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Sprengtporten, Georg Magnus (1740 - 1819)

general, statesman

Georg Magnus Sprengtporten was a soldier and administrator whose defection to the service of Russia and energetic attempts to detach Finland from Sweden have made him a fairly controversial figure amongst Finnish historians. His actions were motivated, however, by the idea of forming a Finnish state, and he was in fact of key importance in the creation of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

The Sprengtporten family was already well known in the 17th century for its military prowess; members of the family had played important roles in the eastern regions of Sweden-Finland. Georg Magnus was only four when his father died. During King Adolf Fredrik's visit to Finland in 1752, Georg Magnus' widowed mother sought and obtained the monarch's support in having her son admitted to the military college that he had founded in Stockholm. However, the college was abolished only four years later as a result of differences of opinion between the king and the Diet. But the young cadet was accepted with the rank of a non-commissioned fortifications officer in the troops at Viapori (now Suomenlinna) Fortress, where he served under Augustin Ehrensvärd. It would seem that Georg Magnus Sprengtporten worked successfully and to the satisfaction of his superiors, since, when the Seven Year's War broke out in 1757, Augustin Ehrensvärd took him with him on the military expedition. Sprengtporten was initially on the staff of the Swedish forces as an adjutant to Count Fersen. He later served with the elite troops commanded by his half-brother Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten, and he is said to have displayed great bravery in the war. He was wounded twice, and in 1761 he was promoted to captain for distinguished service.

After peace returned, the young captain did not receive any regular position for a long time. Posts were generally reserved for officers in the standing forces, and it was not easy for an outsider to gain entry to these - at least, not without considerable expense. Sprengtporten was a member of a commission examining Finland's defence requirements in 1766, and he also performed a large variety of tasks associated with intelligence work and deportations. At the same time he became thoroughly acquainted with the border areas of the Swedish Realm both in the east and the west and on this basis was able to give thought to combat activities under the special conditions obtaining in these areas. He is also known to have conducted a great deal of research on the literature of military science during this period. It was not until 1770 that Sprengtporten was appointed a major in the Uusimaa-Häme (Nyland-Tavastland) light dragoon regiment commanded by his half-brother. In the same year the family was raised to baronial rank and accordingly changed its surname, which until then had been written in the form 'Sprengtport', to 'Sprengtporten'.

Georg Magnus Sprengtporten participated in the last session of the Diet held during the 'Age of Freedom' and witnessed its incapacity to deal with issues. Thus he did not find it difficult to join in his half-brother Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten's plans when the latter became involved in support for Gustav III's coup d'état in 1772. He aided Jacob Magnus in taking control of Viapori and talking its garrison onto the side of the king. For this assistance, the king promoted him to lieutenant colonel, a reward that he considered inadequate. In the following year, 1773, Sprengtporten received the rank of colonel, and he was made commander of the light dragoons after his half-brother retired embittered from his post. Two years later, he was appointed commander of the light-armed forces in Savo. He was put in charge of the Savo regiment and its chasseur force, the dragoons of the Province of Karjala & Kymenkartano and detachments of the Häme and Uusimaa infantry. These together formed the Savo Brigade, of which Sprengtporten thus became the commander.

At that time, when the border between Sweden and Russia ran through the Kymijoki Valley and the Saimaa lake system, Savo was one of the most endangered and hard-to-defend regions in the kingdom. The new brigade commander took on his difficult task with enthusiasm. His official residence, Brahelinna Manor at Ristiina, became a centre which he used to create a novel form of warfare. At his behest, a detailed and versatile set of regulations intended for light-armed forces was drawn up; from a military viewpoint, it must be regarded as a success and as modern - perhaps even ahead of its time. Sprengtporten paid attention to the mobility of troops in forested terrain interrupted by waterways, to firepower and shooting skills and to exploiting the terrain. At his initiative, the Savo Brigade adopted a light-barrelled hand-gun, the 'Sprengtporten rifle', which his half-brother had earlier already made the weapon of the light dragoons and which was considerably easier to handle than the long-barrelled weapon used by the regular forces. Sprengtporten even sacrificed funds of his own in order to get his brigade armed when it seemed that the Crown would not provide finances for the purpose. Regular exercises were held for the brigade, and its officers were required to participate in various map and war exercises. At his official residence at Brahelinna Manor, Sprengtporten maintained an unofficial military college for young boys planning an army career. For all of this, he sacrificed not only money but also all his time. With his actions, Sprengtporten won the respect and admiration of his subordinates and of the whole Finnish officer corps.

Relations between the king and the colonel did not remain good for long. Even though the monarch appreciated Sprengtporten's enthusiasm, he was suspicious of his subordinate and his many undertakings. When, according to custom, an invitation was sent to all military commanders to attend the Diet of 1778, Sprengtporten was not included. Insulted at this, he requested and received the king's permission to travel abroad to study the art of warfare. Before his departure he proposed the foundation of a military college in Savo, and this proposal did in fact lead to the establishment of such a college at Haapaniemi.

Sprengtporten's trip abroad took him via Russia, Poland and Prussia to France. He attracted much attention in Russia, where his work in the Savo Brigade was well known. During the trip, he became involved in a serious dispute with Gustav III over the inadequacy of his travel allowance; and, in financial difficulties, he applied for a discharge while in Paris in 1780. This was immediately granted, though without the financial benefits - a pension and the repayment of the sum paid for his regular commission - which he had applied for in connection with his discharge. Sprengtporten tried to enlist for the American War of Independence, for which troops were being assembled in France at the time; but despite the efforts of the Swedish ambassador, he did not succeed. In a bitter mood, he was thus forced to return home. In 1782 he settled at Seesta Manor, an estate at Nastola owned by his wife; there, without any official position, he was forced to spend his time in inactivity, a condition to which he was quite unable to adjust.

It was at this time that Sprengtporten began to think about the idea of detaching Finland from Sweden with the assistance of Russia. The initial impulse behind these ideas was probably his bitter attitude towards the king, whom Sprengtporten regarded as having let him down badly. And during his travels, the discarded colonel had seen the might of Russia and had concluded that in any case Sweden would not be able to retain control over Finland for much longer; after all, Finland had already been occupied by Russia twice within a short period. On his trip abroad, Sprengtporten had also learned of the American War of Independence and of the Americans' attempts to create a free form of government. Put together, all of this led to the idea of an independent or semi-independent Finnish state which would be under the protection of Russia and whose mere existence would work against the eternal enmity between Sweden and Russia. Because Sprengtporten had many admirers in the Finnish officer corps, it was easy for him to disseminate his ideas within this body. He soon had a group of supporters, their leaders including Karl Henrik Klick and Johan Anders Jägerhorn.

There was, however, hardly any support for ideas of Finnish independence outside the officer corps. Fear of Russia and hatred of the Russians were too widespread amongst educated circles and ordinary people. In addition, the people were traditionally loyal to their ruler.

In 1785, with the permission and financial support of the king, Sprengtporten travelled to Holland, where he intended to participate in the hostilities then breaking out between the Netherlands and Austria, which ruled Belgium. This time, the war came to nothing; but while in Holland, Sprengtporten further developed his ideas on independence, and at the beginning of 1786, he presented a memorandum on the subject to the Russian ambassador in Holland; this was communicated both to the Empress Catherine II and to the Russian ambassador in Stockholm.

After returning home, Sprengtporten participated in the 1786 session of the Diet, at which he gladly joined the opponents of the king. At the same time he presented the Russian ambassador with a proposal, written in French, on the subject of Finnish independence and a balance of power between the states of the North. This proposal and the discussions that Sprengtporten held with the ambassador were communicated to the empress, who offered him a transfer to the service of Russia. After hesitating for some time, he accepted the offer, and in September 1786 he arrived in St Petersburg. The empress received him with great expressions of regard. He was granted the title of an imperial chamberlain, the rank of major general in the Russian army and a generous gift of money, with which he was able to organise his life. Sprengtporten had taken a decisive step and no longer considered himself a Swedish subject.

Sprengtporten's proposed constitution for a Finland under the protection of Russia was built upon a republican foundation. Finland would have been a federal state in which the provinces enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. The constitution provided for a Diet of four Estates, but supreme governmental power would have been in the hands of a Congress, to which the provinces would elect members of the higher classes. The peasants would have the right to vote but not to be elected to the Congress. The executive body would have been a Council of State headed by a State President elected for life. The spirit of the constitution accorded with that of the Age of Enlightenment, and it had clearly also been influenced by the constitutions of the Netherlands and the United States of America. But its basis was domestic.

Initially it seemed as if Sprengtporten would not be able to do much on behalf of Finland in Russia. The empress did indeed include him in her entourage on a visit to southern Russia; but her interest appeared to be focused much more closely on the Turkish than the Finnish question. However, when Gustav III began a war against Russia in 1788, Sprengtporten was given plenty of work to do. At the beginning of the war, he was sent to the Onega region to organise a detachment to attack Finland; but when Johan Anders Jägerhorn arrived in St Petersburg bringing with him the 'Anjala Letter', Sprengtporten was quickly summoned to take part in negotiations. Sprengtporten soon travelled to the border area of Finland, where he attempted to incite former supporters of his to take prompt action on behalf of Finnish independence. To his disappointment, he did not receive enough by way of positive reactions. Despite this, his actions included planning the convocation of a parliament at Hämeenlinna - with the purpose of detaching Finland from Sweden - and writing a propaganda pamphlet aimed at the common people and entitled Isänmaalle ('To the Fatherland'). When, in October, the army dispersed to its winter quarters, Sprengtporten's plans for a rebellion movement led by officers came to nothing.

In the winter of 1788/89, Sprengtporten drew up a military plan for the Russian army for the following spring, and in fact the Russian army did act mainly according to this plan. Sprengtporten himself took part in military actions, including the Battle of Porrassalmi, where he was wounded by one of the light-barrelled rifles of the Savo chasseurs. When he was taken to his former home, the colonel's residence at Brahelinna Manor, for treatment of his injury, he is said to have remarked: "My own dogs bit.". The war meant a final break with Sweden for Sprengtporten: in February 1790 the Turku Appeal Court sentenced him to death in absentia for treason.

In the following years, Sprengtporten spent much time abroad. Because of his serious wounds, he sought treatment at spas, and while Russia's interest was focused on areas other than its northwestern border, there were not always suitable duties for him. When he returned to Russia in 1798, Tsar Paul promoted him to infantry general. Two years later, as Paul's envoy in Holland, he was involved in retrieving Russian prisoners of war who had fallen into the hands of Napoleon. During this trip, Sprengtporten met Napoleon, who treated him with great courtesy.

During the early part of the reign of Tsar Alexander I, Sprengtporten appears to have been consigned to the sidelines. He was indeed used in various capacities in remote border regions of the Empire, but he did not succeed in getting close to the monarch. In 1805, he did, however, present to the emperor an extensive memorandum on the position of Poland and on Finland. He proposed the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Poland and independence for Finland.

When the war against Sweden began in 1808, Sprengtporten again became involved in planning as an important man. It was in line with his ingenious and modern military plan that the Russian army attacked across the border. At the same time he continued to stress the importance of establishing a Finnish state. This aspect is also clearly evident in a declaration, composed by Sprengtporten and distributed by the Russians' commander-in-chief, Count Friedrich Wilhelm Buxhoevden, which included a promise to convene a Diet in Turku.

Sprengtporten was offered a military function in the conquest of Finland; but he declined, instead acting at the beginning of the war as a Count Buxhoevden's diplomatic adviser. They soon had a falling out, however: while Sprengtporten strove for the formation of a Finnish state, Buxhoevden wanted Finland annexed to Russia as an ordinary province. Sprengtporten was adamant in his desire for the convening of a Diet and did his best to promote this aim. In this he was opposed not only by the commander-in-chief but also by some of his former supporters, who wanted Finland to become a firmly integrated part of Russia.

A large Finnish delegation was invited to St Petersburg, its mission being to inform the emperor of the needs of the new territory. Sprengtporten had been pushed aside as Buxhoevden's adviser in March 1808; in St Petersburg, he had played a part in ensuring that the delegation was told that the monarch intended to convene a Diet. In autumn 1808 he had drawn up for the emperor a plan concerning the organisation of a temporary administration for Finland. The plan was revised by a committee which comprised, in addition to Sprengtporten, two other generals, the Russian war minister Aleksei Arakcheyev and the new commander-in-chief of the Russian forces in Finland, Bogdan von Knorring. Tsar Alexander I confirmed the plan on 1 December 1808. However, he went against it in ordering that Finnish affairs should bypass the Russian ministries and be presented directly to himself. At the same time he appointed Sprengtporten as the governor-general of Finland, and state secretary Mikhail Speransky as the secretary for Finnish affairs.

According to Sprengtporten's plan as confirmed by the tsar, a Diet was to be convened and a temporary government committee established under the leadership of the governor-general. The members of the government committee were to be elected in the Estates - half in the Estate of Nobles and half in the other Estates. However, evidently because of the intervention of leading Finnish conservatives, the plan for a government elected by the Estates was watered down into the granting of the right to the Estates to propose the members of a 'council of government'. Even before the Diet of Porvoo, Sprengtporten himself had already been excluded from the further drafting of the plan.

In Hämeenlinna at the beginning of February 1809, Sprengtporten enthusiastically took up his duties as governor-general. But these duties were fairly difficult. The country had had no central authorities for a long time, and preparations for the Diet were problematic. In addition, he was faced with the enmity of many of his countrymen, being generally considered a traitor. Despite everything, he was moderately successful and, at least initially, retained the favour of the tsar. His actions at the Diet of Porvoo included reading the emperor's sovereign pledge. However, after running into conflict with the new commander-in-chief, General Bogdan von Knorring, he asked to be relieved of his post as governor-general, and his request was granted in June 1809 in a most gracious fashion. For his distinguished services, he was created a count.

Sprengtporten spent the rest of his life as a private person. In winter he lived at his house at Vasily Ostrov in St Petersburg and in summer at the Hietala estate near Viipuri. In 1812 he drew up a plan for a Finnish national army, but otherwise he played no further part in directing the development of the state in whose initial stages he had been of very great importance.

Georg Magnus Sprengtporten is one of the most striking figures in Finnish history. As times have changed, he has been assessed in many different ways. His switch to the service of Russia and the death sentence passed on him left the stamp of traitor on him, and this has clouded his posthumous reputation. And partly depending on political conditions, his defection has sometimes been better understood, and sometimes less well; historians writing in the early years of independence judged him differently from those of Kekkonen's republic. It should, however, be remembered that precisely during Sprengtporten's era, the military class had a very international attitude. In itself, taking service with another state was by no means unusual or reprehensible. Admittedly, bearing the arms of an adversary was even in those days unbecoming; but Sprengtporten was able to say that he had had sufficient reason. Presumably, however, the way in which subsequent generations have viewed Georg Magnus Sprengtporten has been influenced most deeply by the fact that he was apparently not particularly selfless or virtuous. He has been accused of immoderate self-interest, a boundless thirst for power, bottomless egoism and the unscrupulous exploitation of others. He was also a great lady-killer, and in his relations with the opposite sex, his actions were by no means always those of an honourable man.

As a soldier, Sprengtporten was undoubtedly one of the most eminent figures in Finnish history. He never succeeded in demonstrating his talents as a commander in any really large and important military operations; but what he achieved as commander of the Savo Brigade, for example, and the plans that he prepared for Russian offensives in Finland, show that he was remarkable as both a tactical and a strategic thinker.

As a statesman, Sprengtporten was also an innovator. His many proposals for a Finnish constitution and administrative system show that he was well versed in the constitutional and political thinking of his era and was also capable of coming up with new ideas. His creative ability for political thinking is also demonstrated by the fact that he sometimes developed his ideas on the State in a direction entirely opposite to that which he had previously espoused. There was only one goal of his that always remained unchanged: the idea of creating a Finnish state. He also lived to see this great idea of his being put into practice, and although he was scarcely involved any more when this state took its first steps, the realisation of his ideas surely afforded him satisfaction. Regardless of how severely his weaknesses and mistakes are condemned, it is thus an indisputable fact that his importance for the creation of an autonomous Finland is of a decisive nature.

Veli-Matti Syrjö

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Georg Magnus Sprengtporten, born 16.8.1740 Porvoo parish, died 13.10.1819 St. Petersburg. Parents: Major Magnus Wilhelm Sprengtport and Elsa Katarina Ulfsparre af Broxvik. First wife: 1764 - Anna Elisabet Glansenstjerna, born 1740, died 1785, first wife's parents: Lieutenant-colonel Lorens Glansenstierna and Vendela Eleonora Torwigge; second wife: 1789 – 1797 Countess Anna Charlotta d'Aumale; third wife: 1798 - Countess Varvara Samyski, died 1850. Child: Magnus Wilhelm, died 1801.

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