It was on this day – more or less – in 1709 that Russian forces under Tsar Peter The Great decisively defeated invading Swedish forces led by King Charles XII near the Ukrainian village of Poltava. (I say “more or less,” because on the Russian calendar of that era, the battle was recorded to have taken place on 28 June, but modern historians often use the adjusted, new style dating scheme to synchronize past events, hence 8 July.) This was the most important and most noted single engagement of The Great Northern War (1700 – 1721.) The outcome of the battle was somewhat ambiguous from one perspective: The war dragged on a further dozen years. Yet it was definitive in a far longer-ranging result: Imperial Russia, long a distant fringe at the very edge of Europe, now emerged as a major European power, and Sweden’s century of dominance of the Baltic region came to an end.
Poltava was the disastrous conclusion of a disastrous campaign. After subduing his enemies in Poland and moving his army of some 45,000 men into position to threaten Russia itself in early 1708, Charles decided to knock Russia out of the war once and for all with a crushing blow by capturing Moscow. Charles led his troops in an invasion of Russia in the Spring of 1708, crossing the Berezina River in late June of 1708. The Russians refused to meet the Swedish forces in a fixed battle. Instead, they continually withdrew, burning all of value as the went. This “Scorched Earth” policy left Charles’ army with little food and dwindling supplies a very long way from their resources. By early October a hard winter was already settling in over Russia. Charles gave orders for his forces to march to the Ukraine in hopes of finding grain and milder weather.
By all accounts the winter of 1708-1709 was one of the coldest – if not the coldest – in recorded history: birds fell frozen from the sky, brandy and schnapps froze in the bottle, and iron and steel shattered like glass. (Even in far-away Venice the winter was terrible, and for the only time in history, the brackish water in the lagoon of Venice froze over!) The invading troops, left without food or shelter in the wake of the Russian retreat, died by the thousands. By the following Spring thaw, Charles had less than half of the army he had started with.
By June of 1709, weather conditions permitted the effective movement of armies once more, and Tsar Peter marched 80,000 men into the Ukraine to do battle with the invaders. Peter’s army was well supplied, well armed, and, due to the intense efforts of Peter and his generals, well trained. Previously, the Swedes, with their superior military training and organization, had easily defeated the Russians. Charles was unprepared to meet a Russian army that could match his own. Add to this the fact that the Russians had at least a 4-to-1 numerical advantage and the outcome was inevitable. Charles’ army was utterly destroyed, and with it Sweden’s prominence in European affairs. Imperial Russia was firmly established as a major force in Europe.
One is tempted to wonder why Charles felt that an invasion deep into Russia was a sensible strategy: after all, Russian winters were famously fierce, and Spring thaws made military movement nearly impossible. Many of Charles’ advisors suggested a more practical scheme of blocking Russia at its borders. But Charles was determined to punish his enemies, and he pursued this goal with an almost pathological single-mindedness. His earlier encounters with Peter’s armies convinced him that victory would be swift and easy. As it was, Russia’s greatest and most reliable General helped to ensure the defeat of the Swedes: “General Winter.”
There is a lesson to be drawn from Charles XII’s experience, but it seems somehow that it is never learned by those who most need it. A little more than a century after Poltava, on 24 June 1812, Napoleon launched his own ill-fated attempt to capture Moscow with his Grand Armee of more than 600,000 troops. Though Napoleon did manage to reach Moscow, it was a vacant and burning ruin. Once again the Russians adopted a Scorched earth policy that denied the invaders all usable materials and food. Napoleon had to retreat, and of his vast army, only 22,000 returned.
Then, 129 years after Napoleon’s debacle, Adolf Hitler felt certain that he could succeed where Charles XII and Napoleon had failed. On 21 June 1941, Hitler’s army launched a massive invasion of Russia with some 3.2 million troops. The plan was far more ambitious than any earlier invasion of Russia, for Hitler aimed to make a three-pronged attack to capture Leningrad in the North, Moscow in the Center, and Stalingrad in the South. Hitler, confident of the weakness and disorganization of the Russian army, planned to have the campaign completed by September, and no provisions were made for winter warfare. As Hitler’s forces drove deep into Russian territory, the Russians used Scorched Earth tactics once more, and by fierce fighting turned Hitler’s planned lightning victory into a devastating standstill as winter set in.
In reality, of course, weather – even in Russia – takes no side in a war, and Winter alone could not halt invasions of Russia. Only determined resistance can do that. Yet the Russians are historically well-used to, and familiar with, their intense winters, and Russian armies have been able to maneuver in weather that has halted invaders. Yet if the past is a guide, in about 75 years, someone will once more try to invade Russia, confident of being able to achieve what so many others have failed to.
Flower Mound, Texas
What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments have never learned anything from history.
— Hegel, 1801