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According to the Guardian, in a recent speech/interview Putin said

“Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s],” the Russian president said on Thursday after a visiting an exhibition dedicated to the tsar.

“Apparently, it is also our lot to return [what is Russia’s] and strengthen [the country]. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.”

However, a brief look at Peter the Great's biography on Wikipedia seems to give a different impression:

Through a number of successful wars, he captured ports at Azov and the Baltic Sea, laying the groundwork for the Imperial Russian Navy, ending uncontested Swedish supremacy in the Baltic and beginning the Tsardom's expansion into a much larger empire that became a major European power.

So which lands could be said to have belonged to Russia previously that Peter the Great had "returned" in that war? Even if we focus just on the Great Northern War, it seems that during that war Sweden "lost the Baltic provinces". Did these belong to Russia before 1700?

Looking e.g. at Riga's history that doesn't seem to be the case.

Putin usually doesn't go for complete historical fabrication, so am I missing something?

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    I'm not totally convinced this is answerable. Just clicking through Wikipedia confirms that there have been multiple wars between Sweden and Russia over the centuries, such as a 16th-Century Livonian War and a 17th-Century Ingrian War. Go back much further, and it becomes hard to objectively decide that a particular ancient state was the predecessor of a particular modern one. Russian nationalists seem to take the view that several ancient states are in fact the ancestors of Russia.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 10 at 14:56
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    (Go forwards, meanwhile, and much of the territory apparently forms the modern state of Estonia. Does that mean Estonia has "conquered" these lands, or "liberated" them?)
    – IMSoP
    Jun 10 at 15:01
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    How far back in time should one go to determine what region belongs to a claimant? If we go back even further in time, western Russia and Ukraine belong to Sweden. Rurik, the founder of the Keivan Rus', was a Viking. One of Rurik's descendants eventually became the first Tsar of Russia. Jun 10 at 15:06
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    The above was a bit tongue in cheek. Per Putin's logic, it would be completely within Italy's rights to go to war with Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, Libya, Egypt, Israel, etc. because all or parts of those countries used to be a part of the Roman Empire. Jun 10 at 15:21
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    @DavidHammen Well, precisely. I've voted to close this question, because I don't think there's really a claim to be examined here, just some fairly meaningless rhetoric. Nationalist claims of this sort are like religious claims - they are "true" or "false" according to a particular system of beliefs, not according to any objective measurement.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 10 at 15:44

2 Answers 2

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Not that this claim over "belongs to" or "return" should matter that much for any argument in the present day, but of course this is rooted in historical fact, with a twist if you go back further still:

As suspected in the question:

"Putin usually doesn't go for complete historical fabrication, …"

The historical region of Ingria or Ingermanland is exactly what would match such a description. Ingria or Ingermanland is at the edge of the Baltic Sea, bordering the Finnish Gulf — and is roughly around the place in which Peter founded St Petersburg.

This area has changed hands quite a bit between for example Sweden, Teutonic Knights, Novgorod Republic, Muscowy, or after Ivan the Terrible, the Tsardom of Russia.

This area was indeed often under Novgorod, then Muscowy and then Russian influence, or control; or even genuine part of that state. Whether that makes it "belong" to either Sweden, Finland, to the Votians, Ingrians or Izhors, or Russians, at any time is up for grabs, and basing anything on history that far back is … you know… let's say bad style.

The biggest 'Russian' stronghold in that region would thus be perhaps Ivangorod:

The fortress, established in 1492 during the reign of Ivan III of Moscow took its name (literally: Ivan-town — gorod in Russian means "town" or "city") from that of the Tsar. Between 1581 and 1590 and from 1612 to 1704, Sweden controlled the area.

The near by and even older Schlüsselburg Fortess (after Peter renamed it in German, before: Oreshek (Орешек) or Orekhov (Орехов) shows a similar story. Only that the Russian side tells it would have been an originally Russian construction under Yuriy Danilovich of Moscow, while the Swedish sides claims, well, … say that Torkel Knutsson built in 1299… (which is true for Vyborg)

On German Wikipedia this illustration shows "Russian Reconquests" in roughly that area after the events that followed the Treaty of Nöteborg from 1323–1714:

enter image description here

A very nice historical sketch for the roundabout area is as follows:

In the 11th century, another East-Slavonic tribe reached the neighbourhood of the region inhabited by the northern Votians, where in the 13th and 14th centuries the former began to found their settlements in the lngrian Upland. That started the assimilation of Votians with Eastern Slavs. Purely Votian settlements were preserved only on the margins of orthodox faith, which now began to spread into the land of the Votians. During the crusades of the the Ingrians or Izhors. […]

Under the Stolbova peace treaty (1607) the greatest part of the land populated by Votians was incorporated into the Swedish- Finnish state. Some of the Votians adopted the Lutheran faith and fused with the Ingrian Finns, while others emigrated to regions inhabited by Russians, where they became Russified. After the annexation of the land inhabited by Votians to Russia in 1704, large numbers of Russians were settled among Votians, along with the imposition of serfdom, which lasted until 1861. […]

Since ancient times Votian's neighbours have been the Ingrians or Izhors. They are descendents of the Karelians who settled on the banks of the Rivers Neva and Inkere/Izhora in the llth century. The name of the latter river has provided the Finnish (inkeroinen, pl. inkeroiset; inkerikko, pl. inkerikot) and Russian (i~ora) versions of the name for these people. Also the present Estonian ethnonym (isur, pl. isurid) is derived from Russian. The name of Voteland fell into disuse and the region came to be called Inkeri in Finnish, Ingermanland in Swedish and, at first, I~orskaia zemlia in Russian. In 1704 the region that had passed from Swedish to Russian rule was named Ingermanlandskaia guberniia, which in 1710 was changed to Sankt-Peterburgskaia guberniia. […]

The areas settled by Ingrians came under the influence of Novgorod as early as the llth and 12th centuries. Later they participated together with Russians in campaigns against Sweden. In 1300 the Swedes founded a stronghold called Landskrona (in Finnish Maankruunu) at the mouth of the River Neva in the land of Ingria, which, however, was destroyed the next year. The frontier drawn under the Ndteborg/Oregek peace treaty, concluded between Sweden and Novgorod in 1323,separated Ingrians from Karelians of Ayr~ipg~i(in the western part of the Karelian Isthmus) who came under Swedish rule. In this region, inhabited by Ingrians, Russians built a stronghold called Oregek (Ndteborg in Swedish, P~ihkin~ilinna in Finnic languages). The uncertain situation in the border area compelled the Ingrians to move west (as far as the Rivers Narva and Lauga/Luga) and south (to the surroundings of the River Orede~). Already in the 16th and 17th centuries most of the people inhabiting the former land of Votians were Ingrians. The prevailing religion of the population was the Orthodox faith, especially from the year 1534. After Ingria's incorporation into Sweden the Ingrians adopted the Lutheran faith, while a segment of the Ingrians professing the Orthodox faith moved away to regions inhabited by Russians (Laanest 1964). […]

In 1570-1595 the Swedish-Russian War badly devastated Ingria. As a result, a large segment of its Orthodox population fled to areas inhabited by Russians. As to the part of Ingria that came under Swedish rule, a certain number of settlers professing the Lutheran faith moved there from Finland. As the Tgyssin/i peace treaty of 1595 had left Ingria to Russia, a new war started in 1610, which ended with the Stolbova peace treaty of 1617.Now Ingria - the former Russian districts Ivangorod, Iamburg, Koporie and Oregek - was incorporated into Sweden. This area stretched for 200 km W to E between the Rivers Narva and Lava, and, on an average, for 130 km from N to S from the Karelian border at Viborg to the Russian border. The land frontier ran for 110 km in the Karelian isthmus bordering on Old Finland (Viborg and Kexholm/K~ikisalmi Karelia) and in the S it stretched for 240 km, bordering on Russia. Apart from that, the boundary of Ingria extended for 210 km along the coast of the Gulf of Finland and for 110 km along the shore of Lake Ladoga. From that time onwards a new period of demographic development began on this territory of 15,000 km2.

The Stolbova peace treaty allowed the boyars, monks and citizens to leave Orthodox Ingria for Russia. In actual fact, a large number of peasants of the Orthodox faith also left the region. The latter were sent by the Russian authorities to the villages that had lost their inhabitants as a result of the hostilities and famines. At first, Swedish authorities intended to resettle Ingria with German colonists, but by 1650 only 24 German families had moved into the area. Nor did the authorities succeed in settling Swedish peasants there. As there was no longer any state frontier in the Karelian isthmus, peasants from Savo/ Savolax (Savakot) and Viborg now moved into Ingria, especially into its northern and central parts. As can be seen from the public registers of landed property for 1618-1623, two-thirds of the people who moved over to the districts of Kaprio/Koporie and Iivananlinna/Ivangorod had come from the parish of Ayriip~i~i(Ayfiim6iset) in the Karelian isthmus. They had arrived in the past 40 years, some of them even earlier.

Another blow to the development of the settlements in Ingria was dealt by an invasion of Russian troops in 1656. Two years of hostilities decreased the population considerably. Again, part of the people left together with the Russian army, including Lutherans being taken along. By 1661, when the K~irde/Kardis peace treaty was concluded, only one-third of the pre-war population remained in Ingria. After the conclusion of the peace treaty, the Lutherans, and also part of the Orthodox population, returned, especially to Western Ingria. The proportion of Finns in Ingria kept growing, making up 41.1% of the inhabitants in 1656, 53.2% in 1661,55.2% in 1666, and 56.9% in 1671 (Inkeri 1991). In the latter year their percentage was highest in the P~ihkin~ilinna district, accounting for 86% of the population. The number of Finns was lower in West Ingria, where Ingrians and Votians prevailed. At Narva and Iamburg Russians were numerous. In 1695 the newly arrived settlers already made up 73.8% of the whole population of Ingria.

In addition to Narva there was another town - Nyen or Nevanlinna - in Ingria where the inhabitants included representatives of a number of different peoples. Already in 1583 Swedes had tried to build a stronghold by that name, but owing to continual hostilities they were not able to start construction work until 1611.In 1632 a town sprang up by the side of the stronghold at the mouth of the River Ohta, a tributary of the Neva. This town became the trading centre of Ingria and the whole of Eastern Finland, and in 1642 it was also made the administrative centre of the Ingrian Gubernia. In 1656the town was badly damaged by a Russian attack, and the administrative centre was transferred to Narva.

Two factors contributed to the fusion of these Finnish- speaking ethnic groups in Ingria: the Lutheran faith and instruction in literary Finnish at the schools in the parishes. That made the Finnish-speaking inhabitants of Ingria identify with the Finns living in Finland and they began to refer to themselves as Ingrian Finns. Nevertheless, the political separation of Ingria from Finland as a result of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg (1703) on the site of the town of Nyen, and the creation of Russian villages amidst the Finnish settlements in areas inhabited almost exclusively by Finns, brought peculiar features to the development of Ingrian Finns. In the course of a hundred years Ingria remained cut off from the greater part of Finland (except for Viborg and Ladogan Karelia). The impact of the Finnish language on Ingria increased again after the annexation of Finland to Russia in 1809.

— Ott Kurs: "Ingria: The Broken Landbridge between Estonia and Finland", GeoJournal, 33.1, pp107–113, 1994. PDF

To better visualise the territorial evolution of Muscovy into Russia, and the change of hands concerning Ingermanland, a few maps

enter image description here
Muscovy from 1390–1525 (Ingermanland being mainly under Novgorod control, but since Muscovy swallowed Novgorod in 1478… src)

enter image description here

The Philips World Atlas of World History, Europe ca. 1560, rough area of Ingermanland highlighted:

enter image description here — Patrick K. O'Brien (Ed): "The Philips's Atlas of World History", Philip's: London, 22005, p146.

In turn, Sweden's expansion:

enter image description here src

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    Ah, ok, so it would be fine if Russia took Hungary together with Ukraine, because it's nearby (like Riga was to Ivangorod.)
    – Fizz
    Jun 11 at 17:35
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    @Fizz I don't think anyone here is saying that any of this is "fine", only that there is a historical background to Russia claiming these regions as "Russian". That Putin is leaving out some parts of history and exaggerating others, shouldn't surprise anybody.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 11 at 17:45
  • I mean who could argue the Rusyns are not Russians. "Just look at the name" as Jon Stewart would say.
    – Fizz
    Jun 11 at 17:52
  • I'm sure Canada belongs to Russia too. (1) They had Alaska, which is nearby. (2) Look how many Rusyns live in Canada. Clearly "ancient Russian land".
    – Fizz
    Jun 11 at 18:16
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    @Fizz How should I improve this A from these comments? This A probably already contains too much "editorial" for my own liking on this. And that does not say anywhere anything near "fine", whether for Pete nor for Vladi. If you want more opinion — whether from me or others — I suggest chat or PolSE? (And yeah, Canada was always for France! But you seem to have slready read the latest op-eds on Alaska down to California 'ought to be brought back into the realm? ;) Jun 11 at 18:19
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TLDR version: Ivan IV (aka "the Terrible") did claim and ask for Riga during the 1560s wars and negotiations with (Grand Duchy of) Lithuania, although he did not get it (during his lifetime). So I suppose this is roughly when & where the claim that the area belonged to Russia originates.

A "grand" party of diplomats left Lithuania for Moscow in May 1566. Lithuania was prepared to split Livonia with Russia, with a view to a joint offensive to drive Sweden from the area. However, this was seen as a sign of weakness by Russian diplomats, who instead suggested that Russia take the whole of Livonia, including Riga, through the ceding of Courland in southern Livonia and Polotsk on the Lithuanian–Russian border. The transfer of Riga, and the surrounding entrance to the River Dvina, troubled the Lithuanians, since much of their trade depended on safe passage through it and they had already built fortifications to protect it. Ivan expanded his demands in July, calling for Ösel in addition to Dorpat (Tartu) and Narva. No agreement was forthcoming and a ten-day break was taken in negotiations, during which time various Russian meetings were held (including the zemsky sobor, the Assembly of the Land) to discuss the issues at stake. Within the Assembly, the church's representative stressed the need to "keep" Riga (though it had not yet been conquered), while the Boyars were less keen on an overall peace with Lithuania, noting the danger posed by a joint Polish-Lithuanian state. Talks were then halted and hostilities resumed upon the return of the ambassadors to Lithuania.

It was actually not uncommon for the warring parties to make substantial/exaggerated demands during this period. In 1583 when the tides had turned ("Russia relinquished most of Ingria, leaving Narva and Ivangorod"), Sweden even demanded Novgorod, although this was presumed to be just a negotiation tactic. (Same page/source).

FWTW, as Wikipedia also notes:

The Kingdom of Livonia was a nominal state in what is now the territory of Estonia and Latvia. The Russian Tsar Ivan IV declared the establishment of the kingdom during the Livonian War of 1558–1583, but it never functioned properly as a polity.

On June 10, 1570, the Danish Duke Magnus of Holstein arrived in Moscow, where he was crowned King of Livonia. Magnus took the oath of allegiance to Ivan as his overlord and received from him the corresponding charter for the vassal kingdom of Livonia in what Ivan termed his patrimony. [...]

The new king Magnus of Livonia departed from Moscow with 20,000 Russian soldiers for the conquest of Swedish-controlled Reval [Tallinn].

Except Magnus wasn't able to take it, despite the 20,000 Russian troops under his command. Ivan got tired of him in 1577 and removed his king title, while throwing him prison. I suppose however that other tsars later revived or perhaps never gave up this claim of suzerainty, at least over Livonia. In fact, one can be pretty sure of this, as tsar Alexei Mikhailovich also tried to take Riga (in 1656).


As to the basis of Ivan's claim... according to S.P. Oakely's book (War and Peace in the Baltic 1560-1790) that's cited a few times in those [English] Wikipedia articles (pp. 16-17)

the acquisition of Novgorod had also given Muscovy a common frontier with Lithuania. The latter occupied a large area which had formed part of the Kievan state before its dissolution under the impact of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century (the ‘patrimony of St Vladimir’) and to which Muscovy would lay claim as Kiev’s successor. [...]

Ivan could claim historical rights to Livonia and in particular to the see of Dorpat on its border with Muscovy, which had half a millennium before been ruled over by Yuriev of Kiev. A treaty in 1555, which renewed the truce between Muscovy and Livonia for fifteen years, in fact recognized Muscovite rights to tribute from the see, of which Ivan claimed fifty years’ back payment.

As we can further check out on Wikipedia, Yaroslav the Wise had conquered Tartu around 1030:

In another successful military raid in 1030, he captured Tartu, Estonia and renamed it Yuryev (named after Yury, Yaroslav's patron saint) and forced the surrounding Ugandi County to pay annual tribute.

So that seems to be the root of the Russian claim to the area. In the article on the city, Wikipedia details that

Tartu probably remained under Kievan control until 1061, when, according to chronicles, the Yuryev fort was burned down by an Estonian tribe called Sosols.

And some more obscure raids from the princes of Novgorod in the intervening centuries, not resulting in a lasting occupation. However, given the Russian/Soviet mythology of their fights against "the West", I can see however how the later fights against the Teutonic Knights (and Livonian branch thereof), after they took over the city in the 13th century, has some modern-day significance. (Fighting the Hanseatic League doesn't sound nearly as epic.)


OTOH if you want to be more kind to Putin's remark, it seems he was talking more strictly talking about the area around St. Petersburg rather than Baltic countries also conquered by Russia in the same war.

"When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognized this territory as part of Russia; everyone recognized it as part of Sweden," Putin said. "However, from time immemorial, the Slavs lived there along with the Finno-Ugric peoples, and this territory was under Russia's control. The same is true of the western direction, Narva and his first campaigns. Why would he go there? He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing."

Not that this has impressed the Estonian government, which passed an official note of protest to the Russian ambassador, regarding Narva.

This narrower region had been lost to Sweden more recently during "the Time Troubles" in Russia, making Swedish Ingria:

Ingria fell to Sweden in the 1580s, was returned to Russia by the Treaty of Teusina (1595), and again ceded to Sweden in the Treaty of Stolbovo (1617).

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  • This might be as is a nice addition on History:SE, or for a Q: "Did Peter really just annex only areas that always 'belonged'"… But Riga? Founded by Bremeners, Hanseatic League, Imperial City, ca. Teutonic Knights…? This rubs both, "took from Sweden" & "Belonged To Russia" In a weird way? Maybe I miss sth from your angle, but I guesss clarifying this 'Note: Pete also grabbed things from Swede control that previously did not fall under Moscow's jurisdiction' might improve this? Jun 11 at 20:57
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    @LangLаngС I feel like the two of you are both saying the same thing under each other's answers - "yes, but what about this bit of land you don't mention" - which is kind of funny. But then, I think the whole claim is meaningless outside of nationalist rhetoric anyway, and thus utterly unanswerable. You've both dug up some good background that nationalists might claim as sufficient to call it "true"; I don't think anyone is surprised that it's not enough for non-nationalists (or opposing nationalists) to agree.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 13 at 9:30
  • @IMSoP Re: unanswerable; IMO this is only a problem once anyone enters the "'belong': true/false"-angle. (I'd go back the furthest & give that strip back to some Neanderthals or Erectus?) What imo the Q seems to try and my A does try is to abstract that towards the purely historical angle/root: (basis 4 claim) 'did Pete take then what some time before was/had been at some point already under Russian control?' Right/wrong, morals or 'legitimacy' of "belong" just don't follow from that, no matter how hard any Vlad or Antivlad likes to try & argue, whether in press conference or Skeptics post? Jun 13 at 14:58
  • @LangLаngС Fair enough, but in that case I go back to my first comment: we have two answers here, both focusing on a particular part of the territory which changed hands; and under each, we have a comment amounting to "yes, but what about the other parts?" You've both taken essentially the same approach, so I'm confused why you've both commented what you have under each other's answers.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 13 at 15:04

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