An important battle
The battle at Poltava has left deep traces in both Swedish and Russian history and identity. For Russia this decisive victory over the Swedish army was the key to its new role as a great European power and a player in the Baltic sea.
For Sweden, it was the beginning of a journey from aggressive foreign policy and geopolitical aspirations towards a peaceful neutral state.
Ceremony not as expected
Thus, it is interesting how the battle is seen and analysed today by both Swedes and Russians. But it is of course also interesting to see the physical battlefield and to feel the atmosphere.
This was our expectations when we travelled to Poltava, today in Eastern Ukraine, to see the 300 year ceremony of the battle. To wander around the battle field, to feel the atmosphere, to imagine how it must have felt for the soldiers and to meet and discuss the event with other Swedes or Russians. We also expected to witness the re-play of the battle which was promised.
It was not much of these expecations that was fulfilled. Instead the whole event was a lecture in how a new country like Ukraine use this ceremony for strengthening its national identity.
So, how can a battle between Sweden and Russia 300 years ago be used by Ukraine today? To understand this, we must give you a short historical resume.
The Cossacks switched side
Those who populated big parts of today´s Ukraine were called Cossacks. These were people with a strong sense of community but without their own state. Over the years under different foreign powers, they started to arm themselves. This in order to fight for independence or at least autonomy. In the 17th century it was about fighting for autonomy from Russia or from the Ottoman empire.
Man traditionally dressed as a Cossack at the ceremony.
When the Swedish army moved into Russia in 1708, this was an opportunity for the Cossacks to get independence. Therefore one of their leaders Ivan Mazepa joined the Swedish army. Mazepa contributed with skilled riders but above all with local geographical knowledge.
For Russia and Tsar Peter I, this was of course nothing else than treason, but for today´s Ukrainians this was a part of a long heroic struggle for an independent Ukraine. This is even more important in a young nation which is continously overshadowed by Russia. Considering that a new gas-conflict was evolving during our visit did probably not cool down the national feelings.
The show was stolen
The whole ceremony therefore circled around Ukraine rather than Russia. As visitors we can give a few concrete examples.
1. There were Ukrainian flags everywhere when we arrived to the place. Some on flag poles but most of them held by the spectators. There were police-officers and men in military-like uniforms in hundreds.
2. We were given a leaflet with Ukrainian text on both sides and a small English text which was as follows: "Eternal glory to the cossacks of Ivan Mazepa, which together with the Swedish army protected Ukrainian earth from our cruel enemy . Tsar of Moscow Peter I, and all him insidius adversaries." It is interesting that it says ´Ukrainian earth´ when Ukraine had never existed as a modern state during that time.
3. The newly built (and very beautiful) monument in commemoration of the battle is also clear on this point. It is a cupol built on three white pillars and each pillar has a flag and a text. The three legs represents the three actors in the battle; the Russian, the Swedes and the Ukrainians. This is obviously a twist of history since the Cossacks were not an independent actor in the battle but fought on the Swedish side.
4. The most interesting example is the re-play of the battle (which in itself was so small that it was almost comical). This was started with three groups marching into the battlefield and positioned themselves in the middle. One group carrying a Swedish flag, one a Russian flag and the third a Ukrainian flag. During the show, a Ukrainian flag floated symbolically high up in the sky.
The monument of the battle with three pillars, the Swedish in front.
Weak Swedish presence
So how was it with the Swedish and Russian presence at the ceremony? It is of course difficult to say exactly but we can say what we saw. Some Russians were seen proudly carrying the old Russian imperial flag. We met some visiting Swedes also and Sweden´s ambassador is said to have been there holding a speech. But in general the non-Ukrainian official representation was weak.
The only organized Swedish presence that we met were twenty or so people from a regiment in Sweden which was almost totally eliminated during the battle 1709. It was ´Nerike-Värmlands regemente´ and the Swedes came to hounor their sacrifice. They marched in a calm ordered procession to one of the redutts (defense positions) where the regiment had been involved in the most severe fighting and put down flowers.
The replay of the battle - a disappointment
The replay of the battle was unfortunately the greatest disappointment. It was more surface than substance. Perhaps the disappointment is biggest because this was for us the great moment, the chance to travel back in history only for some minutes.
Loud music in the background (from the movie about the battle) contributed to a certain feeling of seriousness but with only around 30 dressed up soldiers on each side, the feeling of authenticity was far far away.
This is how the actors were dressed up, to portray the Swedish (yellow socks) and the Russian soldiers. (The picture is from the day before in Poltava)
"It is all a political show"
Perhaps we had a naive expectation of how the ceremony would be, that it would be more focus on the historical part and not on today´s politics.
History and its role in Sweden is today relatively undramatic. In Ukraine on the other hand, which is still in the midst of a process of building a national identity, the history is an important tool. This especially since it is a young state in the shadow of Russia.
The visit to this ceremony showed how easily history may be used for political purposes and that it is important to keep a constant critical eye to this trend.We met Anna who is Ukrainian and a veterinarian student in Poltava. Her somehow cynical comment of the ceremony is a refreshing example of this critical eye:
- It is all a political show. It is about showing that we are better than them, she told us.
Finally we do not want to leave you as a reader with the impression that this was a bad trip or a bad experience in general. Firstly Poltava is a beautiful city which we would like to recommend anyone to visit. It is called the ´soul´ of Ukraine (Kiev the head).
Secondly the experience of the ceremony was really interesting. It was only our expectations that were not met during the whole day. It is understandable that Ukraine as an 18 year old state uses all opportunities to build an identity.