Siberian Babilon: Swedish prisoners of war the 18th century
The article is devoted to the history of Swedes in Siberia from their capture in 1709 until their release after the signing of a peace treaty in 1721. The analysis is based on memoirs, diaries and literary works as well as documents from the Tyumen State Archive. The article examines the way in which the prisoners preserved their identity in exile. The Lutherans’ hostility towards the Russian Orthodox Church followers and those of their compatriots, who decided to join it, increased the prisoners’ religious isolation. The paper also considers their inclusion into cultural life and their interest in other groups of people by whose side they spent over a decade. There was an urgent issue connected with starting and leading a family life.
Given the shortage of Lutheran brides in Siberia, the prisoners had to develop appropriate marriage strategies. As a result, many widows became involved in a new relationship immediately after the death of their husbands. Most interfaith marriages broke up and the Russian Orthodox wives were abandoned together with their children in Russia after the peace treaty of 1721 and the return of the prisoners to their homeland.
The community of the Swedes was formed by more than 75 colonies dispersed throughout the country. They were mostly located in three regions, i. e. Central, Volga and Western Siberia. The colonies were associated with the Field Commissariat established in Moscow and ten administrative offices for prisoners of war. Senior army officers and aristocrats were settled in the capital and its suburban monasteries; most of the rank and file and junior officers worked in factories and shipyards. The most educated groups of officers resided in the Asian part of Russia, organizing the most active and successful colony in Tobolsk. Religion became the backbone and axis around which their community life concentrated, allowing the prisoners to accept their destiny and preserve their identity.
The prisoners themselves initiated the establishment of institutions necessary for a full-fledged religious life in exile. They established congregations and groups to discuss religious issues, arranged places to conduct public services, as well as schools for both their children and people who wanted to nurture their spirituality.
Stories of the Old Testament turned out to be the most appropriate for the prisoners’ sentiments. Captivity and exile to Siberia were perceived by many as punishment for their sins, similar to the Old Testament Babylonian captivity and deliverance, eventually leading to purification and spiritual growth. This helps explain why during captivity, many officers not only received religious education, but also took active part in the Christianization of the peoples of Siberia and described their indigenous religions. Such a goal gave their stay in Siberia a deep sense of universal meaning, helping them overcome the hardships of captivity and exile, while hoping to eventually return to their homeland.
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