Sveaborg – The key to the birth of Finland and its capital

imageWithout the Sveaborg army base just off the coast of the city, then tiny Helsinki might never have become the capital of Finland.  Panu Pulma, PhD, a university lecturer on Finnish and Nordic history, tells us how Sveaborg, today known as Suomenlinna, made Helsinki a strong contender to become Finland’s capital.

The year 1748 was a turning point. At first, only the citizens of Helsinki were affected, as soldiers, workers, artisans and servants started to pour into the city, first by the dozens, soon after by the hundreds and eventually thousands. For a town with a population of less than two thousand, this boom was both beneficial and harmful.

The reason for this mass migration was the extensive fortification work required both on the islands off the coast of Helsinki and in the town itself. As a result, Helsinki grew and prospered so that, by the start of the 19th century, its population exceeded 4,000 and it had become a major hub for foreign and domestic trade. Next to the town a fortress and a naval base had been created, and its inhabitants, who included soldiers, artisans, workers and servants, had come to form an equally impressive population; the twin town of Helsinki-Sveaborg now had a combined population rivalling that of the city of Turku.

What the citizens of Helsinki did not notice was that the fortress, named Sveaborg by the Swedish and known as Viapori to the Finns, was also causing a reaction abroad. For one, the Sveaborg sea fortress threatened Russian military interests, and not just in the Gulf of Finland. After all, Sveaborg’s naval and military position enabled Sweden to monitor the Baltic sea’s traffic – in the 18th century, the sea was still the quickest and most important mode of transportation.

The reaction in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, was swift.  Russia bolstered its defences in its naval bases in Kronstadt, which guarded the approach to St. Petersburg, and Paldiski in Estonia, as well as in lake Saimaa, Finland, on the north-westerly edge of Russia.  The Swedish-Russian border ran parallel to the river Kymijoki, just a hundred kilometres away from Sveaborg, where the town of Kotka stands today. 

The history books tell us how in 1807, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon signed a treaty in Tilsit, which obligated Russia to pressure Sweden into joining the Continental Blockade formed to prevent trading with England. Many sources say that Russia was promised sovereignty over Finland as a reward for this. Russia had already occupied Finland twice before, but its interests lay solely in the south-eastern parts of the country. Did Russia really want to conquer Finland?

In the winter of 1808, Russia attacked, forcing the Swedish army to retreat. The towns of Loviisa, Porvoo and Helsinki quickly fell under Russian rule. In March of that year, the siege of Sveaborg began; the same Sveaborg whose walls by now sheltered not only soldiers, but a civilian population numbering in the thousands. As a result of a treaty between Sveaborg’s commandant, Admiral Cronstedt, and General J. P. van Suchtelen of Russia, Sveaborg surrendered on the 3rd of May 1808.

The reaction in St. Petersburg was a clear indication of what Russia’s main objective in the war had been, along with defeating Sweden. No other victory in the war gave St. Petersburg such cause for celebration as the defeat of Sveaborg, not even the Treaty of Fredrikshamn, which a year later ceded Finland to Russia.

The 9th of May was a day of great victory parades and festive church services, as the Russians finally celebrated the conquering of Sveaborg and “all of Finland”. The main goal of the war had been achieved – long before Russia eventually took full control of Finland. By this time, Russia controlled the entire Gulf of Finland and had gained a naval base with a military capacity that greatly overshadowed the significance of its other fortresses. The Sveaborg-Paldiski-Kronstadt triangle would continue to serve as the cornerstone of Russian military strategy in the Baltic all the way into the 20th century.

So the year 1748 truly was a turning point. It was the year when the hugely ambitious project to build the "Gibraltar of the North" began; a naval base that Russia coveted so as to safeguard its capital, St. Petersburg. The Finnish woodlands were of no interest to Russia, but they were annexed along with Sveaborg.

Without Sveaborg, Russia would never have created the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Without Sveaborg, nobody would have looked to build the twin town of Helsinki-Sveaborg and into a “new Alexandria”, as the prospective capital came to be known during construction. Indeed, when Helsinki was declared the capital of Finland in 1812, the main reasoning behind the decision was Sveaborg. Sveaborg gave birth to Finland.

Panu Pulma

Panu Pulma, PhD, is a lecturer of Finnish and Nordic history at the University of Helsinki. He leads a research project funded by the Academy of Finland that studies the effect that the construction of the Sveaborg military base (today known as Suomenlinna) had on the societal development of the Baltic area. As a Swedish naval base, Sveaborg served as an important centre for innovation, relaying the most advanced and modern European technologies of its day to the Baltic area. The project focuses especially on the effects that the increased demand for construction equipment and labour during the building of the fortress had on the southern Finnish countryside and the town of Helsinki. At the same time, researchers aim to increase their understanding of the cultural and social effects of Sveaborg’s military society.