History of Finland


Russia planned at first to annex Finland directly as a province of the Russian Empire, but in order to overcome the Finns' misgivings about Russian rule, Tsar Alexander I offered them the following solution. Finland was not annexed to the Russian Empire but was joined to Russia instead through the person of the tsar. In addition, Finland was made an autonomous state--the Grand Duchy of Finland--with its inherited traditions intact. Thus the laws and constitution of Finland remained unchanged, and the tsar took the place of the Swedish king as sovereign. The official forms of government inherited from the era of Swedish absolutism were sufficiently autocratic to allow the tsar to accept them largely intact; however, included in these forms of government was the comprehensive law code of 1734 that protected individual rights. Imperial assurances that Finland would be autonomous and that its traditions would be respected were encoded in two 1809 decrees that constituted for the Finns the basis of their relationship with Russia. The Finnish Diet that met at Porvoo (Swedish, BorgA) in 1809 seconded the tsar's decrees. As a further gesture of magnanimity, in 1812 the tsar restored to Finland the lands Russia had annexed in the eighteenth century. These conciliatory measures were effective, and, as long as Russia respected this arrangement, the Finns proved to be loyal subjects of the Russian Empire.

According to the terms of the agreement reached between the Diet and the tsar, the government of Finland was directly controlled by the tsar, who appointed a governor general as his advisor. With one brief exception, all of the governors general were Russian. The first governor general was the Swedish-Finn Göran Sprengtporten, who was ably assisted by the prominent Swedish-Finn politician, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. The chief instrument of government in the grand duchy was the Government Council, renamed in 1816 the Senate, which was composed of fourteen Finns appointed by the tsar. The counterpart of the Senate in St. Petersburg was the Committee for Finnish Affairs, composed of Finns, which presented Finnish requests to the tsar; however, Finnish civil servants usually carried on the business of government with little interference from the tsarist government in St. Petersburg. The Diet was formally the lawmaking body of the government; it could not initiate legislation, however, but could only petition the tsar to introduce legislation. The tsar, moreover, could summon and could dismiss the Senate without reference to the Diet. There was an independent judicial system. Finland even maintained its own customs system, and taxes collected in Finland remained in the country. Finns were exempted from conscription into the Russian army.

Despite these safeguards, Finland still felt the autocracy of the tsar. The Finnish Diet was dismissed in 1809, and it was not reconvened for more than fifty years. Although the government of the grand duchy represented an uneasy balance between the traditions of Finnish self-government and those of Russian autocracy, as long as the Russians respected the balance, the Finnish people were satisfied. The period of Russian rule was characterized by peaceful internal development, largely because, for the first time in centuries, Finland was free of war.

The Rise of Finnish Nationalism

The eighteenth century had witnessed the appearance of embryonic Finnish nationalism. Originating as an academic movement, it incorporated the study of linguistics, folklore, and history, which helped to establish a sense of national identity for the Finnish people. The leading figure of this movement was professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan of the University of Turku. The work of Porthan and others was an expression of the Finns' growing doubts about Swedish rule, and it prefigured the rise of Finnish nationalism in the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, Finland witnessed the rise of not one but two national movements: Finnish-language nationalism and Swedish-language nationalism. The creation of the independent Finnish state in the twentieth century was made possible in large part by these nationalist movements.

Finnish-language nationalism arose in the nineteenth century, in part as a reaction against the dominance of the Swedish language in Finland's cultural and political life. The ethnic self-consciousness of Finnish speakers was given a considerable boost by the Russian conquest of Finland in 1809, because ending the connection with Sweden forced Finns to define themselves with respect to the Russians. At first the Russian government generally supported Finnish linguistic nationalism, seeing it as a way to alienate the Finns from Sweden and thereby to preclude any movement toward reintegration. For the same reason, the Russians in 1812 moved the capital of Finland from Turku to Helsinki, bringing it closer to St. Petersburg. Similarly, after a catastrophic fire in Turku, the University of Turku was moved to Helsinki in 1827. The University of Helsinki soon became the center of the Finnish nationalist movement. Finnish-language nationalism, or the Fennoman movement, became the most powerful political force in nineteenth-century Finland. A famous phrase of uncertain origin that was coined in the early nineteenth century summed up Finnish feelings as follows: "We are no longer Swedes; we cannot become Russians; we must be Finns."

The leading Finnish nationalist spokesman was Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-81), who saw increasing the use of the Finnish language as a way for Finland to avoid assimilation by Russia. Snellman stressed the importance of literature in fostering national consciousness; until the nineteenth century, however, there had been almost nothing published in Finnish except for religious works. The publication in 1835 of the Kalevala, the Finnish folk epic, filled the void, and in the late twentieth century the Kalevala continued to be the single most important work of Finnish literature. Its author was a country doctor named Elias Lönnrot, who, while practicing medicine along Finland's eastern border, compiled hundreds of folk ballads that he wove together into an epic poem of nearly 23,000 lines. In the years following the publication of the Kalevala, numerous other works of Finnish literature were published. Of special importance was the work of the Swedish-language poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77), who authored a collection of poems called The Tales of Ensign StAl. The first poem of the cycle, called "Our Land," was soon set to music, and it became the national anthem of Finland.

The growth of the militant and increasingly powerful Fennoman movement threatened the traditional dominance of the Swedish speakers in Finland, who reacted by forming a Swedish-speaking nationalist countermovement, the Svecoman movement. The main idea of the Svecomans was that the Swedish-speakers of Finland were a separate nation from the Finnish-speakers and needed to preserve their Swedish language and culture. The Svecomans became a small but powerful political movement that won the backing of much of the Swedish-speaking community in Finland.

A third political faction at this time was the short-lived Liberal Party. This party sought to obtain reforms for Finland, especially freedom of the press, greater self-government, and increased economic freedom. It was split, however, by the growing language controversy, and most of its members were absorbed into either the Fennomans or the Svecomans.

Emerging as a debate among educated Finns, the nationalist movement reached ever wider circles of the Finnish people in succeeding decades in the nineteenth century. Major breakthroughs for the Finnish-language movement were made possible by Russia's humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56), which opened up an era of reform in Russia. For example, in 1858 Finnish was established as the language of local self-government in those administrative districts where it was spoken by the majority of the inhabitants.

When Poland revolted in 1863, the Finns remained at peace, and the Russian government showed its gratitude by granting the Finns two major imperial edicts. The first summoned the Finnish Diet for the first time since 1809, an event that had long-term repercussions. The Diet enacted legislation establishing a separate Finnish monetary system and creating a separate Finnish army. The subsequent regular meetings of the Diet gave the Finns valuable experience in parliamentary politics. The second edict of 1863 was the Language Ordinance, which over a period of twenty years gave the Finnish language a status equal to that of Swedish in official business. Although Swedish speakers found ways of blocking the full implementation of the Language Ordinance, it still made possible a vast expansion of the Finnish language school system. Ultimately, the Language Ordinance led to the creation of an educated class of Finnish speakers, who provided articulate mass support for the nationalist cause.

Social and Economic Developments

Over the centuries, Finland underwent various political changes, but its society and economy remained fairly static. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Finland was a predominantly agrarian country; about 90 percent of its population was engaged in farming. The scourges of war and famine had kept down the population, which in 1811 numbered just 1 million, only about 4 percent of which lived in cities.

Except for some copper, Finland was without important mineral deposits. During the nineteenth century, its sole natural resource was timber, and this became to be the basis on which industrialization was launched. By the mid-nineteenth century, wood was beginning to be in short supply in Central Europe and in Western Europe, but at the same time it was needed in unprecedented quantities for railroad ties, mineshaft supports, construction, and paper production. Finland thus found a ready and expanding market for its wood.

The development of the lumber industry was retarded for a time, however, by the lack of a modern economic infrastructure. Into the breach stepped the Finnish government, which promulgated a number of measures aimed at creating the needed infrastructure. Railroads and inland waterways were developed, beginning in the 1850s and the 1860s, to connect the interior of the country with the coast; and harbor facilities were built that, through merchant shipping, connected Finland with the rest of the world. In addition, the Bank of Finland and the monetary system were reorganized, antiquated laws restricting economic activity were repealed, and tariff duties on many items were reduced or were abolished; thus, the Finnish government promoted industrialization and general progress in Finland.

The 1860s and the 1870s witnessed a tremendous boom in the Finnish lumber industry, which put Finland on the road to industrialization. Between then and 1914, the lumber industry spawned a number of associated industries for the production of wood pulp, paper, matches, cellulose, and plywood. The profits earned in these industries led in turn to the creation of numerous other enterprises that produced, among other things, textiles, cement, and metal products. Finland's leading trading partner by 1910 was Germany, followed by Russia and Britain. The trade in lumber products also stimulated the rise of a relatively large and modern Finnish merchant marine, which, after 1900, carried about half of Finland's foreign trade. Meanwhile, however, the steady conversion of merchant shipping from woodenhulled sailing ships to iron-hulled and steel-hulled steamships curtailed Finland's traditional export of naval stores.

The growth of industry was accompanied by the emergence of an urban working class. As in early industrialization elsewhere, the living and working conditions of the new industrial laborers were poor, and these laborers sought to improve their situation through trade unions. Trade unions were legalized in 1883, and soon a number of them were established, including, in 1907, a national trade union organization, the Finnish Trade Union Federation (Suomen Ammattijarjestö--SAJ). Workers founded a political party in 1899 to represent them in the Diet, and in 1903 it was renamed the Finnish Social Democratic Party (Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue--SDP). By the elections of 1907, the SDP was already the largest single party in politics. Both the SAJ and the SDP were heavily influenced by their counterparts in Germany, and, as a consequence, their doctrines had a pronounced Marxist character. The SDP grew even more radical, in part because of the resistance of the middle class parties to virtually all aspects of social reform, but also because of its strict adherence to the Marxist dogma of class conflict. One example of its radicalism was its persistent unwillingness to cooperate with any of the other political parties. Another was its program, which began in 1911 to change from upholding the right of farmers to own their own land to demanding that land be nationalized--a change that cost the SDP most of its support among agricultural laborers.

In spite of industrialization, Finland in the early twentieth century was still predominantly an agrarian state. Agriculture also had undergone modernization, however, a process that had had a significant impact on Finland. The introduction of the potato in the eighteenth century had significantly reduced the threat of famine; the gradual introduction of scientific agricultural techniques during the nineteenth century had brought about further increases in productivity.

The ultimate consequence of this increased agricultural productivity was a significant increase of the population from 865,000 in 1810 to 2,950,000 in 1910. Some of this surplus rural population was absorbed by the growing urban factory centers, but the rest of these people were forced to stay on the land. Because the amount of arable land in Finland was limited, about twothirds or more of the agricultural population was relegated to the status of tenant farmers and landless agricultural laborers. These people's lives were precarious because of their large numbers and their dependence on the vagaries of the harvests. The tsarist government did little on their behalf, and the Diet, which was dominated by middle-class interests, showed no great concern for them. As a result, from about 1870 to 1920, approximately 380,000 people left Finland, more than 90 percent of them for the United States. Of those remaining in Finland, many were initially attracted by the SDP, until its pronounced atheistic outlook and its aim of nationalizing land alienated them. A program of land reform, begun after independence, eventually integrated these agricultural laborers into the Finnish economy.

One expression of popular discontent with the status quo during the nineteenth century was the rise of religious movements that challenged the formalistic and rationalistic Lutheran state church. Of special significance was the Pietist movement, in which the farmer-evangelist Paavo Ruotsalainen (1777-1852) was the most important figure. The Pietists popularized the notion of personal religion, an idea that appealed to the agrarian population. Pietism eventually had much influence within the Lutheran Church of Finland; it was also influential among Finnish emigrants to the United States, where, among other things, it provided an effective counterweight to Finnish political radicalism.

The Era of Russification

The Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century faced a number of seemingly intractable problems associated with its general backwardness. At the same time, ethnocentric, authoritarian Russian nationalism was on the rise, as manifested both in an aggressive foreign policy and in a growing intolerance of non-Russian minorities within the empire. The Russian government began implementing a program of Russification that included the imposition of the Russian language in schools and in governmental administration. The goal of these measures was to bring non-Russian peoples into the Russian cultural sphere and under more direct political control. Poles bore the brunt of the Russification policies, but eventually other non-Russian peoples also began to feel its pressure.

Russian nationalists considered the autonomous state of Finland an anomaly in an empire that strove to be a unified autocratic state; furthermore, by the 1890s Russian nationalists had several reasons to favor the Russification of Finland. First, continued suspicions about Finnish separatism gained plausibility with the rise of Finnish nationalism. Second, Finnish commercial competition began in the 1880s. Third, Russia feared that Germany might capitalize on its considerable influence in Sweden to use Finland as a staging base for an invasion of Russia. The Russian government was concerned especially for the security of St. Petersburg. Fourth, there was a growing desire that the Finns, who enjoyed the protection of the Russian Empire, should contribute to that protection by allowing the conscription of Finnish youths into the Russian army. These military considerations were decisive in leading the tsarist government to implement Russification, and it was a Russian military officer, Nikolai Ivanovich Bobrikov, who, in October 1898, became the new governor-general and the eventual instrument of the policy.

The first major measure of Russification was the February Manifesto of 1899, an imperial decree that asserted the right of the tsarist government to rule Finland without consulting either the Finnish Senate or the Diet. This decree relegated Finland to the status of the other provinces of the Russian Empire, and it cleared the way for further Russification. The response of the Finns was swift and overwhelming. Protest petitions circulated rapidly throughout Finland, and they gathered more than 500,000 signatures. In March 1899, these petitions were collected, and they were submitted to the tsar, who chose to ignore this so- called Great Address. The February Manifesto was followed by the Language Manifesto of 1900, which was aimed at making Russian the main administrative language in government offices.

In spite of the impressive show of unity displayed in the Great Address, the Finns were divided over how to respond to Russification. Those most opposed to Russification were the Constitutionalists, who stressed their adherence to Finland's traditional system of government and their desire to have it respected by the Russian government. The Constitutionalists formed a political front that included a group of Finnish speakers, called the Young Finns, and most Swedish speakers. Another party of Finnish speakers, called the Old Finns, represented those who were tempted to comply with Russification, partly out of a recognition of their own powerlessness and partly out of a desire to use the Russians to undermine the influence of Swedish speakers in Finland. These Finns were also called Compliants, but by 1910 the increasingly unreasonable demands of the tsarist government showed their position to be untenable. The SDP favored the Constitutionalists, insolar as it favored any middle-class party.

The measure that transformed Finnish resistance into a mass movement was the new conscription law promulgated by the tsar in July 1901. On the basis of the February Manifesto, the tsar enacted a law for Finland that dramatically altered the nature of the Finnish army. Established originally as an independent army with the sole mission of defending Finland, the Finnish army was now incorporated into the Russian army and was made available for action anywhere. Again the Finns responded with a massive petition containing about half a million signatures, and again it was ignored by the tsar; however, this time the Finns did not let matters rest with a petition, but rather followed it up with a campaign of passive resistance. Finnish men eligible for conscription were first called up under the new law in 1902, but they responded with the so-called Army Strike--only about half of them reported for duty. The proportion of eligible Finns complying with the draft rose in 1903, however, from about half to two-thirds and, in 1904, to about four-fifths. The high incidence of non-compliance nevertheless convinced the Russian military command that the Finns were unreliable for military purposes, and, as a consequence, the Finns were released from military service in return for the levy of an extra tax, which they were to pay to the imperial government.

The Finns' victory in the matter of conscription was not achieved until the revolution of 1905 in Russia. In the meantime, the Russian government had resorted to repressive measures against the Finns. They had purged the Finnish civil service of opponents of Russification; they had expanded censorship; and, in April 1903, they had granted dictatorial powers to Governor- General Bobrikov. These years also witnessed the growth of an active and conspiratorial resistance to Russification, called the Kagal after a similar Jewish resistance organization in Russia. In June 1904, the active resistance succeeded in assassinating Bobrikov, and his death brought a lessening of the pressure on Finland.

The first era of Russification came to an end with the outbreak of revolution in Russia. The general strike that began in Russia in October 1905 spread quickly to Finland and led there, as in Russia, to the assumption of most real power by the local strike committees. As in Russia, the revolutionary situation was defused quickly by the sweeping reforms promised in the tsar's October Manifesto, which for the Finns suspended, but did not rescind, the February Manifesto, the conscription law, and Bobrikov's dictatorial measures.

In 1906, the tsar proposed that the antiquated Finnish Diet be replaced by a modern, unicameral parliament. The Finns accepted the proposal, and the Eduskunta was created. Also included in the tsar's proposal was the provision that the parliament be elected by universal suffrage, a plan that the Finns accepted, thanks to the spirit of national solidarity they had gained through the struggle against Russification. The number of eligible voters was increased thereby from 125,000 to 1,125,000, and Finland became the second country, after New Zealand, to allow women to vote. When the new parliament met in 1907, the SDP was the largest single party, with 80 of 200 seats.

Partly out of frustration that the revolution of 1905 had not accomplished more, the Finnish SDP became increasingly radical. Foreshadowing the civil War, the short-lived revolutionary period also brought about, in 1906, the first armed clash between the private armies of the workers (Red Guard) and the middle classes (Civil Guard or White Guard). Thus the Finns were increasingly united in their opposition to Russification, but they were split on other major issues.

By 1908 the Russian government had recovered its confidence sufficiently to resume the program of Russification, and in 1910 Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin easily persuaded the Russian parliament, the Duma, to pass a law that ended most aspects of Finnish autonomy. By 1914 the Finnish constitution had been greatly weakened, and Finland was ruled from St. Petersburg as a subject province of the empire.

The outbreak of the World War I had no immediate effects on Finland because Finns--except for a number of Finnish officers in the Russian army--did not fight in it, and Finland itself was not the scene of fighting. Finland suffered from the war in a variety of ways, nevertheless. Cut off from overseas markets, Finland's primary industry--lumber--experienced a severe decline, with layoffs of many workers. Some of the unemployed were absorbed by increased production in the metal-working industry, and others found work constructing fortifications in Finland. By 1917 shortages of food had become a major problem, contributing further to the distress of Finnish workers. In addition, sizable contingents of the Russian army and navy were stationed in Finland. These forces were intended to prevent a German incursion through Finland, and by 1917 they numbered more than 100,000 men. The Finns disliked having so many Russians in their country, and all of this discontent played into the hands of the SDP, the main opposition party, which in the 1916 parliamentary elections won 103 of 200 seats in the Eduskunta--an absolute majority.

There were no longer any doubts about Russia's long-term objectives for Finland after November 1914, when the Finnish press published the Russian government's secret program for the complete Russification of Finland. Germany appeared as the only power capable of helping Finland, and many Finns thus hoped that Germany would win the war, seeing in Russia's defeat the best means of obtaining independence. The German leadership, for its part, hoped to further its war effort against Russia by aiding the Finns. In 1915, about 2,000 young Finns began receiving military training in Germany. Organized in a jaeger (light infantry) battalion, these Finns saw action on the eastern front.

By 1917, despite the divisions among the Finns, there was an emerging unanimity that Finland must achieve its independence from Russia. Then in March 1917, revolution broke out in Russia, the tsar abdicated, and within a few days the revolution spread to Finland. The tsarist regime had been discredited by its failures and had been toppled by revolutionary means, but it was not yet clear what would take its place.

Finland History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress