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Gustav Lillbäck - the boy who became a devil


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In the last issue of Katternö publication there was an overview of the Great Northern War in Finland, as part of the war known as the Great Northern War, 1700-1721. It described how a large part of Ostrobothnia was devastated, how people were systematically murdered, about how 20,000 people, mostly children and young people, were taken as slaves to Russia and how some 30,000 people, mainly from urban areas, fled to the western part of the country. Not many were left to tell about the atrocities. And those who could do it often tried to forget their experiences. But of Gustav Lillbäck, son of the sheriff in Ii, there is extensive documentation.

The description below is based largely on Kustaa Vilkuna's book "The Devil's War", the core of which is the story of Gustav Lillbäck.

Gustav Lillbäck was born just before the Great Northern War was launched, as the second of the sheriff Gustaf (fl. Kyösti) Lillbäcka's and wife Beata Lillbäck's children. The baptism was conducted by the chaplain in Oulu. A young man who was studying to be a priest, Abraham Frosterus, witnessed the baptism as a godfather.

The son of Gustav had the same name as his father, but the Finnish version of the name was Kustaa.

Sheriff Lilllbäck was tied to an influential farming family, and his father had also for a period served as sheriff. The wife Beata came from a family of Lübeck who were adopted as citizens of Oulu.

As the sheriff's son, Gustav Lillbäck followed his father on his missions and helped him with the records. They gave detailed knowledge about the conditions and about the inhabitants and their property in Ii parish, which at that time stretched into the country to Pudasjärvi.

Gustav Lillbäck's escape on skis began when the Russians attacked the home farm Hiivala on the last day of 1714. Two of the brothers were taken as prisoners, while Gustav managed to slip away. His value as a young slave motivated the Cossacks who followed him; ski tracks in the snow could easily be followed.

In a column with a hundred other children and adolescents from Oulu and surrounding parishes, Gustav Lilllbäck was then marched through Savo to Vyborg. In the column were also Gustav's brothers and their cousin Kristoffer Toppelius.

(As told in the previous Katternö article Kristoffer Toppelius returned after many years to his home area and became the great-grandfather of the writer Zacharias Topelius.)

The patrol that took Gustav Lillbäck prisoner was led by the Cossack corporal Fyodor Fyodorovich, and Gustav thus became his property. Fyodor Fjodorovitj's data included collecting war taxes and the humiliation and punishment of the people. Looting and rapes were part of his everyday deeds.

Kustaa Vilkuna describes how the captured youngsters systematically underwent Russianization. Gifted children - of which Gustav obviously was - learned Russian so well in a year that they could act as interpreters for the Russian occupation army.

The official Russification was considered to be through rebaptism to the orthodox doctrine. It tied the young people to their Russian masters, the Russian army and the Russian Empire. Rebaptism helped prisoners escape deportation to Tatar country.

Gustav Lillbäck in his rebaptism was named Vasily. With that he was no longer regarded as a prisoner or slave, but as Fyodor Fjororovij's own son. Kustaa Vilkuna describes how the Cossack corporal conscientiously fulfilled his fatherly duties towards Vasily, who in turn learned to behave like a Russian soldier.

In January 1716 Vasily Lillbäck returned with his new father Fyodor Fyodorovich to Northern Ostrobothnia as interpreter and interrogator.

During a battle in Siikajoki, where the Russians simply slaughtered a troop of peasants, Vasily acquired the rite of passage with an ax to give the coup de grace to wounded opponents. As a gift, Fyodor Fyodorovich gave a captured horse and a rifle to his son. Vasily Lillbäck's status and freedom of movement grew with it.

Kustaa Vilkuna: "Russian farmhands had been brought to violence by violence, and when they suddenly incomprehensiblly had so much power in relation to the common people, they made the most of it. With guns, sticks and whips, they performed the Russian army's order in a state of unrestrained eagerness."

The torture begins.

The last week of January 1716 Vasily Lillback began his career as a torturer. The first victims were the couple Gabriel and Anna Teppelius from Oulu. They had fled to the forests of Ylikiiminki and arrested. Vasily Lillback had known the pair previously.

The treatment was the same for both. They were tied behind with a rope, the rope was thrown over a ceiling beam, and the victims were hoisted up in the air. Getting your arms pulled backwards and upwards in this way is very painful. The couple was also beaten and whipped.

Anna Teppelius, who was highly pregnant, cried appealingly to "Gustav", her torturer, who was furious at being spoken to by his old name. She seems to have been rescued after the other torturers intervened.

But this was just a quiet start. Brutality was one of the objectives. It could be justified by saying the Tsar ordered the destruction. Another was to impose taxes by the occupying power. But often the driving force to plunder was for their own profit or pleasure.

As the war approached Northern Ostrobothnia, many had hidden away prized possessions by burying them. They knew the occupiers, and threats and torture was their method to ascertain the hiding places.

As an interpreter Vasily Lillbäck had an advantage also over the Russians. By translating selectively he could retain information for himself about interesting items to loot. But then it was important to not arouse suspicions of the superiors and to avoid the risk that people reported him.

One method was to murder those who confessed. Vasily Lillbäck started this method in Liminka in March 1716. Jaakko Vähä and old master Riski were discovered in the woods and confessed under torture about their neighbor's hideout. Riski was murdered immediately, while Jaakko died a week later after being severely beaten.

Next stop was Oulunsalo, where Vasily Lillbäck led a long sequence of atrocities, beginning in Ervastila's house. Five women were hiding in the attic but were revealed by two captured maids. The women were tied behind and taken to a neighboring farm Tiltula where there were already a number of other prisoners and were tortured for three days.

One of the women, Pirkko Piipari, was hung from the ceiling with her hands tied. Vasily Libäck struck the woman for everything he was worth until she was nearly unconscious. When she lifted down, her daughter appealed to him not to kill her mother.

"Then give me her money and her silver," shrieked Vasily and hit the final death blow to Pirkko Piipari with a lump of wood.

The next victim was Simo Ervasti who described a hideaway where Oulu citizen Johan Uhlbom had hidden money. Simo Ervasti reckoned that he would be released, but Vasily took out his bloody birch club and slew him also.

In this manner, the brutalities continued. Before nighttime Vasily took a woman and raped her. The next day he left a group of children together in one house, killing one of them and left the others to freeze to death

So continues the account in Kustaa Vilkuna's book, detailed with so many examples that it becomes unbearable. Vilkuna also describes how the Russians occasionally are surprised by Vasily Lillbäck's brutality.

A twelve- year-old girl, Riitta Laanila, stood out by not showing Vasily the respect he demanded. He began to beat her with a birch cane and shouted that he will continue to beat until she begs for mercy. Answers Riitta Laanila, "I hand over everything to God's hands. Lord Jesus, have mercy upon my soul." Whereupon Vasily continued beating until she was unconscious and later the same day she died from injuries.

Kustaa Vilkuna: "Everywhere in Finland, there were plenty of Russian farmhands who wanted respect and honor like Lillbäck. But what separated Lillbäck from many others, and at the same time showed what position he achieved with his brutality, was that "no one dared to go against him despite that he was alone "

Vasily Lillbäck's reputation as a cruel war criminal spread throughout the province. He was the worst of them all, worse than the occupiers, a devil figure.


The turn came the summer of 1717. The Russians began to introduce civil rule in Finand and reduced its forces in Northern Ostrobothnia. The guerrilla bands gained ground and began to direct their attacks against the Russian soldiers still remaining. Fyodor Fjodorovitj's troop department withdrew southwards to Vasa to reduce the risk of their own losses.

Ostrobothnia was now so destroyed that it was no longer able to support any major troops. Kustaa Vilkuna describes how the buildings in many parishes were almost completely wiped out. In Oulu and Liminka, where before the war there were nearly a thousand farms, now just 60 farms were entered in the tax list. The same level of destruction was in Siikajoki, Pyhäjoki, Ii and Kalajoki.

Karleby, Vetil, Kelviå and Lochteå were destroyed, as well as Kronoby, Lappajärvi, Jakobstad and Nykarleby. Half of Vörå was deserted. South of Vasa, Malax, Närpes and Lappfjärd had been destroyed in the beginning of the Wrath.

With civil government started, the remaining people hoped for a future. Russian farmhands and interpreters of the Russian troops had to move back to Russia, and they were not eager to go. More and more began to flee, and a place to escape to was precisely the parts of Ostrobothnia that the Russian troops had left.

So did Vasily Lillbäck in October 1717. He stole a small amount of money, a horse and an old silver spoon from his master, was once again Gustav Lillbäck, and rode away to his parents' home in Ii.

Fyodor Fyodorovich did not let him escape the theft In the summer of 1718 he went to a patrol heading north to return the fugitive. In Kalajoki he met the chaplain in Liminka, Johan Hedreaus, who said that Gustav Lillbäck had been tried and sent to Stockholm.

The fact was that Gustav Lillbäck himself had asked to cancel the Orthodox baptism and he be restored as a member of Ii parish. This presupposed, however, an investigation of the applicant's actual relationship to the faith.

When Ii and Pudasjärvi's summer court was held in early June 1718 matters took a different turn than Gustav had thought. It was a trial for his crimes. Lillbäck explained that he had been a minor (under 15 years) at the capture and had not acted on his own will but by compulsion. But his defense speech did not help. He was arrested and taken to Stockholm, to be accountable to the Åbo Court of Appeal.

Witnesses talk

Thus begins a new chapter in the story of Gustav Lillbäck. The trial was to last over two years and lead to investigations and debates. The main question was whether Gustav Lillbäck could be held responsible for his actions.

Gustav Lilllbäck originated the idea in prison in Stockholm to eloquently write down his story. A letter was written directly to Queen Ulrika Eleonora and depicts how he as a poor prisoner sits innocently imprisoned. He points out that he had to obey the orders of the Russians, and that he bravely escaped from the enemy after three years as a slave of a brutal enemy.

In a letter to the members of the Court of Appeals Gustav explains that he is the victim of unjust accusations by malevolent people. He proves his claim with two written certificates signed by three people, Juho Pekanpoika Tiesko, Iisakki Matinpoika and Juho Juhonpoika.

Step by step during the trial process Gustav was forced to retreat. The reputation of the trial spread to the many Ostrobothnians living as refugees in Stockholm, and more and more witnesses came forward and gave details of Gustav's deeds.

After the testimony, Kaarina Matintytär from Oulu asked Gustav whether he as a Christian was not plagued by whipping the poor people.

Gustav changed tactics by arguing that he had done many good deeds which saved people from even worse brutality. The Court asked how he tormented the people and got this answer:

"We used three different torture methods. Firstly, to bind the hands behind the back and hang up the person in the ceiling, second lashes, and third burning."

Regarding the burning inflicted, Gustaf sometimes shoved a person head first and sometimes feet first into the furnace and lit it. The heat was so hot that people sweated and often burned their clothes in the fire. It was not deadly, he argued, but a good way to press for results. The people became more willing to revealing where they hid their property.

In October 1719, there was a staggering blow for Gustav. Abraham Frosterus, his godfather at the baptism, showed the court his old almanac, which showed that the baptism took place 29 December 1699. In other words, Gustav Lillbäck was 15 years old when he was captured and was therefore criminally of age.

In February 1720 Gustaf's position became worse. After testimony by Juha Pekanpoika Tiesko, Iisakki Matinpoika and Juho Juhonpoika, it was revealed that the certificates which he refered to are counterfeit.

There was a question for the Court of Appeals about the legal principles to be applied. Against each other were Deputy Court of Appeals president Sven Leijonmarck (formerly Agricola) who believed that Gustav should be pardoned under the IPDC International law, and the Court of Appeals president Johan Cruetz, who required a harsh penalty.

Behind this lurked a power struggle. Creutz represented the highest aristocrats while Leijonmarck was among senior officials and the upstart nobility. The gap was significant, but in the end Creutz won.

In February 1721 the Court of Appeals submitted the case to the king for judgment.

The end of Gustav Lillbäck was shameful. A common death sentence was not considered adequate. First, they cut one of his hands off, then his head,. The severed hand was nailed to a pole to display.

From Katternö, #1-2015

Svenolof Karlsson

Translated from Swedish by June Pelo

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