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History of the Olavinlinna Castle

History of the castle starts at the end of the 15th century, as the Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden was seriously concerned about the state of defence of its eastern borders, being approached by the Grand Duchy of Moscow after incorporating Novgorod. As part of support for Vyborg, the only fortress located on the border with Russian lands, it was decided to erect another fortress, for which works started in 1475. A Danish knight Erik Axelsson Tott, having experience in construction of Vyborg’s fortifications, has been designated as the person responsible for erection of the new castle. Initially, the fortress was called Nyslott, which translates as – “The New Castle”, but later it took the name of Olofsborg – “St. Olaf’s Castle”, which in Finnish is Olavinlinna.

Construction of the castle was a large-scale event. Many foreign architects were brought there in relation to it. They have created the first fortress on Swedish territory which was able to withstand the artillery fire. After death of Erik Axelsson, his subsequent brothers were made intendants at the castle and took responsibility for its further expansion until their death. At the end of the 15th century the castle passed into hands of the Sture family, under whose reign the construction works came to an end. The first attempt to conquer it by Tsar Ivan III took place in 1495, but the fortress garrison bravely repelled the attack. Several similar attempts took place in the next decades, but thay have all failed.

After the Swedish king Gustav I Vasa ascended the Swedish throne in 1523, the Danes were expelled from Sweden, then the Swedish army went to conquer Finland, belonging to the Danes according to the statutes of the Kalmar Union. In October 1523, Roloff Mattson – the commander of the castle – surrendered to the Swedish army. Within a few years the building was renovated: the towers were enlarged by a few metres and equipped with additional storeys, the fortifications were reinforced. During this period Olavinlinna was made enough large and significant fortress to be regarded as the centre of the province. It happened very often that the castle was an arena of the battles between Swedish and Russian troops during the protracted war started in 1570. In 1639 the settlement which was founded and grew around the castle was given a status of a town and therefore it began to be called Savonlinna.

Although in 1654 the wooden castle buildings were significantly damaged by fire, the fate did not stop there and soon after that the fortress suffered even more. In 1656, during the Russian-Swedish war, it was besieged by the Russian troops, but the castle remained unconquered. In an act of revenge, the enemy had destroyed and looted the town of Savonlinna. During the Northern War, in 1710, the Russian army captured the town of Vyborg and the castle remained the only obstacle against the enemy actions into the Swedish territory. For over a year the fortress was besieged by cossak troops consisting of approximately 2 thousand people.

In 1714 the fortress was completely surrounded by the Russian troops of more than 1500 people and 30 cannons. It was shelled for over a month. The castle garrison decreased two-fold during this period and as if this were not enough, ammunition and gunpowder were about to exhaust. Therefore, on 28 July 1714 the defenders of the fortress were forced to surrender. In the course of the battle, the tower of St. Erik was destroyed, after which only the lower tier remained, and other facilities had been destroyed to such an extent that the garrison of Russian troops had to be accommodated in provisional buildings located outside the castle. In any case, the castle did not remain in Russian hands for too long – after the peace of Nystad in 1721 the fortress returned to Sweden.

For several years the castle was in complete ruin, although rebuilding plans were forwarded to the state activists for consideration. As a result of renovation work started at the end of the 1720s, only the most serious damage was removed and a temporary fortification was erected on foundations of the tower of St. Erik. On 6 August 1742, as another war with Russia was launched by Sweden in 1741, Olavinlinna Castle was besieged again. This time, a modest castle garrison, sensing imminent defeat of Sweden, surrendered after 2 days. All Swedish soldiers were freed afterwards.

Following conclusion of the Treaty of Åbo, the town together with the province of Savonlinna were passed on to Russia, which located the whole garrison there. Within a few decades, the object was significantly strengthened and over 100 guns and cannons were deployed there. Despite the grim appearance the castle did not participate in any battle any more. The Russian garrison remained there until 1847, but when the object has lost its significance for defence system, the troops left and the cannons were taken to Vyborg. Between 1855 and 1861, the walls of the fortress served as a prison, but soon this old building was abandoned for good. Its already miserable condition was exacerbated by two fires that have taken place between 1868 and 1869. It was only thanks to interference by the authorities, which took it over in 1872, that it has not been completely destroyed.

Renovation work, which made it a local tourist attraction, came to an end in 1877. In 1907, it hosted the co-founder of the Finnish National Opera – opera singer Aino Ackté. This is how the idea came up to organize an open air opera festival. The first such festival took place behind its walls in summer 1912. The festival was held here several times before the revolution of 1917. Since December 1917, when Finland gained independence, Olavinlinna Castle belongs to Finland. The fortress has been restored in 1961. In 1967, just six years later, the tradition of the opera festival has been revived. It has become a significant event in cultural life of the country.