Russian admiral. Along with Peter I, Apraxin was the founder of the modern Russian Navy. In 1700 Peter appointed Apraxin governor of Azov, where he was ordered to build and sustain a Black Sea fleet for operations against the Ottoman Empire. He built blue-water ships and river boats and barges, based in large part on information Peter gathered in the West. Apraxin also built and oversaw new dockyards, warehouses, and repair facilities-in short, the full apparatus of a permanent navy-and roughly gathered related ship-building crafts and industries and workers under his control. In 1707 he moved north and was named “Admiral of the Baltic Fleet,” tasked with defending the new capital of St. Petersburg while Peter and the Army were away fighting Karl XII in Poland and Ukraine, as the Great Northern War (1700-1721) crested in the east and south. Apraxin drove away a small Swedish column and fleet sent toward St. Petersburg as a double feint to draw Peter back north. In 1714 he commanded a Russian fleet of 30 sail and 180 galleys which defeated a much diminished Swedish fleet at Hangö, or Gangut (July 27/August 7, 1714). Before the war was over, Apraxin drove the Swedish Navy from Karelian and Finnish waters and conducted amphibious raids and bombardments of coastal Sweden itself, even threatening Stockholm. Apraxin and the new Navy both declined in influence after Peter’s death, but even a number of years of neglect could not wholly erase the permanent changes wrought in the Black Sea and the Baltic.
Peter I was also devoted to the modernization of most aspects of Russian national life. He began with the military, building the Navy essentially from scratch to a force that at his death boasted fully 36 ships-of-the-line, 86 additional significant warships (frigates and galleys), and 280 support vessels. So dedicated was Peter to the Russian Navy that he made chopping down an oak tree a capital offense, and he also punished the collection of forest windfalls, reserving all hardwood for ship-building. He imported hundreds of foreign artisans, engineers, and mercenaries and sent Russian nobles abroad to study.
The United Provinces and England were already united against France on land. At sea, they acted in concert as the “Maritime Powers,” despite being hard rivals for trade in a world where English ships were making increasing inroads at the expense of the Dutch. In the lead-up to the Great Northern War, these maritime allies sought to maintain the Baltic balance of power principally because their own sea power was dependent on naval imports from the Baltic, most importantly of masts and hemp. They also hoped to bring armies from Denmark and Sweden into the Grand Alliance that was reforming against France.
With the Maritime Powers and Brandenburg neutral at best, Denmark was forced to seek allies in the east for any war against Sweden. It found a willing partner in Augustus II of Poland. In 1699, Peter I agreed to an anti-Swedish alliance with Augustus II and Fredrik IV, newly installed in Copenhagen. The deal was engineered by Johann Reinhold Patkul (1660-1707), a Baltic German who had spent some time in Swedish service. By this secret alliance, the three sovereigns declared an intention to wage a war of aggression leading to partition of the Swedish empire, in order to take advantage of the passing of the more formidable Karl XI and the youthful inexperience of the new Swedish king.
Karl XII now showed precocious strategic and diplomatic skills. He and his advisers secured support of the Maritime Powers for the status quo in Schleswig by promising to uphold the Treaty of Ryswick (September 20, 1697). Then, keenly focusing on the weakest of its three enemies, Sweden proceeded to knock Denmark out of the war with a bold amphibious operation. Over the protests of his naval commanders, Karl ordered the Swedish fleet to navigate the “Flinterend,” a dangerous passage between Sweden and the island of Sjælland (or Zealand). This enabled a landing of his army near Copenhagen in late July, followed by a quick advance on the city. The frightened Danish king agreed to exit the alliance and war by signing the Peace of Travendal (August 7/18, 1700). That permitted Karl to turn his army east, where it met and routed a much larger Russian force initially led by Peter, who had invaded Ingria in late October and was bombarding and besieging Narva with 35,000 men. The fight that ensued at Narva (November 19/30, 1700) in the midst of a snowstorm ended in a complete rout that dashed Peter’s hopes of annexing Ingria and Estonia.
Peter spent that summer campaigning to take more territory from the Swedes, this time in Karelia and Finland. His troops took Helsingfors and Åbo and occupied Helsinki that May, subtracting another province from the tax and recruitment tallies formerly collected by Sweden. By 1714 Peter had captured and occupied all the Baltic territories of the Swedish Empire, from Livonia to Estonia and Karelia. His “Admiral of the Baltic Fleet,” Fedor Apraxin, also defeated the Swedish Navy at Hangö, or Gangut (July 27/August 7, 1714), off the southern tip of Finland. That victory established Russian naval domination of the Baltic and opened Finland, and indeed Sweden itself, to Russia’s amphibious raids and coastal bombardments. In 1716, Peter even assumed temporary command of British, Danish, Dutch, and Russian fleets allied against the hard-pressed Swedes. In 1717 he visited Paris, where he made clear his intention that Russia would displace Sweden within the European balance of power system and as the dominant Baltic power. This bold proposal reflected new facts on the ground in the east and atop the waters of the Baltic Sea. It was therefore readily accepted by the other Great Powers.
Karl XII scraped together an army from a war-weary and disheartened kingdom, and moved to attack the Danes in Norway in 1717. He campaigned in Norway again during 1718. Seemingly not content with his extant enemies, Karl provoked Great Britain to declare war on Sweden by attempting to block British access to the Baltic trades vital to the Royal Navy and to prosperity, and by foolishly supporting the already hopeless Jacobite cause. Karl was shot and killed while fighting at the siege of Fredrikshald (Fredriksten) in Norway on November 30/December 11, 1718. The next year, a new, fully modern Russian battlefleet built by Peter over the course of the Great Northern War arrived off the Swedish coast. It bombarded several harbor towns, an affront to the national homeland that could not have been imagined in Stockholm 20 years earlier. The next year Peter’s northern navy won a significant victory at Grengham (July 16/27, 1720). That caused Sweden to finally sue for peace with at least the lesser of its carrion-eating neighbors.
With western Europe already enjoying the peace that followed the settlement at Utrecht in 1713, eastern European powers were also finally ready to settle. The anti-Swedish coalition also began to break apart in face of the realization that Peter’s Russia had replaced Karl’s Sweden-not just as a member of the club of Great Powers, but also as the main predator of the north. Concern for the regional balance of power if Sweden were to be further reduced to Russia’s advantage began to tell against the urge to carve up and divide Sweden’s remaining provinces. Great Britain, in particular, was concerned about Russian naval plans in the Baltic. In this concern, royal interest in endowing Hanover with a greater Baltic naval presence was matched by perceived national interests. At the diplomatic table, Sweden thus regained some lands from Poland, which was a major loser in the Great Northern War.
Russia’s victory in the Great Northern War was so complete that it was permanently established as Sweden’s replacement as a Great Power in the European system and as the dominant power in the Baltic.