Guide: H3 Sweden

or Chapter V of A Guide to Finland, titled “History of Finland, part 3, or the years from 1100 to 1809, when Finland was a province of Sweden”

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The medieval history of Sweden (and Finland as a part of it) is long and complex, and since I mostly don’t know squat about it, I won’t discuss it beyond this short chapter.

Besides, it quite soon degenerates into royal feuds between Sweden, Denmark and whatever other neighbors exist, including generations of cross-border raiding and border post moving between Sweden and Russia, much to the bebotherment of Finnish peons, in whose lands this squabbling took place.

While there was a Swedish king in Stockholm, in Sweden, there was in Finland, opposite to that capital city, a castle and a city called Åbo in Swedish and Turku in Finnish. It’s the oldest city of Finland, and still one of the largest. Most of modern Finland was either under Swedish rule, or then unclaimed wasteland (natives don’t count), or, in the eastern reaches, claimed by the various pre-Russian and Russian princes.

Beyond Turku and a few similar coastal cities, there were villages and occasional castles and manors inland, but most of Finland was just forests and swamps, snows and darkness.

Ah well, most of Finland is still that, and there isn’t anything it could be that would be better.

In my old schoolbooks that Stockholm-ruled kingdom was called “Ruotsi-Suomi” or Sweden-Finland. I don’t know if Swedish schoolbooks call it Finland-Sweden; probably not. Finland was just a province, though a large one, and I think a province much like any other, except that the peons were a bit more drunken and disorderly.

Oh, and they had a crude, brutish language of their own, totally unrelated to the dulcet tones of Swedish.

(There was slight sarcasm in the previous sentence. Still, I won’t even mention that some think spoken Swedish sounds like a legion of cats yarking hair-balls of gigantic-enormous size. That would be an outright scurrilous hint.)

The few well-educated Finns learned Swedish because that was the language of education and business, the language of writing and of royal proclamations. There weren’t many of them, but in those times there weren’t many educated people anywhere.

So, Swedes evolved from crude Vikings into stolid late medievals, and after a 16th-century king called Gustav Vasa (or in Finnish, Kustaa Vaasa), Sweden evolved into a real world power.

Well, Europe-power. Let’s not exaggerate.

A kingdom, an empire even, that included Sweden and Finland and the Baltic states of today, and the site where St. Petersburg stands today (it hadn’t been founded by the Russian 17th-century reformer-king Peter the Great yet), and in due time Sweden even took some disunited German states under its wing, and even sent colonists into newly-found North America.

Those colonies didn’t stick. If you live in Delaware, you might be treading former Swedish ground. You might even have brave Swedish blood — or dour Finnish blood — in your veins. If you’re eminently sensible and calm, or prone to violent binges of drinking and manslaughter, well, then it surely is so.

Being a great power in the north of Europe (heck, all of Europe) meant fighting many bloody wars, and Finns were very good in fighting as long as someone told them who they were supposed to fight. After the Protestant Reformation swept over Sweden, Swedes and Finns fought in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48 ) under their king Gustavus Adolphus, gleefully raping and pillaging Germany for the glorious Protestant cause.

In those wars Finnish light cavalry was known as hakkapeliitat (sing. hakkapeliitta), which probably comes from their war-cry of “Hakkaa päälle!”, which best translates as “Cut them down!”

I trust that the opposing forces understood their intent, if not their words. When a troop of frothing, sword-waving, screaming, pistol-shooting soldiers charges at you, heavy horses churning the ground and the riders yelling strange broken backwards-Latin curses, you can usually trust they mean to cut you down, or worse.

It’s a common view in Finland that these Finnish cavalrymen were widely feared and respected, instrumental in Sweden’s success in the wars the kingdom fought, and maybe even thought invulnerable by their Catholic opponents because of some dark Protestant witchcraft. Swedes apparently think the victories were because of their advanced military tactics, but since this is a Guide to Finland, we shan’t believe that.

Scary witchy Finnish kill-riders! Booga booga! Hakkaa päälle!

Sweden was a great power of varying success and extent, and Finland a part of it. All the various medieval and post-medieval shenanigans happened: mad kings, noblemen thrown out of windows, strife over Polish princesses and Catholic queens, the whole lot. Finland contributed a general here and there, a governor now and then, maybe a bishop or a professor, and quite a lot of dumb country boys willing to die for a few coins or some yellow-and-blue piece of cloth: the same as any province of Sweden.

In Finland, some years were bad, some slightly better. The 17th century was, by most accounts, a pretty bad time: the population of Finland was roughly the same 400 000 people both at the beginning and at the end, and given the family sizes at those times quite many famines, plagues and years of misery were needed for that.

In the years 1696–1697 alone, the so-called nälkävuodet or hunger-years, when two consecutive summers failed to give enough grain, almost a third of Finland’s population shuffled off this mortal coil, ground down by hunger and sheer exhaustion. One part of the diminishing diet in those days was pettuleipä, a poor man’s bread partly made from ground wood because there just wasn’t enough flour. Apparently the part of coniferous trees just under the bark can be ripped off, cleaned and ground to something resembling flour; but one needs to be either starving or a nature food enthusiast to find the result palatable.

Besides, the resulting bread is not healthy if you eat it for too long — but it beats starving. Also, I’ve heard that the number of horses in one part of Finland went down from one thousand to just two haggard beasts; when one is starving to death, horses and dogs start to seem very tasty. When there was nothing left to eat there was nothing to do except leaving and begging, and with beggars various plagues traveled across the country, much quicker and more successful than the beggars themselves.

It is a curious fact that while Finland’s history is mostly a tale of suffering and misery, Finns themselves find it uplifting and heartwarming. Well, at the very least it shows your ancestors had some grit, some endurance, all ancient claims of cannibalism notwithstanding.

At times the wars of Sweden, and of Finland as a part of it, were successful. At times not: the Great Northern War between Sweden and most of its neighbors began in 1700, and Finland, the eastern province of Sweden, was occupied by Russian troops from 1713 to 1721. Because of the things soldiers tend to do when in a land not their own, and because of the ways popular historians tend to term things, that period is nowadays known as isoviha, the Great Hatred. (Meanwhile, the Swedish king decided to attack Norway during the winter, which proved to be every bit as deft an idea as attacking Russia during the winter.)

At about the time when the Great Northern War finally wound down and the troops of the eminently successful Russian emperor Peter the Great left most of Finland, something foreign but very useful landed there: the potato, an export of South America, a traveler from Prussia and Sweden, that now ubiquitous and arch-Finnish vegetable, that reliable source of bland, ovoid underground tubers.

Potatoes might not be very exciting, but they feed people, and in the humble opinion of the writer, they certainly taste much, much better than the previous Finnish staple, turnip. However, the real staple of Finnish food-making, here millennia ago and here today, is rye, and it has only good qualities. There’s nothing bad that can be said of a slice of freshly-baked rye bread with butter melting on it.

Well, except the danger of getting burns in your mouth and down your gullet, and spending the next night passing gas every three minutes, but such rustic woes aren’t worth a mention here.

Now this account of Sweden, Finland and wars still needs one of the third before the first two part, and thus we must recall that, with the ending of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars began. In one of that bloody snarl of wars Russia battered Sweden.

Apparently Russia was allied with France at that time — the year 1807 — and thought that the best way of getting Sweden to their side was to batter it a bit. The war consisted mostly of the Swedish troops retreating, and the Russian ones advancing. All of Finland was overran, there was a coup in Stockholm, and then a hurried peace. Some Finns weren’t so disappointed by this, since this seemed like a chance for autonomy, and maybe even outright independence.

Finland was first occupied and then annexed by the Russians — since this is 1809, these are Imperial Russians, ruled by an Emperor, also called a Czar — and, quite curiously, Finland became a separate Grand Duchy, with the Czar as its Grand Duke. The old Swedish laws and customs were preserved in this strangely separate part of the great Russian empire.

And with that semi-independent Grand Duchy the next part of this brief history of Finland continues, later.

Oh, one thing more about the war. There are some monuments to it, the so-called Finnish War (Suomen sota), but it’s mostly remembered because of a famous epic poem or cycle of poems called The Tales of Ensign Stål (in Finnish, Vänrikki Stålin tarinat), penned by a Finn called Runeberg some fifty years later. It contains all the usual ingredients: heroes, dunderheads and the occasional combinations of the two, and plenty of death, sorrow and machismo. The curious part of it is that it was originally written in Swedish, which at the time of its writing still was the language of the civilized elite.

Well, just at that time, the halfpoint of the nineteenth century, things were about to change: Finns began to think that since they were no longer a part of Sweden, and not quite a part of Russia, maybe they could just as well be something else entirely: Finns?

But that’s something the next chapter will tell more about.

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