From Narva to Poltava

he enmity that had existed between Russia and Sweden since the time of the Vikings and the princes of Novgorod intensified during the reign of Peter I and culminated in the twenty-year long Great Northern War. Russia had no ships on the Baltic and was struggling to gain entrance into this key sea link with Europe. With a fleet of 39 ships of the line, Sweden dominated the Baltic and, under King Charles XII, fought to maintain its supremacy against what the Swedes considered the encroachments of Tsar Peter's forces.

In 1700 the exhausted army of Peter I was routed at Narva. Driven back from Swedish-held territory, Peter I was only briefly disappointed and quickly resumed the planning of fresh military campaigns. When Charles XII, meanwhile encouraged by his successes, sent an invading army into Poland, Peter I and his advisors were convinced that a Swedish naval attack was imminent.

In May 1701 a Swedish force of seven ships, armed with a total of 127 cannon, left Sweden and proceeded toward the White Sea. Under the command of Commodore Karl Lewe, the flotilla had orders to occupy and destroy the port of Arkhangelsk, thus preventing Peter from receiving shipments of supplies or armaments from Europe through Russia's single seaport. The ships reached the estuary of the Severnaya Dvina by the end of June. Lewe dispatched three ships to make a reconnaissance of the area and to impress into service local helmsmen who were competent to guide the Swedish ships. Late one night two of the local pilots taken captive, Ivan Sedunov and Dmitry Popov, risked their lives and infuriated the Swedes by deliberately directing two of the Swedish vessels into shallow waters. The ships went aground in a shoal quite close to the Russian-held fortress of Novodvinsk. Since there is very little darkness in the far North during the month of June the enemy ships were at once sighted and fired upon by the garrison of Novodvinsk. When the captain of one of the Swedish vessels was hit and mortally wounded during the consequent cannonade, seamen from the two grounded vessels scurried aboard the single still seaworthy Swedish vessel. The Mjohunden and the Falken, with thirteen guns between them, thus fell into Russian hands.

The victory at the Dvina estuary saved Arkhangelsk; its port continued to be Russia's sole link to northern Europe by sea. Lewe, despondent over his loss, returned to Sweden.

In 1702 the Russian fleet celebrated yet another victory. Russian soldiers in lodjas attacked superior-armed Swedish squadrons on Lakes Chudskoye and Ladoga and took total possession of Lake Ladoga. Encouraged by his successes, Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev launched new offensives, taking the fortresses of Oreshek and Kanzi. On the night of 7 May Captain Pyotr Mikhailov and Lieutenant Alexander Menshikov (in reality Tsar Peter I and his close friend and advisor Alexander Menshikov) successfully attacked and captured the Swedish snow Astrild and the galliot Gedan, which had entered the mouth of the Neva River.

Following the battle, all participating officers and soldiers were awarded medals bearing the inscription: "The unprecedented has happened". The first Russian military order was thereupon created, the Order of St. Andrew the Summoned, and Peter I and Menshikov became its first recipients.

An important date in Russian history is 16 May 1703, the day on which Peter I decreed the founding of the Saint Petersburg fortress on Zayachy [Hare] Island at the mouth of the Neva. In order further to protect the sea approaches to the new fortress, Fort Kronshlot was also erected off Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland. In the winter of the following year on the left bank of the Neva, almost opposite Zayachy Island, a new admiralty was founded, that is, a shipyard for constructing vessels destined to constitute the new Baltic fleet.

The Russian Navy was largely successful throughout the Northern War. In 1704 Narva was retaken, and the batteries of Kronstadt repelled a Swedish attempt to approach Saint Petersburg from the sea. In the summer of the following year the Russian fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Kornely Kruys, became engaged in a battle off Kotlin Island against a Swedish squadron under Admiral Anckarstjerna. The battle lasted several days on the open sea, and, although the odds greatly favoured the Swedes, the Russian line was supported by the batteries at Kronstadt and Kotlin. The Swedes attempted to return the Russians fire and land troops, but both efforts ended in failure. Having suffered casualties of 114 wounded and 560 killed and captured, the remaining Swedish force retreated.

In the frigid autumn of 1706 the Russian army marched on Vyborg. During the campaign Guards-Sergeant Mikhail Shchepotyev commanded a group of five boats which encountered the Swedish 4-gun ship Esper in the night fog. Under cover of darkness the Russians rushed aboard the enemy ship and, after brutal hand-to-hand combat, took control of the boat and fended off another Swedish ship which came to aid the Esper. In spite of the small victories of Russian soldiers and officers, Vyborg remained in Swedish hands.

For the next two years the Swedes displayed no noticeable activity in the Baltic. The war's outcome was being decided far from sea in the struggle between the armies of Peter I and Charles XII, and in 1709 the first phase of the Northern War ended with Russia's victory at Poltava.