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Poltava: The Battle that Changed the World

In 1709 Russia emerged as a major power after a clash of armies in the Ukraine. Peter the Great’s victory, Derek Wilson argues, had repercussions that last to this day.

The Battle of Poltava by Denis Martens the Younger, painted 1726The year 2009 marked the 300th anniversary of a battle fought in hilly terrain near the Ukrainian town of Poltava. In the history of warfare it does not rank as one of the outstanding examples of bravery, great generalship or brilliant tactics. The victors owed their success as much to fortune as to heroism. Daniel Defoe, on receiving the news in England, was scornful. He described the outcome as 'an army of veterans beaten by a mob, a crowd, a mere militia; an army of the bravest fellows in the world, beaten by scoundrels'. Many of his contemporaries shared his surprise and dismay and assumed that this apparent triumph of an uncivilised eastern nation over the best fighting machine in Europe was but a flash in the pan. How wrong they were. The Battle of Poltava was one of the major turning points of modern history and we are still living with its consequences. Peter the Great's victory over Charles XII on June 27th, 1709 signalled the end of Sweden's long period of domination of the Baltic and, more significantly, the emergence of Russia as a major European power.

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