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Gustav III’s Russian War (The Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790)

Life on board a warship. (Picture: Mikko Rautala)At the end of 1780’s, king Gustav III was planning a war against Russia. The aim was to take the Baltic Countries and the eastern parts of Finland back to Sweden. However, the Swedish constitution prohibited the king from starting an aggressive war. Gustav III had to provoke the Russians to make the first move.

In June 1788, there was an exchange of shots between a Swedish border patrol and Russian troops at Puumala near the Russian border. Gustav III used this as an excuse and demanded that Catharine II give the whole of the former Finland back to Sweden. The Russian Empress did not accept this and declared war on the 11th of July 1788.

Gustav III now had the legal right to launch an assault to Russia. Also the public opinion was favourable to a war and soon the army was mobilized. The troops in Finland were not big enough for a large-scale war and more forces were brought from Sweden in the summer of 1788. The total number of men in the land forces in Finland was 32 000.

Swedish Navy

An important part of the Swedish forces was the strong navy with its Archipelago and Open Sea fleet. The Archipelago fleet in Finland consisted of two archipelago frigates, fifteen galleys, several gunboats, and smaller vessels. The total number of men in the archipelago fleet was app. 2000. The Open Sea fleet from Sweden formed a more powerful battle unit: twelve tall ships of the line, six frigates and three smaller vessels. The number of men in the Open Sea fleet was all in all 6000. In addition, Gustav III himself came to Finland with the Swedish Galley Fleet with its eighty-five vessels and 2300 men. The Swedish forces were considerably stronger than the Russian ones since there were not more than 10 000 Russian soldiers around Vyborg and even the Russian Navy was smaller than that of Sweden.

First Battles

According to the plans of the Swedes, the Swedish Navy was to first beat the Russian Navy completely. Then the land forces would take St Petersburg and Kronstadt by surprise. In case the two cities could not be conquered they would be destroyed. The king assumed that these operations would force Russia to surrender. Contrary to all planning, the attacks started simultaneously both at sea and on land.

The Swedish and Russian navy met by the island of Hogland in the Gulf of Finland. The first naval battle of the war was on the 17th of July. The Swedes managed to destroy one of the Russian ships of line but the Swedish navy lost one of its ships of line too. The battle ended unsolved but was celebrated as a victory especially in Helsinki.

After the battle at Hogland Gustav III changed his plans. The main attack was to be made on land: first Fredrikshamn and then Vyborg would be taken. The Navy was to support the land forces. However, the Swedish attack stopped at Fredrikshamn. Finally the Swedes withdrew from Fredrikshamn in a state of chaos. The king was ready to conclude peace with Russia but Catherine II was not agreeable.

The Anjala League

After the events at Fredrikshamn there was discontent among the Swedish officers. In August 1788 a group of officers contacted Catharine II to negotiate for peace. The group of the officers was called the Anjala League since the note was signed at Anjala. The empress refused to deal with the officers. Eventually Gustav III managed to re-establish his authority, thanks to a short war against Denmark. The officers who signed the Anjala note were arrested and in the end one of them was executed.

The king was encouraged by the war with Denmark and called together the council of Sweden to expand his power and get more money for the war against Russia. In June 1789 the king returned to Finland.

Two Battles at Svensksund

The war went on and in August 1789 the Swedish Galley Fleet was involved in a naval battle at Svensksund. This battle ended with a Russian victory; Sweden lost app. twenty ships and 1500 men. During the winter 1789-1790 several new vessels were built in Sweden and for example the number of ships for the archipelago fleet was doubled.

In spite of smaller victories on land, the king was not satisfied with the operations and decided to put all the efforts on the naval war. The aim was to invade Vyborg. However, Russian forces managed to block the sound of Vyborg and the Swedes suffered heavy losses when breaking through the Russian forces. Finally the Russian Open Sea fleet forced the Swedish ships of line back to the fortress of Viapori.

The archipelago fleets of Sweden and Russia met again at Svensksund on the 9th of July in 1790. The second battle at Svensksund became one of the greatest sea victories in Swedish history. All in all some 500 vessels and 30 000 men took part in the battle. Russia lost app. 60 ships and 9000 men.

The War Ends

Soon after the second battle at Svensksund Gustav III proposed peace to Catherine II and the peace treaty was signed on the 14th of August 1790. Both countries retained their former borders and gained no new territory.


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Last updated 30.10.2015
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