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Independence Day – Finland 99 years as an independent state! – Part Two: Building the Finnish nation

December 6th, 2016 by Pekka Kamarainen

In my previous post I started a series of blogs to celebrate the 99th Independence Day of Finland. The first post gave a brief overview of the time before independence – the long centuries under the Swedish rule and the one century under Russian rule. In this second post I will take a look at the process of nation-building and of making Finnish language a national language. Here again, we have two different periods – the slow development under Swedish rule and the ‘hatching period’ under Russian rule.

The ‘invisible’ Finland and Finnish people under Swedish rule

In my previous post I mentioned that when the Swedes conquered Finland, there was no geographic nor national entity that now is called ‘Finland’ (or – to precise: others call it that we, for us, the nake of our country is ‘Suomi’). And even that name refers only to ‘land’s end’ – the final outposts before the dark wilderness. Neither had the Finns of that time a perception of national identity – they were scattered ‘tribes’ speaking local dialects that were understandable to each other. But that was it. The Swedish rule brought stability and defence against Russians (with whom there was a constant struggle, who gets the uninhabited areas that were in no-man’s-land beyond the vaguely defined borderlines.

This all changed due to the Lutheran Reformation. Young priests travelled from all parts of Scandinavia to Wittenberg study theology in the new spirit. And already in Wittenberg these young pioneers started to translate the New Testament to their national languages. And please note that the young Finnish priests of that time – Mikael Agricola in the lead – translated the New Testament into Finnish (the first major book to appear after the Finnish ABC-book and the Psalmbook). So, that was the start of the Finnish language to make ist way to a written language and to a national language.

This was the start and with the help of the basic books for religious teaching the whole Finnish population was shepherded to the Lutheran state church. The priests took care of bringing the elementary reading skills to the people – who were to demonstrate on regular basis in public events that they can read from the books and that they know by heart their prayers. That was the level of literacy  needed in Finnish language. The ones to get school-based education and higher education had it in Swedish. At the end of the 18th century there was an initiative to start a Finnish newspaper but it was very short-lived (yet, the effort to go ahead was already there).

The emergent Finnish nation and the emancipation of Finnish language under Russian rule

When Finland got under Russian rule, the educated people had an identity crisis, which led them to look for a new perspective: “We are no longer Swedes, we don’t want to become Russians, let us be Finns!” 

In this spirit the young intellectuals started a movement to revitalise the Finnish language and the Finnish culture. Some of them (like J.L. Runeberg and Z. Topelius) wrote poems and novels of the glorious past of the Finnish people – in Swedish, but with Finnish spirit. Elias Lönnrothcollected old folklore and sagas from rural areas and composed the national epos ‘Kalevala’. The philosopher J.V.Snellman had a great influence – not so much with his highly respectable academic work as a Hegelian intellectual – but more with his work to start the Finnish press (in both Finnish and in Swedish) and then as a politician. During czar Alexander II he was a senator (read: prime minister) and managed to push through the new language rule, the currency reform, the start of the Finnish railways etc.

The above mentioned language rule was an important cultural concession of the liberal young czar to the autonomous Grand-Duchy of Finland. Instead of imposing Russian as the official language, it recognised Finnish and Swedish as two equal ‘domestic’ languages. And it obliged all public civil servants to obtain and demonstrate their command of both languages. Please note that this language rule is still in force in independent Finland. The Russian rulers expected that such a concession would help to distance Finland from the old ‘motherland’ Sweden and to become loyal vis-à-vis the czar and his Empire. For the Finnish national movement this was a great boost forward – the Finnish public education (in Finnish language) started to spread all over the country, the Finnish press got an upswing and the Finnish literature started to take off. The first novel in Finnish – the “Seven brothers”  of A. Kivi – appeared to the contemporaries far too rustical but afterwards it became beloved by the whole nation. Also, many artists in music and in fine arts with inspiration from the national movement made career – not only in Finland, but in the wide Europe in which they travelled and got engaged with different influences. Jean Sibelius – the most famous of this generation – became world famous already before Finnish independence and even more after that had been achieved.

Obviously, not all Russian rulers were pleased with these developments taking off. By the end of the 19th century pan-slavistic movements gained more power and put (among other things) the special status of Finland under question. In the beginning of the 20th century czar Nikolai II started twice a campaign to get rid of the autonomous rule of Finland. But these were stopped by bigger events of world history – firstly Russia lost the war against Japan and got into turmoil in 1905. Secondly, the World War I broke out and the Russian Empire needed to keep the border province Finland (next to the capital St. Petersburg) in peace and quiet.

– – –

I think this is enough of the story of the nation-building and of the emancipation of our language and culture.  As a musical  theme, let us listen to Sibelius’ Karelia Intermezzo and view the landscapes of Finnish Karelia and the Karelia lost in the World War II (see my next blog).

In my next blog I will give insights into the struggles for independence and developments in independent Finland.

More blogs to come …

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