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Ian Bowie - a potted history of Finland

Ancient History 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 Sweden’s 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 wasn’t 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 Germans.

Post War - The Kekkonen Era 1956 - 1981
Russian demands for war reparations were harsh but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Finland’s 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 and foreign.
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.

Finland Today
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 kinder garden.
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 bright.
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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