Finland: A Very Brief Introduction

The Republic of Finland (called Suomi in the Finnish language) is one of the world's most progressive and advanced nations. This is in spite of what many would consider to be less than optimal circumstances, including a harsh climate, little variety of natural resources, a very small population and a long history of being dominated by its more powerful neighbors.

A Nordic country, Finland is bordered on the west by Sweden and the Gulf of Bothnia, on the north by Norway, on the east and southeast by Russia, on the south by the Gulf of Finland and on the south-west by the Baltic Sea. The Åland Islands, off the southwestern coast, are under Finnish sovereignty but exercise extensive home rule. Roughly one fourth of the country lies north of the Arctic Circle.

Finland is one of the few countries whose land area is still growing. This is a result of the uplifting of the land mass and its consequent emerging from the sea that has been taking place since the end of the last ice age. The surface area is increasing by about seven square kilometers per year.

Its glacial past has left Finland a country of countless shallow lakes (at least 55,000 that are 200 or more meters in width) and nearly as many islands as well as numerous rivers and extensive areas of marshland. The landscape is mostly flat with few hills, and travelers on the ground only rarely can see beyond the trees in their immediate vicinity. More than two thirds of the land is covered by boreal (i.e., typical far northern) forests, and there is little arable land. Despite its bleakness and monotony, however, the landscape possesses a haunting beauty.

Finland's climate is characterized by cold, and sometimes severe, winters and relatively warm summers. Adding to the gloominess of the long winters is the fact that in the far north (Lapland) the sun does not rise for almost two months, and even in the south the days are short and the sun is very low on the horizon even at noon. Fortunately, this is at least partially offset by the fact that by mid-April the sun remains above the horizon for more than 16 hours in the north and 14 hours in the south. In summer the longest day lasts more than two months in the far north, and even in the far south the nights never become completely dark, with the days being separated by a just a few hours of twilight.

Archaeological finds indicate that parts of the area now comprising Finland were already inhabited at least 10,000 years ago, at which time the ice mass of the last ice age was receding. Little is known about ancient Finnish history, but apparently the country was free of foreign domination at least for a while, as old Scandinavian sagas and 12th century historians relate that there were Finnish kings prior to the conquest by Sweden in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Life was far from easy in Finland. The country suffered from severe famines, and that of 1696-1697 may have killed a third of the population. The country was also afflicted by frequent and bitter wars with Russia, culminating in its annexation by the armies of the Russian Emperor Alexander I in 1809. Fortunately, however, Alexander gave Finland extensive autonomy, and thereby effectively created the Finnish state.

On December 6, 1917, just weeks after the November Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Finland declared its independence. (The other Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland did likewise, but only Finland was able to avoid being reconquered.) The following year the country experienced a brief (three and a half months) but bloody (30,000 deaths out of a population of three million) civil war between the educated class (supported by Germany and the large class of small farmers) and the workers (supported by the Russians), who were landless and lacked political power despite the adoption of universal suffrage in 1906. The bitter memories of this conflict continued to affect politics and the national psyche for many years, and healing only began during the Winter War of 1939-40, when both sides had to unite against a common enemy.

The Winter War was the result of an attack by the Soviet Union. The Soviet forces, although overwhelming in numbers, were poorly trained (as has long been the Russian tradition) and suffered massive casualties at the hands of the unexpectedly fierce Finnish resistance. Nevertheless, Finland eventually had to give in and cede most of its Karelia region (a large chunk of the eastern part of the country) to the USSR, causing about 400,000 people to lose their homes and land. Subsequently, in 1941 Finland attacked the Soviet Union on the side of Germany with the goal of regaining this lost territory, but wound up having to cede even more territory and pay heavy reparations.

Following World War II, Finland assumed a policy of cautious neutrality. The term Finlandization entered the international vocabulary and referred to the strong self-censorship, self-control and pro-Soviet attitudes that characterized Finland at that time. Politicians, civil servants and journalists were well aware of the consequences (including to their careers) of publicly discussing injustices such as the attacks leading to the Winter War or news about current Soviet atrocities. There was much concern in the U.S. and elsewhere that a communist takeover would occur in Finland and that Finlandization would eventually overtake other nations in Western European as well.

Despite its particularly close ties to the USSR, Finland was just as surprised as everyone else when the Iron Curtain fell. While this had a severe effect on the economy, as the former Soviet Union had been its largest trading partner, Finland immediately started using this situation to its advantage. For example, trade was reoriented to the West, the mass media began to move closer to Western standards of journalistic freedom and Finland joined the European Union in 1995.

Today Finland has a highly industrialized, largely free-market economy with a per capita output and a standard of living (not only in terms of economic indicators but also in terms of public health, public safety, welfare, culture and other intangibles) rivaling those of France, Germany and Italy. This has been accomplished simultaneously with maintaining what is consistently ranked as one of the world's highest, or even the highest, standards of environmental protection and sustainability.

The main industries are wood, metals, engineering, telecommunications and electronics. Because of the climate, agriculture is limited to maintaining self-sufficiency in basic crops. Foreign trade is important, with exports accounting for nearly a third of GDP. Finland's most famous company is Nokia, the world's largest producer of mobile phones.

Finland's excellent economic performance has been attributed to its excellent education system, its sophisticated infrastructure and a national consensus on problem solving. But it is also likely due to the fact that the country is a strong and vibrant democracy. In fact, according to some rankings it is at, or near, the top of all countries with regard to democracy, press freedom and a lack of corruption. Finland is also a very egalitarian country, and it takes pride in the fact that in 1906 it became the first European nation (and one of the first in the world) to grant women the right to vote and run for parliament.

The total population is only about 5.2 million. A density of 15 persons per square kilometer (40 per square mile) makes it one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in Europe. More than two-thirds of the inhabitants reside in the southern third of the country, mostly concentrated on the small southwestern coastal plain.

The capital and largest city is Helsinki, a port city which was founded in 1550. Located in the far south of the country on the shore of the Gulf of Finland (and only 55 miles across the Gulf from Tallin, Estonia), it is the northernmost national capital on the European continent. With a population of slightly more than half a million (and about 1.2 million for the metropolitan area as a whole), Helsinki is a small and attractive city. It is widely appreciated for its outstanding architecture, abundance of parks and excellent transportation system (including a subway a growing tramway network).

Finland places a high priority on education and R&D. Schooling is compulsory for ages seven through 16, and it is free, even at the university level. There is virtually no illiteracy. The University of Helsinki, founded in 1640 and located in central Helsinki, is the largest of the country's 20 universities and 29 polytechnic institutes. It has good reason to be particularly proud of its department of computer science (which has more than 2000 students).

The official language of Finland had been Swedish for more than 600 years, but a language decree issued in 1863 by the Russian Czar Alexander II (a great reformer) started Finnish on the path to becoming an official administrative language. Today the country is officially bilingual, and the populace is constitutionally guaranteed the right to transact any business with the government in their choice of Finnish or Swedish (although Swedish speakers now comprise less than six per cent of the total population).

The Finnish language is not related to most other European languages (i.e., the Indo-European languages), and it may be of Asiatic origin. It belongs to the Baltic-Finnic group (which also includes Estonian) of the Finno-Ugrian or Uralic language family, which extends from Norway into western Siberia and the Carpathian Mountains (but which only consists of minority languages and does not include Norwegian or Russian). Recent genetic studies have shown that, in contrast to the language, most of the population of Finland is closely related to the Baltic and Germanic peoples. The Samis, an indigenous minority who live mainly in the far north, are linguistically related to the other Finns but are genetically very far from them and Scandinavians (Finland is not usually considered to be part of Scandinavia).

The Kalevala, Finland's national epic, was compiled in the 19th century by the Finnish physician and scholar Elias Lönnrot, who undertook the huge task of collecting folk poetry from the remote wildernesses of Karelia. These old lyrics, ballads and incantations, which even included a creation myth, had been part of the oral tradition of speakers of the Balto-Finnic languages for at least two thousand years. The publication of the first version of the Kalevala in 1835 represented a major turning-point for the Finnish language and culture and generated much interest abroad as well. It brought a small, generally unknown population to the attention of other Europeans, and it played a vital role in fostering badly needed Finnish national consciousness and pride. One result of this resurgence of Finnish nationalism was that it helped Finnish recover its role as the dominant language of the country.

At least until recently, the most famous Finn was Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957), who is internationally recognized as one of the greatest of the late classical composers despite the highly nationalistic character of his works (e.g., he was heavily influenced by the Kalevala). A likely second is Alvar Aalto (1898 - 1976), Finland's most distinguished architect and widely regarded as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century.

The most famous Finnish person alive today is Linus Torvalds, who originated (and still maintains) Linux, the free computer operating system which is taking the world by storm and is showing increasing signs of revolutionizing the computer industry (and perhaps other things as well).

Created June 27, 2004. Copyright © 2004. All Rights Reserved.