Top 173 Things in History: #78. The Great Northern War

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Northern War was not the dramatic final meeting between the United States and Iceland at the end of D2: The Mighty Ducks. Rather, it was a 21-year war between Sweden and a group of northern nations, headlined by Russia under Peter the Great. I know what you’re thinking already: Wait, Sweden in a war? Sweden taking on Russia and others? Preposterous!

How’s this for even more preposterousness: This could be the single most underrated war in world history.

The Great Northern War, in fact, marks the Exit: Stage Left of Sweden’s status as an international power. Entering the war, the Swedes were like the early 2000s Oakland A’s, with Charles XII playing the role of Billy Beane. With a smaller army and lesser resources than the traditional Western powers, the Swedes valued small arms–like Hudson, Zito, and Mulder–and built a minor empire on the Baltic, stretching their territory into Finland, Denmark, and even Germany.

In the meantime, Peter the Great was rebuilding Russia in his own quasi-Western, very tall image. Peter started taking back the land the Swedes had conquered, including the plot along the Neva River that became St. Petersburg.

As the war progressed, Charles XII turned down numerous opportunities for peace, including the chance to compromise with Peter (ceding St. Petersburg but regaining his other territory) and the chance to ally with the French—who at that point were on the precipice of dominating Europe via the War of Spanish Succession. Charles’ intransigence ended up costing him the war, as his troops could not survive the brutal Russian winter. This was to become a theme of wars involving imperialist leaders and the Russians (see: Bonaparte, Napoleon and Hitler, Adolf).

Russia’s victory at the Battle of Poltava on June 27, 1709—three-hundred years ago today—completely reversed the war and in a single day established Russia as a player on the global stage while ending Sweden’s influence.

If the Great Northern War had gone differently, not only must we imagine a world in which Sweden, and not Russia, controlled north and east Europe, but we must also consider how the Swedes could have benefited the French in the War of Spanish Succession. It is conceivable to think that, with the help of the Swedish A’s, France could have won the war and established a new empire on the Continent—one that couldn’t have been taken down by the Knuckle Puck.

One response to this post.

  1. […] between the Spanish and Dutch came in the 18th century with the War of the Spanish Succession. I’ve already hinted at the importance of this war in the past; if Philip V of Spain had been allowed to unite the crowns of Spain and France, he could have […]


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