Jul

8

PoltavaToday is the 299th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava. In a single afternoon Charles XII of Sweden lost his empire and the political map of Europe was permanently redrawn. Until then (June 27th 1709 under the Old Style calendar, July 8th under the New) Sweden had controlled the Baltic and much of northern Germany, and the Swedish Army had been respected and feared for 3/4ths of a century as the preeminent military force on the continent, in the same way the Wehrmacht was from the Franco-Prussian war to the end of WW II. Then everything changed - in an event that was as important for European and world history as Stalingrad. The Swedish army was routed, Charles fled to the Ottoman Empire for refuge (he stayed five years!), and the Russians became the dominant power in Eastern and Northern Europe. For the next 280+ years the Russians were feared, scorned and courted but never ignored. Perhaps the Russians think that $150 oil is an adequate replacement for the Red Army (the Washington Post certainly does), but I doubt it. What, if anything, they can do to recover their lost glory is problematic - as the Swedes found out (look up Hats' Russian War and Gustav III's Russian War if you want to read the sad and stupid end of the story).

Paolo Pezzutti adds:

On a recent trip to Stockholm I visited the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship built for King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden from 1626 to 1628. At the time Sweden was fighting the thirty Years' war and the king was impatient to see the ship contributing to the war efforts after unfortunate and multiple ships losses due to storms and lost battles.  The ship had to support the expansionism of the Swedish kingdom and it was supposed to be a powerful and feared ship.  But her destiny was not glorious and the ship sank during her maiden voyage in august 1628.  It was left laying under the sea for centuries when finally in 1959, after being located, it was raised to be displayed in a museum only in 1990 in all her beauty and perfection (but not from the engineering perspective though).

There are several reasons why the ship sank that were investigated. The ship had not enough ballast.  The project was changed to accomodate the king's requests. A line of guns was added contributing to instability.  What is interesting is that it seems that a stability trial was held with little or no success, but that no action was taken at that point.  Several lessons learned in my mind:

- As usual in these sort of projects, changes to the original requirements and specifications during the development may have a bad impact on timelines, costs and performance of the ship.

- Changes came from the top level. Most of the times, the less competent technically, but the most influential politically.  No one dared to stop this.

- After the stability trials, no one wanted to face the king to say that the project was failed. The staff followed blindly instructions without willing to be accountable for the technical choices made.

- There were also financial implications of the failed project development that nobody probably wanted to cope with and responsibility was left to the top management.

Eventually, there was an investigation and nobody was found responsible for the disaster in which 30 to 50 people died.  The sinking was explained as an act of God.  Nice and modern story of power, bureaucracy, economic interests, accountability and motivation versus fighting capabilities, technical competencies, professional expertise, and life of men and women at stake.


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