In my mother tongue, Finnish, we give other countries Finnish names. France is Ranska, Deutschland (Germany) is Saksa, Россия (Russia) is Venäjä and the United States is Yhdysvallat. People in many other countries call my original country Finland, even though we in Finland call it Suomi. Nobody knows for sure why.
Suomi-Finland celebrates 100 years of independence this year. After 400 years of Swedish hegemony and 100 years under Russian tsars, leading Finnish politicians saw an opportunity to free the country from Russia in the beginning of December 1917. They declared Finland independent.
However, none of the countries the Finnish senate contacted, wanted to acknowledge the Finnish independence fearing reactions from Russia, although Russia was weak and chaotic after the First World war, two revolutions in 1917 and a change from autocracy to communism. Therefore Finland had to turn to the new Russian leadership asking them to acknowledge Finland as an independent country.
As a surprise, the Russian leader, Lenin, acknowledged Finland’s independence without problems. Maybe he thought Russia had enough internal problems and they could always deal with Finland later. In any case Finland had a small population with only three million people and hardly any military compared to almost 90 million Russians with an army of almost 15 million soldiers.
The sudden independence led immediately to a civil war like in most new countries unprepared for democracy. The Finnish civil war lasted only a couple of months but a lot of lives were lost. The Russian military troops who had controlled Finland during the Russian period were still in the country and supported workers and those who did not own land “the Reds”. Germany sent troops to help the other side, “the Whites”, who consisted mainly of farmers, small business owners and the small rich upper class. The Whites won.
In the following 20 years, relations between Russia, which was renamed Soviet Union in 1922, and Finland were rather peaceful. The two countries signed a non-aggression pact in 1933 and concentrated on internal progress.
However, in the 1930s a couple of new megalomaniacs had emerged in Europe; Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union. They felt a need to extend their territories and agreed that Germany could occupy Poland without Russian interference and the Soviet Union could take the Balkans, part of East-Poland, the Baltic countries and Finland in its sphere of influence.
In practice it meant that the Soviet Union told those above mentioned countries where it would place its military bases and these now occupied countries unwillingly accepted. When it came to Finland’s turn, the Finns refused, not willing to give up any inch of their independent territory to Russian’s disposal. This irritated the Russian government so much that it staged an attack as if Finland had attacked Russian troops on the southeastern border close to St. Petersburg. Thereafter Stalin would declare war on Finland in1939.
After some four months of fighting and after the Soviet Union had lost a quarter of its troops on the Finnish front, Finland had to surrender and cede over 10 percent of its area to the Soviet Union. Over 420 000 people were evacuated from those areas, among them my father’s family, who had lived hundreds of years on a small Finnish island about 20 miles from St. Petersburg.
Later during the Second World War, Hitler betrayed Stalin and declared war against Russia. Finland allowed German troops to attack Russia on Finnish ground. Germany lost. Finland lost, too. But it did not lose its independence.
Instead Finland made a very expensive separate peace pact with the Soviets. It had to deliver several kinds of industrial products and machinery worthy of 5.3 billion dollars in modern currency to the Soviet Union in six years. This looked like an impossible task since the country was in ruins, there was very little industrial production to start with and 1/2 million people could not return to their homes and needed permanent housing.
But the Finns made it, carried by some kind of euphoria that they had managed to keep the country independent.
Now almost 100 years after declaring its independence, Finland is increasing its military spending. The Russian President and his country are not the subject of much public discussion in Finland. But in private many wonder whether a new megalomaniac resides next door.
What I know, being a descendant of those people who managed to create a new nation, is that they were an unusually stubborn, almost masochistic type of people who chose an environment far up in the north where one could survive only by working hard and planning ahead all the time. Many a time one had to choose between two or more evils, but history shows that if people are true to their core values, they end up being proud of their achievements and lives.
If you feel an inclination to join celebrating the Finnish independence, you can register to the closest potluck type of dinner party at http://syodaanyhdessa.fi/in-english/ The global celebration takes place on the weekend 25-27 August.