Battle of Poltava Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peter the Great’s reformed and modernized Russian army secured a major victory over the Swedish army led by Charles XII. The victory marked the ascendancy of Russia over Sweden as a European power and secured the newly founded city of St. Petersburg as a potential capital of the Russian Empire.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Sweden was a major power in northeastern Europe. Its substantial holdings in Germany were the result of Gustavus II Adolphus’s victories in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) nearly seven decades before. In addition, Sweden held large tracts of land in eastern Europe, in what would become modern Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. [kw]Battle of Poltava (June 27, 1709) [kw]Poltava, Battle of (June 27, 1709) Russian-Swedish conflicts[Russian Swedish conflicts] Swedish-Russian conflicts[Swedish Russian conflicts] Russian Empire Poltava, Battle of (1709) [g]Russia;June 27, 1709: Battle of Poltava[0280] [g]Ukraine;June 27, 1709: Battle of Poltava[0280] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 27, 1709: Battle of Poltava[0280] Peter the Great Charles XII Mazepa, Ivan Stepanovich Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich

Furthermore, Sweden was ruled by a warrior monarch. Charles XII was a sternly religious man of spartan tastes who liked nothing better than to be in the field, fighting a battle or preparing for one. After his coronation at the tender age of eighteen in 1700, Charles had left Stockholm for his first military campaign, and he never saw his country’s capital again. In personal physical courage he was comparable to the great Gustavus II Adolphus, routinely entering the thick of battle without any regard for his own safety. Since he was not merely a constitutional figurehead but the actual ruler of his country, Charles’s physical bravery also meant that every battle placed his country in danger of being suddenly left without a leader. He carried on his nation’s civil government, such as it was, from his field headquarters wherever he might currently be campaigning and sent orders by messenger back to Stockholm.

The Great Northern War Great Northern War (1701-1721) set Charles on a collision course with one of the true giants of his era, Peter the Great of Russia. Peter was not only physically huge but also possessed of a lively and inquisitive mind that sought to master pursuits far beyond the range considered usual for a reigning monarch. Determined that his nation must overcome its backwardness and imitate the culture of Western Europe Westernization;Russia or ultimately become overwhelmed by it, Peter had set Russia on a course of modernization that had attracted the wrath of his nation’s traditionalists. In 1703, he had founded a new city, St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia] on land newly captured from the Swedes but not formally ceded to Russia by treaty. This city was to become Peter’s window to the West, a means by which to impose upon Russia’s leadership those elements of Western culture that he considered most needful.

Charles XII had handily beaten the Russians in one of the first battles of the Great Northern War. While the Swedish king was dealing with Poland-Saxony, however, Peter had used the time to rebuild his army on a modern model and had seized the Swedish territory around the area of Lake Lagoda, where he had begun to build St. Petersburg. Incensed by this affront, Charles marched his army into Russia with the intention of taking Moscow. However, the Russian forces refused to meet him in open combat, instead allowing the vast distances and substantial climatological obstacles of Russia to drain the strength of the Swedish army. At length, Charles decided to head to the warm, fertile lands of the Ukraine, where he had an ally in the Cossack Cossacks leader Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa, who wanted to establish an independent Cossack state in the Ukraine. Ukraine

Mazepa was a colorful figure, having studied in the West and traveled as far as the Netherlands while retaining his wild Cossack heritage. However, the story of his having been tarred, feathered, and tied to his horse as punishment for an affair with a noble lady in the court of the Polish king and subsequently found by Cossacks who made him their leader in admiration of his toughness is a fabrication. In fact, he came to the leadership of the Cossacks through a more usual route, having served under the previous leader, or hetman. Although he was elected by an assembly that had just concluded unfavorable terms with Russia, Mazepa hoped to unite all the Ukrainian Cossacks into a state that would combine Western ideas of government with traditional Cossack forms and somehow coexist peaceably with Russia.

Mazepa proved an unreliable ally to Charles, particularly after Peter’s trusted military leader, Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, destroyed his stronghold of Baturyn, and the harsh winter nearly broke the strength of the Swedish army. Charles refused to turn back, however, despite the recommendations of his generals after hoped-for aid from Turkey and the Crimean Tatars failed to materialize. Instead, Charles attacked the fortress of Poltava on the Vorskla River in the Ukraine, intending to use it as a jumping-off point for a drive to Moscow via Kharkhov and Kursk. His initial assault failed to attain his objective, so he settled his army in for a long and unpleasant siege.

When Peter got word that Poltava was under siege, he raised a force of more than forty-five thousand Russian troops and mounted a countersiege, surrounding the Swedish forces and trapping them so they would not be able to retreat. During the siege and countersiege, Charles was badly wounded in the foot, which incapacitated him and forced him to leave direct command of his forces to one of his field marshals. Only when the Russians had maneuvered themselves into a favorable position, on June 27, 1709, did Peter finally engage the outnumbered Swedish army in all-out battle.

A minor skirmish before the Battle of Poltava. Only after the Russian forces had maneuvered into a favorable position did the entire army engage in battle.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Although the battle began with the better-trained Swedes pressing an advantage on the left flank, Peter used his greater weight of numbers to block their advance. Pinning the Swedes with artillery, the Russians were able to hold them until poor communication led to a collapse of the Swedish lines. The Swedes tried to flee to the Dneiper River, but after a stern pursuit from Cossacks loyal to the czar, the Russians caught up with them and forced them to surrender. Those Cossacks found among the Swedish forces were handed over to the Russians, who executed many of them on the spot as traitors to the Crown and exiled the rest to Siberia.

Charles was able to escape with a few thousand men, but he had to take refuge in Ottoman Turkey for two years before he was able to return to Sweden. Peter severely curtailed the traditional autonomy of the Don Cossacks, placing them under military rule and requiring extensive service in return for retaining a small portion of their traditional privileges. The Zaporozhian Sich, one of the oldest Cossack strongholds, was forcibly destroyed. Mazepa was vilified as a traitor, and subsequent Russian propagandists did their best to blacken his reputation, although Ukrainian nationalists stubbornly remembered him as the great patriot who built their culture.

Significance

Peter the Great’s victory over Charles XII marked the end of Sweden’s power and the beginning of the ascendancy of Russia. By defeating the Swedish army, Peter secured his hold on the land around St. Petersburg and thus was able to declare it Russia’s new capital in 1712. As a result, Peter was able to push his program of Westernization at a greater pace, forcibly removing his court from the traditional Russian environment of Moscow’s Kremlin and surrounding its members with Western architecture and other elements of Western culture.

The Battle of Poltava thus secured Russia’s place as a modern nation. St. Petersburg remained Russia’s westward-looking capital, and in it, later Russian emperors carried on a lively correspondence with Western European monarchs and with the great thinkers of their age, although the vast mass of peasants remained largely untouched by the Petrine reforms and continued in their traditional Russian folkways. By the nineteenth century, Russia had unquestionably become one of the great powers of Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Less a straight biography of Peter than a study of the culture into which he was born and how he transformed it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Leonard. Many Roads to Moscow: Three Historical Invasions. New York: Coward-McCann, 1968. The first section deals entirely with Poltava.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cracraft, James. The Revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Study of the cultural changes brought about by Peter the Great’s “revolution from above.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Englund, Peter. The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2002. An in-depth study of the battle and of its consequences.

Great Northern War

Founding of St. Petersburg

Ottoman Wars with Russia, Venice, and Austria

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Charles XII; Peter the Great. Russian-Swedish conflicts[Russian Swedish conflicts] Swedish-Russian conflicts[Swedish Russian conflicts] Russian Empire Poltava, Battle of (1709)

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