The Republic of Finland

By Aino Malmberg

[The Century Magazine, March 1918]

The press has spread the news that two envoys are being sent by the Finnish Government to ask for official American acknowledgment of the Republic of Finland. One of them, Dr. K. Ignatius, is already in Washington, and the other, Professor J. Renter, is on his way to America. Finland has reached an agreement with the Russian Government; Sweden, Denmark, France, and Germany have already acknowledged the new republic, and the other European countries are soon expected to act accordingly. The task for the Finns in Washington does not, therefore, seem a hopeless one.

Finland is admittedly one of the most interesting small countries of Europe, beautiful in its natural scenery, but poor in soil, though high in intellectual development. The vast majority of its three and a half million of inhabitants belong to the Finnish-Ugrian stock, the origin of which is not yet clear. The Finnish language is soft and musical, but exceedingly difficult to learn.

The Finns are a wide-awake people, though they are among the youngest in civilization. Only a hundred years ago they were a handful of unlettered folk without schools or native literature. Today they are a highly educated nation, with no illiteracy, with an excellent educational system, with art, literature and music standing on a high plane of development. Fate was kind to Finland, creating the necessary circumstances for this rapid development: a change in the political status of the country, a powerful national awakening all over Europe, the discovery of the Finnish national epic, "The Kalevala," and finally enough political oppression to make the nation exert all its economic and intellectual power in the fight for national existence.

From the middle of the twelfth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, Finland was under Swedish rule. During all that time little was done to raise the standard of the Finnish-speaking population. Education was obtainable only in Swedish, the language of the ruling few.

The creative power of a naturally gifted nation had, nevertheless, to find expression, and it was chiefly during these centuries that the vast treasure of Finnish folk-lore was created. In 1809, after the last Russo-Swedish War, Finland came under Russian rule and received a liberal local autonomy from Czar Alexander I. The semi-independent status of the country made the nation gain in confidence and responsibility. Finland rapidly became aware of the fact that a new era in her history had begun, and when the great national awakening took place in Europe, she threw herself heart and soul into the movement. The Swedish-speaking upper classes showed a deep understanding of the spirit of the times, adopting the work for the Finnish nation as their own. Later on, when the Finns felt themselves grown up and wanted to be masters in their own house, the Swedish upper classes naturally resented it, and a bitter fight over the supremacy of the two languages began. The outcome was clear beforehand. The language of the majority gained ground quickly, and is now the ruling language in all departments of national life in Finland.

In the beginning of the last century Finland had a few powerful intellectual leaders who helped the nation to find its own soul. J. L. Runeberg, J. W. Snellman, and Elias Lönnrot are the most important names of that time. Runeberg was the greatest poet of the nation, who, though he wrote in Swedish, gave the truest and most inspiring interpretation of the spirit of Finland struggling for national expression. Snellman was a philosopher, a disciple of Hegel, who created the philosophic background to the national movement.

Significant as the works of Runeberg and Snellman were to the Finnish nation, still more important was the work of Elias Lönnrot. He was the son of a poor tailor in a little village far away in the heart of Finland. His genius and his unbreakable energy opened to him the way to education, and he became a physician. At that time some Finnish folk-lore had already been collected, and was known to Lönnrot. He was deeply impressed by it, and when his work took him to those districts of Finland where the old songs, or runos, were still sung by the people, he began to collect them systematically and with great care and judgment. Lönnrot possessed all the qualities required to make him peculiarly fit for the work he had undertaken. He had the natural instinct of a peasant singer combined with thorough learning and a deep love for those old runos, created and sung generation after generation by this racially isolated little nation in the North. He was certainly more competent than any one else to arrange the different fragments of the runos each in its right place, thus giving to the Finns their national epic, "The Kalevala."

The importance of this gift cannot be over-rated. Here was a country whose people had just awakened from a dream of centuries, and were beginning to understand that they were a different nation and had to work out their own salvation in their own peculiar way. Or, to quote "The Kalevala," they had to find "the word of origin" which would give them the key of life. They had a language, yes, but was it fit for artistic and scientific purposes? They were willing to take part in the work of mankind, but did they have anything original, anything of their own to offer?

"The Kalevala" gave a triumphant answer to all those questions. Its runos held music, and in it all lay the keynote of the whole nation's philosophy of life, because it was created not by one person, but by the nation itself. "The Kalevala" became the broad basis upon which the Finnish language and the Finnish culture developed during the days when Finland was assuming a national entity.

At the present time the literature of Finland forms a very interesting group of its kind. Finland is the natural intellectual buffer state between East and West. It is the territory where the waves from both sides meet and break. This does not mean, of course, that Finland is a kind of devastated no-man's-land which has lost its own fertility. The intellectual waves from East and West have had, on the contrary, a wonderfully invigorating effect upon modern Finnish literature. The Finns have always shown themselves exceedingly sensitive to the different currents in European life. When a strong force is working in one corner of Europe, the Finns feel it immediately, and invite it to their own country. The result, however, becomes another in Finland than in the country whence the influence came. There was a time when Guy de Maupassant was charming Finland, but the character of the Finnish Maupassant was vastly different from that of his French brother, though there existed a family likeness. In the same way a Finnish Tolstoy has another expression of life than the Tolstoy of Russia, though his moral and philosophic principles may be the same.

The greatest living novelist of Finland is undoubtedly Juhani Aho, There has never been any one to describe Finnish nature with the subtlety and tenderness of Juhani Aho, and as a master of the Finnish language he has not yet been surpassed. He started as a realist, but later on joined the neo-romanticists, which seems to be more in accordance with his nature.

The Tolstoy of Finland is Arvid Järnefelt, a personal friend and devoted follower of the Russian genius. His success as a writer has been great in the Northern countries, but not as a prophet. Asceticism of the Tolstoyan kind seems to be impossible even north of the arctic circle.

When speaking of modern Finnish literature it is impossible not to mention at least two more writers: the lyric poet and novelist Eino Leino and the much-admired novelist Johannes Linnankoski, whose death a few years ago was an irreparable loss to Finnish literature. His "Song of the Fiery Red Flower" still remains one of the favorite novels not only in Finland, but of northern Europe. It is the story of a Finnish Don Juan, told with so much poetry and understanding of the human soul and of Northern nature that it must always keep its place as one of the treasures of literature.

Finnish music speaks for itself. Jean Sibelius, the most Finnish of Finns in music, needs no introduction. The present time seems to be a period of music. No political oppression could ever silence song in Finland, because song is the magic of the Finns. Those who like to prophesy tell us that Toivo Kuula will be the next man to follow Sibelius in the conquest of the musical world.

Among Finnish artists Kallela, Järnefelt, and Edelfelt are the best known. Only Kallela has come as far as America. Some of his pictures received generous recognition at the San Francisco Exposition.

The scientific development has gone hand in hand with the artistic growth, though naturally the names of scholars do not easily become household words. The famous sociologist, Professor Edward Westermarck, is perhaps the most popular among Finnish men of science.

The opponents of the independence of Finland always point to the marvelous intellectual development that took place in less than a century, and quite rightly assure us that such rapid growth has never taken place anywhere else except in the wealthy United States. Then why not remain under Russian rule, which apparently has been beneficial?

It is perfectly true that Russian oppression and Finnish development stand in close relationship to each other. When the national movement started in the beginning of the last century it took on a strongly educational character. The Finns were always aware of the fact that if they were to live a life of their own and not be assimilated by their strong neighbors, they had to rise to an equal or a higher level of civilization than theirs. They were never allowed to forget the threat from the East, and the danger kept them alert. Alexander I left the Finns in peace to sober down from the wonderful discovery of being a new, young, and strong nation; but his successor, Nicholas I, was a Czar of the old pattern, and could not suffer any kind of independent life inside the boundaries of his realm. He promptly forbade the Finns to publish anything in the Finnish language except books on agriculture and religion. The Finnish Diet was not allowed to assemble during his reign, and he showed clearly that he meant to rule as an autocrat in Finland and not as a constitutional monarch. His successor, Alexander II, left the Finns to manage their own affairs, and it was chiefly during his reign that the country progressed at top speed. Nicholas I had given the nation a warning not to feel too safe, and now was the time to prepare for coming evil days. Preparation in the Finnish vocabulary meant education. Political reaction began during the reign of Alexander III, and during the time of Nicholas II it developed into ruthless oppression. But Finland stood prepared; the people were educated and could recognize the coming danger.

It is perhaps necessary to point out another fact which helped the Finns in their uneven fight after 1899 when Nicholas II gave a death-blow to the Finnish constitution. Northern people are passionately attached to the country of their birth. The farther north one goes, the more one notices it. It may be a trick of nature in order to prevent those poor districts from being depopulated. Thus, when the fight for national existence became acute, the Finns felt it like a personal misfortune.

One of the things that became clear to the Finns at this time was that the forces of the community had been directed too strongly toward the intellectual development, at the cost of the economic development. As soon as they realized this, they began to mend matters. This was the beginning of the cooperative movement which has changed thoroughly the economic standard of the people.

The time from 1899 to 1905, "the years of disaster," as the Finns call that period, was full of greater suffering than Finland had ever before known. Lawlessness, persecution of honest and loyal citizens, corruption, suppression of free speech, and all the other characteristics of Russian autocratic rule were introduced in the unhappy country. The rest of Europe expressed its sympathy, but did nothing to help. Every week Finland's fight for national existence grew harder and harder, and all hope seemed in vain.

The crisis came in 1905, when the first revolution, or, rather, the rehearsal of a revolution, took place in Russia. On October 31 all Finland went on strike. For eight days life seemed to come to a standstill. The mental effect of this unanimous demonstration has lasted to this very day. The immediate consequence was that the czar restored all the laws he had violated, and granted to Finland certain new rights demanded by the nation. The most important one was the introduction of general suffrage for every man and woman of twenty-four years of age. Finland was thus the first European country to give its women full political rights.

Normal life lasted for a few years, and then oppression began anew. The conditions, however, were now quite different, for the national strike had shown what a weak nation could do if people acted unanimously, and this knowledge made all future struggle easier.

The renewed Russian oppression grew more and more ruthless until the final blow came a few months after the war had started. In November, 1914, the czar issued a new program, which virtually abolished all the few rights that were still left to Finland. It came somewhat untimely, just after Mr. Asquith had declared that the Allies, including Russia, were fighting for the rights of small nations.

After the Russian revolution in March the laws of Finland were restored again, and life looked brighter for the country, though, alas! only for a few weeks. The newly restored laws were broken by the Russian governor-general in Finland just as easily as during the good old days of the czar. Had the Finns not understood it before, they became convinced of it now, that the only way for them to live as members of the family of civilized European nations was to manage their own affairs.

The Finns have shown clearly during the hundred years of their conscious national life that they are capable of development and can add new values to the intellectual and artistic treasury of mankind. They are a law-abiding and peace-loving nation, and they have made their country one of the leaders of progress in Europe. They now ask for independence not as a gift of charity, but as their right.

The only excuse given against Finnish independence is that Finland is necessary for Russia because of strategic reasons. But, thank God, a new era will dawn on mankind after the horrors of this war. An era when "strategic reasons" will be a memory of the dark past, and only reasons of humanity shall count.

It is a good sign for Finland that many of the European governments have ready acknowledged her independence. Her spokesmen will soon approach the Government of the United States, confident that the American nation, the great leader of democracy, will fully understand their aims and that their request will be favorably received.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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