Finland Historical Setting
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Fifteenth-century Olavinlinna Fortress in Savonlinna
THE SIGNAL ACHIEVEMENT OF FINLAND has been its survival against great odds--against a harsh climate, physical and cultural isolation, and international dangers. Finland lies at higher latitudes than any other country in the world, and the punishing northern climate has complicated life there considerably. Geographically, Finland is on the remote northern periphery, far from the mass of Europe, yet near two larger states, Sweden and Russia--later the Soviet Union, which have drawn it into innumerable wars and have dominated its development (see fig. 1).
At the beginning of its recorded history, in the eleventh century A.D., Finland was conquered by its powerful neighbor, Sweden. Christianization and more than 600 years of Swedish rule (c. 1150-1809) made the Finns an essentially West European people, integrated into the religion, culture, economics, and politics of European civilization. The Finns have, however, maintained their own language, which is complex and is not related to most other European languages.
The centuries of Swedish rule witnessed Finland's increasing involvement in European politics, particularly when the country served as a battleground between Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. Over the centuries, Russia has exerted an especially persistent and powerful pressure on Finland. Many wars were fought between Swedes and Finns on the one side and Russians on the other. Eventually, Russia conquered Finland and incorporated it into the Russian Empire, where it remained for more than a century, from 1809 to 1917.
Until the nineteenth century, the Finns were, like many other peoples of Europe, a subject nation seemingly without a culture or a history of their own. The national awakening of the nineteenth century brought recognition of the uniqueness of the Finnish people and their culture, and led to Finland's independence in 1917. Complicating the emergence of the Finnish people into national consciousness, however, was the split between the majority of Finnish speakers and a powerful and influential minority of Swedish speakers. Only during the twentieth century was this conflict gradually resolved.
In 1987 Finland celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its national independence, which was a hard-won achievement. Independence was threatened at the start in a bloody civil war in 1918 between Finnish leftists (Reds) and rightists (Whites); a victory by the Reds might have resulted in Finland's eventual absorption by the Soviet Union. One legacy of the war was a longlasting political division between working class Reds and middleclass Whites during the first two decades of independence. As a result, political extremism, as represented by communism and by fascism was stronger in Finland than it was in many other Western democracies; it was eventually neutralized, however, and with time Finnish democracy became strongly rooted.
The most serious challenges to Finland's independence came during World War II, when the Finns twice faced attack by overwhelming Soviet forces. They fought heroically, but were defeated both times, and the Soviets were narrowly prevented from occupying and absorbing Finland. Since World War II, the Soviet Union's status as a superpower has meant that it could at any time end Finland's existence as a separate state. Recognizing this, the Finns have sought and achieved reconciliation with the Soviets, and they have tenaciously pursued a policy of neutrality, avoiding entanglement in superpower conflicts.
The long era of peace after World War II made possible the blossoming of Finland as a modern, industrialized, social-welfare democracy. By the 1980s, the intense social conflicts of previous decades were largely reconciled, and the country's relationships with other nations were apparently stable.
Data as of December 1988
NOTE: The information regarding Finland on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Finland Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Finland Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.