Welcome back historians to This Week in History! The last two weeks have no doubt been busy with work for the start of the spring semester, so let’s look at some really intense, daring moments in history! Hopefully they can get you inspired to try your best for the start of the semester.
Following the end of Germany’s WWI victory in the east and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, the chaos endured by the eastern European population is nearly unimaginable. Germans, Ukrainians, Poles and countless others all struggled to make sense of the mess of borders and 11 newly independent nations.
In a historical context it becomes easy to focus on the big outcomes. Russia caved to communism and Germany was to meet its demise in the west; but in the midst of this momentous era, on Jan. 29, 1918, the small but pivotal “Battle of Kruty” took place.
Part of the Ukrainian-Soviet War, and in particular a microcosm of the Battle for Kyiv, the battle should really have not taken place. Attaining full independence only a week prior to the battle, the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) was in a desperate position. With a ravaged nation and desperate populace, it seemed only a matter of time for the large Soviet army to waltz into Kyiv and put an end to their dream of independence.
The end of the UNR would not be so simple however. A committed group of volunteer high school and college students led by the officer Averkii Honcharenko — a student at St. Volodymyr University himself — proved to be the last line of defense.
None older than their mid-twenties, these young soldiers had about a week of training or less to get them in fighting shape. Undeterred, some 500 ill-equipped individuals in the company were to face over 4,000 Russian troops and an armored train under the brutal commander Mikhail Artemyevich Muravyov. The stage was set for a battle at a railroad junction in Kruty, the last line of defense before Kyiv.
Most of the students died fighting the first wave of Russians. The few who survived managed to retreat with their wounded, but those who were captured were brutally tortured and executed. Sadly, this outcome was to be expected; in fact, the young soldiers must have known the odds were heavily against them. However, their actions were more of a success than they could imagine. They halted the Russian advance long enough to allow the UNR government to regroup and prevent the total collapse of Ukraine for another 2 years.
As Volodymyr Janiw of the Central Union of Ukrainian Students wrote in his excellent research article on Kruty in 1958, “let Kruty be a warning to the Free World!”
Next, the 18th century was a hectic time for the Swedish Empire. Fighting numerous brilliant but bloody battles in Scandinavia, while slowly crumbling over the course of the 20 yearlong Great Northern War; some historians claim that Sweden was in the midst of a golden age.
Despite being in a great age of expansion, some of the decisions of the Swedish ruling class are just baffling. Notably, on Feb. 1, 1713, Swedish King Charles XII and his retinue of some 900 Caroleans were defeated by well over 8,000 Ottoman soldiers.
Referred to as the “Skirmish at Bender” — a small town in Ottoman controlled Moldova — or the more common title of “kalabalik” meaning “confusion;” the latter certainly better fits the chaos of the battle.
The obvious question at hand is: what brings Swedes to the Ottoman Empire? In an act of either foolishness or necessity, King Charles XII lost a campaign fighting in Poland-Lithuania and fled to the friendly Ottoman Empire to regroup his forces. However, his stay soon turned into a 5 year “vacation” — shown through his lavish housing built especially for him by the Ottoman Sultan.
Understandably, housing a foreigner with expensive taste did not win the favor of many Ottoman officials (despite the hospitality of the Sultan). Eventually the Ottomans’ patience burst, and thousands stormed the very residence they built for their Swedish guests.
Much like Kruty, the battle was absolute chaos. The 50-odd able Swedes stood no chance, but still fought to the end. The King himself engaged in hand-to-hand combat, something somewhat rare for a King of his day. He would be taken prisoner and beaten by a crowd of hundreds. He would later return to Sweden to finish the Great Northern War, leading to the eventual dissolution of the Swedish Empire.
So, what lessons can we take away from “kalabalik?” Well for one, cultures mix rapidly; in fact the word “kalabalik” has become a Swedish loanword in Turkey, used to express general confusion. Likewise, it is certainly clear to not overstay your welcome. Living for five years at your host’s expense is just not a cool thing to do.
Now, the final event for this week is not remembered by many in popular history, nor is it memorialized in many books or memoirs. In the height of WWII on Feb. 2, 1942, underground Norwegian resistance fighters — known as the Osvald Group — bombed a railway in Oslo.
Their aim was to eliminate the incoming collaborationist government under the ruthless Vidkun Quisling. The Osvald Group did not kill him, nor did they achieve much in their hundreds of acts of resistance; yet they still gave it their all at great losses. There would be no memorial for them for almost 50 years until 1995. Likewise, Osvald Group members were not honored with awards or medals, with the few survivors alive in the 21st century only granted one in 2013.
I bring this event up solely to remember how much of history is left forgotten and never studied. Even for those in the Osvald Group, they at least leave some written legacy behind; yet how many fought only to have their sacrifice lost to time?
I’ll end on that thought, see you next week!