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The Battle of Poltava: The Birth of the Russian Empire.

The battle of Poltava in 1709 was one of the most decisive battles in European history. When this volume was published in 1988, Peter Englund was studying for his doctorate. He was 31 years old, and the book immediately became a publishing sensation, the most widely read work by a Swedish author for more than a decade, selling 180,000 copies. This is the first edition in English. The translator is Charles Harrison Wallace.

It is an account of the three violent days of the battle of Poltava, deep in the Ukraine, where invading Swedish forces had perhaps unwisely ventured. The Russian dominions seem to exert some kind of drawing power like a lodestone to unwise adventurers who over-reach themselves and who are blind to the lessons of both history and geography, to say nothing of local and native knowledge. Neither Napoleon nor Hitler was to learn the bitter lesson of Charles XII of Sweden. Charles had succeeded to the throne of Sweden at the age of eighteen, thinking only of the expansion of the Swedish empire, an empire which under the Wasa dynasty had grown at an astonishing pace since 1560, and by 1709 had become 'almost certainly the most efficient, best organized and administered, probably the most technically advanced, and pro rata, the strongest state in Europe'. As Professor Paul Kennedy has amply demonstrated in his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers almost every European state (and others) seems to have its day, if only for a relatively short time.

Such over-expansion by Sweden was almost bound to come to grief. The population of Sweden and Finland (then part of Sweden) was probably less than 1.5 million. By 1709 the combined population of the hostile coalition confronting it was roughly 30 million! Moreover the character of the king, this strange possessed young man, was also a contributing factor. 'Charles', says the author, 'has been the object of extremes of chauvinistic hero-worship as well as unbridled vituperation'. He has been described as a mediaeval soldier pitchforked into the eighteenth century: 'with a high forehead, large nose, full lips and an imperious mien, a King by the Grace of God, accustomed to command and accustomed to being obeyed', superstitious, perhaps now possessed by a death wish, 'a vision of Ragnarok', the whole army was to be dragged down in his own destruction. For this book is other things as well: it is the pitiable, agonising story of the common soldier and the horrors of war. Peter Englund makes no attempt to cover up this theme. In fact, on one very real level, it is his theme, and so has lessons for all, into the twentieth century.

Peter Englund's Swedish is described as 'spontaneous, colloquial and at times almost oral, and although it has been felt necessary to to adapt this style slightly for the English-speaking reader, some effort has been made to preserve its vivid immediacy'. It is clearly a style appropriate to the subject, and to the feelings of the author about it. The theme set him on fire, and it is infectious.

The last word may perhaps rest with Professor Norman Stone, who, recently reviewing the biography of another idiosyncratic king, Stanislaw Augustus, the last king of Poland, wrote: 'Writing eastern European history is almost literally a nightmare: a surface of operetta, beneath which lurk endless, apparently pointless, complications, all ending in disaster'. Peter Englund has seen through the nightmare and survived it, to write an important addition to the canon of European historical literature. If he writes nothing else, this must be the definitive work on the battle of Poltava.
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Author:Nash, Michael L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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