This month, my homeland, Finland, had it’s 90th independent anniversary. A short history is in order.
In the early middle ages, the area around the gulf of Finland and the Finnish peninsula was inhabited by people speaking Finnic languages. Estonians on the south side of the gulf, Finnish tribes on the north side. In the far north, what is currently northern Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, were and still are the Sámi people, whose language is related to Finnish as well. It is not known where the Finnish and Estonian people came from, but the language is not an Indo-European one. French, English, German, Russian are all quite close to each other from the world language point of view, but Finnish is not closely related to them. And it’s possible, even probable, that the language and the people are mainly from different origins. Some related languages are found in Northern and Central Russia. It is argued that Hungarian is also related to Finnish.
The Finnish tribes in Finland could be labelled as Varsinais-Suomi, Pohjanmaa, Lappi, Kainuu, Savo, Karjala, Häme. Each have their distinct cultural and physical properties, that I won’t go into now, except to perhaps broadly generalize that people in the west are taller and more silent and in the east smaller and livelier. 🙂 There is also the Swedish speaking minority living on the coast. In those old times, the area we now call Finland was far from civilization, a backwards place where new inventions arrived the last.
Some time in the early middle ages the Swedes on the west side of the gulf of Bothnia had turned into Christianity and started doing crusades to Finland and managed to conquer the whole area. They converted Finland to Christianity and ruled it for a long time, and we were just an eastern part of the Swedish nation. Turku was the capital of “Eastern Sweden” and flourished in the 1200:s already. Lots of cities were founded, for example Helsinki in 1550. (To compare, st. Petersburg was only founded in 1703.) During the 1700:s Sweden had a vast empire, ruling the Baltic sea with areas from Estonia, Livonia, Poland and northern Germany as well. These areas were subsequently lost. There were multiple wars with Russia and others, famines and even peasant uprisings in Finland during the Swedish rule. The nobility spoke Swedish and the rest Finnish.
In 1808-1809, through reasons of world politics (Simplifying, if I recall correctly, Napoleon was in war with the Brits, but Sweden supplied them, so Napoleon ordered Russia to do something), Russia attacked Sweden and conquered the “eastern part” with the Swedes not really caring that much about defence. So the land was quickly invaded. Russia didn’t care to meddle too much in the affairs of Finns, and during the Russian rule of the Grand Duchy of Finland we managed to get our own laws, parliament and currency, Markka. There were even customs on the border. Some Czars acted fine towards Finland (a nice vacationing place, and they developed the railroads too) while others weren’t (a common problem in monarchy is that it’s hard to get rid of bad rulers).
By the late 1800:s, Finns started gathering a national mentality. National romanticism pushed strongly through in arts and there was an interest in research of history. There were clashes with the Russians. Aleksis Kivi created the start of the Finnish literature, both novels and plays. Lönnrot traveled to the eastern hinterlands to record the old epic tales of Kalevala (which are one precious sample of the ancient tales and beliefs in Europe, from before Christianity wiped all of them away) . Edelfelt, Gallen-Kallela and many others painted the nature and the people.
In 1905 Finland entered a new democratic system with everybody enabled to vote (women’s voting second in the world after New Zealand). The country was still very poor and almost all people were employed in agriculture.
In 1917 Russia had its revolution (The Czar was going to escape by train to Finland but his wife stuck her head out of the window at the border to look around, and the workers recognized her) and Lenin (who had spent some time hiding in Finland before it) granted independence to Finland when it was requested. The independence day is 6th of december 1917. Many other nations separated from Russia as well, Estonia for example.
Soon after, in 1918 there was an extremely bloody civil war. The right wing whites were assisted by Germany and the left wing reds by the Soviets. The whites won. It has been said that it was the second bloodiest civil war ever, after Spain. A huge amount of civilians were shot and people were starved in concentration camps. The surviving members of the working class had a bad time long after that, in addition having to deal with the depression hitting in the thirties.
Second World War
The second world war was brewing in Europe, and in 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The Winter War. No help was coming from any nation. (Although the British and French were interested.) Swedish people came to Finland as volunteers, although the state wanted to stay neutral.
The Finns had to pull together. The Soviets attacked on all fronts. On the Karelian isthmus in the south, in the middle they were intending to quickly split Finland in two, and in the north they tried to take strategic ore resources. But the resistance was stiffer than expected. After 105 days there was a truce (the reasons are very complicated and all factors are not even fully known to this day). Finland ceded some areas, including eastern Karelia with the second biggest city of the nation, Viipuri. Also lost were parts of Eastern Lapland and parts of Petsamo, Finland’s right arm that connected it to the Arctic Ocean. The half million Karelians who had been evacuated from the east had to be given new land by the state, taken from people around the country.
In 1941 it was war again, the Continuation War. This time Finland was getting help from the Germans. Finnish troops got back to the old borders, retook Viipuri and advanced quite far, but were driven back at the end. In 1944 Finland made peace with the Soviet Union, but the terms dictated that Finland had to drive out the German troops that were still in the country. That was the Lapland war, and the Germans destroyed big parts of Lapland as they escaped to northern Norway.
It can be noted that only three European nations took part in the second world war but were not invaded: Britain, Russia and Finland. Yet we were counted among the losers.
After The War
After the war, Finland had to live in fear of the Soviet Union, pay huge war reparations in industry products and not accept any Marshall aid from USA as the other war-ravaged countries did. But this forced the country to industrialize. The first elected after-the-war president, Paasikivi, had a slogan: “Kaikki viisaus lähtee tosiasioiden tunnustamisesta” – “All wisdom starts from acknowledging the facts”. Finland had no room to start posturing or getting cocky. Geography was what it was.
Yet, Finland industrialized and got gradually richer. The differences in living standards started equalizing. Urho Kekkonen was president from 1956 to 1981 (A president’s term is 6 years but he had “some” overtime) and personally oversaw the relations to the Soviet Union. Finland was a democratic western country, with free travel and trade everywhere. You could even travel in the Nordic countries without passport. The heavy industry was often state owned, and worked fine. The forestry industry made good money. There was some internal student communism, like in most of Europe, but it didn’t lead to a communist state.
Starting from the late sixties, the education system had been transformed so that poor people could get educated far as well. Health care was improved and provided for all. Finland was a modern nation. The society had taken a lot of its models from the slightly bigger, richer and more progressive neighbour to the west, Sweden.
In the nineties, the Soviet Union collapsed. (And Estonia got its independence back! They now have two independence days.) It hit Finland especially hard, since we had a very big trade with the Soviets. A deep depression followed. Companies were going bankrupt like flies and the country was taking debt like mad. There were healthcare cuts. And again we had to transform, from heavy industry to more sophistication: IT, communications, speciality industries. By the late nineties, things were looking better again. Nokia was one big success story: it is rare for one company to form such a big part of GDP. We joined the European Union in 1995 after a popular vote. The state sold parts of its big share in many companies to pay off some of the huge debts accumulated during the depression. There was the IT bubble, we joined the Euro currency and I guess after that, we are in the present day.
The politics has long been characterized by three main parties and some smaller ones. The parliamentary voting system enables about 7 people to get through from each district (200 seats in the parliament), which means many parties have a chance to get people voted in. The presidential election is direct with two candidates getting to a second round. (Unless one candidate receives over 50% in the first round.) Both systems enable a multi-party democracy, which is very different from the US.
The other characteristics of Finland are low corruption, good stability, high education levels, high safety and security and a narrow income spectrum.
Urho Kekkonen (foreign minister then) had made a radio speech after Stalin’s death in 1953. I listened to it one day in the internet radio archives. The late leader had done many many horrible things. As everyone knew, he had tried to destroy Finland, like he had done to Estonia and many other countries. He had killed millions. Yet Kekkonen was trying to paint a somehow positive picture of him, and the sucking up to the Soviets in the speech almost sounded ridiculous in hindsight. But one small sentence in his words seared into my mind. Stalin had said: “The Finns are good and hard-working people, as they in hard circumstances have managed to build an advanced nation on a swamp.”
I went to pick partly frozen cranberries with my parents on the day after Finland turned 90. Nowadays, perhaps because of the warmer climate, it was possible in December; there wasn’t really any snow at our summer cottage. And there I reminisced again the chapter mentioned in the radio speech, the thing that someone else had said of us.
A nation is always an image, a concept that is not physical. But what great strides have our forefathers had to do to bring us so far. Of all the places, this seems so unlikely. It is beautiful, but it is harsh. Yet so many people have it so much worse, in places that could be so much easier to live. And I must feel humble and thankful and carry on the torch, for my ancestors’ efforts have not been in vain.