(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist in the European Division.)
The Russian Revolution of 1917 provided a chance for a number of peoples to separate from a collapsing empire. After more than a century of tsarist rule, Finland seized this opportunity. Following intense deliberations, Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, head of the majority in the Finnish Senate, declared Finland’s independence on December 6, 1917. The country’s sovereignty was subsequently formally recognized by Vladimir Lenin, Chairman of the Council of the People’s Commissars. A hundred years later, Finland is celebrating its century of independence throughout 2017 with the slogan “Suomi 100,” or “Finland 100.”
Independence became a pressing issue for many Finns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries while Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia. Although Tsar Alexander II’s popular liberal reforms of the 1860s had increased Finland’s autonomy, it was gradually undermined by the Russification policies of the subsequent tsarist regimes. These policies included, for instance, censorship of the press, making Russian the official government language, and integrating the Finnish army into the Russian one.
Remarkably, between the two periods of oppressive Russification, 1899-1905 and 1908-17, the Finns were able to create a new legislative body, the Parliament, in 1906, to replace the outdated system of the Diet and its four estates. This radical reform created a unicameral parliament and universal suffrage. Finnish women were the first in Europe to be granted full political rights, the right to vote, and the right to stand for election.
Swedish rule from the 12th to the 19th centuries, prior to the ceding of Finland to Russia in 1809, had fostered a tradition of freedom in Finland quite different from the feudal model favored by imperial Russia. The unique Finnish language, first captured in writing in a Protestant primer and catechism in 1543, further promoted a sense of Finnish exceptionalism. Late 19th-century luminaries promoting the cause of Finnish identity included composer Jean Sibelius and painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Earlier inspiration had been provided by poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish national epic, the “Kalevala,” which was first published in 1835.
No sooner had independence been declared, however, than a bloody civil war broke out between the Finnish Reds, who wanted to be part of the new Russia, and the Whites, who wanted total independence from that country. The Reds were supported by Russian Bolsheviks, and the Whites by Imperial Germany.
Tens of thousands perished in this conflict which took place from January to May, 1918. Eventually, General Carl Gustaf Mannerheim led the Whites to victory and the establishment of a fledgling nation.
After considerable turbulence, Finland elected its first president, Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg, in 1919 although there had been some thought in 1918 of establishing a constitutional monarchy, the Kingdom of Finland, with a German prince as king. That same year, the U.S. recognized independent Finland and continued its 1918 export assistance of much-needed agricultural products to a country suffering from a dreadful food shortage caused by lack of imports due to WWI. Although a number of countries had acknowledged Finland’s independent status as early as 1918, the U.S. waited until Finland’s friendly relations with U.S. enemy, Germany, were no longer a concern after World War I.
Finland sought friendly relations with the U.S. and, remarkably, was the only nation to pay back its debt to the U.S. for the food relief during World War I. In December 1920, Finland joined the League of Nations, thus claiming its place in the new world order that was emerging after the tumultuous early years of the 20th century.