The authors of the following polemical notes are not professional historians. One is a veteran newspaper reporter and the other teaches at a military college placing him far from the humanitarian domain. Yet history with its mysteries and sharp bends has long attracted both. Quite unexpectedly, proceeding from what can be described as different points of departure, we arrived at similar conclusions. Many of our historians are incredibly biased, mildly speaking, this being the result of an almost century-old development of the “Soviet tradition of historical sciences.” Alas, its metastases still affects contemporary scholars.
Let us illustrate using an eloquent example, the famous Battle of Poltava. One of us visited Sweden and did quite some digging in Stockholm archives, bringing back plenty of food for thought. The conclusions we arrived at after studying the copies of archival documents were also sufficiently paradoxical.
To begin, consider the reasons for the defeat of Charles XII and his army at Poltava. The scorched earth policy was carried out meticulously as villages and stores were burned down before the advancing Swedish troops. This is regarded as Peter I’s doubtless “tactical merit.” The devastating winter of 1708-09, spent by the Swedes at Romny, Zinkiv, Hadiach, and Opishnia, is considered by a Swedish historian as an inevitable consequence of the defeat suffered by General Levenhaupt’s corps at Lisna. On September 28, 1708, the Swedes lost some 10,000 men, all their artillery, and over 7,000 wagons of provisions. Peter I called it the mother of the Battle of Poltava (the one at Lisna took place precisely nine months earlier). The Swedes expected help from the Poles and Crimean Tatars, but in vain. To make things worse, Charles XII was wounded shortly before the battle. He, regarded by every Swedish soldier as a mascot of victory, was now immobilized. He could not mount a horse and appear on the battlefield. Instead, he was carried on a stretcher. In the crucial battle the Russians, by Swedish historians’ estimates, were five times numerically superior. At one of his last military councils Charles XII said he did not wish himself or any other servicemen to return alive from that campaign, more than convincing proof of the king’s and his men’s morale on the eve of the Battle of Poltava. Nevertheless, the Swedish Army remained sufficiently battle worthy by the summer of 1709 and its leader acted prudently.
One of the myths used by Russian historians to extol Russian military skill is the alleged heroic defense of the Poltava fortress in April-May 1709. In actuality, there was no defense as such, because the Swedes went around it for the sole purpose of forcing the Russians to engage in a decisive battle.
In 1999, a conference commemorating the 290th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava took place in Kyiv. The Swedish delegation was led by Brigadier General Einar Lith and he asked what the legend on the monument to Colonel Kelin, commandant of Poltava at the time, meant. On hearing about the gallant defender of the fortress, he asked if the interpreter was sure of his translation. Later, back in Sweden, he showed one of these authors some interesting documents, including the diary of Swedish Lieutenant Robert Petre who miraculously survived the battle of Lisna and was taken prisoner at Poltava. During the siege he was in command of a platoon in the eastern sector of the fortress. In his diary the lieutenant mentions clashes with the besieged, Swedish attempts to undermine the wall, Russians digging countermines and disarming Swedish mines. But there was not a word about a single attempt to storm the fortress. The most interesting entry in the diary concerns a conversation between Charles XII and Colonel von Binau, overheard by the lieutenant. The colonel was in command of the siege artillery. He wanted the king to give his two batteries just six hours and the fortress would fall. The king politely declined, although there was enough powder and ammunition. On May 16, 1709, the Swedish king ordered Colonel Golovin’s detachment enter the fortress without engaging the enemy. In contrast, quite a few Russian historians describe that detachment’s heroic raid, with the men dressed as Swedish soldiers. Two days later, the besieged did try a raid on the Swedish encampment. A pitched battle ensued and many were killed. Colonel Golovin was taken prisoner of war.
Plenty of diaries and memoirs of Poltava veterans are stored in the Poltava Room of the Royal Military Archives in Stockholm. It is a far cry from the Russian archives. Almost all Swedish soldiers could read and write. Very few Russian men could. This explains the Swedish historians’ expressly skeptical attitude toward both Soviet and Russian historiography. Bias is manifest in the textbooks, reference sources, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Pro-Russian sentiments are obvious in the encyclopedic dictionary, Poltavshchyna (Poltava, early 1990s). It reads that the Russian Army numbered 42,000 men in the historic Battle of Poltava (June 27, 1709) and that there were 30,000 men under the command of Charles XII. The Stockholm Daily News (May 27, 1902) wrote, “Was Poltava a shameful defeat for Sweden? Was the defeat of the aggressor army of 12,000 starving and half-clothed men, with four pieces of artillery, at the hands of a well-fed and equipped army of 50,000-60,000 men with 72 artillery pieces that much of a disgrace?” In 1992, Swedish historian and writer Peter Englund wrote in his monograph on the Battle of Poltava that the Russian Army was numerically twice as strong.
Just how much stronger the Russian Army was is a sensitive yet rather principal question. Even assuming that it was twofold (with overwhelming artillery superiority), there is less reason to extol Peter I’s military genius. The uncompromisingly Swedish debunking is not very pleasant even for us Ukrainians (let us stress again that this view is supported by archival documents). Swedish scholars are cautiously critical also of Hetman Mazepa, while the latter is extolled by Ukrainian historians in a somewhat exaggerated manner, without sufficient reason, while their Russian colleagues continue hurling buckets of dirt on him. Perhaps it was out of discretion that the Swedes did not reprint Alfred Jensen’s collection Ukraine, first published in Stockholm, in 1921, with a separate article dedicated to Ivan Mazepa. Relying on unique seventeenth century archival documents, the author offers a quite interesting life story of the Ukrainian hetman at the Polish royal court. The said documents show that not all of Mazepa’s deeds were in agreement with moral dictates, even allowing for the epoch (of course, nothing can be judged by today’s standard). As a result, serious damage was done not only to the reputation of Ukrainian statesmen, but also to the prestige of Ukraine as a whole. Similar adventures may have taken place in the life of other noted individuals at the time. Nobody is perfect. Is this why some countries have birds, flowers, architectural sites, and such, on their banknotes, instead of idealized personalities?
Ukrainian historians’ biased, mythologized attitude toward their celebrated compatriots can be understood in a way. They correctly regard the Battle of Poltava as both the peak of the Great Northern War (1700-21) and the last chance for Ukrainian independence under a Swedish protectorate. The annulment of the Hetmanate, forced assimilation by deporting Ukrainians to remote provinces of the Russian Empire, restrictions on use of the Ukrainian language — all this began after the battle. Few can doubt its consequences; here the Swedish, Russian- Soviet, and Ukrainian views are almost identical. Sweden lost its status as a great power won on the battlefields of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Ukraine did lose its chance of freedom. Russia could for the first time announce its presence as a superpower, young as it was, followed by almost two centuries of imperial expansion. Still, against the background of self-evident historical facts, the desire of certain contemporary historians to eulogize the heroism of Peter I’s men looks very naive, especially where such eulogies are, mildly speaking, irrelevant. Hence, too, the desire to enlarge on the “civilizing mission” of the Russian state, allegedly pertaining to all of its conquered peoples. But that is a different story.
Swedish historians are fully knowledgeable of Ukraine and its contacts with Sweden, extending back more than a century. They know about Swedish Princess Ingigerth, daughter of king Olaf [Olof Skotkonung in Old Swedish, or Olaf The Tax King], who married Kyiv Grand Prince Yaroslav I the Wise, and about how Old Rus’ princes invited Vikings to settle internal disputes. Most importantly, their approach to all events in Europe betrays no subjectivism or vanity. In Sweden and many other Western European countries, they try to see history for what it really is, without any frills.
In 1999, during a regular international conference on military history in Stockholm, an exhibit of modern historical literature was organized under a Swedish cultural program. Most of the publications boasted top quality print, makeup, cover design, containing photo copies of unique historical documents with the text in several European languages. And no commentaries (except references explaining who wrote what to whom). It is an approach to history best described as civilized: Look, read, and think for yourself.