Serhii Plokhy, editor. Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth. Harvard Papers in Ukrainian Studies series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute Harvard University, 2012. ISBN 978-1-932650-09-9. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. xxv, 703. $29.95 (paperback).
The battle of Poltava (1709) fought in the Ukraine between the forces of Peter I of Russia (ruled 1682-1725) and Charles XII of Sweden (ruled 1697-1718) is viewed as a decisive event in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Charles XII had temporarily defeated a coalition of Denmark, Russia, and Poland-Saxony at the start of this long conflict. However, after mopping up in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish monarch turned his attention once again towards Russia. The Swedish invasion was stopped by the Russians at Poltava in 1709, and Charles XII was forced to retreat with the remnants of his army into Ottoman territory. Russia would be recognized as a Great Power in the Baltic Region. The defeat at Poltava was a factor in decline of Sweden as a Great Power. And, Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s unfortunate backing of Charles XII against the Tsar resulted in a major setback to Ukrainian independence.
A group of international scholars met at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute to present papers on the 300th anniversary of the battle of Poltava in 2009. Scholars from various fields, including history, literature, music, art history, philology, and linguistics, examine the battle and its importance in Russian and Ukrainian history and culture. Readers of International History will be most interested in the papers on the military and geopolitical importance of Poltava.
In discussing the battle of Poltava, Dr Donald Ostrowski, Lecturer at Harvard University’s Extension School, challenges the traditional view that Peter I took an out-of-date army, brought it up to the standards of a western army, and defeated Charles XII in battle. Instead, Ostrowski suggests that the Tsar inherited a military that was already undergoing westernization since the reign of his father, Tsar Aleksei (ruled 1645-1676). But, at the start of the Great Northern War, Charles XII defeated the Russian troops besieging the Swedish fortress at Narva (1700). The Tsar believed his army was defeated because his cavalry retreated leaving his infantry to face the brunt of the Swedish attack. He chalked it up to inexperience (p.92). What changed in the next nine years was Peter I’s recruitment and training of a large number of dragoon (mounted infantry) regiments. He needed the dragoons to counter the high number of mounted troops employed in the Swedish army. The author shows that Sweden differed from western armies with nearly fifty percent of Charles XII’s army consisting of mounted forces (p.90).
In 1708, Charles XII’s army invaded Russian territory. The Russians dropped back and employed the steppe tactic of a scorched-earth policy to cause logistical problems and weaken the Swedish army. Charles XII was forced into turning his army south to the Ukraine to search for support and supplies. In June 1709, the Swedish army advanced against the fortified positions of a much larger Russian army. Ostrowski shows that Peter I employed twenty-six dragoon regiments and four dragoon squadrons at Poltava (p.89). These regiments, as Ostrowski points out, “proved a match for the Swedish dragoon and cavalry regiments on which Charles XII relied” (p.82). The dragoons, about 30,000 out of the 70,000 Russian troops at Poltava, served as both cavalry and infantry giving the Russians a highly mobile force to counter any Swedish moves in the battle (p.95). The dragoons allowed the Russia infantry and artillery to win the day.
Dr Peter B. Brown, Professor in the Department of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Rhode Island College in Providence, suggests that Peter I’s victory at Poltava was the result the long evolution of Russian army involvement in the so-called Military Revolution or what he likes to call the “early modern European arms race.” This military arms transformation began with Tsar Ivan III in the late 1480s, was evident in Tsar Aleksei’s war against Poland-Lithuania in the Thirteen Years War (1654-1667), Russian wars against the Ottomans in the late seventeenth century, and culminated in Peter I’s success against Sweden at Poltava.
In his essay, Dr Paul Bushkovitch, Professor of History at Yale University, addresses the impact of the Russian victory in the Great Northern War on the question of local autonomy during the reign of Peter I. He focuses on the Ukrainian Hetmanate and the Baltic provinces of Estland and Livonia. In the first case, the Russian victory was a disaster for the Ukrainian Hetmanate as an autonomous political unit within the Russian state. The Tsar did not forget or forgive Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s support for Charles XII of Sweden. The Russian victory resulted in a major reduction of political autonomy. On the other hand, Russian success freed the Baltic provinces from Sweden and led to the reestablishment of political autonomy in the region.
On a similar note, Dr Robert I. Frost, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, brings to our attention the impact of the Russian victory on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. King Stanisław I Leszczyński, backed by Charles XII since 1704, lost his throne, and Augustus II of Saxony was restored as the monarch of Poland-Lithuania. Historians have traditionally pointed to this period as the beginning of Russian domination over the Commonwealth and the decline in the international position of Poland-Lithuania. But, Frost shows that recent historical views disagree with this interpretation, arguing that Russia was not yet in a position to dominate the Commonwealth. Even so, Frost believes that there is not enough evidence to prove that the victory at Poltava led to the Polish-Lithuanian spiral into dependence on Russia.
“Contrary to popular opinion, the victory at Poltava did not bring Russia into the ranks of the European powers” (p.188). Focusing on the geopolitics of Western Eurasia, Dr John LeDonne of Harvard University’s Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute, explains the full geopolitical significance of the battle of Poltava. The core powers of Western Eurasia at that time consisted of Russia, Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, and the Ottoman Empire. Peter I’s forward policy was directed against Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, and the Ottoman Empire. Russia defeated Sweden at Poltava, with the result of weakening Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. “In the long run,” according to LeDonne, “the victory at Poltava transformed Russia into the greatest power in Western Eurasia and laid the foundation for a long-term offensive policy against the Turks to achieve hegemony in the Black Sea basin” (p.187).
The essays in Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth provide a wide-range of views regarding Russia, the Ukraine, and others. The study is well worth reading. Other important studies regarding Poltava are Peter Englund’s The Battle of Poltava: The Birth of the Russian Empire (1992; reprinted as The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire ), Angus Konstam’s Poltava 1709: Russia Comes of Age (1994), Ragnhild M. Hatton’s Charles XII of Sweden (1969), and Lindsey Hughes’ Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (1998).
Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota