fact that the battle took place on its territory. The flag of Ukraine is a simple one; it consists of two simple, horizontal fields – a sky blue one above a golden yellow one. While a variety of explanations have been given for the origins of this flag – including the poetic (but likely apocryphal) one that it represents blue sky over a vast field of sunflowers – it seems unlikely to be purely coincidental that the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag are identical to the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag.

It is entirely possible that Ukraine was given its flag by the tearing of a piece from a Swedish flag taken on the field at Poltava. Somehow, that seems very ironic.

(N.b. 1 – I am very indebted in this essay to the one very good book on this topic: “The Northern Wars” by Robert I. Frost. This is a highly recommended read – in particular since it goes beneath just the “surface” military events to examine the critical details of how the various countries (most of whom faced severe climates for agriculture) were able to raise and maintain armies and navies.)

(N.b. 2 – If anyone notices, I’m also aware that there is considerable confusion about the exact date on which the battle took place – due both to some general confusion, and also due to the fact that, at the time, most non-Catholic countries refused to use “the Pope’s calendar” and remained on the old Julian system until 1752. But June 28 seems to be the most-quoted date, so that’s what we’ll use.)