Thursday, March 16, 2017

Count Forrest Gump of Finland

On our short trip to St. Petersburg last summer, my wife and I mostly stuck to the typical tourist spots as we wandered around that historic, sprawling city – with one exception, that is.

At my wife’s suggestion, we paid a visit to a cemetery a bit off the beaten path. Now and then, while on holiday, we somehow find ourselves in random graveyards, as ghoulish as that sounds, so this wasn’t so unusual for us.

In the case of this graveyard visit, however, we had a specific goal in mind.

The year before, a colleague of my wife’s had sought out a little-known cemetery while on a work trip to St. Petersburg. He was looking for one grave in particular, the final resting place of a Finnish nobleman with some historical connections to the part of Eastern Finland that my wife’s colleague (and my wife, for that matter) hail from.

This would be southern Savo, a beautiful and quiet part of Finland. Very, very quiet. Other than in the region’s principle town of Mikkeli (pop. just over 50,000), there’s not a lot of “bustling” going on there.

This is especially true in Ristiina, a tiny village south of Mikkeli where the man buried in St. Petersburg lived over 200 years ago, in a house that my wife’s colleague is helping to restore.

As sleepy and unassuming as the village is now, it would be hard to imagine the colorful life led by its former resident, including an unfortunate turn of events in vicinity of Mikkeli itself. 

Count Sprengtporten
Count Georg Magnus Sprengtporten was not a native of Savo. He had been born in 1740 in Borgå (Porvoo, in Finnish) on the southern coast of what was then the eastern part of the Kingdom of Sweden. I, for one, had never heard of him and had to search the Internet to pick up scattered details of his life. In some ways, I may have only scratched the surface, but I hope I got the basic facts right.

As a young Swedish aristocrat and army officer, Sprengtporten first made a name for himself in the Seven Years’ War, which American school kids will know as the “French and Indian War” -- if they know anything about it at all. In what was arguably the first truly “world war”, Sweden played only a small part, joining in on the side of France, Russia and Spain against a coalition of Britain, Prussia and Portugal, mainly to regain territory it had lost to Prussia earlier. Sprengtporten served with distinction in this unsuccessful attempt to reassert Swedish control on the southern Baltic coast.

A decade later, the Count helped his older half-brother Baron Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten in the surprise mutiny and (apparently) bloodless capture of the Sveaborg Fortress (Suomenlinna, in Finnish) off the coast of Helsinki, effectively seizing control of all of Finland as part of a plot to install a new king in Stockholm, Gustav III.

Under the new regime, Sprengtporten was then appointed as a prominent military leader in Savo, where he commanded a brigade and founded an early cadet school in, you guessed it, Ristiina -- in fact, in the house my wife’s colleague has helped to restore. (The school was later moved to Hamina and became Finland’s premier military school.)

Sprengtporten and his brother Jacob, meanwhile, became increasingly dissatisfied by how they had been treated by Gustav, and following a visit to St. Petersburg Georg began to feel more appreciated by the Russians.

Around this time, he also hired himself out in the service of France, where he came into contact with the ambassador from a newly independent nation on the east coast of North America. This elder statesman, a true renaissance man and creator of, among many other things, bifocal eye-glasses and pithy sayings, was of course Benjamin Franklin.

The Smolenka Lutheran Cemetery

Partly influenced by Franklin, Sprengtporten returned to Finland with the notion of splitting Finland off from the rest of the Swedish Kingdom. This led him to enter into an ill-fated conspiracy with the Swedish king’s brother, among other schemes aimed at bringing about some kind of Finnish autonomy.

The Count wasn’t the only one entertaining embryonic thoughts of independence. Officers in the Suomenlinna garrison were grumbling in secret among themselves about the new war that Gustav had started with Russia for purely political reason. At least some of those officers went on to clandestinely approach Russia, seeking an end to the fighting and perhaps support for Finnish independence, in what became known as the Anjala Conspiracy.

By that point, Sprengtporten had already switched sides. Enticed by Gustav’s cousin, Catherine the Great, the Count put himself at the service of the Russian Empress. When the war with Sweden broke out, he was sent to lead Russian troops in a campaign in what was to him familiar territory in Savo, not far from Ristiina.

In the Battle of Porrassalmi, Russian troops under Sprengtporten’s command marched from the south against Mikkeli, which was defended by a much smaller Swedish force. Despite this, the Russians were defeated and Sprengtporten was badly wounded.

Following the disaster at Porrassalmi, the Count lost the faith and favor of Catherine. Apparently thinking it wise to lay low for a time, he took up residence in Bohemia, in present-day Czech Republic, in the town of Teplice. There, he struck up a friendship with the librarian of a nearby castle, a man by the name of Casanova, who was (and is) better known for tending to something other than dusty books.

Sprengtporten's gravestone.

After Catherine’s death, Sprengtporten once again found himself in the employ of Russia, when the new emperor, Catherine’s estranged son Paul, sent him in 1800 to negotiate with Napoleon over the issue of Malta. Bonaparte had captured the island-nation, ruled by the Knights of Malta Catholic order, while on his way to conquer Egypt. Napoleon was determined to expel the defeated knights from the island, and Sprengtporten’s mission was to arrange for a large number of them to be granted refuge in St. Petersburg.

Following Tsar Paul’s assassination, Sprengtporten was again on the outs with Russian rulers for a number of years. He once more rose to some prominence in 1808 when he was appointed as Russia’s first Governor-General of Finland, after the new tsar, Alexander, won Finland from Sweden in the Napoleonic Wars. Sprengtporten held the position for only a year.

Benjamin Franklin, Casanova, Napoleon, plus various royalty – there’s almost a Forrest Gump vibe to Sprengtporten’s life. And now he’s buried, mostly forgotten, in a somewhat decrepit cemetery in St. Petersburg.

On my wife’s colleague’s visit to the cemetery, the location of the grave sadly eluded him. Still, his quest sparked my wife’s interest, so one afternoon we strolled from our hotel to the other, decidedly not touristy, side of Vasilievsky Island with a vague idea where the cemetery should be.

Following the very narrow and tranquil (you might even say, almost stagnant) Smolenka River we passed through a riverside park where groups of citizens were cooking on braziers and enjoying an early evening drink or two until we came to a bridge that crosses to Decemberists’ Island, directly opposite the heavily wooded Smolenka Lutheran Cemetery.

We really had no idea how we’d find the grave, but we were lucky in that at the cemetery entrance stood a large obviously new signboard listing the most notable of the people buried within. It was almost entirely in Cyrillic. We don’t speak Russia, but by searching for the right dates of birth and death we quickly located the correct bit of text:

(Georg Markus) (1740 – 1819)
Граф, генерал от инфантерии, первый русский генера губернатор-Финляндии.

участок 5

Which translates to...

Sprengtporten Egor Maksimovich
Count, general of the infantry, the first Russian general-governor of Finland.

Plot 5

It didn’t take long searching plot 5 to find a tall, stone monument in better shape than many of the surrounding, half-ruined gravestones. It was inscribed on one side in French “Ici repose la dépouille mortelle de George Magne Comte de Sprentporten”. Voilà!

There was a newly laid stone path to the grave, a sign that the grave has recently been spruced up thanks to money from Finland.

And that, of course, would be fitting for a Finnish Count whose remarkable twists and turns in life included even a spell in bucolic Ristiina.

"Ici repose..."

No comments:

Post a Comment