Erik Laxman and Savonlinna


Juhani Heiska

Erik Laxman’s childhood in Savonlinna and contacts to the home town

Savonlinna – a small city in Eastern Finland – was the hometown of Erik Laxman. Also a city which he remembered and revisited during his career in Russia.

Erik Laxman was born on 28th August 1737 shortly before the Russo-Swedish war of 1741-1743 broke out (Sääminki kk, Uusikirkko kk). The war changed the fate of Savonlinna which was transferred from the Kingdom of Sweden to the Russian Empire in the Treaty of Åbo. The life of Erik Laxman started in the immediate vicinity of St. Olav’s castle in Savonlinna (in Swedish Nyslott, in Russian with the old name “Neishlot”. Erik Laxman wrote his name in correspondence “Eric Laxman”, although the spelling in other sources varies and common is also the Russian version Erik Gustavovich Laxman (including the patronym).

The father Gustav Laxman (Saarenheimo 1939) had arrived to Savonlinna from Lappeenta (Villmanstrand) or Hamina (Fredrickshamn). Origins of Gustav Laxman are not exactly known. Gustav Laxman had become acquinted with Helena Fabritius – daughter of the constable living in the Nojamaa manor located few kilometers away from the St. Olav’s castle in Sääminki parish (Porvoo tkp, 1738). Helena had become pregnant out of wedlock which was potentially a huge embarrassment and subjected the parties involved to severe punishment by the strict vicar Paul Krogius according to the contemporary custom. Wedding ceremony of Gustav and Helena was recorded in Midsummer 1737. For the wedding, the customary duty for that year for peasants was 16 öre. However, the Laxmans were charged whole riksdaler in silver, although Gustav only was a shop assistant at that time. (Krogius 1738).

The Laxmans settled near the castle and the modern day Linnankatu (Castle street). According to state records, in 1738 Gustav Laxman was involved in a project to construct some boat to support the defence of Eastern Finland (Valtionarkisto 1976-1978). He managed to sell two barrels of tar and some 15 kg of tow for the boats. Apparently, it was the question of cannon sloops being fitted for the defense of Lake Saimaa region against the impending threat from Russia.

Hundred years after Laxman’s period on 21st July 1857, artist Carl Eneas Sjöstrand pictured a house in Savonlinna, roughly on the place of Laxman’ homestead.  This very close to what the home of Erik Laxman could have looked like.

A house in Savonlinna probably very similar to the house the Laxmans lived in Savonlinna. By C.E. Sjöstrand, 1857.

This is apparently also the oldest extant depiction of the old Savonlinna. “Nyslotts malm” (malm is the Swedish word for old suburban or industrial settlement. FI Savonlinnan malmi) was the small settlement that had grown in the vicinity of St. Olav’s castle. The castle had been built by the Swedes in 1475. The city had been founded in 1639 but lost the town rights due to deterioting conditions. Contemporary eye-witness from the 18th centure, Bernard De Saint-Pierin (quoted by Hirn 1918), describes Savonlinna as follows: ”In the view from the hills dotted with cliffs and pines covered with snow. In the distance, the four towers [currently three] of the castle can be seen surrounded by the lake, stream and small buildings. No human figure is to be seen. On the sky moon is shining and in the horizon aurora borealis is flaming.”  

The vicar of the Sääminki parish in Savonlinna was at that time Paul Krogius, who is pictured in on old portrait preserved in Pieksämäki. As a moral guardian he described his parish as ”Lost Zion”. The miserable state was reflected in the condition of the local school – pedagogium –located in Tallisaari island near the castle. It was so dilapidated that had to be rebuilt with tax levies collected from as far as Kitee and Pielisjärvi parishes. Krogius acted the inspector of the school and noted that the church-warden was unable to sing. (Lukkari FI, klockare SE acted in Sweden and Finland as assistant to the priest as teacher and cantor). It seems Savonlinna was not very well endowed with musical talent since according to some records, musicians for a wedding had to be invited from Kitee (Lappalainen 1970). However, the occupation of one Savonlinna inhabitant is drummer in the church register (Sääminki kk).

Vicar Paul Krogius (1689-1762). Image courtesy Pieksämäki parish.

The castle apparently served as a prison and collection point for marginalized people since vicar Krogius is reporting to the diocese of Porvoo (Porvoo tkp 1738) about the excessive trouble of caring for the prisoners, deranged and anguished people. The vicar’s meeting of the diocese cautioned against serving alcohol to the chaplains and church-wardens travelling the countryside, lest they become unable to perform their duties. There are also reports of drunken people arriving to court hearings. Thus the authorities were concerned about the condition of people. The master of Heikinpohja farm Kristian Sahlo had responsibilities for improving the condition of people of Savonlinna by collecting duty from c. 20 liquor distilleries. For his services he and his family had been assigned the privileged seat in the church (Lappalainen 1970, Saarenheimo 1939). Shortly before the war Krogius who seemed to have some genuine concern for the conditions, proposed that the distillation pots be sealed off in Finland for a year. This initiative did not find support. Anyway, liquor distilled with the approval of the vicar was reportedly consumed at the construction site of a new rectory (Lappalainen 1970).

Erik’s childhood in Savonlinna

In 1741 Erik was four years old with a new little brother Gustavus. The town was concerned about dysentery spreading about and potential military invasion from Russia. A special worship service was organized assembling a crowd of 2000 from far and wide in Sääminki. From the Lake Saimaa islands of Sääminki people arrived to church by boat (Alanen 1923). Little Erik probably for the first time saw such a huge crowd of people. The church at that time was decorated colorful painting in the pulpit and balcony railing. While the church already has been dismantled, the paintings are still preserved in Sääminki Parish Hall in Savonlinna.

The pulpit of the old Sääminki Church is dated to 1728 and is decorated with wood carving and paintings. Photo: Pellervo Kokkonen.

When the Russo-Swedish war broke out, it was locally called the ”Villmanstrand war” based on the origin of Russian attack (Immel 1927). A number of people from Savonlinna participated in the war, but father Gustav Laxman remained in Savonlinna and conducted business. From the time we have an invoice signed by him as a bugher (a privilege he did not have, Wirilander 1960).

In the Spring of 1742 some peasants recovered in Savonlinna a large parcel containing Russian propaganda leaflets printed in Finnish and distributed at the order of Russian empress Elizabeth. The parcel was duely delivered to vicar Krogius.

A receipt issued by Gustav Laxman in 1738.

The empress was trying to convince the Finns about the need capitulate and possibility of achieving a level of autonomy for Finland instead of the Swedish rule (Lappalainen 1970). The propaganda did not have desired effect since people in Savonlinna started organizing voluntary militia to assist the Swedish army (Immel 1927). The merchants of Savonlinna participated in these prepartions when Erik Laxman was five years old (Mattila 1983).

The manifest of Empress of Elisabeth to people of Finland.

Taking refuge in the castle

In the August of 1742 Russians invaded Savonlinna. Local families sought refuge at Saint Olav’s Castle. An well-known incident is related to the Russian invasion: Before attacking the Russian troops celebrated holy communion on the lakeshore opposite to the castle at a large boulder which became known for posteriority as Alttarkivi (altar stone) and was depicted in artwork at a later stage (Pelkonen 1902).

In the critical situation, mother of the Laxman family was in the final stages of pregnancy. The inhabitants were saved by an agreement of the Russian and Swedish generals stating that “the whole garrison of the castle including the sick, the artillery soldiers, boatmen can unhindered march out of the castle and keep their arms, provisions, clothes and other belongings and bring our their families unharmed.” Boatmen referred to the crew of three large sloops more at the moment at the shore. Five-year-old Erik also participated in this peculiar procession leaving as last Swedish keepers of the castle. However, Laxmans’ home, the pedagogium in Tallisaari and many other buildings had burned down in the battle (Saarenheimo 1939).

Remnants of old Savonlinna

Laxmans’ house was rebuilt after the war and even some 18th-century houses were preserved in the town. From the beginning of the 1900s we have a photograph depicting an old house.

Old photograph of a house representing residual 18th-century buildings in Savonlinna.

Beginnings of Erik’s education

Despite the town being transferred from the Kingdom of Sweden to the Russian Empire, life and schooling continued. The parish hall had been preserved from the ravages of the war because it was located beside the church in Laitaatsilta district – some kilometers away from the castle. The school masters were church warden Martti Twilling and sexton Mårten Juuti at the elementary level. The road school Erik must have taken from the neighborhood of the castle to the parish hall is preserved to this day beside the modern-day cemetery. Contemporary report concerning the quality of education reveal that church-wardens high alcohol consumption and quarrelsome court proceedings disturbed work at school (Alanen 1923). 

The 12-year-old Erik was registered as one of the first pupils to trivial school in Rantasalmi (on the Swedish side of the newly established border). The school that had been transferred at many stages from Vyborg (Viipuri) to Rantasalmi had problems with organizing. The rector was not nominated until november that year (?) and the premises of the school were used for court proceedings. There was a lack of teachers and the staff got involved in court proceedings when colleague Brusin  and others had called the school “royal” which was considered inappropriate and offense had to be settled in court (Salenius 1890).

The trivial school took five years. During school holidays Erik resumed work at his father’s trading company. Travel to school was difficult because the road between Rantasalmi and Savonlinna was in very poor condition. In winter, a long detour around and across Lake Haukivesi along winter roads was necessary (Kinnunen 1995).

The miracle of the enlightenment in the periphery

It is an interesting question, where Erik Laxman acquired despite poor schools the thirst for knowledge and capacity to learn. What kinds of contacts and influences may have prepared the way for the becoming scientist during the first 18 years of his life? For a young man from a peripheral town it is indeed remarkable achievement to become pioneer of the exploration of Siberia, and a savant in botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, linguistics, meteorology and even a diplomat establishing relations between imperial Russia and Japan.

At a close inspection of conditions in Savonlinna, some fascinating details are revealed that shed some light on the question. We may know very little about the actual nature of contact, but might assume that visitors in a small city made significant impact during their stay. Pehr Kalm – one of the most illustrious members of the Royal Swedish Academy – visited Savonlinna twice for botanical studies before becoming dean of the Academy of Turku at the time when he worked with Carl Linné in Sweden. It is very likely that the Laxman house was his quarters during the stay in Savonlinna (Kerkkonen 1959). Later when Kalm had been appointed docent of natural history and economics in Turku, Erik Laxman was admitted and started studies at the Academy.  

It is also know that Russian officers visiting Savonlinna often stayed in the Laxman house while the Laxmans spoke Russian and had extra space in the house. The close-knit Savonlinna society and the circles of Laxman family included people with academic credentials – including vicar Paul Krogius and his successor Abraham Lavonius. Krogius’ son was same age as Erik as well as Abraham (son of non-commissioned office, Stückjunker) and young (rather unknown) G. Orraeus (Sääminki kk). Therefore, it is evident that there were some scientific influences in the immediate surroundings.

In terms of economics of the age of enlightenment, father Gustav Laxman visited Alusjärvi sawmill in Kaartilanranta and the children had opportunity to familiarize with the developing industries. Near the modern town center in Talvisalo, there was an attempt to mine galena. That was also a site of interest for the merchant Gustav Laxman. Later in Siberia Erik Laxman showed great interest in mineralogy and mining. In associating with mining endeavours Laxman studies with Russian partner Polsunov the possibility of developing a steam engine (Lagus 1890). The problems of mechanics had apparently been encountered while visiting the Alusjärvi sawmill.

The remnants of the 18th-century sawmill in Alusjärvi. Photo: Juhani Heiska.

In the attrocities of the Russo-Swedish war the Russian troops attacking Savonlinna burned some 20 houses and imprisoned 50 persons. There were accounts of child murder and drinking of the blood of the victims. Some the attackers were in contemporary accounts identified as kalmyks and samoyeds – people who later became subjects of Laxman’s explorations in Siberia (Lappalainen 1970).

Under the new rule, Russian officers settled in Savonlinna and introduced in their gardens plants that were new in Finland. When Erik Laxman was 13 years old, some Savonlinna inhabitants were searching for seed potatoes – a new crop being introduced in Finland in the beginning of the 18th century (Saarenheimo 1939). It seems Laxman later had some merit for introducing potato cultivation in Russia (Hintikka 1938).

The Laxman family is an example of relatively educated family of the era. The education of the nine children apparently involved interaction between the siblings and their circle. Four of the children are known to have died in Savonlinna. The household consisted in 1751 addition to family of two clerks and a housemaid. At that time godparents were very important. The names of Erik’s godparents are not known, but trough Helena Fabritius’ family the Laxmans had contact to Tapani Löfving, the famous guerrilla fighter on the Swedish side against the Russians (Hornborg 1946). Löfving visited Laxmans in Savonlinna and supported Erik’s studies in Porvoo after father Gustav Laxman had drowned together with son Lars in May 1756. The godparents of other Laxman children consisted of pedagogio teacher, farm manager, vicar, merchant/burgher, sergeant major, seat farm owners, army surgeon, wife of lensmann, sub-lieutenant and sergeant major (Sääminki kk).

New experiences opened the visits of Russian officers staying at Laxmans during their visits to Savonlinna. General-in-chief Adam Petrovich Gannibal (c. 1696 – 1781) stayed with the Laxmans while working for the border commission settling the Russo-Swedish border of 1743. Gannibal was of Eritrean origin and as a protegee of Peter I rose to privileged positions in Russia. Later he became known as the maternal grandfather of the poet Pushkin (Mielonen 1993). Delineating the new border was a complicated and time-consuming process. Gannibal must have had local guides and interpreters for Finnish and Swedish. One can only guess what the role of bi- or tri-lingual Gustav Laxman might have been.

The Rantasalmi trivial school provided experiences about travel by horse in winter, when the teacher Nils Agander transferred the whole school to Iisalmi whilst travelling there to settle a marital argument. Schooling continued after the transfer to Iisalmi, while the teacher simultaneously settled problems in his marriage (Soininen 1954).

There is authentic quote from little Erik from that time: “Since my childhood I have been compelled to push my way alone in misery and poverty without any assistance.” (Lagus 1890).

The life of young Erik Laxman demonstrates that sometimes despite miserable conditions and adversity, some people manage to fight their through and become shining beacons in the darkness. Despite all the complications it seems also in peripheral Savonlinna Erik was able to gain experience and also receive education of remarkable quality to teachers who at least momentarily shared the passion of learning with their students.

Porvoo Gymnasium and beyond

At eighteen, Laxman left for Porvoo (Borgå) Gymnasium – one of the oldest schools in Finland dating its origins to Vyborg and to 1641. Disaster struck the same year when his father drowned in the Spring on lake ice in Savonlinna. Quite unexpectedly, Tapani Löving stepped in to sponsor Erik’s studies which enabled him to graduate from the school. Erik Laxman’s matriculation certificate has survived and it displayed below. Rather than being a school certifivate displaying grades, it is a letter of recommendation to the rector of the university, enabling him to register at the university.

Erik Laxman’s matriculation certificate from gymnasium was essentially a letter of recommondation enabling him to apply for the university.

The university studies lasted at least two years, which evidently enabled him to apply from the Lutheran bishop in Saint Petersburg for ordination as priest. Laxman found his first post in Uusikirkko (Nykyrka) in the Karelian Isthmus (Salenius 1907). Uusikirkko was Finnish-speaking parish in the Vyborg Governorate established in 1744. Uusikirkko was located in the east, close to Saint Petersburg.

At the time of settling in Uusikirkko, Erik got married with his first wife Kristiina Margareta Runnenberg who was a daughter of a colonel Gustav Runnenberg. Runnenbergs evidently were from Savonlinna, although no parish records of neither the father nor the daughter can be found.  After becoming a widow, Erik remarried with Katarina Ivanintytär Ruuth from Sääminki parish.

Rest of the Laxman family stayed for a while in Savonlinna. From Uusikirkko Erik Laxman took responsibility for the upkeep of his brothers Johan, Gustavus and Abraham (Salenius 1907). Further proof of sustained contact is that he participated in the project to acquire for Sääminki church a bigger new church bell. The bell was installed in the church in 1776 (Alanen 1923). Later in the 19th century when new church was built, the old bell was transferred to the new church where it was destroyed in the Finnish Winter War in 1939. The broken bell was recast and still metal still sounds on Sundays from Savonlinna church.

The bell donated to Sääminki Church by Erik Laxman after the bombing of winter war.

Rikkoutunut kello valettiin uudelleen ja se on edelleen käytössä Savonlinnan tuomiokirkossa.

One who on a winter days checks the outside temperature through the glass window and savours rhubarb pie, could as well remember Erik Laxman since he is a person who has contributed to glass manufacture, development of the thermometer, climatology and introduced rhubarb in Finland (Hintikka 1938).  Savonlinna also commemorates Laxman by hanging his portrait in the town library and developing Laxman Park as an educational facility displaying plants in the genus Laxmania. There is also a new memorial plaque on the site of Laxman’s home.

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