Misunderstandings, blunders and bad judgement were all instrumental in the Republic of the United Netherlands’ swift fall from political power in the Baltic Sea in the first half of the eighteenth century. This was despite the fact that the Republic relied heavily on trade with the areas around the Baltic Sea (known as the mother of all trade). The story of the Dutch influence on the waning power of Sweden and the growing power of Russia under Tsar Peter the Great is primarily a tale of bad personal relations and missed opportunities.
This was the gist of an inaugural lecture given by historian and Russia specialist Hans van Koningsbrugge at the University of Groningen on Tuesday 21 May. His research constitutes an insightful reflection on four centuries of relations between The Hague and the Kremlin in this special Netherlands-Russia year.
It is an iconic moment in history: Tsar Peter the Great visiting the shipyards of the Netherlands, looking for knowledge that would strengthen his own maritime war machine. But although this image is well-known to many of the Dutch, very few people are aware of the appalling state of relations between the Tsar and the Dutch regents. Van Koningsbrugge: ‘All Russian objectives were destroyed by the bad will that dominated the Republic. The Dutch considered the Tsar too inquisitive, and this affected their willingness to help the Russians.’
According to Van Koningsbrugge, the Tsar’s visit in 1716-1717 was a complete disaster. When the Tsar’s pregnant wife gave birth during the visit and lost her infant shortly afterwards, the Dutch government heaved a sigh of relief: they did not need to buy a christening present after all. The suggestion of a gift for the Tsarin worth thousands of ducats was openly abandoned by the Amsterdam Baltic Sea Merchants.
The balance of power in the Baltic changed as Peter the Great’s Russia started to gain ground in the Great Northern War. This war, with Russia and Sweden as the main opponents, heralded a definitive end to Sweden’s status as one of the great powers. In formal terms, the Republic of the United Netherlands was neutral in relation to the warring parties, although this did not stop it from secretly supplying arms to the Russians nor did it prevent Swedish privateers from attacking Dutch merchant ships.
By the end of the war in 1721, the Republic had lost every vestige of political influence it had ever had over Sweden or Russia. Its pertinent refusal to take sides played an important part in this fiasco: both Sweden and Russia concluded that they could not rely on any form of real support from the Republic.
Van Koningsbrugge thinks that the Dutch regents allowed themselves to be guided by emotions at crucial moments. They were angry about the Swedish raids on Dutch ships and about the Russian commander’s abuse of power over Dutch merchants, who were assaulted and their cargoes impounded for many months. This general dissatisfaction was reinforced by diplomatic scandals such as the public Russian kidnapping of an officer from the Groningen garrison and the expulsion of a Dutch diplomat from St Petersburg.
Dutch diplomats continued to demand formal apologies for these practices as a condition for renewing political relations, and so the Republic gradually lost touch with the developments that really counted. ‘They missed quite a few junctions’, claims Van Koningsbrugge on the basis of his extensive review of the literature. Relations in 2013 are much better, says the Russia specialist. ‘Trade relations are excellent, and these days both sides favour the rational approach. We’re in a much better position than we were then.’
Hans van Koningsbrugge is Professor of Russian History and Politics at the University of Groningen. A historian, he specializes in Dutch-Baltic relations in the 18th century and in contemporary Russian history and politics. He is also director of the Netherlands-Russia Centre and the Centre for Russian Studies, both of which are based at the University of Groningen.
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