For more than three hundred years, ever since Peter the Great turned his empire’s expanding ambitions westward, life in the lands between Russia and the rest of Europe has been fraught with danger. On the front line, Georgia, the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic States have been subject to serial conquest or oppression from east and west, and regular devastation as the venues for wars between their powerful neighbours, while geopolitics has been almost equally unkind to a second line of frontier states in southeastern Europe – think Warsaw Pact.
One way or another, whether as provinces of collapsing empires or as sovereign nations, all these states suffered appallingly during both world wars, but for most of the First World War one such frontier zone, very much on the front line between Russia and Europe, was left in peace by both sides. I’m talking about Finland, which announced what amounted to its debut on the wartime front pages by declaring national independence on 6 December 1917. So how did Finland get so lucky?
Finland had formed the eastern third of Sweden until the early 19th century, when Swedish involvement in the Napoleonic wars left it vulnerable to invasion. Diplomatically isolated after Napoleon’s French Empire agreed a (short-lived) peace with the Russian Empire in 1807, and already in dispute with Denmark about control over Norway, Sweden faced war on two fronts when Russian forces entered Finland in 1808, and ceded the province to Russia as part of the treaty that ended the war the following year.
Finland remained an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire until 1917, with the Tsar holding the title of Grand Duke, but its national identity developed in the meantime. By 1914 the Finnish language, as spoken by the peasant majority of the country’s three million people, had become established as a legitimate alternative to the official Swedish still spoken by the wealthy and bureaucratic classes (some 15 percent of the population), and in spite of an aggressive programme of linguistic and cultural Russification imposed by St. Petersburg since the turn of the twentieth century.
The Finnish Party, formed during the 1860s, represented pure political nationalism in Finland when the War began. The Swedish-speaking elite meanwhile dominated the politics of liberal reform, which tended inevitably towards independence, and pro-Russian groups provided noisy, well-funded opposition to nationalist politics. Recent industrialisation around Helsinki, and conscription into the Russian Army (begun in 1901 as part of the Russification programme), had encouraged the spread of socialism among an active minority of workers and intellectuals, but they were split into internationalist and pro-nationalist groups. During the next two and half years, the impact of pan-European war on this potentially lively political admixture was relatively muted and generally positive.
Though some of Finland’s intellectual movers and shakers reflected Swedish cultural links with Germany, and regarded a German victory as the most likely route to independence, the region’s industrial and trading interests were strongly pro-Russian. The biggest pre-War markets for Finnish exports of timber and raw materials, Germany and Great Britain, were no longer accessible, but trade with Russia had been growing throughout the Russification period and now took over. Led by exports of raw materials for the manufacture of metals in St. Petersburg, business with Russia gifted the Finnish economy the kind of boom enjoyed by many neutrals trading with warring empires.
Despite being part of Russia, and hosting most of the Russian Baltic fleet at Helsinki, Finland was effectively neutral. The Russian government never instituted formal wartime conscription in Finland, and although a few thousand Finns fought for the Russians as volunteers, they were matched by numbers of volunteers for the German Army. Finland had no army of its own, and though some 50,000 Russian troops were garrisoned in the country against the possibility of German invasion from the south, the war on the Eastern Front was still a long way away when the February Revolution overthrew the Russian Tsar in 1917.
Like many small, neutral countries, Finland experienced political fallout from its sudden economic upsurge, which triggered rapid inflation and lowered the real value of wages. At the same time, inability to trade across the Baltic left Finland dependent on Russia for the import of food supplies, and consequent shortages, especially of cereals, fuelled popular discontent and support for change. Revolution in Russia gave these elements, as well as liberal and socialist politicians, a sudden and galvanising dose of optimism, fortified when the new Provisional Government in Petrograd granted restoration of the Finnish constitution as one of its first acts in power.
Finland already had a parliament, the single-chamber Eduskunta. Established after the 1905 revolution in Russia, and elected on a form of universal suffrage that was the first in Europe to enfranchise women but that allocated votes according to taxes paid, it had been effectively powerless under the Tsar, who ran Finland through appointed imperial officials. Elections in 1916 had given a small overall majority to the Social Democrats – socialists, but not at this stage necessarily revolutionary socialists –and in March 1917 the Provisional Government re-designated the Eduskunta as a senate, governed by a coalition cabinet based on those results. Social Democrat leader Oskari Tokoi became prime minister in a spirit of cooperation with the new Russian regime, but it didn’t last for long.
Social Democrats began making plans for immediate full independence, and were supported inside Russia by the Bolsheviks, but liberal and conservative elements in parliament refused to support the socialists, preferring to trust the Provisional Government’s promises of good intentions. When Petrograd sent additional troops into Finland and, on 18 July, dissolved the new Senate, socialists demanded a complete break from Russia – but non-socialist politicians accepted the dissolution in anticipation of success in new elections, and went on to win an overall majority when they were held in October.
At this point, with violence escalating between socialist groups centred on the relatively industrialised south of the country and conservative elements in control of the rural north, Finnish politics was turned on its head by the Bolshevik Revolution. While Finland’s socialists gradually came to regard Bolshevik Russia as their most reliable protector against a conservative or bourgeois state, liberal and conservative interests suddenly wanted nothing to do with Russia and sought full independence at once.
On 15 November, hours after the Bolsheviks’ announcement of self-determination for ‘the peoples of Russia’, the Senate declared itself in temporary control of Finland, and it voted for full independence on 6 December. The Bolsheviks recognised Finland’s independence at the end of the month, and were swiftly followed by Germany, but these were hardly benevolent acts. The German high command had its eye firmly fixed on an empire in Eastern Europe that might include Finland, and the Bolsheviks played nice because they confidently expected a socialist uprising in Finland.
The Social Democrats and other socialist groups in Finland had indeed formed a Red Guard, and they staged a coup in Helsinki on 28 January 1918. The Senate government fled to the town of Vaasa, on the west coast, where it waited for help from the ‘White Guard’, an anti-socialist force gathering under the command of former Russian Army General Mannerheim. This was civil war, but it was at least destined to be brief.
Reinforced by the German Army’s Baltic Division – a unit largely staffed by volunteers from the Baltic region – Mannerheim won a conclusive victory over Red forces near the southeastern frontier at the Battle of Viborg on 29 April. The remnants of the Red Guard surrendered in early May, while its leadership fled to Russia. No longer threatened by socialist uprising, and spared any serious attempt at German occupation before the Armistice put an end to the threat (and to conservative plans to establish a constitutional monarchy under a German prince), Finland proceeded into the post-War world as an independent democratic republic.
In many ways, as I hope this superficial skim illustrates, the centenary of Finland’s independence commemorates one of the First World War’s very few winners. The country enjoyed several years of peace and relative prosperity while undergoing accelerated political development before 1917. Relatively conservative nationalist leaders were then able to exploit the chaos surrounding the Russian revolutions to establish independence, and to maintain it using German help without becoming clients of Berlin. Despite perennial menace from the Soviet Union, involving two wars (and dangerously close relations with Nazi Germany) between 1939 and 1945, Finland has retained its independent, democratic status ever since, becoming a prosperous and peaceful state with a longstanding commitment to neutrality in geopolitical disputes.
On the other hand, let’s not get too carried away with the good news. Glad as I am to remind British heritage consumers that, beyond Tommies and trenches, the First World War did have some positive long-term effects, it says something very grim about the way of the world in 1917 when a country that lost 37,000 lives in a four-month civil war gets to count as lucky.