J. G. Renat – Swedish Superhero

Johan Gustaf Renat (1682-1744) was an amazing historical figure, a Swedish man with an uncanny skill for survival in strange environments who traveled further afield into Turko-Mongol territory than practically any other European in his generation. He has left an interesting trail of documents and traces in others’ accounts of the time, but still one must rely on conjecture and speculation to put together many of the personal details of his life.The image published with this post is a still from the 2005 Kazakhstan film “Nomad: The Warrior,” which includes a scene where Renat is demonstrating the firepower of cannons to the Jungar leader. Renat is present in two scenes in the movie. In both scenes, he makes the same “swooping” motion with his sword, giving the order to fire cannons, first as a test, and later in a siege on a Kazakh city. This image makes for great cinema, but is ahistorical — there is no evidence any such artillery force under Renat fought against the Kazakhs.

The son of Jewish immigrants to Sweden, Johan at the age of 17 joined the army of King Charles XII (r. 1697-1718), ruler and head of the Swedish Empire. Renat’s tenure in the military would see the ambitions of Charles XII dashed and the end to the regional domination by the Swedish crown. Charles XII was quite young at the time — in fact, he was the same age as Renat. His youth and military skill inspired many of the elites of the age, including Voltaire, who quoted him thus:

I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies

The Great Northern War in which Renat fought under Charles XII came about largely because of the policies of Charles XI, the previous king of the Swedish Empire, particularly the so-called Great Reduction. In short, this angered many of the minor nobility who then worked to gather foreign powers that they might destroy the Swedish royal line and retake their lost lands and privileges. Renat would have been a member of an up-and-coming social class (the Christian-born son of Jewish converts to Christianity) with little in common with the nobility fighting Charles XII, so it is likely that his patriotism and support for the crown were born of legitimate affection.

Between joining the military in 1699 and beginning his term as a prisoner-of-war in 1709, Renat reached the rank of warrant officer with numerous battles under his belt. In 1709, however, the Russian army under Peter I handed Charles XII his greatest defeat, at Poltava, dismantling the larger part of the Swedish military machine. Renat and his fellow officers were sent to Siberian towns for the duration of their sentence as prisoners-of-war until an official cessation of hostilities between Russia and Sweden. However, the education, experiences, and Western “charisma” stood the Swedish POWs in good stead seemingly wherever they went in the Russian Empire, as many of them lived comfortably in regional towns, some reaching respected positions of academic or civil authority.

Renat’s activities, in general, are pretty much unknown. Rather, he shows up at certain events, like the defeat at Poltava in 1709. Several years later he emerges far to the east, on the Irtysh River heading south from Tobolsk, in 1716, in connection with the doomed expedition of Ivan Buchholz (1671-1741) sent by Peter I to find gold in present-day northwest China. It was on the Irtysh that Renat’s POW status changed hands, when the Jungars attacked and turned back the Buchholz expedition, returning to their capital with many prisoners, including Renat and his future wife, Brigitta Scherzenfeldt (1684-1736).

During their stay with the Jungars, the Renats were treated fairly well. This stands in stark contrast to the horrors witnessed by both during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden and the climactic defeat of Buchholz’s forces. Scherzenfeldt later related to an English woman living in Russia the story of her near-rape during the Jungar raid on the Buchholz camp. That story, however, served her to explain the cultural chasm between themselves and the Jungars. The Jungar ruler questioned her personally why she had so violently resisted the sexual assault and, upon hearing that such things were not accepted practice in Brigitta’s homeland, ordered that no one attempt such violence again and gifted her to a woman in his court as a lady-servant. That same woman (either a daughter or a wife) was later implicated in the poisoning-death of the Jungar ruler, but Brigitta managed to avoid the retribution of the ruler’s successor.

Renat's Cannons
Renat’s cannons firing in “Nomad: The Warrior”

Renat, during the same time, claimed later to have lived quite comfortably. Russian ambassadors arriving several years into Renat’s captivity found him living in a comfortable private home with enclosed garden and a position of respect, overseeing various workshops — including artillery manufacturing, a printing press, and weaving shops — in which his wife-to-be Brigitta worked.

It was with the aid of a later Russian envoy that the Renat’s finally left the court of the Jungar ruler, taking with them an entourage of fellow servant-slaves and valuable gifts in return for their leal service to Jungar ambitions against Qing China. Among those gifts were two maps of incredible value and import — and I’ll discuss them in detail in a later post.