With surprising regularity since the early 1990s, the story of how Tzar Peter I bought the territory of the Baltic States from the Swedish Crown in the form of a peaceful commercial deal in 1721 has been discussed in the Russian information space, not to mention on social networks and in online comment “battles”. If a list of “top” amusing arguments, which have been discussed in the media and sometimes also in Russian political circles over the last couple of decades, to substantiate Russia's claim on the Baltic States was drawn up, the aforementioned argument could rank first.
Relatively recently, in May 2017, the Russian language website 201day.wordpress.com, which positions itself as a history portal providing "objective information only", published the following text that characterises the essence of the matter: "Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians, for some reason, seem to have forgotten that Tzar Peter I BOUGHT them from the Queen Ulrika Eleonora with all lands, real estate, and even livestock. And not only bought them, but gave freedom to the Baltics. (..) Any historian would confirm that the deal was concluded on 10 September 1721 (as per the text. - Ed.) Tzar Pyotr Alexeyevich paid two million roubles for a portion of Ingria, Karelia, Estonia and Vidzeme. According to the current exchange rate, excluding interest, that is about 350 million dollars.”
This “fact” has been either republished or retold online in various interpretations numerous times, but especially aggressive promotion and multiplication of the story began in 2015, when the Ministers of Justice of the Baltic States issued a joint declaration on the need to calculate and recover the losses inflicted by the USSR occupation, pointing to the duty of Russia to assume responsibility for that.
The story of “the purchase” is gladly republished by Russian language media in Latvia as well. For instance, on 26 October 2017 by vesti.lv, where a statement by Russian columnist Anatolijs Vasermans claimed that Latvia and Estonia are currently “an occupied part of Russia” because they were bought in 1721 for two million thalers, which were nicknamed “Jefimki” in the Russian Empire. “The return” can be organised at any time and the action that is required to do that is a referendum on the exit from the EU and “return” to Russia.
Subjection in Three Phases
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did not become a part of the Russian empire at once or during one year. Preaching “we bought you” to Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, inter alia, means admitting the historical illiteracy of the preacher themselves. If we focus on the Latvian case, it must be remembered that the Russian Empire did not buy the territory of Latvia in the 18th century, as was the case with Alaska, but seized it bit by bit in three different attempts.
Riga and Vidzeme was seized from Sweden during the brutal Great Northern War, which lasted from 1700 to 1721 (Riga surrendered on 4 July 1710 after eight months of siege, worn out by regular bombing, famine and plague). It is known from history that Peter I started thinking about the annexation of “Livonians” only after defeating King Charles XII of Sweden at the battle of Poltava in 1709, which explains why Vidzeme was looted barbarically at the beginning of the war and residents were taken captive and brought to Russia. Peter I corroborated his conquest by the treaty of Nystad on 30 August 1721, which was a peace treaty between Russia and Sweden signed in the Finnish town of Nystad.
Meanwhile “Polish Vidzeme”, or Latgalia, or Inflantia, became subject to the Imperial Crown of Romanov Dynasty Russia in 1772 during the so called first division of Poland. Prussia, Austria and Russia simply used the internal unrest, as well as the military and political weakness of Rzeczpospolita (the joint state of Poland and Lithuania) to annex pieces on the pretext of “restoring order”.
Latgalia was on the list of lands that Russia found attractive. 1795 was the year of the third division of Poland, namely, complete elimination of this country. This time Russia obtained the former vassal state of Poland - the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, which had become the actual protectorate of Russia already since the second decade of the 18th century.
Talk of “buying Courland and Semigallia from the duke for 1.4 million thalers", as voiced by Russian State Duma deputies Valery Rashkin and Sergey Obukhov in 2015, is sheer nonsense. Ernst Johann von Biron, the last Duke of Courland was the placeman of Petersburg and the favourite of the Empress Anna Ivanovna. He fell from grace under the rule of the new Empress Catherine II, but was pardoned later and regained his title. By the help of her persons of influence, by generous promises to retain privileges and manors, “by threats and by promises”, as the historian Arveds Švābe writes, Catherine II achieved the outcome, where the nobility of the duchy “unanimously pleaded” to accept the accession of Courland to Russia in March 1795.
Not to mention Latvian serf peasants, even Biron was not asked any questions! When the duke learned about the result of the intrigues, he himself stepped down from the throne on 17 March 1795. This decision made his bitter cup a bit sweeter - Catherine II promised Biron an annual pension in the amount of 69,000 thalers and granted a single “fee for damages” in the amount of two million roubles. Furthermore, the ex-duke could move as many serfs as he deemed necessary from his Courland properties to manors in Germany. There was no question of any type of “buying” Courland.
The Nystad “Deal”
If we return to the Nystad peace treaty of 1721 and the “2 million jefimki”, which were, allegedly, paid by Russia for Vidzeme, we just need to read the text of this treaty. The text of Section 4 of the Russian version of the treaty, which was published in 1992 in the volume of documents Under the Flag of Russia ("Под стягом России"), clearly states that “the provinces of Vidzeme, Estonia and Ingermaland, as well as a part of Karelia was by means of weapons conquered from the Crown of Sveji (Swedes - author) in war". Peter I had indeed made an offer to pay two million thalers or “Jefimki” to the Swedes for Vidzeme and Estonia, but the Swedes categorically turned down the offer.
Furthermore, the sum was ridiculously low, in comparison with the value of the lost lands. As the historian and the researcher of Vidzeme during the Swedish rule, Edgars Dunsdorfs (1904 - 2000), wrote: “The representatives of Sweden protested, arguing that in this case the type of obtaining of the Baltic provinces would change – instead of being lost in war, they would be sold. (..) The solution was found by mentioning the purchase sum in the section of the treaty, which regulated the evacuation of troops from occupied Finland.” Namely, Section 5 of the treaty indicated two million thalers as “promised” in compensation for the territories of Finland lost by the Swedes. It is not clear whether this sum was ever paid.
The compensation had to be paid after the ratification of the peace treaty, however, the parliament of Sweden – Riksdag – refused to ratify the Treaty of Nystad until 1723, because they considered it to be humiliating. Dunsdorfs notes that the parliament, which consisted of the representatives of Swedish noblemen, clerics, citizens and free peasants, did so only after Peter I, on the aforementioned year, organised a demonstrative navy trip from Kronstadt to Revel (Tallinn).
Sweden could not come to terms with the loss of Vidzeme and Estonia throughout the entirety of the 18th century, and planned to the retake the territory either by war, or diplomatic games, or even by dynasty marriages. Therefore, Sweden and Russia were at war repeatedly in the territory of Finland for the next hundred years, hoping that they could have the luck of retaliating near the Baltic sea.
However, the Swedish had no success. Despite all that, Stockholm continued to dream of Vidzeme up until the early 19th century. This stubbornness, by the way, serves as an indirect confirmation that the interpretation of 1721 as the moment when a two million “Jefimki” deal was reached by mutual agreement is a sheer fantasy.
The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture