This Wednesday Finland celebrates a hundred years of separation from Russia. Though Finland may now be a prosperous nation, independence didn’t come without a fight…
This Wednesday Finland celebrates its hundredth birthday. On 6th December 1917 the Parliament of Finland declared the country officially independent of Russia, adopting the Declaration of Independence, as proposed by Pehr Evind Svinhufvud (later Finland’s third president), by one hundred votes to eighty eight. Many Western nations waited for Russia, the former ruler, to give its consent to the declaration. But Lenin’s approval would not arrive until a civil war had engulfed, and threatened to destroy, the new nation.
Starvation and famine prevailed when the declaration was passed, and a lack of interest from a preoccupied government meant mass polarisation. Tensions finally boiled over on 27th January 1917 when communist sympathisers, led by the Social Democratic Party (Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue / Socialdemokratiska Parti) and supported with arms from the Soviet Union, declared war on the ‘Whites’, led by a conservative Senate and reinforced by members of the German Army. While the communist ‘Reds’ controlled most industrial centres, the ‘Whites’ were strongest in the rural north and, thanks to German support, were soon able to win back southern areas. Eventually, by 15th May that year, they were ready to declare victory, and to restart negotiations with Russia.
Red Army troops face fire from the Whites during Finland’s War of Independence (1917)
While the war is little known internationally, there won’t be many Finns who on Wednesday don’t spare it a thought. The conflict made independence bitter-sweet for years. Around 36,000 Finns were killed, both sides engaged in political terror and a huge number of ‘Red’ prisoners perished from malnutrition. Nevertheless, it did put a rubber stamp on the Declaration of Independence, and virtually every nation recognised Finland’s new status within the year. Plans for a German-led monarchy were abandoned after its defeat in the Great War, and a strong economy went some way to uniting the polarised population.
Today moderate values prevail, offsetting potentially volatile circumstances. Finland has two official languages (though Swedish is spoken only in some areas and by less than 10 per cent of the total population), its religions are diverse, and it occupies a perilous location between East and West, increasingly apparent given Putin’s expansionism. Finland is rightly considered a pioneering liberal nation, leading the way in social democracy and egalitarian welfare states. It gave women the vote as early as 1906, and females now outnumber males in parliament. But Finns are known to be a modest, even silent people. I hope on Wednesday, just for one day, they will abandon this. They have much to celebrate. And it demands a party.