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Torn asunder – of Finland and its history

Finland Albert_Edelfelt_-_Kaukola_Ridge_at_Sunset_-_Google_Art_Project
Finland, land of lakes

So I was taking the opportunity of a lull in the meeting to bore my colleagues with yet another historical tidbit. Okay, maybe not bore, as I do try to present my favourite moments in history in an entertaining manner, involving a lot of posturing, multiple voices and general enthusiasm, but in a group of people not all that interested in history this mainly leads to amused smiles rather than a riveted audience. But what can I say? I take it as my personal mission to do some educating…

One of my colleagues is from Finland. Now Finland doesn’t feature much on my historical radar – there is also an element of embarrassment for me as a Swede to delve too deeply into a history that will, per definition, include a series of atrocities perpetrated by the crusading Swedes on the Finnish people. Sweden conquered Finland in the 12th – 13th century, this under the pretext of bringing Christianity to the heathen savages who lived in the Finnish forests. (Not so sure they were all that heathen – or savages.)

All this Swedish aggression still rankles in Finnish minds. I recall an incident several years ago when I was working for a Finnish multinational. We were visiting a production facility in a town called Kauttua (land in Turku, get a car, drive two hours straight into the never-ending woods, and there is Kauttua) when one of my Finnish colleagues pointed at the lake spread before us and said, “That’s where we murdered those three bishops. Drowned them. Serve them right, Swedish bastards that they were.” Err… at the time, I was sitting stark naked in a sauna, surrounded by Finnish people gripping bundles of birch twigs (used to whip the dirt off your body while in the sauna). Somewhat intimidating…

Anyway, my present day Finnish colleague suggested I write about Eugen Shauman or Alexandra Gripenberg.
“Ah,” I replied trying to sound as if I knew exactly who he was talking about. To be able to look knowledgeable while clueless is a valuable skill in the world of business, and one I have become quite good at.My colleague was not taken in. He grinned, bright blue eyes sparkling.
“You’ve never heard of them, have you?”
No, I admitted.
“So read up,” he suggested. Which, dear people, I have now done.

Finland’s history is intimately entwined with that of Sweden and Russia. As stated above, Sweden sent off crusaders in the 13th century, but the interaction between the countries stretch back much farther in time. While Sweden wanted to annex Finland as an eastern outpost, the Kingdom of Novgorod was just as keen to expand their territory west, using Finland as a western outpost. Obviously, the poor Finns were caught in between.

Finland Hertig_Karl_skymfande_svartvit
Swedish aggression, 16th century style

Initially, the Swedes were successful. In the name of God, Finland was brought to the Swedish crown and was to remain Swedish for very many centuries. Swedish noblemen were granted Finnish land, Swedish clerics moved to spread the word of God (in Swedish, mainly) to Finland. Obstinate Finns were forcibly relocated elsewhere – like in the wilds of Sweden. The use of Finnish was not encouraged, and overtime, the Finnish society coagulated into an upper class who spoke Swedish and no Finnish, and a lower class who spoke only Finnish and resented their Swedish overlords. Duh…

As an aside, even today, there is a large minority of Finnish people whose mother tongue is Swedish. Some of the best Swedish language literature has been written by Finnish people – and especially the poets combine the lyrical aspects of the Swedish language with the stark and uncompromising character of the Finnish people, resulting in immortal poetry. Neither here nor there, but as I write this, my tongue curls itself round lines like “Röd-Eemeli föddes i torpets bastu:smuts och gråt” (“Red Emil was born in the croft’s sauna; dirt and tears” from Röd Eemeli by Diktonious) or “Du sökte en kvinna och fann en själ – du är besviken” (“You searched for a woman and found a soul – you are disappointed” from Dagen Svalnar by Edith Södergran)

Tsar Peter, looking to the west

Back to our abbreviated history lesson: as many of you may know, the Swedish empire reached its largest extension in the 17th century and began to crumble rapidly after that. To the east, the Kingdom of Novgorod had been gobbled up by Russia, and this larger, stronger Russia had aspirations – to the west. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, defeated the hitherto so powerful Swedish Army at Poltava (for a related post, go here) and during the first few decades of the 18th century Finland was one massive, bloody battlefield, leaving it split in two (the Russians annexed the south-eastern part) and severely depopulated, seeing as more than half of the population had died due to war and pillage.

Finland Raatajat_rahanalaiset
Suffering peasants – look at the little girl!

The 18th century in Finland was pretty bleak. The Russians invaded and plundered, the Swedish/Finnish armies fought back, and the ones who paid the price were the people. Our Finnish friends were not happy. Centuries of oppression coupled with decades of warfare awakened a desire among the Finns to control their own destiny, become independent. Groups of intellectuals began talking about the Finnish identity, the importance of preserving the Finnish language and heritage.

Finland 800px-Edelfelt_Koivujen_alla_1881
Among Finnish birches

In 1809, Sweden lost the rest of Finland to Russia, and the country of a thousand lakes and birches became an Imperial fief – a Grand Duchy, no less.  Not, in the opinion of many Finnish people, an entirely bad thing. St Petersburg was a much bigger draw than the provincial backwater of Stockholm, and the Russians allowed the Finns to keep a number of their laws, such as those guaranteeing the peasants remained freeholders rather than serfs as was common in the rest of Russia. Plus Alexander I was quite okay with leaving local legislation in general up to the Finnish parliament. And yet… That desire to become truly independent grew successively stronger.

Finland Alexander_I_of_Russia_by_F.Kruger_(1837,_Hermitage)
Tsar Alexander I

It all started with the language. In the 19th century, groups of Swedish-speaking Finns began to actively promote the Finnish language, this as a means of creating a common bond between them (mostly upper class)  and the Finnish speaking peasantry. At the time, Finnish as a language had no official status. It was Swedish or Russian, full stop. Very quickly, the Fennoman movement (i.e. promoting everything Finnish) took hold. In 1834, the Kalevala was published, a collection of Finnish myths harkening back to a very distant past. In the late 19th century, after insistent lobbying, Finnish was at last granted the status of official language.

That itch for independence was becoming a rash. The Finnish people, now cleverly united behind a common language, (although truth be told very many of the Swedish-speakers would never lower themselves to speak Finnish) began to dream of a free Finland. Dangerous dreams if you’re part of the Russian empire, and those too vocal often ended up imprisoned.

Finland Eugen_schauman
Eugen Schauman

At this point in time, I think I must introduce Eugen Schauman, still today considered one of Finland’s foremost heroes. This was a man destined to live a very short life, ablaze with Finnish patriotism. Yet another of those Swedish-speaking Finns, he took it upon himself to rid Finland of its Russian General-Governor, Nikolai Bobrikov, appointed in 1898. Bobrikov was not a major Finland fan. In fact, he considered Finland to be a borderline enemy state, and all this Fennomanism, all this liberal spouting about Finnish roots and culture, had him seeing red. No, Bobrikov decided, it was about time the rebellious Finns were brought to heel, which is why he urged the Tsar to sign the February Manifesto in 1899.

Finland Nikolai_Bobrikov
Nikolai Bobrikov

Just like that, several of the rights and liberties hitherto enjoyed by the Finnish people became null and void.  The period in time labelled by the Finns as the first “Years of Oppression” had begun. Russian became the official language, Russian was to be taught in schools, Russian laws were to take precedence over Finnish laws, and the Finnish army was to be abolished, all those serving in it to be sucked up into the Imperial Russian Army. Conscripted Finnish men were sent off to distant parts of the Russian empire to serve, so as to knock the Finnishness out of them.

Not, in brief, a good time to be Finnish – or a Fennoman. Half a million Finnish people signed a petition to the Tsar, begging him to revoke the manifesto. The Tsar didn’t even deign to receive the delegation. (This, BTW, is of course the same Tsar who was to die in Yekaterinburg) . And as to Bobrikov, he became the most hated man in Finland. So hated, that several undercover groups planned to murder him. The task to do so, however, went to the young volunteer Eugen Schauman.

Eugen had so far in his life shown little inclination for fast-paced action, no matter that his mother had filled his head with nationalistic dreams of a free Finland. Born in 1875 in Charkov, Ukraine, Schauman belonged to a family with strong military traditions, but as he had impaired hearing the army was not an option. Instead, he was urged to study, and despite his partial deafness managed to graduate (this in a day and age where a lot of the exams were verbal) with good grades. After some years at university, he became a clerk in the Finnish Administration, and spent his free time developing his athletic skills.

Eugen was a good  shot – he considered it necessary to be able to handle a gun to be able to defend his beloved Finland. He was also somewhat unfortunate in love, and there are those that believe his latest rejection drove him to his final desperate action. Whatever the case, Schauman utilised his position in the Senate to plan his attack. And on the 16th of June 1904, at precisely eleven o’clock (Bobrikov was a punctual man and was arriving for a meeting) Eugen shot Bobrikov three times before turning his gun on himself. Schauman died immediately. Bobrikov lingered on for a further 36 hours.

Despite all this hullabaloo, despite assassinated General-Governors, the Russian Empire did not interfere with the Finnish Parliament. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 (which, among other things, curtailed the Tsar’s powers and strengthened that of the Russian Parliament, the Duma), Finland’s parliament was more or less left to rule Finland as it pleased. But I imagine the Russian elite stood by as an amused spectator as the Finnish people took the drastic step of implementing universal suffrage in the 1906 election. Imagine that – not only were men, no matter their station, given the right to vote, but the misguided Finns were also allowing that weaker sex, the women, a say in how they should be governed.

Finland Alexandra_Gripenberg
Alexandra Gripenberg

And this dear people, brings me to Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg. May I present an avid Fennoman, a well-educated female member of the Swedish-speaking wealthy classes who early on embraced the vision of a free Finland, a country in which men and women had equal rights.(And I must say I have to tip my hat in the direction of my Finnish colleague, who expressed such pride in a woman who fought so hard for the female vote. Gender equality is, clearly, almost a genetic quality in Finland)

Alexandra, born in 1857,  was one of twelve siblings, and when her father died she was not yet a teen. The father’s death reduced the family’s circumstances somewhat, and Alexandra was educated by her older sisters rather than at school. There were no opportunities for a higher level education, in part due to her gender, but also due to the overall cash flow situation. Alexandra, however, was an intelligent young lady, and she compensated for her lack of formal education by reading voraciously.

In 1884 she founded the first women’s right association in Finland, and in 1887 she set off to see the world, travelling through Britain and the US, where to her delight she met not only Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Mark Twain, whom she found deliciously attractive. Most of all, she met women with similar views to her own, and she became an active member of the International Council for Women, travelling extensively while using her pen and wits to promote causes dear to her heart.

Alexandra was not a major fan of the universal suffrage implemented in 1906. She was of the opinion that democracy required the voters to have a certain level of basic education and understanding of the system, and she didn’t believe her countrymen were ready – no matter their gender. Still, she was convinced to stand for election and became one of ten women to take a seat in Parliament, where she mainly focused on women’s right issues, such as banning prostitution.

In her later years, Alexandra became somewhat marginalised within the Finnish women’s right movement, Basically, Alexandra held very conservative views, and vehemently opposed any initiatives that she felt were in contradiction with her Christian values. She was appalled by the young, radical women who claimed the right to choose their sexual partners as they pleased,  she considered it natural that women managed the household – men were not supposed to do such female tasks as laundry. For her, gender equality was about the right to education and the right to work – and she was quite adamant that women were not to receive any preferential treatment whatsoever in the workplace.

In 1911, Alexandra died, six years before that other dream of hers, that of seeing an independent Finland, was realised. Personally, I think she would have been devastated by the events that followed upon independence – seeing your country torn in two tends to have that effect on patriots.

In 1917, the Finnish Parliament declared its independence. This act plunged the country into a brief, but very bitter, civil war, a fight to death between the Reds and the Whites.The Reds wanted to follow in the footsteps of glorious (hmm) Comrade Lenin. The Whites blanched (;)) at the thought of a socialist state.  For close to two years, the country was at war with itself, and in those tumultuous times, one Finnish man stood tall above all others (and he was, actually, very, very tall). This is a man I most definitely had heard of before – namely General Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, commander of the White troops, later to become Finland’s president and even later to become Marshal of Finland and lead its defences against the Soviet Union in World War II, when the gentleman in question was pushing eighty. But this, dear people, is too extensive a topic to cover here. Mr Mannerheim will simply have to wait.

So ends this initial foray into Finnish history, and what better way to end it than by listening to Monty Python? (Although seriously: mountains in Finland? Ha!)

5 thoughts on “Torn asunder – of Finland and its history”

  1. How interesting. I have never heard the tiniest bit of Finnish or Swedish history, and certainly did not know that Finland only became an independent state in the 20th century. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Pingback: In celebration of Finland | Anna Belfrage

  3. Pingback: In celebration of Finland | writerchristophfischer

  4. Pingback: Crusading in Finland – or how to use God as an excuse | ANNA BELFRAGE

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