Sweden and Saint Petersburg

By Bengt Jangfeldt, slavist and author

Axel Oxenstierna, the great Swedish Chancellor, wrote that it was "beyond all doubt" that in Russia Sweden had "a false and mighty neighbour" who was not to be trusted. In 1615, this enemy was so much “on its knees” that the largest and best part of its territory was either in Swedish hands or laid waste. Yet, statesman that he was, Oxenstierna (1583-1654) understood that Russia could one day rise up again. “I readily avow and acknowledge” he therefore stressed, “that nothing could be more convenient, good, secure, necessary even, for our nation and fatherland than peace with Russia …”

Oxenstierna's words sum up well the relationship between Sweden and Russia, one marked by enmity and rivalry, yet also by an understanding of, in Oxenstierna's own words, "the implications of being neighbours".

Russian history has been linked from earliest times with the country which we today know as Sweden. While Norwegian and Danish Vikings expanded westwards, the Swedish campaigns went east. One important route led to Novgorod, or Holmgård. From there it was possible to make ones way south on the River Dnieper to Kiev and thence, via the Black Sea, on to Constantinople, or Miklagård.

The Swedish raids on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea were, however, not entirely dictated by the purse; there was also a missionary zeal on the part of the Swedes to convert the Russian tribes to the true faith. The invasion of Varangians - as the Vikings were called in the east - was followed by a 'crusade' in the 1150s, during which Finland was loosely incorporated with Sweden. At the end of the 13th century Swedish control over Finland was tightened; in 1293 the foundations of the fortress of Viborg were laid, and in 1300 a fortification was built at the estuary of the River Neva. This fortification, Landskrona, could however only be held for a year before being stormed by Russian troops. This was Sweden's first attempt to cut Russia off from the Baltic Sea.
The first big peace treaty between Sweden and Russia was concluded in 1323 at N?teborg, where the River Neva meets Lake Ladoga. The border between Sweden and Novgorod-Russia was drawn along the Systerb?ck, a stream which flows into the Gulf of Finland just a few miles from the city we know today as St Petersburg.

Nyen and Nyenskans
The struggle for hegemony over the coastline of the Gulf of Finland continued with varying intensity over the centuries to come. At the end of the 16th century Sweden conquered large parts of Ingermanland and Estonia: in 1561 Reval placed itself under the Swedish crown and twenty years later the trading town of Narva was captured.

In 1595 Sweden was forced to cede its conquered territories in Karelia and Ingermanland to the Russians. However only a matter of years later the 'Time of Troubles' broke out in Russia, when the son of Ivan IV (the Terrible) died, and with him the male line of Rurik's dynasty. After fifteen years of conflict - during which the younger brother of Gustav II Adolf, Karl Filip (1601-22) almost ascended the Russian throne - Prince Michail Romanov (1596-1645) was elected ruler of Russia. This ushered in the Romanov dynasty, which was to rule the country until 1917.

During the 'Troubles' the Swedes managed to take most of Ingermanland, and the peace that was concluded in 1617 at Stolbova was the most favourable in Swedish history: the Russians were forced to surrender Ingermanland and the county of Kexholm, which meant that Sweden now controlled the entire coastline of the Gulf of Finland from Narva to the Karelian Isthmus and that Russia was cut off from the Baltic Sea.

The new borders virtually turned the Baltic into a Swedish inland sea; they were an unparalleled triumph for the young Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632) who, in his speech to the Estates in August 1617, was able to conclude that it would henceforth "be difficult for Russia to hop or jump over this stream".

In addition to Narva, which in time became an important transit port, and N?teborg, the strategically important fortification where the River Neva flowed into Lake Ladoga, Sweden now also controlled the river's estuary on the Gulf of Finland. Here, more or less where Landskrona had briefly existed three hundred years earlier, work was started on the fortress of Nyenskans in the final year of Karl IX's life (1550-1611) and completed under Gustav II Adolf.

The town of Nyen was built next to the fortification, intended as a storage depot for trade with Russia. At the turn of the 18th century the town had a population of around 2,000, making it one of the most populous towns in the eastern part of the Swedish realm.
Despite the Swedish government's ambition to make Nyen an open trading town under the Swedish crown, the amount of trade carried out there was never particularly great. A major reason for this was that the town never received the protection, in the form of a strong fortification, which its vulnerable position demanded. When Karl XII (1682-1718) decided to concentrate all his energies on campaigning in Poland, the Russian army started to attack the Swedish strongholds around the Gulf of Finland, and on 1 May 1703 was able to capture Nyenskans. Tsar Peter (1672-1725) had broken the Swedish grip on the River Neva and had finally reached the goal of his imperial ambitions: the shore of the Baltic Sea. Only a matter of weeks after the conquest the foundations were laid of the new city of St Petersburg, named after the apostle Peter, the tsar's patron saint.

The founding of St Petersburg
To emphasise that a new era in Russian history was being ushered in, the tsar decided that St Petersburg would replace Moscow as the capital of Russia. Peter was particularly determined that the new city should not resemble the Moscow he so hated, the symbol of everything barbaric and reactionary in Russia. Peter looked to Amsterdam, a rationally planned, merchant city on the sea. He invited master builders from abroad, mainly from Italy and France to help him realise his grand project.

In contrast to the crowded and fire-prone wooden city of Moscow, the new capital was to be built in stone. In the early years some 20,000 people annually were employed on the construction of the city. Most of these were forced labourers from Russia and Ingermanland, but many others were Swedish prisoners of war. The latter helped to build some of the most important early buildings in St Petersburg, for example the Peter Paul Fortress and the Peterhof summer palace.

Swedes worked not only as craftsmen and builders but also in the city's administration - as scribes, bursars, secretaries, etc. A further Swedish contribution to the building up of the Europeanised Russia which Peter wanted to create was, precisely, administrative expertise. The central administration was divided, according to the Swedish model, into colleges; the local authorities were also restructured along Swedish lines, with even the names of a number of the civil service departments being borrowed from the Swedish. This importation of bureaucratic expertise played an important role in the modernisation of Russia which began with Peter the Great.

The Swedish-Finnish church in St Petersburg
After the Peace of Nystad in 1721, which deprived Sweden of everything it had won at Stolbova a century earlier, relations between Sweden and Russia normalised. St Petersburg was henceforth a city which attracted increasing numbers of foreign workers. Many of these were from Sweden and Finland (the latter was a part of Sweden from the early 14th century until 1809 when it became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire). These workers were no longer forced labourers but rather voluntary immigrants to a Baltic metropolis, the dynamic growth of which held out good prospects for industrious foreigners. This dynamic was complemented by the Russian tsars' conscious policy of offering generous incentives to attract foreigners to the country.

The Swedish presence in St Petersburg is very closely associated with the city's Swedish church. The evangelical-Lutheran church of St Katarina in St Petersburg is the city's oldest non-orthodox one, founded in the same year as the city itself, 1703. It was the focal point for Swedes and Swedish-speaking Finns in St Petersburg for more than two hundred years.

For the first few decades the congregation, with roots in the Nyen of the 1630s, had to make do without a church building of their own. But in 1733 they received a plot of land in the centre of the city, between Bolshaya and Malaya Konyushennaya streets, where the church of St Anna was built. Just over ten years later the congregation split as a result of conflicts between its Swedish and Finnish-speaking members, and in 1769 the Swedish-speaking worshippers built a new church, St Katarina. This, in turn, was replaced in 1865 by a new church designed by Carl Andersson (1826-88), born in Stockholm but raised and educated in St Petersburg. This is the church which can still be seen on Malaya Konyushennaya.

Prominent congregation members included the Nobel, Bolin, Lidvall and Faberg? families, as well as Gustaf Mannerheim. At its peak the church had 7,000 members, and on the threshold of the Revolution in 1917 it had around 5,000, most of them Swedish-speaking Finns. The church's activities ceased in 1936, when the church building had to be handed over to the Soviet authorities. Church activities were resumed in 1991.

The sciences
The Russian Academy of Sciences was founded on a western model in 1725 and outstanding foreign scientists were attracted to St Petersburg. At the time of Linnaeus the Swedish natural sciences were highly respected and several Swedish scientists worked at the academy. The natural historian Erik Laxman (1737-96) and astronomer Anders Johan Lexell (1740-84), both Swedish Finns, were ordinary members, while Carl Linnaeus and Per Vilhelm Wargentin, the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (1717-83), were honorary members (as was, incidentally, Gustaf III (1746-92), if on other grounds). Several Russian botanists worked in Uppsala with Linnaeus and some of the leading representatives of Russian science, including the great polymath Michail Lomonosov (1711-65), were elected to the Swedish sister academy.

Laxman travelled to China and Mongolia and collected plants, animals and minerals that Linnaeus was prepared to "kiss his feet" to share. As assistant to Euler the Elder (1707-83), Lexell made important contributions to mathematical astronomy and even had a comet named after him.

And it is in the field of astronomy that many Swedes made particularly important contributions. The observatory at Pulkovo outside St Petersburg was inaugurated in 1839 and soon became one of the best in the world. Several Swedish scientists worked there in the second half of the 19th century. Best-known of these was Magnus Nyr?n (1837-1921), who worked at the observatory for 40 years until his retirement in 1908, for the last 20 years as deputy director. His superior for many years was Oskar Backlund (1846-1916), who, like Lexell, worked on mathematical calculations of the movements of comets. Backlund was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences and even ennobled for his services to science.

The business community
For much of the two centuries during which St Petersburg was the capital of Russia, the Swedes and Finns were the city's second largest minority, after the Germans. Yet Finnish-Swedish influence should not be exaggerated; the Dutch, British and Germans were all considerably more influential and - in the fields of art and architecture - the Italians and French. There were however a number of brilliant exceptions to the rule.

It was during the 19th century, in particular the second half, that the Swedes came to play a greater role in the business and cultural life of the country. When Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809, many Finns and Swedish Finns settled in St Petersburg. Another watershed was 1861. This was when serfdom was abolished, Russia could start to industrialise, and the construction of the railways gathered pace. Many Swedish companies and individuals saw Russia as a land of considerable opportunity, an alternative to America even.

1838 was a memorable year in Russian-Swedish industrial relations. This was the year that Immanuel Nobel (1801-72) moved to St Petersburg, where he founded an engineering workshop. Nobel's experiments with mines, among other things, attracted the attention of the Russian government and he was rewarded a number of times with considerable sums of money. His greatest achievement as an industrialist was the invention of the underwater mine and the introduction of nitro-glycerine for rock blasting. He was first in Russia to build propeller-powered steamships, and he set up Russia's first rolling mill. Notwithstanding these successes, he was forced into liquidation twice and returned to Sweden in 1859.

Immanuel Nobel died in 1872, but his two sons, Ludvig (1831-88) and Robert (1829-96), carried on the business in Russia and expanded it. Alfred (1833-96), the third brother, grew up and carried out his first scientific experiments in St Petersburg but then pursued his activities largely outside Russia. Another important industrial field was the production of naphtha on the Caspian Sea. The Nobel brothers laid the foundations of the Russian oil industry: they set up laboratories, employed geologists and built the world's first oil tanker in Motala, Sweden. To finance this gigantic project they established a limited company, Nobel Brothers, in 1879.

The company had strong links with Sweden but was a Russian company. The same went for Odhner, which developed and manufactured the famous arithmometer calculator. Willgodt Odhner (1845-1905) originally worked for the Nobels, who gave the development their financial backing; after 1917 the firm established itself in G?teborg, Sweden, under the name of Original Odhner.

During the decades leading up to the First World War the Russian economy was in an unparalleled phase of expansion and many foreign companies were attracted to the country. ASEA, Alfa-Laval, SKF and, not least, L.M. Ericsson were examples of Swedish companies who were attracted by very generous investment conditions. Ericsson built a large telephone factory in St Petersburg, and for a time considered moving the concern's entire operations to Russia. In 1910 it was representatives of these companies who helped to start the 'Swedish Association of St Petersburg', which says something about the Swedish industrial presence in the city. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 most of the companies had their assets confiscated and the so-promising Russian economic expansion came to an abrupt end.

The arts and architecture
Side by side with the economic relations, cultural links between Sweden and Russia also flourished.

Two important Swedish artists worked in the Russian capital at the end of the 18th century: one was Alexander Roslin (1718-93), personally invited by Catherine the Great, portrait-painter to the Russian aristocracy, and not least to the Empress herself. The other was Benjamin Patersen (1750-1810) from Varberg, who became known for his views of St Petersburg. It is largely thanks to him that we today have such a clear picture of how the city looked at the close of the 18th century.

Stockholmer Pehr Christian Johansson (1817-1903), leading ballet dancer and later teacher at the Maria Theatre, made a truly lasting impression on Russian cultural history. Prima ballerinas Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Matilda Kshesinskaya were all Johansson's pupils and all testified to his importance for them.

The architect Carl Andersson was mentioned earlier. In addition to the Swedish church and its nearby residential building, Andersson designed a number of other buildings in the city and is seen as an important representative of the eclectic style of the late 19th century. Yet his younger colleague, Fredrik Lidvall, was an even more important architect.

Fredrik (or Fyodor) Lidvall (1870-1945) was born in St Petersburg, one of the eight children of Johann Petter Lidvall, a master tailor who had emigrated from the far north of Sweden in the mid-18th century and was eventually appointed tailor to the Russian Imperial Court. Fredrik chose to train as an architect at the Academy of Art in St Petersburg.

Fredrik Lidvall was one of St Petersburg's leading architects and is regarded as the originator of the characteristic St Petersburg architectural art nouveau. With exquisite sensitivity to the city's classical heritage, Lidvall developed a style which brilliantly combines a careful art nouveau with neo-classicism - the Hotel Astoria from 1912 is a superb example of this.

The Swedes of St Petersburg liked to stick together and give each other contracts. One example of this is the Nobel family's first residence, which was designed by Carl Andersson. Their later premises were by Lidvall.

Other examples of Lidvall's masterpieces are the housing complex at Kamennoostrovskiy Prospect 1-3 and the Azov-Don Bank in Bolshaya Morskaya Street. After 1917 Lidvall was forced into exile and settled in Stockholm, where he designed a number of buildings.
A further leading Swedish St Petersburg family was Bolin, the court jewellers at Morskaya Street 10 - the name of the firm can still be seen on the wall of the building. The Bolins, who had been working in St Petersburg since the 1830s, were, together with Faberg?, the leading jewellers in the capital.

Indeed, the number of Finnish and Swedish jewellers and gold and silversmiths in St Petersburg was quite extraordinary: in 1840, for example, there were no less than 561 smiths in the congregations of the Finnish and Swedish churches - one quarter of all those working in that craft in the capital.

The city of Lenin returns to Peter
Some 200,000 foreigners were living in St Petersburg at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Most of these foreigners had fled within a few years of the Bolshevik coup d'?tat in October 1917. In the autumn of 1918 Sweden severed diplomatic relations with Russia. When they were re-established in 1924, Moscow had again become the capital of Russia. The move of the capital, in combination with the general Russian political and economic isolation, meant that St Petersburg - renamed Leningrad after Lenin's death in 1924 - gradually lost its importance as an economic and cultural centre.

Leningrad was opened to foreigners again at the end of the 1950s. However it was not until the fall of communism that the way was paved for a new upswing in economic and cultural relations between St Petersburg and the outside world, and in recent years more and more Swedish companies have been attracted to the city.

In the early 1990s the grand old Hotel Europa was renovated by the Swedish construction company SIAB, while in 1996 Skanska (one of the Swedish companies in St Petersburg before the Revolution), completed the "Swedish House" in the former church hall from 1865, designed by Carl Andersson. Much of the house is occupied by the Swedish General Consulate and the rest is let as office space.

After seventy-five years of isolation St Petersburg is starting to re-establish its previous position as one of the most important cities on the Baltic. The city of Lenin has now returned to Peter, and the vision which once fuelled the ambitions of Peter the Great can once again be felt in the metropolis on the River Neva.


Bengt Jangfeldt, slavist and author, is the first person to have used extensive source material to explore the relations between Sweden and St Petersburg.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation: Judith Black