Gennari on Jalonen, 'On Behalf of the Emperor, on Behalf of the Fatherland: Finnish Officers and Soldiers of the Russian Imperial Life-Guard on the Battlefields of Poland, 1831'

Jussi Jalonen
Christopher Gennari

Jussi Jalonen. On Behalf of the Emperor, on Behalf of the Fatherland: Finnish Officers and Soldiers of the Russian Imperial Life-Guard on the Battlefields of Poland, 1831. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2015. 372 pp. $175.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-30376-8.

Reviewed by Christopher Gennari (Camden County College) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2016) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Jussi Jalonen’s On Behalf of the Emperor, On Behalf of the Fatherland does a lot of different things well. It is a regimental history, it is a personal history of participants, it is an analysis of art and literature, it is a sociological study of transnational identification, and it is a brief military history of Finland’s participation in putting down the Polish revolt of 1831 against Russia. It uses an economy of space to accomplish much. Jalonen goes from the micro level of individual biography to the macro level of state politics and identity in only 324 pages of text. It is crisp, precise, and detailed. Impressively, Jalonen uses sources—letters, memoirs, and even poetry—which were written in Finnish, Swedish, Polish, and Russian.

On Behalf of the Emperor does not intend to serve as a general history of Finland in the 1800s. But if you want a focused and nuanced view of how a small power operates in a world (or under the control of) a comparative superpower--then this will be an excellent addition to your collection. Jalonen’s argument is pretty straightforward: the Finnish Sharp-Shooter Guards Battalion, which operated in the 1831-32 suppression of a Polish revolt against Russia, was the seed of future Finnish nationalism. Finnish loyalty to the czar, shown through its military cooperation in Russian imperial expeditions, allowed the Grand Duchy of Finland the autonomy never allotted to less compliant imperialized nations such as Poland. 

To accomplish these goals Jalonen tells a regimental history within a larger context. He describes the battalion’s creation, its operations during the war complemented by nuanced biographical chapters of several participants, and concludes with the aftermath of the war as it played out in politics and the arts. Admirably, Jalonen gives a wide spectrum of perspectives, from the individual to the national, with deft agility, including an analysis of how the Poles viewed their Finnish invaders.  

Jalonen uses Polish literature to show how the Poles saw the Finns as a different people from the Russians and their “wild, barbaric, Asiatic warriors” (p. 139). This methodology argues, in part, that the Finns were a separate nation because the Poles saw them as a separate people and not as part of the Russian onslaught. This is important because in English-language historiography, still dominated by the writings of Michael Roberts, the Finns and the Swedes are treated as different but essentially indistinguishable people. The sources used in my dissertation on Sweden’s wars in the 1650s show very little separation between the two. Swedish lords operated in Finland; Finish nobility spoke Swedish and operated in Sweden. Soldiers from Sweden and Finland operated throughout the Baltic, the Prussias, Poland, the Germanies, and Denmark with little differentiation to their national cultures. A Finish cavalry regiment was, at least in the sources I used, indistinguishable in operation, methodology, or success from their Swedish mainland counterparts who were equally adapt at fighting Poles, Russians, and Danes.[1] Consequently, Jalonen’s ability to show Finnish differentiation from their Russian lords is an impressive method to solving the question of national identity: the Finns are Finnish because the Poles (and the Russian czar as well) say they are as much as the Finns themselves think they are.

This is a good solution to a particularly Finnish problem. The United States has the myth of the George Washington and the Founding Fathers, France has the Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte, Haiti has Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Germany has Otto von Bismark. Other countries have dramatic stories of charismatic individuals and national movements that get repeated in history survey classes. Finland lacks that dramatic tumult even though it has its own Declaration of Independence (December 6, 1917). Parliamentary procedure creating independence may be less dramatic than John Hancock’s bold signature but it may also be more practical given Finland’s troubled twentieth-century relationship with its large eastern neighbor.

Is the Sharpshooter battalion the seed of Finnish national identity? I do not know. I must admit I am not a scholar of Finland’s nineteenth century. My specialty is the Swedish empire of 150 years prior; nationalism in 1655 was not what it would be in 1831, nor is the modern Russian empire the same organism as early modern Sweden. Yet, I question how one unit of 756 individuals could accomplish in a year what regiments of thousands or armies of tens of thousands could not do during a century of conflict.

It is this lack of historical context to the Swedish imperial period which I found problematic. The Swedish-Finish connection went back to the Middle Ages. Yet there is very little mention of that era or its residual effects on Finland’s nineteenth century. Was there a Finnish nationality within the Swedish empire? How did Finish regiments affect that national identity? What was the role of the Russian conquest in changing cultural attitudes? I felt there needed to be a small contextual piece on the previous hundred years of Finnish history, ending with the Polish uprising and the mobilization of the Finnish battalion. That this pre-book context is left out is all the more puzzling because the book, rightly, goes well beyond 1831 to describe the campaign’s aftermath and importance.

Jalonen definitively answers my most important question: why would the Finns, who had recently been invaded and taken over, loyally serve the Russian czars? Essentially, the political class was willing to exchange loyalty for autonomy, especially since the czar was “willing to meet his subjects halfway” (p. 16). The professional officer class continued to be paid while the noble classes received entrance into Russian political society. Finland remained essentially unabsorbed into the Slavic cultural universe (p. 44). Jalonen argues that the Russian czars were willing to accept this arrangement because of their diverse military commitments following the Napoleonic wars. There were the wars against the Poles, wars against the Persians in the Caucasus, wars against the Ottoman Turks, and suppression of the revolutions of 1848. To have this quiescent part of the empire was a great relief to the czars. Nicholas I wrote to his successors, “Leave Finland alone; it has been the one and only part of my empire that has never caused me one sleepless night” (p. 308), signifying Finland’s gambit had paid off.

What makes this decision making, and the book’s thesis, so interesting is the presented dichotomy with Poland. Just as Finnish elite chose loyalty to the Russian czar as the best means to autonomy and (maybe) independence, the Poles were in open revolt, trying to win their independence through revolution. It is in this part that Jalonen’s best chapters come out: how the Finns and the Poles culturally saw each other—two conquered peoples, with a history of conflict, now absorbed into the same polyethnic imperial mass. That both had proud military histories added to this complex mass of emotional correspondence. Polish writers represented themselves as fighting a new Battle of Thermopylae, holding back non-European hordes, and portrayed most non-Russian troops as “mindless battle thralls unleashed on freedom” (pp. 138-139). The Finns, with their “light, blonde hair,” were different. Instead of being mindless hordes set loose on Europe, they, as fellow Europeans working with the Russians, were slaves “loving the yoke" (p. 307). To the Finns, the Polish soldiers were brave, the country beautiful, and the peasants “more stupid and lazier” than Finns (p. 135). One cannot help but think that many of the Finnish soldiers, their thoughts unrecorded, were left thinking the Poles had brought the war upon themselves, that the Poles should have been a bit more Finnish.

In chapter 5 the book offers four case studies of Finnish soldiers in Poland. There is death, capture and prison, the role of command, and trouble on the campaign. That these sources exist is remarkable and allows Jalonen to give an impressively microscopic reflection on large events and entire peoples—the case studies represent the lived experiences of the larger mass of men. It is this ability to go from the grand movements of armies to cultural impressions, down to camp life and back out to politics that is the strength of the book. It could easily have been a weakness—constantly shifting perspectives, trying to be all things to all readers. But the transitions are done very well and give a fuller impression of military life in the nineteenth century for a small nation during a small war. 

The book concludes with the aftermath of the campaign. Lives get lived and politics get spun. Many of the soldiers and officers go into Russians military and political service, the Finnish Senate reappears, Finns join the Russian War Council and polite society. All of this combined to keep Finland from being absorbed into the larger Russian political-cultural universe. In short, this is how a small power avoids being eaten by a much larger cultural and political institution. 

In all, Jalonen does an admirable job. The book hits all of its bases, and the breadth of sources is impressive. It is able to give a nuanced view from both macro and micro perspectives. It transitions deftly. This is a story of a small nation taking part in a small war at the behest (or order) of a much larger patron, making this an important story. My bookshelf is filled—literally—with tomes on the rise and fall of great powers. The story of a smaller power navigating the dangerous shoals of national disaster is great addition to my thinking and research. 


[1]. Christopher Gennari, “Invasions, Insurgency, and Interventions: Sweden’s Wars in Poland, Prussia, and Denmark 1654-1658” (PhD diss., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2010). 

Printable Version:

Citation: Christopher Gennari. Review of Jalonen, Jussi, On Behalf of the Emperor, on Behalf of the Fatherland: Finnish Officers and Soldiers of the Russian Imperial Life-Guard on the Battlefields of Poland, 1831. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2016. URL:

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