**   FINLAND & LAPLAND 2012  - A  PROLOGUE    **

   Ethnicity, language and topography    The Sami Peoples (Laplanders)     Early History of Finland
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Last year while on the southern side of the Gulf of Finland in Estonia, we stood on the island of Hiiumaa's northern coast gazing out across the grey Baltic Sea towards Finland (see that trip's webs); at Tallinn's Pirita Harbour campsite, we chatted with other travellers who had crossed by ferry from Helsinki. Perhaps that was when the seeds of this summer's trip to Finland were sown.

Our preparatory researches have benefitted from the detailed accounts of journeys through Scandinavia and the Baltic region published by our good friends and fellow travellers Margaret and Barry Williamson whose web site Magbaz Travels provides a travel information resource of encyclopaedic proportions.

We shall be setting off shortly and during the course of our journey around Finland and across the Arctic Circle to Lapland, we shall publish on our web site detailed logs and pictorial records covering the progress of our travels. As is our custom however, we now present this Prologue study with demographic, topographical, cultural, economic and historical background to Finland, our host country for 2012.


Ethnicity and Language:  the ancestors of today's Finns were Finno-Ugric nomadic tribes who migrated from NW Siberia, settling in the northern Baltic region and Eastern Scandinavia during the millennia following the last Ice Age, and sharing a closely related non-Indo-European linguistic and cultural inheritance with the Estonians and Sámi (Laplanders). Modern Finland is one of Europe's most ethnically homogeneous countries, the bulk of the population (93.4%) being Finnish, but also with significant numbers of indigenous Sámi in Lapland, Swedish-speaking population (5.6%) along the south-western coastline, and Roma-Gypsies (0.3%) around Helsinki. The modern Finnish language has little in common with other Indo-European-derived languages, including those of its Scandinavian neighbours. Its grammatical and syntactical structure is highly complex: eg there are no prepositions in Finnish, replaced by the complexity of nouns having 15 agglutinative case-suffixes; verbs have some 160 conjugations and personal forms. Thankfully English is widely spoken, and in spite of our customary attempts to master the basics of our host country's language, to say this one is going to be a challenge is something of an under-statement.

Demography:  the current population of Finland is 5.3 million with an average of 17 people per square kilometre, making it along with Norway and Iceland the least densely populated country in Europe. Population distribution is however very uneven, being concentrated in the small south-western coastal plain. About 64% of inhabitants live in the towns and cities, with one million living in the Helsinki region. At the opposite extreme in Arctic Lapland, there are only 2 people to every square kilometre.

Topography:  lying between latitudes 59° and 71° N and longitudes 20° and 32° E, Finland is one of the world's northernmost countries; of capitals cities, only Reykjavik is more to the north than Helsinki. The distance from Finland's southernmost point Hanko to the northernmost point Nuorgam is 1,160 kilometres (720 mi). In the northern latitudes of Lapland, summer months experience the midnight sun and winter months the Aurora Borealis. Finland's unique topography was created by the last Ice Age which ended some 10,000 years ago: the glaciers were thicker and longer lasting in Scandinavia compared to the rest of Europe. The eroding effects of the masses of retreating ice, which scoured the terrain at the end of the last Ice Age, have left the Finnish landscape mostly flat with few hills or mountains. A characteristic feature of the glaciated landscape are Eskers, long winding ridges or embankments formed of stratified sand and gravel moraine deposits. Depressions left behind by retreating glaciers were filled with melt-waters and the Finnish land surface is now marked by 187,888 lakes, more lakes than any other country in the world, which cover 10% of the country; forests and bogs cover almost 70% of what is left. Released from the oppressive weight of the ice masses, the terrain is still slowly rising at a rate of 6mm per year and expanding the surface area by some 7 square kilometres annually, a geological phenomenon known as isostatic post-glacial rebound; the Baltic Sea, created at the end of the last Ice Age, is decreasing in size as the land rises.

Wildlife:  Finnish plant life, having been wiped out by the last Ice Age, has developed relatively recently and adapted to survive the harsh winters and take advantage of the short summers. Most of Finland's extensive forest cover is made up of pine, spruce and birch and has given rise to a carefully managed forestry industry, producing pine-tar, timber, wood pulp and paper, still accounting for 21% of total exports. Finland's vast expanses of forests and lakes and wide network of protected areas form the habitats of impressive numbers of bird and animal species. These include a number of large mammals such as elk, and carnivores like brown bear, lynx, wolf and wolverine. In Lapland huge numbers of reindeer are traditionally herded by the Sámi Peoples. Finland has some 300 bird species, including large species like the black grouse, capercaillie, whooper swan and birds of prey such as the golden eagle, eagle owl and osprey.


Finland's indigenous people, the Sámi (Lapp or Laplander is regarded by the Sámi as a pejorative term), are descendents of the peoples who have occupied the far-north of the country together with neighbouring Arctic Norway and Sweden and parts of the Russian Kola Peninsula for over 5,000 years. The region is called Sápmi in the Sámi language (see map left). The early Sámi settlers of the arctic region, ethnically distinct from the later arriving Finns, were nomadic peoples who migrated with the seasons hunting wild reindeer and fishing. Today there are around 75,000 Sámi of whom the majority live in Arctic Norway, with 9,000 living in Northern Finland. There are several distinct Sámi groups in Finland today living around the towns of Enotekiö, Utsjoki, Inari and Sodankylä, each with their own cultural traditions and language, not mutually intelligible but all Finno-Ugric in origin and related to Finnish.

The reindeer truly symbolises the spirit of Finnish Lapland. For 1000s of years, reindeer have been central to the Sámi People's culture and existence, providing food, clothing, shelter and an inspiration for their traditional shamanistic religion. The Lapland winter lasts for 7 months of the year, yet reindeer herding has enabled the indigenous Sámi to survive in this harshest of climates. Reindeer herding has been a traditional way of live for centuries with families moving their tepee-like tent-villages to follow the migrating herds of wild reindeer to seasonal grazing grounds. The Sámi life style gradually evolved from nomadic to pastoralist as reindeer herds were domesticated and increased in size, and the advent of mechanisation in the mid-20th century meant that reindeer herders could travel out from settled villages on snowmobiles. The are now some 230,000 of the semi-domesticated reindeer grazing freely in Lapland, and Sámi herders still use ancient patterns of calf ear-marking to identify their stock in the high fells between June and August with herd separation taking place in mid winter. But today's increasing urbanisation has threatened traditional lifestyles in Finnish Lapland and now only one in ten Sámi families still earns its living from reindeer husbandry.

From the 18th century the emerging independent Nordic states attempted to impose systematic assimilation of their indigenous peoples and to eradicate their separate identity, language and culture. The 20th century produced an increasing ethnic and national awareness among the Sámi People and after WW2 cooperation across political borders, bringing pressure for greater recognition of Sámi rights to protection of their land resources, language and culture. Under the 1995 Finnish constitution the Sámi as an indigenous people have the right to maintain and develop their own language, culture and traditional livelihoods. The Sámi Parliament (the Sámediggi - see photo left) established in 1996 which meets in Inari now forms their self-governing legal body; its 21 members are elected by the Sámi for a 4 year term and deals with all aspects of Sámi life. But there remain significant tensions between the minority people and the national government of Finland: unlike Norway and Sweden, the Finnish government controversially does not recognise the Sámis' exclusive claim to herd reindeer. Sámi leaders are in continued dispute with the state over land rights in the traditional herding grounds. The Finnish government fears alienating the powerful forestry industry lobby, which generates a significant proportion of national exports and claims that grazing reindeer damage newly planted saplings. The result is increasing distrust between the state and its indigenous population.


Migrant prehistoric settlers from central Asia:  early human habitants occupied Finland in the millennia following the retreat of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago; these included the Sámi who migrated to more northerly hunting grounds displaced by further waves of agricultural settlers. The Baltic Finns, nomadic migrants from central Asia, crossed into Finland around 100 AD to found settlements around the west coast trading with Sweden. The settlers spread northwards and eastwards into Karelia absorbing the indigenous population and venturing into Lapland to fish and hunt.

Middle Ages under the Swedish Empire(1150~1809):  at the beginning of the 10th century AD, pagan Finland was sandwiched between two opposing religious empires, Catholic Sweden and Orthodox Russia. Russia exerted powerful influence in Karelia in the east but the western part of Finland gravitated towards Catholicism due to contact with Sweden. In 1155 King Erik of Sweden launched a crusade into Finland to spread Christianity, strengthen trade routes and establish Swedish control of the western part of the country. Eastern Karelia fell under the control of the Russian principality of Novgorod and a formal border with Swedish territory was established in 1323. To reinforce their control and impose Orthodoxy, the Russians founded the Orthodox Valamo Monastery. During the 14~15th centuries, Swedish rule brought the Finns a degree of freedom with increased population and economic growth, and gave protection against the expansionist threat of imperial Russia. But there were constant skirmishes between Russians and Finns during the 15th century in the border lands around the Finnish Baltic fortified trading centre of Viipuri (now Russian Vyborg). During the 16th century under Swedish King Gustav Vasa, the Lutheran Church spread with the Reformation, state administration developed, and Bishop Mikael Agricola of Turku created the first written form of the Finnish language, translating the Bible into Finnish. The town of Helsingfors (later Helsinki) was founded in 1550 but remained little more than a fishing village for the next 2 centuries. The Swedish Empire reached its most powerful during the 17th century, but tensions continued with Russia now unified by the Muscovite Ivan the Terrible. During the Great Northern War of 1700~21, the Russians under Tsar Peter the Great occupied parts of Karelia, moving the border westwards into Finland. Despite the hardships of Russian occupation and failed harvests, the later 18th century brought a period of development for Finland. Sweden's Empire declined, Russian influence in Finland increased.

Grand Duchy of Finland under the Russian Empire and the rise of Finnish nationalism (1809~1917):  following Russian conquest of Finland in 1807 under Tsar Alexander I, the Treaty of Hamina signed with Sweden ceded the whole of the country to the Russian Empire; Finland became an autonomous Russian Grand Duchy in 1809. The Tsar secured Finnish favour with beneficial terms: Swedish law remained effective, the Finns governed themselves and kept their Lutheran religion, Finnish peasantry remained free unlike Russian serfs, there was no conscription and taxation was frozen. Realignment of the border with Russia restored Finnish territory around Viipuri and Helsinki was declared the country's capital in 1812. The long period of peace which followed saw improvements in Finnish development and prosperity. The early 19th century produced an increasingly active Finnish language movement: under the slogan Swedes we are no longer, Russians we do not want to become, let us therefore become Finns, the Fennomans attempted to raise the Finnish language and Finnic culture from peasant status to the position of national language and culture. In 1835 Elias Lönnrot (see right) published the Kalevala, an epic poem based on a collection of Finnish and Karelian mythology and folklore which soon attained the status of national epic and a focal point of Finnish nationalism. In 1858 Finnish was declared the official language of government in Finnish-speaking areas, giving the native language equal status with Swedish. The Russian imperial bureaucrats countered this Finnish nation-building movement with increasing Russification and in 1894, under Tsar Nicholas I, Russian was declared the official language and attempts made to integrate Finland politically, militarily and culturally into imperial Russia. In 1899 the Jean Sibelius (see left) composed his inspirationally nationalistic Finlandia symphonic poem, publishing it under the title Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring to side-step Russian censorship of performances of a patriotic character. The 1905 attempted overthrow of the Tsar in Russia encouraged further nationalistic growth in Finland with major democratic changes in the Finnish parliamentary system elected by universal suffrage including women in 1906. But faced with endemic poverty, many Finns emigrated to North America in search of work and a better life. Imperial Russia regarded Finland as a hotbed of left wing opinion (the exiled Lenin based himself there and met Stalin in Tampere for the first time in 1905) and in 1910 the Tsar removed the new Finnish parliament's powers. In WW1 Finland was allied with Russia but did not fight with the Tsar's army.

Civil War and the Independent Finnish Republic (1917~1939):
  the Russian Revolution of October 1917 brought political turmoil to Finland which led to the Finnish government declaring its de facto independence from Russia. But with the country divided along social lines, power struggle between the conservative right wing landowners, the Whites, and left wing socialist labour movement, the Reds, led to outbreak of a brief but bitter civil war lasting from January to May 1918. With Lenin's defeat of Kerensky's Provisional Russian government, the Bolsheviks gave recognition to Finland's independence and withdrew Russian forces from Finland. The right wing Whites with military aid from Imperial Germany eventually achieved victory in the Civil War but at a cost of harsh suffering and enormous loss of life for the socialist Reds; 8,000 were executed, 80,000 were imprisoned in camps where 9,000 died of disease and hunger, all of which provoked a bitter resentment lasting for generations. Insistence on new elections in Finland as the price for Allied recognition of Finnish independence resulted in the White right wing peasantry's rise to political leadership and establishment of the Republic of Finland with the liberal Kaarlo Juho Stĺhlberg (see right) as its first President in 1919. Despite the bitter civil war and repeated threats from fascist movements, Finland managed to remain a free democracy under the rule of law during the 1920s~30s, and as Europe moved towards war in the late 1930s, Finland looked more to traditionally neutral Scandinavia.

WW2 - the Winter War and Continuation War with Stalin's Soviet Union (1939~45):  the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact placed Finland squarely in the Soviet sphere; Stalin compelled the Baltic States to accept Russian bases and in October 1939 demanded the same of Finland in the Karelian isthmus. When Finland dared to refuse, Stalin launched an attack, triggering the Winter War. The invading Red Army was crippled by Stalin's purges and its young leaders were well versed in communist ideology but severely inexperienced in military strategy. Expecting a rapid victory and to be welcomed as liberators, the Soviet soldiers carried no winter clothing and little food. But despite facing vast Soviet superiority in numbers, tanks and aircraft, the Finns were defending their homeland and hard-won independence; familiar with the forested, snow-covered terrain and bitter winter temperatures, the Finns heroically resisted the invasion with guerrilla style assaults for almost 4 months. The Red Army lost 1000s of troops but the Finns were eventually defeated in March 1940. The resultant Treaty of Moscow forced them to cede the entire Karelian Isthmus, city of Viipuri and 11% of territory and 30% of the economic and industrial assets of pre-war Finland. 12% of Finland's population, some 422,000 Karelian refugees had to be evacuated and rehoused within Finland's reduced borders (see map left).

Defeat and territorial loss meant that Finland, which prior to the war had been self-sufficient in grain supplies, now was reliant on grain imports from Germany. Desperate to retain its position of neutrality but fearing Soviet attack, Finland was drawn closer to Nazi Germany which from December 1940 supplied arms in return for transit rights through Finland to occupied Norway. Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 finally led Finland into war against Stalin which became known as the Continuation War. Most of the territory lost in the Winter War was initially recovered but Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (see right), who commanded the Finnish forces from his HQ at Mikkeli, refused to join the German attack on Leningrad. He also refused Churchill's demand that the Finns halt their advance, which compelled Britain to side with its then ally Stalin and declare war on Finland in December 1941. With Allied victory inevitable after the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, Mannerheim was forced to accept a peace treaty in September 1944 signed with the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Under its terms, Finland was to give up the Pestamo region in the north with borders restored to the 1940 position; stinging war reparations were imposed and Finland was compelled to drive out the Germans from its territory within 2 weeks. This resulted in bitter fighting in the north lasting until Spring 1945, with the Germans inflicting a scorched earth policy during their retreat causing the destruction of over half of all towns in Lapland and 1000s of refugees. Mannerheim served briefly as President of Finland from 1944~46, and through his prestige Finland managed to preserve its sovereignty, democracy and market economy, and avoided post war Soviet occupation unlike other countries bordering the USSR. It had resisted German demands for extermination of its Jewish population and in fact had saved Jewish refugees from Central Europe by grants of Finnish citizenship; it was however punished more than other co-belligerents of Germany, having to pay massive war reparations to the Soviet Union and resettle an eighth of its population after having lost so much of its territory and industrial assets.

The Cold War, Presidency of Urho Kekkonen and collapse of the Soviet Union (1947~91):  post war Finland managed to preserve its autonomy and balanced relations with both the West and Soviet Union, and in 1952 Helsinki staged the Olympic Games; this was also the year that Finland completed paying its vast war reparations to the USSR. Establishing trade relations with the West balanced by payment of reparations to the USSR mainly through ships and machinery enabled Finland to transform itself from a war-ravaged agricultural society to industrialised economy. During the Cold War, the astute but controversial political figure of Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (see right), prime minister from 1950~56 and Finland's longest-serving President from 1956~82, managed to steer the difficult course of maintaining balanced relations with both USSR and the West. Kekkonen continued the 'active neutrality” policy of his predecessor President Juho Paasikivi under which Finland retained its independence, able to trade with both NATO members and those of the Warsaw Pact. Finland became a member of the UN in 1955, and despite criticism of Kekkonen's political style as being unconstitutionally autocratic and pro-Moscow, he managed to maintain Finland's balanced neutrality by complementary trade agreements with both the then-EEC and with the Soviet Bloc. Kekkonen presided over a period in which Finland grew into a modern European capitalist democracy with healthy economy and sound social welfare system, all in the shadow of its powerful Soviet neighbour whose actions in Eastern Europe gave reason for Finland to tread with caution.

EU membership and modern Finland (1995 to present day):  the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed a 50 year burden from Finland; immediate recognition was given to the newly independent Baltic States, the proximity and linguistic links with Estonia creating a special relationship. But the USSR's collapse with unpaid debts and the global recession of the 1990s created severe economic depression for Finland: its banking system was in crisis, unemployment the highest in Europe, and the growing numbers of asylum seekers became the scapegoat for social problems. Economic tensions brought closer links with Western Europe, and following a national referendum majority vote, Finland joined the EU in 1995. Since then the economy has recovered and Finland has prospered enough to become one of the first EU member states to adopt the Euro in 2002. Balancing power between President and Parliament had been a long-standing political issue since Kekkonen's monarchical presidency, and in 1999 a new constitution limited presidential powers. The Social Democrat Tarja Halonen (see left) was elected president in 2000 under the new order; as the country's first female president, she had earned high regard and in 2006 was re-elected by a narrow majority for a second 6 year term. Finland's long-standing neutrality and concern about the issue of joining NATO remains a controversial issue; as of now Finland along with Sweden remains outside NATO.

In the new millennium, Finland's economy has flourished on the back of a strong technology sector, major forestry industry, design and manufacturing and increasingly tourism. From a history in forestry and paper industry, Nokia focussed its enterprise on the emerging mobile phone market in the 1990s, and now more than 2 billion people worldwide carry a Nokia handset; the telecommunications giant now accounts for 20% of Finland's exports, so that many believe it necessary to diversify the country's economy from over-reliance on Nokia telecommunications. Relations with Putin's Russia remain an issue of concern, particularly as Finland as one of the world's highest energy consumers is totally dependent on Russia for natural gas and for 80% of its oil. With memories of the Winter War and loss of Karelia, Finland is the only non-NATO EU country bordering Russia and retains national service, universal male conscription, reserve forces and well-defended borders.

So that's the background story of Finland so far, which in its brief 95 year history since independence in 1917 has managed not only to survive the dreadful ravages of WW2 but to flourish in the modern world as one of Europe's economic star performers and technological innovators. To those in Britain, Finland is little known, but as always we journey with a purpose: the intention that our travels will give the opportunity for learning more for ourselves about our host-country and to discussing and understanding more about peoples' lives and their hopes for the future. We set off shortly and as usual shall be publishing regular updates to our web site, with news-updates and pictorial record of our travels. Add the site to your Favourites and be sure of sharing our travels; we should welcome your companionship.

Sheila and Paul

Published:  Friday 30 March 2012


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Music this week:  Oi maamme, Suomi, synnyinmaa
(Oh our land, Finland, fatherland Finnish National Anthem

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