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On Movements and Revolutions around the Baltic Sea: Part II

As I mentioned in Part I of this blog series, when thinking back on my Baltic Sea Cruise in August 2019, I couldn’t help but think about the theme of movements and revolution. The world today seems consumed with protests and demonstrations for change, and it was a recurring theme while learning about the history of the places we visited on the tour, so it seemed fitting to write about.

Although I spent the least amount of time in Stockholm, one of the things I learned while on our tour from a fellow traveler and history buff (and later read more about on my own) was the bloodless self-coup of King Gustav III, known as Sweden’s Revolution of 1772. Gustav III’s coup d’état took place upon his accession of the Swedish throne, and he reestablished an absolute monarchy over the Riksdag of the Estates, the parliamentary government that ruled with greater power than the figurehead King during Sweden’s “Age of Liberty” from 1718 until 1772. Gustav III dissolved the powers of the Riksdag, which at the time was fiercely politically divided between the Hats and Caps parties, and was prone to corruption and foreign government interference (particularly Russian ambitions). Gustav III forced Council Members, under threat by the royal garrison, to adopt his new 1772 Constitution. The new constitution was largely inspired by Gustav III’s penchant for the ideals from the Age of Enlightenment and his time abroad in Paris. He instituted criminal justice reforms, expanded (albeit, with restrictions) the leniency and liberty of the press, allowed for certain religious liberties for Roman Catholics and Jews, and expanded free trade, while also opening up the parliamentary government to all citizens, rather than just nobility. While, of course, Gustav III was still a despot (although an “enlightened” one), some claim that his revolution guaranteed the sovereignty and independence of Sweden, which would have otherwise been under threat from Russian expansion. During the Gustavian era, Stockholm remained as the political center of Sweden, and its cultural development and many of its sites today—like the Royal Opera, the Gustav Adolf Square, and the Norrbro Bridge are all examples of Gustavian classicism.

Jumping forward nearly 150 years to 1918, and crossing the Baltic Sea to Helsinki, I learned of the Finnish Civil War. This war took place following the collapse of the Russian Empire in World War I, which prompted an ensuing power-vacuum in Finland and a crisis between the political ideologies of the “Whites,” the conservative-based Senate which controlled central and northern Finland and aligned themselves with the German Imperial Army, and the “Reds,” the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, made up of industrial and agrarian workers who controlled the cities of southern Finland and aligned themselves with Soviet Russia. Prior to World War I, Finland had been a Grand Duchy of the former Russian Empire, but the transition from Russian governance, to a German influence when the Whites won the Civil War, to an independent state following Germany’s defeat in World War I, caused ongoing tensions and a significant divide for decades following the Finnish Civil War. To visit Helsinki is to visit one of the sites of the most decisive battles of the Finnish Civil War, and to stand in Senate Square where the Whites held their victory parade in front of the Helsinki Cathedral certainly felt eerie, at best, knowing that some 4,000-6,000 of the losing Red Guard supporters were captured and sent off to prison camps following the battle.

Around the same time as the turmoil in Finland, the 1917 Russian Revolution ended Tsarist rule that was then replaced with the communist state and Soviet Russia. On our tour, we spent two days in St. Petersburg, which is a city dripping in references to the Russian Empire and Tsarist imperial rule. It’s impossible not to be confronted with the history of Peter the Great while in St. Petersburg, and yet it’s simultaneously impossible not to be confronted with the history of the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin (after whose death the city was renamed Leningrad only to be renamed St. Petersburg yet again by citywide referendum in 1991). While in St. Petersburg, we learned of the grotesque and violent deaths of Tsar Nicholas II’s children, shot and bayoneted by Bolshevik revolutionaries. We walked streets where demonstrations by Bolshevik revolutionaries took place, and we stood in St. Issac’s Square where Cossack troops loyal to the provisional government were overrun and subjected to Bolshevik genocidal policies. We walked the halls of The Winter Palace, where soldiers of the provisional government attempted to fight off Lenin’s Bolshviks. While visiting St. Petersburg, we were continually reminded of the present-day unrest in Russia, as our tour guides made jokes about the current state of affairs, and even assured us how lucky we were to be in St. Petersburg just a day before the planned political protests in solidarity with demonstrators in Moscow.

Intrigued to learn more about Estonia and Poland? Stay tuned for Part III of our “virtual cruise” coming next week!

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