Guide: H4 Russia (1/2)

or the First Half of Chapter VI of A Guide to Finland, titled “History of Finland, part 4, or from 1809 to 1918, when Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia, got infected by nationalism, and finally took its independence”

* * *

As has been told before, in 1809 Finland passed from being a province of Sweden into being a part of the great Russian Empire.

Something strange happened in that transaction, however, either out of expediency or benevolence, or then because of simple administrative inertia: the old Swedish laws and systems of Finland were retained, the Finnish army stayed a separate force of its own, the Finnish senate stayed at the top of Finland’s chain of political critters, the Finnish post office issued its own stamps, and there were some border checks between Finland and Russia, and so on. Finland even grew in size a bit, as some Finn-infested borderlands of Russia were sloughed off to be a part of the new borderland entity: a separate Grand Duchy of Finland, with the Russian Emperor as its nominal Grand Duke, and a Russia-appointed Governor-General in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, representing the Emperor who no doubt was busy in St. Petersburg doing something else.

I don’t know what — inspecting parades, maybe? That’s what most royals seem to do.

Oh, and early in the Russian era Finland’s capital was moved to Helsinki, opposite across the Gulf of Finland from Russia-ruled Estonia, and especially its capital, Tallinn — the two were together quite a pair of fortresses and lookout-posts for the glorious Russian capital of St. Petersburg should the navy of some foreign foe come a-calling.

No navy did; ah well.

The geopolitical reason for moving the capital was that Turku, the old capital, had been too close to Sweden — almost but not quite across the Baltic narrows from Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, actually. An incidental result was that by inertia Helsinki’s been Finland’s capital ever since: and its university, lifted wholesale from Turku at the same time, has been Finland’s biggest.

It cannot, however, be the best since the author of this document doesn’t work there.

But back to the history —

For a long while, the nineteenth century from that on was a very pleasant and exciting time in Finland. Being cut off from Sweden and not quite a part of Russia, Finns became slowly more aware of their individuality among nations: the usual Romantic thing of finding a past, a language and bucketloads of glory for one’s newly discovered nation.

A Finn called Elias Lönnrot, a schoolteacher with feet of steel, wandered in the isolated borderlands of Finland and Russia, listening to the songs and tales of the old folk. The Finns of those regions (Karelia in English, Karjala in Finnish) were less dour and sullen than average Finlandfolk, and enjoyed singing long, partly improvised tales of gods, heroes, steel and death. Not the usual grandiose stuff of Arthurs and Iliads, though — Finnish imagination doesn’t seem to stretch to quite such levels of epic buffoonery. Lönnrot collected and collected, and because the intellectual climate of the day seemed to demand more and more national tropes for Finland, edited some of those tales together into something like a loose narrative, and released it under the name of Kalevala, giving birth to a Finnish national epic.

Kalevala’s main character was Väinämöinen: a long-bearded sage, a man of great wisdom, a singer of songs of magic and insight. Maybe it tells something of Finland that an old man playing a kantele (a traditional string instrument) was the main character, instead of some young and loud sword-swinger.

(Or maybe it tells something of the long-bearded old men who sang the songs at Lönnrot.)

In fact, if I am not mistaken, the young, loud swordwielders of Kalevala fare very badly — one loses a duel of magical songs to Väinämöinen and is sung by the power of his knowledge deep to a swamp until he cries uncle; another, after a life full of woe, sleeps with his own sister by mistake and then kills himself. Readers of Tolkien already know that this unlucky Kullervo was Tolkien’s model for the equally sad life of Turin Turambar.

Thus Finland had a national epic; and it acquired a national song (Maamme-laulu or “the song called Our Land”), and even a flag (a blue cross on white) to wave. Of various nationalistic writings, the Tales of Ensign Stål has been mentioned already. An interesting bit of history is that the national song, and the Tales, and most of the nationalistic “Finnish” productions of those days, were originally written in Swedish, just because in those days the well-educated and wealthy of Finland still spoke the old language of culture. As this avalanche of nationalism quickened, some “translated” their names from Swedish to Finnish, learned a bit of the common language, and made it their purpose to tell the bumpkins what a unique gift their history of toil and misery was.

Hopefully the reader isn’t aggrevated by the writer’s lack of proud patriotic fervor: while the writer dearly loves his country, he can’t quite whip up the necessary frothing-at-mouth mindset.

One might wonder at the reaction of the Russian overlords at this seething invention of a mythology and an identity. For a long time, the Russian emperors and thus their appointed Governor-Generals were tolerant, probably out of sheer disinterest; in return, Finns rather liked the Russian lords. There still is a very prominent statue of Alexander II (reigned 1855-81) in the middle of the Finnish capital. By all accounts Alexander, the second of his name, of Russia was a progressive and likable chap: liberating serfs, doing away with censorship, and so on.

But then, of course, things went straight to hell. Or, rather, straight to Russia. Alexander was killed by an anarchist’s bomb; his son and successor Alexander III was a staunch nationalist, a glassy-eyed son of Mother Russia and a friend of the Russian Orthodox Church (strange how often nationalistic and religious manias go together). Since his father had been killed by anarchists, he diagnosed the realm’s disease as one of openness and liberty, and took all possible steps to squash those troublesome afflictions.

One of his bluntest weapons in this was Russification — making things Russian. For the borders of his empire, and for at least a third of the empire’s population, this meant the end of special freedoms and privileges.

In Finland, this meant the adaptation of Russian (instead of some gobbledygook Swedish) as the official language of business, the doing away with of the silly restriction of Finnish conscripts doing service in Finland only, and so on. That wasn’t exactly the best thing to do in a country that was just going through the most fevered phase of the infection of nationalism.

In 1894 Alexander III died and was succeeded by his son Nikolai, who would be the last czar — a term he apparently preferred over “emperor”; thus he shall be for the duration of this document called by the latter term. Like father, like son: Russians and others may adore him as a hero of some sort, even a saint, because by some obscure leap of logic the victims of murderous villains are elevated to those heights, but for Finland, Nikolai II was a Russifying, oppressing disaster just like his father.

(A scoundrel might remark that Nikolai also continued with the religious blindness of his father: the writer cannot rank very high anyone that lets a frothing Siberian monk mystic, the infamous Rasputin, become the chief medical help of his sick son. Ah well, by what the writer has heard Nikolai was a weak man too certain that there was a strong God behind him — such men usually easily do very stupid things.)

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