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Finland's Struggle for Independence from Sweden in the 1780s


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Gunnar Damström

Swedish Finn noblemen Göran Magnus Sprengtporten and Gustaf Mauriz Armfelt were visiting Paris in 1778-1780 where they became acquainted with the governmental theories of the North American colonists and the French author/philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet, known as ‘Voltaire.’ France was actively supporting the rebels, and Benjamin Franklin was the U.S. minister to France. Sprengtporten volunteered for service in the French forces fighting alongside the colonists, but was refused, after which he began developing thoughts of separating his homeland from Swedish rule.

In 1785-1786, Sprengtporten was visiting Holland, and Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. minister to Paris. Might Sprengtporten and Jefferson have met? Influenced by the government's philosophies, Sprengtporten conceived a plan for establishing the United Provinces of Finland, a republic according to the North American model, under protection of the Russian Empire. In early 1786, he submitted a memorandum concerning his plan to the Russian ambassador to Holland, and the memorandum was promptly delivered to Catherine II and the Russian ambassador to Stockholm.

Sprengtporten grew progressively more alienated from Swedish King Gustavus III, although he had supported him during the 1772 Revolution. He participated in the Diet meeting in Stockholm, where in 1786 he joined the opposition to the King. In autumn 1786, Sprengtporten sailed from Stockholm for St. Petersburg, never to set foot in Sweden again. In St. Petersburg he was received with great honors by Catherine II, was promoted to General of the Russian Army, and received a sizeable salary.

The series of wars involving Sweden brought misery to Finland. Either Finland was the war theater or Finnish men were disproportionately drafted into the Swedish Army. Russian forces occupied Finland for eight years during the Great Wrath of 1710-1721, and again during the War of the Hats in 1741-1744. Many citizens doubted The Swedish government's ability to defend Finland from Russian aggression.

The discontent among the Finnish nobility came to a head when in clear conflict with the Swedish Constitution, Gustavus III declared war on Russia in 1788, without obtaining consent from the Congress. Considering war unlawful, there was mutiny as the army officers initiated negotiations with Russia for ending the war. The King personally led the war from his admiral's ship, but fled to Sweden, leaving the command to his brother. The officers' mutiny would have likely been successful had the rank and file soldiers not remained loyal to the King. The mutineers formed a group called the Anjala League and were later imprisoned and taken to Stockholm where most were condemned to death for high treason. All were pardoned save for one of the leaders, Swedish Finn

Colonel Johan Hästesko, who was beheaded on September 9, 1790 in Stockholm. Colonel Hästesko was a man of honor who refused to flee Swedish Justice and take refuge in Russia like many of the Anjala League members. In his trial, he argued that his actions were justified and driven by patriotism.

The discontent with Swedish Rule continued. During the Russian invasion of 1808 (the campaign planned by Sprengtporten) the Swedish Army mostly retreated. A critical event in the war was the surrender of the Sveaborg Fortress outside Helsinki, the strongest in Europe at the time. The commandant was Admiral Karl Olof Cronstedt, the aging hero of the 1792 naval battle of Svensksund, whose qualifications as fortress commandant were questionable as he surrendered the fortress without a real fight and with the consent of his officers. Some of his officers turned out to be agents of the Russians. There were collaborators among the civilian population of Helsinki, ostensibly among the Swedish officers' wives, who carried false and demoralizing information to the garrison. The loss of Sveaborg pretty much gave the death knell to the Swedish war effort. In the1809 treaty of Fredrikshamn, Sweden forever surrendered Finland to Russia.

Czar Alexander I, following Sprengtporten's recommendation, retained Finland as a distinct nation, a Grand Duchy part of the Russian Empire. The Finnish Diet was summoned to Borgå in March 1809, where Sprengtporten was honored to read the Czar's Sovereign Affirmation, and the Diet swore allegiance to the Czar. In the affirmation, the Czar promised to uphold Finland's old laws and religion and to respect the old rights of its citizens.

Soon after, Gustaf Mauriz Armfelt defected to St. Petersburg. Armfelt and Sprengtporten belonged to the inner circle of advisors to the Czar. On Armfelt's recommendation, the land that was lost in the wars of 1710-1721 and 1742-1743 was reincorporated into Finland. Sprengtporten was appointed the first Governor of the Grand Duchy, serving 1809-1810.

From 1809 until the outbreak of World War I, the Finnish nation was spared from warfare, save for some raids by the British in coastal areas during the Crimean War. From 1809 to 1878, Finland was exempt from military draft, and from 1878 the draft was numerically small in relation to the population. The unlawful expansion of the draft by the Governmental Edict of February 1899 could never be enforced due to civil resistance and draft dodging. As a result, the Finnish Nation was spared the terrible losses suffered by the Russian armies in the Russo Japanese war and World War I.

The independence struggle of the 1780s is largely forgotten, although the movement had a major influence on the foundation of Finland as an autonomous nation in March 1809.

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