The biggest military facility that had ever been built in Åland was the Bomarsund fortress. After the war between Sweden and Russia in 1808–1809, Sweden was forced to give up Finland and Åland as part of the peace.
At the frontier of the empire
Åland’s geographical location became of the utmost interest. When Åland belonged to Sweden from the 1100s, it was located in a Swedish inland sea but after the peace in 1809 Åland became the Russian Empire’s westernmost outpost.
The thought soon occurred to the Russian military council that it would be advantageous to make Åland a strongly fortified frontier to the west. Planning of the fortress had already started by 1812 and the actual construction was begun in 1830.
When you wander round among the ruins of today’s Bomarsund you will certainly not be able to avoid being impressed at the proportions of the fortress. The main fortress on the waterfront is just a small part of it. There was a tower, warehouse, hospital and residential area.
Over 2,000 Russian armed forces, fortress workers and convicts lived and worked in Bomarsund. A whole community developed in the area. The foundations of the empire-style wooden houses in Nya Skarpans show a small town settlement with a post office, school, shops and offices.
The village inhabitants sold products and services to the garrison and there are individual Russian words still in the language today. Dishes such as Sundspirogen are still prepared by Sund inhabitants to this day. In the summer of 2014 a new hiking path was opened to join the tower and main fortress to Nya Skarpans and provide an integrated experience of Bomarsund.
The fortress workers were often plagued by epidemics and many died as a result. Prästö is on the other side of the bridge, where there are Muslim, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran graves. There is an excellent 5.5-km-long culture hike (with information signs displayed), which starts from Bomarsund Museum in the Pilot’s Cottage. It also houses the Telegrafen, the municipal summer museum, with its miniature model of the fortress area, which is well worth seeing.
Attack and demilitarisation
The Crimean War of 1853–56 led to the English fleet sailing into the Baltic Sea and attacking targets along the Finnish coast. The most tempting target was the Bomarsund fortress and August 1854 saw the landing of 12,000 English and French soldiers.
At the same time about 40 steam-driven warships approached from the south whereas the defences were built to withstand attacks from ships coming from the north. On 13 August the soldiers went on the offensive at the same time as the warships subjected the fortress to massive gunfire.
On 16 August the Russian commander, General Bodisco, capitulated. Bomarsund was never completed and a few weeks later the fortress was demolished by the victors. The bricks from some areas were kept and put to use – they can be seen in buildings like Uspenski Cathedral and the Alexander Theatre in Helsinki.
When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Sweden pushed through an international convention prohibiting the Russians from fortifying Åland. Since then Åland has been a demilitarised area and Ålander men are not obliged to do national service. Åland belonged to Russia until Finland gained independence in 1917.