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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded solutions to enduring geopolitical problems

Chair: Prof Brendan Simms, Director of the Centre for Geopolitics

Escape from the Baltic?: The Outward Perspective of the Dukes of Courland in the Seventeenth Century

John Freeman (University of Cambridge)

The Baltic region in the seventeenth century was a volatile place as the major powers in the area- primarily Sweden, Muscovy and the Poland-Lithuania- coveted access to the East Baltic coast. Wedged between these vast warring polities, on the same coast, was the Duchy of Courland, a diminutive vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Lacking power, people and prestige, the dukes of Courland attempted to build greater independence, both politically and economically, in order to make more of their geopolitically disadvantageous position. From co-Dukes Wilhelm and Friedrich in the earlier part of the century to Ferdinand at its end, there was an intensification of Couronian diplomatic and trading activity beyond the Baltic, particularly in England, France and the United Provinces. Duke Jakob (reigned 1642-1682) notably sought riches in the Atlantic, via colonial expansion in the Caribbean and Africa. As the dukes looked past the Baltic, they attempted to detach themselves from vassalic responsibilities of war, and from deference to the conservative nobility. The presentation will investigate to what extent the dukes of Courland believed that the solution to surviving tumult in the Baltic region, was to be found in leaving it.

John Freeman is a third-year PhD student from the University of Cambridge, studying History. His project focuses on the colonial ambitions of the dukes of Courland in the Caribbean and Western Africa, during the seventeenth century. He previously studied for his undergraduate at Cambridge before moving to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, to obtain his Master’s. John currently works at the Centre for Geopolitics as an Ax:son Johnson Research Assistant in Applied History.


Sound Trolls: Denmark, Sweden and 300 years of power-struggles in the Baltic

Ida Christine Jorgensen (University of Portsmouth)

While the Baltic has been an area of considerable importance to England, Scotland and then the United Kingdom through the Medieval and Early Modern period trading fish, timber, furs as well as being the main supplier of naval store to the Royal Navy, the control with this trade in the Baltic was the major considerations and priorities for the Scandinavian monarchs. From the end of the combined Scandinavian monarchy, the Kalmar Union in 1522 and until the Danish loss of Norway to Sweden in 1814, these two countries repeatedly engaged in wars. Where England, later Britain, and France continuously fought each other for various reasons throughout this period, the Danes and Swedes were as continuous in their fighting as they were in what they were fighting for: control over the Baltic and its trade. Only in the eighteenth century, when Russia entered the stage as a noticeable naval power, keen to gain coastal territories in the Baltic region, Sweden’s focus changed and there was a lull in the Dano-Swedish wars. The control with the Baltic trade was about more than just political power – it was a significant economic advantage as well. The Sound Tolls, paid by every merchant vessel entering the Baltic through the strait of Øresund made up a vast part of the income to the Danish crown, and certainly an incentive for Sweden to contest the ownership of this veritable goldmine.

Ida Christine Jorgensen is completing a PhD at the University of Portsmouth in Naval History.  Her thesis is on, Transfer of shipbuilding technology in 18th century Europe


Transnational routes of Russian Culture: Russophone cultures in Latvia and Estonia from local scenarios to global perspectives

Michela Romano

The Baltic area has always been conceived as experiencing a constant oscillation between the Western European cultural space and the Russian one. Despite hard geopolitical borders, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the region had to deal with a past of invasions and a present of multiple memories, languages and cultures.

This research is committed to examining the evolution of the Russophone cultures in the Baltic states, taking as a primary source the Russophone writers based in Latvia and Estonia.

The study aims to investigate the historical and cultural evolution of the Russophone writers– and specifically of poets – in the definition of culture and identity. To begin with, the project will present the history and memory of Russian influence in the Baltic states, before, during and after the Soviet invasion. Moreover, the issues of Latvian and Estonian national identities and the evolution of relations between titular nationalities and Russophone communities will be analyzed. Secondly, the Russophone literature, specifically poetry, will be deeply examined from a post-colonial and postmodernist perspective. The focus on Latvia and Estonia is significantly supported by their location at borders with the Russian Federation, the high presence of Russian-speaking communities in these regions, and a rooted promotion of Russophone cultural events. The goal of the project is to draw a map of transnational Russophone cultures in Latvia and Estonia.

Michela Romana holds a Master’s in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe from the University of Bologna, Forlì Campus.  Her thesis examined, Russian Culture’s Orbit Around Europe: The Fluid Identities of Russophone Communities in Riga.


The idea of a Nordic Nuclear Weapons Free Zone

Naman Desta (University of Cambridge)

In the latter half of the Cold War, Sweden sought to establish a Nordic Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. However, the geographic and political reality of the era was such that it could not be established on its own and led to fundamental questions of the Baltic Sea as an arena of security policy. Its role as both a frontier as well as an integral component of the Nordic region both vitalised as well as hindered the prospects of a Nordic NWFZ. My research looks at how Sweden as well as Finland, the Soviet Union, and other countries bordering the Baltic Sea reacted and engaged with the idea of such a zone and its manifestation as an example of Baltic geopolitics.

Naman Desta is studying for a PhD in History at Cambridge University.  He is also Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum and co-founder and Managing Editor of Manara Magazine.


Wednesday, 23 June, 2021 - 11:00 to 12:30
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