History of Finland


During the Viking Age (c. A.D. 800-1050), Swedish Vikings came into contact with the Finns in the course of their expeditions eastward, which were aimed at establishing, via Russia, trade ties with the Arab world, although they built no permanent settlements in Finland. The Finns' name for the Swedes, Rus, was derived from the Finnish word for Sweden, Ruotsi, and is believed to be the origin of the name Russia.

Swedish influence in Finland grew at approximately the close of the Viking Age, when the Swedes were converted to Christianity by the Roman Catholic Church and soon afterward began missionary activities in Finland. Most Finns were converted to the Roman Catholic Church about the mid-twelfth century, during the wave of crusades that began in 1095. A quasi-historical legend maintains that in 1157 a crusade was led against the polytheistic Finns by the Swedish King Erik IX and the English monk Henry, who had been appointed archbishop of Uppsala. According to tradition, Henry was martyred in Finland and was subsequently recognized as the country's patron saint. The success of the crusade was supposed to have given Sweden and Latin Christianity a solid foothold in Finland. There is no evidence of the crusade and Henry's role in it, however, and there are indications that Christian communities existed in Finland at an earlier date.

Meanwhile, the Russians, partly on religious grounds, also sought control of Finland. They had been converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and subsequently tried to convert the Finns to this religion. Finnic peoples in eastern Karelia were converted to Orthodoxy and were thereby drawn into a different religious and cultural orbit from Swedish-ruled, Roman Catholic Finns in the west.

About 1240, Rome sanctioned two crusades in an effort to push the frontier of Latin Christianity eastward. Swedish crusaders first invaded Russia along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, but they were halted in 1240 on the banks of the Neva River by Prince Alexander of Novgorod, who thereby earned the name Alexander Nevsky ("of the Neva"). The second crusade, spearheaded by the Teutonic Knights, followed the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland and was defeated by Alexander Nevsky in 1242 on the ice of Lake Peipus. The Swedes initiated a final attempt to wrest eastern Karelia from the Russians in 1293, but the thirty years of war that followed failed to dislodge the Russians from the region. The Peace of Pahkinasaari (Swedish, Nöteborg) in 1323, which ended this war, established the border between Finland and Russia that was maintained for nearly three hundred years.

Sweden consolidated its control over Finland gradually, in a process that was facilitated by the introduction of Swedish settlers along the southern and the western coasts of Finland. The settlers, most of whom remained in the coastal region, became a ruling class within Finland, and Finland was politically integrated into the Swedish realm.

Medieval Society and Economy

The late medieval period was marked by the expansion of settlements along the coast and into the interior. The Finns gradually conquered the wilderness to the north, moved into it, cleared the forest, and established agricultural communities. This settling of the wilderness caused conflict between the Finnish farmers and the Lapp reindeer herdsmen, forcing the Lapps slowly northward. By the end of the fifteenth century, the line of settlement was about 200 kilometers north of the Gulf of Finland, and it ran along most of the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, though less than 100 kilometers inland. The population of Finland likewise had grown slowly in this difficult environment; it numbered about 400,000 by the end of the Middle Ages.

The economy of medieval Finland was based on agriculture, but the brevity of the growing season, coupled with the paucity of good soil, required that farming be supplemented by hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. All but a small portion of the Finnish population earned their livelihood in this way.

Although the European institution of serfdom never existed in Finland, and although most of the farmers were freemen, they had little political power. Society and politics were dominated by a largely Swedish-speaking nobility. Finland was represented, however, in the Swedish Diet of the Four Estates (Riksdag)-- clergy, nobility, burghers, and farmers--that had advisory powers in relation to the king. The Finns also had some responsibility for matters of local justice and administration.

Catholicism was deeply rooted in medieval Finnish society. The church parishes doubled as units of local administration, and the church played the leading role in fostering an educated Finnish leadership and the development of the Finnish language. For example, the general requirement that parish priests use the indigenous language helped to maintain the speaking of Finnish. Turku (Swedish, Abo), encompassing the whole country, was the was diocese, and the bishop of Turku was the head of the Finnish church. In 1291 the first Finn was named bishop, and thereafter all incumbents were native-born.

The southwestern seaport city of Turku, the seat of the bishopric, became the administrative capital of Finland. Turku was also the center of Finland's mercantile life, which was dominated by German merchants of the Hanseatic League. Finland's main exports at this time were various furs; the trade in naval stores was just beginning. The only other city of importance at this time was Viipuri (Swedish, Vyborg), which was significant both as a Hanseatic trade center and as a military bastion that anchored Finland's eastern defenses against the Russians.

The Kalmar Union

Only once has Scandinavia been united politically, from 1397 to 1523 under the Danish crown. The Kalmar Union came into existence essentially to allow the three Scandinavian states of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway to present a united front against foreign--primarily German--encroachments. The driving force behind the union was Queen Margaret I of Denmark, who had gained the Norwegian crown by marriage and the Swedish crown by joining with the Swedish nobility against an unpopular German king.

Under the Kalmar Union, monarchs sought to expand royal power, an attempt that brought them into conflict with the nobles. The union eventually came apart as a result of antagonisms between the Danish monarchy and the Swedish nobility, which controlled both Sweden and Finland. Frequent warfare marked Danish-Swedish relations during these years, and there was also fighting between factions competing for the Swedish crown. As a result of the turmoil, Finland suffered from heavy taxation, the disruption of commerce, and the effects of warfare carried out on its soil.

The struggle between Denmark and Sweden diverted essential resources from Finland's eastern defenses and left them open to attack by the Muscovites. The late fifteenth century had witnessed the steady expansion of the power of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, which was eventually to become the basis for the Russian Empire. In 1478 Grand Duke Ivan III subdued Novgorod and thus brought Muscovite power directly to the border of Finland. In 1493 Denmark and Muscovy concluded a treaty of alliance aimed at embroiling Sweden in a two-front war, and in 1495 Muscovite forces invaded Finland. Although the fortress city of Viipuri held out, the Muscovites avoided the city, and, almost unchecked, devastated large areas of Finland's borderlands and interior. The Swedes made peace with Muscovy in 1497, and the borders of 1323 were reaffirmed, but the Swedish-Finnish nobility had to defend Finland without much direct assistance from Sweden.

A revolt, against the Kalmar Union, under the leadership of a Swedish noble named Gustav Vasa resulted in 1523 in the creation of a Swedish state separate from Denmark. Vasa became king of Sweden, as Gustav I Vasa, and he founded a dynasty that ruled Sweden-Finland for more than a century. He was generally credited with establishing the modern Swedish state. Under his rule, Finland remained integrated with the Swedish state, and the Swedish-Finnish nobility retained its primacy over local affairs.

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther initiated in Germany in 1517 spread quickly to other countries. German merchants, students, and missionaries soon brought Lutheran doctrines to Scandinavia, where for centuries German influence had been strong, and where, moreover, there was some receptivity to the new doctrines. By the time Luther died in 1546, Lutheranism was firmly implanted in the Scandinavian countries. Sweden-Finland converted to Lutheranism largely through the efforts of Gustav I Vasa, who acted mainly for political reasons, especially in order to strengthen the monarchy. The decisive break with Rome took place in 1527 at the Riksdag held at VasterAs. This acceptance of Lutheranism enabled Gustav I Vasa, with the help of the aristocracy, to break the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, which had stood in the way of his desire for a stronger centralized state. The confiscation of Church properties that accompanied the Reformation also provided an enormous economic windfall for both the aristocracy and the monarchy. Before the Reformation, the Church had owned about onefifth of the land in Sweden.

In Finland there was little popular demand for the Reformation because more than 90 percent of the homesteads were owned by the farmers, and the Church, which owned less than 10 percent, used most of its income to support schools and charities. Lutheranism was instituted without serious opposition, nevertheless. In part, this was attributable to the gradual and cautious manner in which Lutherans replaced Roman Catholic doctrines while retaining many Catholic customs and practices. The Lutheran Church was not firmly established finally until 1598, when the last Catholic king of Sweden-Finland, Sigismund, was driven from the throne.

The outstanding ecclesiastical figure of the Reformation in Finland was Mikael Agricola (1506-1557), who exerted a great influence on the subsequent development of the country. Agricola had studied under Luther at Wittenberg, and, recognizing the centrality of the Bible in the Reformation, he undertook to translate the Bible into Finnish. Agricola's translation of the New Testament was published in 1548. He wrote other religious works and translated parts of the Old Testament as well. Because Finnish had not appeared previously in print, Agricola is regarded as the father of the Finnish literary language. After 1554 he served as the bishop of Turku, the highest office of the Finnish church.

The Reformation brought two educational benefits to Finland. Its emphasis on religious instruction in the vernacular languages supported an increase in literacy, especially after the Ecclesiastical Law of 1686 had confirmed royal control over the Lutheran Church of Sweden-Finland and had charged it with teaching the catechism to each church member. Another benefit of the Reformation was the founding of Abo Academy in 1640 to provide theological training for Finnish clergymen. Abo Academy was the precursor of the University of Helsinki, which later became the center of higher education in Finland and the focus of Finland's cultural life.

Finland and the Swedish Empire

During his reign, Gustav I Vasa concentrated on consolidating royal power in the dynasty that he had founded and on furthering the aims of the Reformation. In the process, he molded Sweden into a great power, but he wisely avoided involvement in foreign wars. His successors, however, sought, through an aggressive foreign policy, to expand Sweden's power in the Baltic area. This policy produced some ephemeral successes, and it led to the creation of a Swedish empire on the eastern and the southern shores of the Baltic Sea.

Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, Sweden's ambitious foreign policy brought it into conflict with the three other main powers that had an interest in the Baltic: Denmark, Poland, and Russia. These three powers fought numerous wars with Sweden, which was at war for more than 80 of the last 300 years it ruled Finland. Finland itself was often the scene of military campaigns that were generally conducted as total war and thus included the devastation of the countryside and the killing of civilians. One example of such campaigns was the war between Sweden and Russia that lasted from 1570 to 1595 and was known in Finland as the Long Wrath, because of the devastations inflicted on the country. Sweden was also heavily involved in the Thirty Years' War (1618- 48), in which the Swedes under King Gustavus II Adolphus thwarted the advance of the Habsburg Empire to the shores of the Baltic and thereby secured the Swedish possessions there. Finnish troops were conscripted in great numbers into the Swedish army to fight in this or in other wars, and the Finns often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The Great Northern War began in 1700 when Denmark, Poland, and Russia formed an alliance to take advantage of Sweden's apparent weakness at that time and to partition the Swedish empire. Sweden's youthful king Charles XII surprised them, however, with a series of military victories that knocked Denmark out of the war in 1700 and Poland, in 1706. The impetuous Swedish king then marched on Moscow, but he met disaster at the battle of Poltava in 1709. As a result, Denmark and Poland rejoined the war against Sweden. Charles attempted to compensate for Sweden's territorial losses in the Baltic by conquering Norway, but he was killed in action there in 1718. His death removed the main obstacle to a negotiated peace between Sweden and the alliance.

The Great Northern War ended on August 30, 1721, with the signing of the Peace of Uusikaupunki (Swedish, Nystad), by which Sweden ceded most of its territories on the southern and the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Sweden was also forced to pay a large indemnity to Russia, and, in return, the Russians evacuated Finland, retaining only some territory along Finland's southeastern border. This area included the fortress city of Viipuri. As a result of the war, Sweden's power was much reduced, and Russia replaced Sweden as the main power in the Baltic.

Finland's ability to defend itself had been impaired by the famine of 1696 in which about one-third of the Finnish people died of starvation, a toll greater than that caused by the Black Death in the fourteenth century. The war's greatest impact on Finland, beyond the heavy taxes and conscription, was caused by Russian occupation from 1714 to 1722, a period of great difficulty, remembered by the Finns as the Great Wrath. The hardships of being conquered by a foreign invader were compounded by Charles XII's insistence that the Finns carry on partisan warfare against the Russians. Much of the countryside was devastated by the Russians in order to deny Finland's resources to Sweden. Of the nearly 60,000 Finns who served in the Swedish army, only about 10,000 survived the Great Northern War. Finland's prewar population of 400,000 was reduced by the end of the war to about 330,000.

Charles XII's policies led to the repudiation of absolute monarchy in Sweden and to the ushering in of a half-century of parliamentary supremacy, referred to as the Age of Freedom. One major characteristic of this era was the strife between the two major political parties, the Hats, representing the upper classes, and the Caps, representing the lower classes. These political parties, however, proved no more competent in the realm of foreign affairs than the kings. In 1741 the Hats led Sweden into a war with Russia in order to try to undo the result of the Peace of Uusikaupunki. Russian forces thereupon invaded Finland and began, virtually without a fight, a short-lived occupation known as the Lesser Wrath. In accordance with the Peace of Turku signed in 1743, Russia once again evacuated Finland, but took another slice of Finnish territory along the southeastern frontier.

King Gustav III, who in 1772 had reimposed absolutism in Sweden, also tried to alter the verdict of the Great Northern War. In 1788 Sweden declared war against Russia with the intention of regaining territory along Finland's eastern frontier. A significant incident during that war was the mutiny of a group of Finnish military officers, the Anjala League, the members of which, hoped to avert Russian revenge against Finland. A leading figure in the mutiny was a former colonel in the Swedish army, Göran Sprengtporten. Most Finnish officers did not support the mutiny, which was promptly put down, but an increasing number of Finns, especially Finnish nobles, were weary of Finland's serving as a battleground between Sweden and Russia. Because of Russia's simultaneous involvement in a war with the Ottoman Empire, Sweden was able to secure a settlement in 1790 in the Treaty of Varala, which ended the war without altering Finland's boundaries.

Sweden's frequent wars were expensive, and they led to increased taxation, among other measures for augmenting state revenues. A system of government controls on the economy, or mercantilism, was imposed on both Sweden and Finland, whereby the Finnish economy was exploited for the benefit of Sweden. In addition to hindering Finland's economic development, Sweden's wars enabled Swedish aristocrats and military officers to gain large estates in Finland as a reward for their services. The Swedish-speaking minority dominated landholding, government, and the military. Although free of serfdom, peasants paid high taxes, and they had to perform labor for the government. Through the provincial assemblies, the peasants retained a small measure of political power, but the Swedish-speaking nobility held most political and economic power in Finland.

Throughout this period, the peasantry continued to be the backbone of Finland's predominantly agrarian society. The frontier was pushed northward as new stretches of inland wilderness were settled. The potato was introduced into Finnish agriculture in the 1730s, and it helped to ensure a stable food supply. Although Finland's trade in naval stores--timber, tar, pitch, resin--was expanded considerably, the growth of an indigenous Finnish middle class was retarded by the continuing dominance of foreign merchants, especially the Germans and the Dutch.

The centuries-old union between Sweden and Finland came to an end during the Napoleonic wars. France and Russia became allies in 1807 at Tilsit, and Napoleon subsequently urged Russia to force Sweden into joining them against Britain. Tsar Alexander I obliged by invading Finland in 1808, and, after overwhelming Sweden's poorly-organized defenses, he conquered Finland in 1809. Sweden formally ceded Finland to Russia by the Treaty of Hamina (Swedish, Fredrikshamn) on September 17, 1809.

Finland History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress