Ian Bowie - a potted history of Finland
7000 BC - 11000AD
The exact origin of the Finns is unclear; the first traces of human habitation
of the region date back to around 7000 BC. Over the next several thousand
years various peoples migrated North from Europe and East over the Ural
mountains to populate this vast cold area. Archaeological finds suggest
that the earliest inhabitants survived from hunting with coastal areas
showing signs of Roman Iron age habitation dating back to 1 - 400 AD.
Apart from hunting, fur trading also provided a means of survival and
contact with other civilisations.
By the time of the Vikings the area was made up of three distinct regions:
Karelia in the East, Häme in the middle and Varsinais Suomi in the
south. It is believed that each region had its own administrative centre
together with a king. Viking sagas of the time mention Finnish kings
but the theory is very much open to question.
The sagas also tell about raids into the Finnish interior and the remains
of defensive hill forts have been found. Finns are known to have launched
their own revenge attacks against the cities of Novgorod in the East and
Sigtuna, the main city of Sweden at the time. In between raids the two
cultures also found time to trade. The exchange of goods and ideas promoted
good relations and Vikings are known to have settled along the shores
and estuaries in the south, starting families and integrating into the
local Finnish population. However, most historians will agree, there is
still a lot to be learnt about this period of early Finnish history.
Swedish Rule 1100 1809
The 12th Century saw politics come to the fore in the geographical area
that was to become Finland. The struggle for supremacy between the Roman
Catholic church in the west and the Greek Orthodox church in the East
ended with the Roman Catholics coming out on top. The peace treaty, signed
between Novgorod and Sweden in 1323, assigned western and southern Finland
to Sweden with the Eastern territory of Karelia going to the Russians.
As a result Swedish legal and social systems took root, and Swedish became
the official language of Government.
Unlike so many other cultures ruled by a foreign power, the Finns were
not suppressed. Indeed, they enjoyed a large degree of freedom under Swedish
sovereignty with the right to send representatives to the court of the
King in Sweden. This right was extended in the 16th Century to include
representation in the Swedish Diet.
It was also in the 16th Century that Mikael Agicola, later to become bishop
of Turku, brought the Reformation to Finland and the Catholic Church lost
out to Lutheranism. The reformation brought about a rise in Finnish language
and culture and in 1548 the new testament was translated into Finnish
by Agricola with the whole bible appearing in Finnish in 1642.
Despite the growing strength of Finnish Swedish remained the language
of government with Swedes holding almost all positions of authority. This
was a situation that was to continue until the beginning of the 17th Century
which marked the end of Swedens position as a great power. By then
Russian pressure on Finland had been building for some time and they finally
took formal control of the region after the 1808 - 1809 war with Sweden.
The Tsarist Era 1809 - 1917
Prior to the Russians taking over, Finland had merely been a collection
of provinces ruled from Stockholm. Now it was given the status of a Grand
Duchy with its own governor general reporting directly to the Tsar in
St. Petersburg. Tsar Alexander I created the Finnish state giving Finland
extensive autonomy. All administration relating to Finland was handled
by the Tsar, effectively cutting out the Russian authorities. Alexander
II maintained this state of affairs and under such liberal government
the Finnish national movement gathered momentum, working hard to make
Finnish an official language alongside Swedish. Alexander acquiesced and
in 1863 made Finnish an official administrative language. With the convening
of the Finnish diet in the same year active legislative work began.
So much autonomy had not gone unnoticed within Russian nationalist circles
which were gaining increasing influence. Although part of the Russian
empire, the Grand Duchy of Finland enjoyed extensive privileges which
had long been a sore point with Russian chauvinists. Finland had become
a state within a state, with its own senate and Diet, its own legislature,
army, money and postage stamps. On top of all this Finland even had its
own official border, separating it from the rest of the Russian empire.
Russian nationalists felt this was too much and so began the process of
the Russification of Finland between 1889 and 1917. The Finnish army,
formed in 1876 under legislation passed by the Finnish senate, was disbanded.
The Russians also began to take more control over Finnish administrative
matters, something that was to continue until, with their own domestic
revolution to deal with, there was a let up in pressure in 1917.
Independence and Civil War 1917 - 1939
Taking advantage of the revolution the Finnish senate, under the leadership
of Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, drew up a declaration of independence. The declaration
was ratified by parliament and for the first time in its history Finland
gained full independence on 6th December 1917. The transition was not
an easy one. A split between the political parties of the left and right
led to the left wing parties staging a coup at the end of January 1918
forcing the right wing government of Svinhufvud to flee to Vaasa in the
west of the country. From there they enlisted the help of a Finnish aristocrat,
Mannerheim, to help get rid of the socialists. Ironically Mannerheim had
learnt his skills as an officer in the Russian military and under his
command a new army was formed consisting of white Finns together
with some Swedish and Norwegian volunteers. The resulting civil war saw
8000 people being executed and a further 9000 socialists dying in internment
camps from disease and malnutrition. The war ended in victory for the
right but left a deep divide within Finnish society eventually healing
during the 1920's as economic prosperity returned and the country enjoyed
a period of stability, growth and reconciliation. Although the 1930's
depression was felt in Finland it had no real detrimental effect on the
economic growth of the country which was now starting to industrialize.
Unfortunately there were thunderclouds on the horizon. The War Years
1939 - 1945
The post civil war peace was to be shattered on 30th November 1939 when,
without warning, the Russians attacked from the East. It was the beginning
of the Winter War. Stalin, in order to better protect Leningrad decided
the border with Finland needed to be pushed back. The Finns, refusing
to give up their land voluntarily, were forced to fight. Thinking they
would win easily a poorly equipped and ill-prepared Russian army was fought
to a standstill in freezing temperatures of - 30c. Realising it wasnt
going to be the pushover he first imagined, Stalin sent in much better
equipped battalions. Greatly outnumbered and with little support from
the outside world the Finns fought on. Embarrassed by the inability of
his army to overcome the Finns and not wanting to face a Spring offensive
with the possibility of his forces getting bogged down in the thaw, becoming
an easy target, Stalin proposed a peace agreement. The Finns, down to
their last bullets, agreed, ceding a large part of Karelia in the east
of the country. It was to be a relatively short and uneasy peace.
In 1941 after the German thrust into Russia, the Finns, pushed into an
uneasy pact with Germany, saw an opportunity to regain the land lost in
1939. It was a decision that was to cost them dearly. The German Assault
on Stalingrad failed and the Russians were able to release men and equipment
to repel the Finnish attack. The Continuation war, as it became known,
raged until 1944. Finding themselves in an untenable position the Finns
once again sued for peace. The treaty, signed in Moscow, was to come with
a high price. As well as taking even more land the Russians demanded the
Finns force the Germans out of Finland within two weeks. During the ensuing
fighting almost all the major townships in Lapland were destroyed by the
Post War - The Kekkonen Era 1956 - 1981
Russian demands for war reparations were harsh but perhaps it was a blessing
in disguise. Finlands economy before the war had been based primarily
on agriculture. In order to repay the huge war reparations demanded of
them they had to industrialize virtually overnight. Their paper and engineering
industries grew at a phenomenal rate and Finland managed to repay everything
that was demanded in record time, something for which, even today, they
are justifiably proud.
With industry booming the Finnish economy continued to go from strength
to strength. The post war Bi-lateral trade agreement signed with Russia
turned an old adversary into an important trading partner accounting for
some 25% of all exports.
To say that during the post war period up until the late 1980's Finnish
foreign policy was based on the policies of its neighbour is not
untrue. Ever aware of the bear next door the Finns, under
President Urho Kekkonen, became adept at walking the tightrope between
appeasing their unpredictable and powerful neighbour while at the same
time ensuring their own safety and independence building ever-stronger
trading links with rest of the world.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the break up of the Soviet Union
Finland has become very much master of its own policies, both domestic
A strong, proud and stubborn people the Finns are, not surprisingly, sensitive
to their recent political history. Any inference that they were ever part,
or indeed a puppet of Russia, is something that is both untrue and better
left unsaid if a long lasting and successful relationship is desired.
Modern day Finns enjoy the benefits of their parents hard work.
With a health and welfare system bettered by no other in Western Europe,
Finland comes sixth in the United Nations world ranking for standards
of living. The first country in Europe to grant women the right to vote
in 1917 means that women enjoy a freedom and respect that is the envy
of many of their contemporaries in less enlightened societies. This belief
in the equality of the sexes is reflected in the number of women in the
workplace, currently 49% of the workforce. After the last elections in
1999, 200 out of a total of 500 members of parliament are now women. Equality
means that domestic and family chores are also shared. For example, it
would not be considered unusual, or impolite, for a business meeting to
be cut short as it is your hosts turn to pick up the children from
The recession of the early 90's provided the only blemish on a remarkable
record of post war economic and social progress. It introduced, for the
first time, the spectre of large-scale unemployment. From a low of 2%
in 1990 it had rocketed to an all time high of 18% by the end of 1992.
Despite large scale retraining programmes the figure still stands at 10.8%
of the total working population of 2.4 million. The pledge of the current
social democrat led coalition government is to reduce this figure to less
than 8% during their current term of office.
Since joining the EU in 1995 the economy has once again taken off. At
the forefront of the current boom is the communications giant Nokia. With
a GDP just above the EU average and unemployment falling the future looks
With an economy dominated by technology Finland has become a country of
technophiles. One of the most noticeable examples of this love affair
with all things technology driven is the mobile phone. With the highest
penetration of mobile phone users in the world do not be surprised to
see a child as young as six walking along while talking into the latest
offering from Nokia. He is probably checking what is for dinner, and whatever
it is, there is a strong possibility whoever is doing the cooking got
the recipe off the Internet!
© Ian Bowie 2001
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