The difference between the status of Finland and Estonia as the ‚Ostseeprovinz‘ of the Russian Empire and the Hungarian Kingdom within the Habsburg Monarchy between 1613 and 1825

Growing influence on Baltic areas by Russian Empire and on Hungarian Kingdom by Habsburg Monarchy lack of comparison. In both cases, empires expanded due to economical, geopolitical and military reasons. Their attempt was not to create multiethnic societies, but in the end, both premodern monarchies faced challenges of organizing and communicating with alien elements within their own borders. In both cases, voids were filled, competing Empires displaced and societies incorporated.

In this work, I want to give a brief overview on the similarities and differences of both empires´ strategies on making these lands their own. Between the establishment of Romanov monarchy in 1613 and the Decembrist´ revolt in 1825 the Ostsee province of Estonia and Finland, as well as Hungarian Kingdom were integrated in their neighboring empires. My goal is to proof is that both lands were no colonies in the classical sense, their incorporation was marked by highly effective, single treats, and that in both cases quite simple motivations of incorporating led to complex relationships that had a great effort both on the center of the empire and its periphery.


  1. The Kingdom of Hungary


One may claim that Austrian forces did not support Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 to avoid an escalation of conflict with the French, who were holding an alliance with Ottoman troops. It seems, indeed, much more cynical: by letting Hungarians fight a hopeless battle, an important central-european player was eliminated. King Louis II represented Hungarian, Bohemian and Lithuanian disciples. With his death nearby Mohács, Austrian Ferdinand could fill the void of power on a large part of Hungarian region.[1] Since this time, just the Habsburg and the Habsburg-Lorraine family should lead the Western and later the entire country of Hungary until the end of World War I.

„Royal Hungary“ (1526-1700) would be the Austrian-controlled part of the territory until late 17th century, when also Ottoman parts of Hungary were conquered and gone to Austria.

The grip on Hungarian lands by Austrian authorities does not underlie economical, but geopolitical and military reasons. As a bulwark against Turkish invaders, but also as a demographic resort which should be desperately used by Maria Theresa in order to persist Prussian army, Hungary seems to be compelling for Habsburg monarchy of this time.

From 1713 the Pragmatic Sanction, when „Royal Hungary“ should be called „The Kingdom of Hungary“, Austrian grip on this ethnically heterogenous and huge area became even tighter.[2] The attempt of establishing an absolutistic form of governing in Vienna was challenged multiple times, although Austrian kings managed finances, the military and foreign affairs of Hungarians well.

By 1711 revolts often lead by serfs aiding the forces of Francis II Rákóczi uprising against Habsburg rule would be crushed, but resistance did not cease at first. Magyarisation and the revolution of 1848 should led to a constantly tightening stronghold by Austrian administration and result in Austro-Hungarian compromise in 1867. The personal union seems obsolete in a sense, but is, at a closer look, imposing. Not only was the periphery of Austria given an acknowledgment, but also the status of a nearly sovereign state within a successful empire.

Here, Habsburg Monarchy acts in the terms of a classic empire, depicted by Ulrich Menzel.[3] This empire is characterized as a power which binds its vassals by forcing them to make tribute payments, contribute in political actions and, on the other hand, provide them „club commodities“. Fostering its own power by troops in the occupied room makes it obvious, where dependencies in this relationship are located. Still, the example of Habsburg Monarchy may be a successful one, though it could prevent any Ottoman conquest after 1686 in the region and bind a large complex of mostly different ethnicities together. Positive in this debate seems that the Monarchy could rely on its vassals in cases of war on the one hand. On the other, it appears being a relationship between two players too compulsive to allow useful cultural and economical exchange. 

II. Estonia as an Ostseeprovinz

Swedish empire seems to have reached its peak with the death of Gustav Adolf II. This short-lived complex of power was not able to transform from a military-driven empire to a hegemony concentrating on trade. The only port for Russia for free trade without transit stations was Archangelsk, obviously too distanced to guarantee profitable trade with Western European countries like England. Not only was this trade becoming more important for Russia in the end of 17th century. Ports leading directly to the Baltic Sea in nowadays Baltics and Karelia were under Swedish control. Using the port of Narwa, Moscow intensified this kind of transit trade, as Archangelsk was no good port to deliver goods to "newly acquired regions on the left bank of the Dnieper.“ In 1692 Russia, "in order to protect her trade at Archangelsk, raised the duty on exports to the Baltic", Sweden´s retaliation consisted of withdrawing exemptions of Russian goods from excise duty and road tolls. This trade war emerged, boosted by constant tensions between both empires, to a real one.

After the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, Russia held Baltic ports including Narwa, Rewal and Riga.[4]


The area of modern-day Estonia was demographically decimated to not much more than 100.000 inhabitants. Also Swedish threat was, due to the land-taking of Finland, eliminated in this area. So Russian ambitions were not to create a bulwark against thalassic empires or minor enemies, neither to strengthen the area in a military or national sense. As geopolitical desire of Russian side was satisfied, coexistence with Estonian and German population was unproblematic. Similar to islamic populations within Russian Empire, Protestants were allowed to coexist with Russian Rulers. Russian state had not reached its own area yet, the complete disclosure of Russian territory is seen relatively late. Historians count the establishment of mandatory military service as one milestone of state formation, which should be finished during Stalinistic industrialization. In Baltic governorates, municipal self-government was established to reign the country by bigger towns like Dorpat, Rewal and Narwa. This administration was German-speaking and culturally shaped by German landowners and German nobility. The intermediate of these local officials and Russian ministries was a Baltic Governor-General, who represented the Russian Emperor. Certain laws were executed differently in the Ostseeprovinz than in the rest of Russian Empire. For example, serfdom was abolished in Estonia in the beginning of the 19th century, while this abolishment was executed in the rest of Russia around 1861.[5]


This autonomy worked well, as since Teutonic Order occupied these lands and vitalized them, German nobility was shaping the Baltic lands to an economically and culturally strong area. Still, one must mention Danish and Swedish influence, by which in first lines Tallinn („Danish Town“) and Dorpat with its university founded by Gustav Adolf II. in 1632 developed to centers of advanced Protestantism.


The coexistence of Russian and Western population prevailed unproblematically. But already in 1825, as the Decembrist´s revolt shows, a cultural fight between Slawophile and Western-oriented Russians emerged.[6]

Within Russification, also Estonia should change its shape. Still, it is not the case, that religious and ethnic changes on this land meant a repression to native population. It seems much more that the construction of enormous Orthodox churches next to Protestant ones, as well as the introduction of Russian language in many areas were an approach to defend the periphery of the Empire against growing influence from Western Europe, especially Germany.[7] The once so valuable Baltic area was now a „Gefahrenherd“, a German-dominated land in which Russian government had to show dominance.


In the case of Ostseeprovinz Estland, Romanov Monarchy acts less as an empire than far more as a benevolent hegemony. It does not implement its own principles but allows Estonian and German authorities to for example abolish serfdom. In a peaceful way Estonia was coexisting to Russian monarchy which made a broad cultural exchange possible. On the other side, loyalty just existed to a certain point, due to demographic contact between Estonians and German nobility it seems that Estonian population always preferred a Western authority instead of a Russian when it had to choose between them. As Kollman describes, Russian Monarchy had its own way of dealing with periphery within the Empires borders, and it was effective in premodern times. But as geopolitical issues changed, and German influence in this region could not be ignored, the constant but relatively soft grip on Baltic states by Russian Empire should be fortified.



III. Finland, Old Finland and The Grand Duchy of Finland

Finland, as being a part of Sweden since late 13th century, was conquered multiple times by Russia and Sweden between Great Northern war and Napoleonic Wars. When coming under Russian power, the country was given a wide-ranging autonomy by the establishment of Grand Duchy of Finland (rus.: Великое княжество Финляндское). Predecessor of this area was Vanha Suomi („Old Finland“), depicting the Finnish areas that went under Russian control in 1721 Nystad Peace treaties (negotiated near modern-day Helsinki) and the 1743 Abo Peace treaties.[8]

Soon, Tsarist power established a personal union with Finland, guaranteeing it internal autonomy.

During state diet in Porvoo 1809, Tsar Alexander I. promised Finnish nobility the conservation of traditional law and the constitution. He must have been aware of the fact that Authoritarian power alone would not work in this incorporated land,[9] as he was confronted with an ethnicity that could not be more different from Eastern Slavic Russians. Speaking a Finno-ugric language and being protestant, Finnish could not be „russified“. Early forms of a constitutional monarchy were rather be overtaken and modified than to enforce an absolute monarchy in Finland, which probably would have caused nobilitie´s protest. So from the beginning, Finland was given a great amount of freedoms that gave it the possibility to unleash its potential better than under Swedish era.

Until the Great War, Finland could regain its strength within Romanov Monarchy. The time of peace with Sweden gave a vital break for Finnish people to develop a strong economy, dealing with its own Markka and heading towards a decade-lasting growth,[10] as well as to a demographic rise from 863.000 inhabitants in 1810 to nearly 3 million in 1910.

Also Finnish language would gain importance, as no language policy interfered with local inhabitants. The idea was to allow a quiet assimilation, as Finns emigrated to the Russian parts of the Empire, learning Russian and working in Central regions of the Empire. The first attempts to russification should come when most European countries tended to become nationalistic, an uncommon idea from Russian perspective,[11] and Finland and the Ostsee provinces were perceived as a growing danger for the unity of the Empire.[12]

Checks and balances in the Grand Duchy of Finland were organized on a trinitarian basis. First came the Senate of Finland that governed the country locally and represented Finnish people to the governor-general of Finland. Conventionally, his position was given to a Russian, whilst sometimes the position was given to Baltic-Germans and Scandinavians of Russian citizenship, who would be stationed in Helsinki. In St. Petersburg the Minister-Secretary of State of Finland communicated Finnish interests. He stood in direct contact to the Russian emperor, the third and strongest instance.

In this case, we see a very successful example of hegemonial policy by Russian empire, that, by its liberal means, gave Finland the opportunity of growing fast and becoming a strong part of the empire. Nationalistic upheavals from the 1830s on could be encountered, and the fostering of Russian power was much more successful here than for example in the Balkan area.

Still, as European nationalism grew and Great Russian stability tottered, programs of russification were implemented and problems arose. The question remains, whether coexistence and personal union of Finland and Russian Empire could have prevailed, as long as if it was not for the Great War to come and tore the Baltics apart.


Comparing the three regions, it seems that the soft policy of Russian authorities over the Grand Duchy of Finland and Ostseeprovinz Estonia was more successful than the imperial approach of Habsburg Monarchy in Hungarian parts of its empire. Coexistence secured Russian status as a „Vielvölkerreich“, a state in which many ethnicities beside the Russians could live in relative freedom. National upheavals may have led to a difficult relationship with the center of Russian empire, but still it seems, that Moscow could communicate well with its own periphery by letting it develop freely and not suppress it by russification until the Great War, when the cohesion of this empire was heavily endangered.

Habsburg Monarchy may have handled the geopolitical tense with Polish-Lithuanian-Hungarian complex of power in an intelligent and cynical way — letting Battle of Mohács happen, the Reich could expand in Eastern regions to the Ottoman borderlands. Difficulties emerged when minorities became organized, and Habsburg was not willing to accept those minorities as integral parts of its lands. Two fatal decisions may have destroyed the will of minorities to follow the idea of an Austrian-led empire: The implementation of Germanization and the plans to take further lands in the Balkans. Mainly Hungarian minority reacted aggressively by implementing Magyarization and showing itself reluctant to expand in areas were other minorities would, if once pulled into the empire, make Hungarian voice in the Monarch even less important than it already had been. The only area that was free to develop under Hungarian rule remained economically successful Transylvania, and this being taken from Hungary, the country had a difficult task becoming sovereign after the Great War.

In my opinion, the comparison shows that Russia´s benevolent and hegemonial approach was far more effective when organizing an empire consisting of different ethnicities than Austria´s imperial way. If it had not been for the Great War, it remains plausible that the Romanov Monarchy could have prevailed far longer than the Habsburg Monarchy.

Virgil Zólyom

Brüggemann, Karsten: Licht und Luft des Imperiums, Tallinn: 2016

Gecse, Geza: Russian Foreign Political Thinking and The Minority Issue. Russians and Other Nationalities in Russian Foreign Policy 1828-1892

Gruber, Stephan: Die Pragmatische Sanktion, Wien: 2018, access on: 

Haffner, Sebastian: Der Teufelspakt (1968), Zürich: 2002

Jäntti, Markus: Growth and equity in Finland, Helsinki: 2018

Kireevskij, Ivan: Über das Wesen der europäischen Kultur und ihr Verhältnis zur russischen (1852), in: Europa und Russland, Darmstadt: 1959

Kövér, György: Inactive Transformation: Social History of Hungary from the Reform Era to World War I, Budapest: 2004

Menzel, Ulrich: Die Ordnung der Welt, Berlin: 2015

Ryszard, Lucian: Russia, Poland and the Baltic 1697-1721, in: Historical Journal, XI, I (1968), pp 3-34

Shields Kollmann, Nancy: The Russian Empire 1450-1801, Oxford: 2016

Winnig, August: Am Ausgang der Deutschen Ostpolitik, Berlin: 1919


Österreichischer Rundfunk: Die Habsburger, Wien: 1993


[1] Kövér, György: Inactive Transformation: Social History of Hungary from the Reform Era to World War I, Budapest: 2004, p.42-50 about Austrian expansion in Hungary. Here the author depicts Hungarian lands as being poorly populated and shaped by many voids. Also: Österreichischer Rundfunk (1993), 2:00:00-4:30:00, for a visual impression of the process of land taking in premodern Hungary.

[2] Gruber, Stephan: Die Pragmatische Sanktion, Wien: 2018, access on: 

[3] Menzel, Ulrich: Die Ordnung der Welt, Berlin: 2015, p.45

[4] Ryszard, Lucian: Russia, Poland and the Baltic 1697-1721, in: Historical Journal, XI, I (1968), pp 3-34

[5] Shields Kollmann, Nancy: The Russian Empire 1450-1801, Oxford: 2016, p.160-170. Kollmann describes the special treatments of Russia´s periphery as a functional way of handling the heterogenous Empire.

[6] Kireevskij, Ivan (1852) describes that Muslims, Germans and Protestants would impede the emancipation of Russian culture from the West. In his article, he criticizes the Baltics as an unfamiliar element within the empire: Kireevskij, Ivan: Über das Wesen der europäischen Kultur und ihr Verhältnis zur russischen (1852), in: Europa und Russland, Darmstadt: 1959  

[7] Brüggemann, Karsten: Licht und Luft des Imperiums, Tallinn: 2016, p.1-30. Brüggemann stresses, that Germans were after the unification of the Reich planning to expand in Baltic areas which was directly perceived by Russian administration. As these plans seem nebulous in 19th century, Haffner (1968, p.18) and Winnig (1919, p.1-15) underline this attempt of creating satellite states cut off from Russian influence and under indirect German control .

[8] see map no. 1. Russian expansion ranges mostly in modern day Southern Karelia. First after the Peace treaties of Fredrikshamm in 1809, most parts of Finland were under Russian control. See map no.2

[9] Gecse, Geza: Russian Foreign Political Thinking and The Minority Issue. Russians and Other Nationalities in Russian Foreign Policy 1828-1892: pp. 6. Gecse describes the difficulties of Tsarist expansion in the Balkans, where authoritarian grip did not lead to a peaceful integration.  

[10] Jäntti, Markus: Growth and equity in Finland, Helsinki: 2018: pp. 1-3 for general insights, followed by descriptions of fiscal policies and gdp-growth of The Grand Duchy of Finland.

[11] Gecse, Geza: Russian Foreign Political Thinking and The Minority Issue. Russians and Other Nationalities in Russian Foreign Policy 1828-1892: pp. 1. Gecse describes the Russian perspective as rather religious than nationalistic. Nationalism in Russia arose later than in the rest of Europe. Still, ideas of ethnopluralism and national coexistence are shaped by Russian experiences as a multiethnic state with relatively liberal approaches towards русский and российский identity.

[12] Brüggemann, Karsten: Licht und Luft des Imperiums, Tallinn: 2016: pp.1-5.