Politicisation of 19th Century Finnish Society

Finland, after six centuries under Swedish rule, became part of the Russian Empire in 1809 as a result of the Finnish War. It seemed Finnish society would change little. There was no reason that the traditional rights and laws that existed under Swedish rule would not continue to exist under the new Russian masters. However, the 19th century was a century of emerging political ideologies and national awakening in many parts of Europe, and in this respect Finland was no exception. A nation of mostly agricultural workers would become politically active in the face of Russification, and torn between two languages.

In 1863, the Finnish Diet convened for the first time in 50 years. According to Singleton, this convention of the Finnish Diet “marked the beginning of a new era in Finnish political life.” The language question became a hot issue in Finnish political circles and the intelligentsia. The language Decree of 1863 stated that Finnish should become an official language of government and should be on equal terms with Swedish to litigants in the courts. This caused the late 19th century to become a time of national awareness, and cultural celebration. New concepts such as Finnish nationalism emerged, greatly aided by romantic-nationalistic cultural figures such as Aleksis Kivi. Slowly, the Finnish language gained ground on an administrative level, which had been dominated by the Swedish, and to some extent the Russians. Progress was slow, but it was happening. Early on in the change, some Russians saw the emergence of Finnish nationalism as a tool, within limits, to drive a wedge between Finland and Sweden. But later, during the 1890’s, newspapers in the Finnish language driving a nationalist agenda came increasingly under attack from Russian censorship and the Press Act of 1891. In 1898, when Bobrikov was appointed Governor-General of Finland, censorship tightened significantly, and years of quite severe "Russifiaction" policies followed. In the late 19th century education at higher levels became increasingly available in Finnish, and so the Finnish-speaking population started to have access to all levels of society. Some Swedish speakers tried to hold on to their traditional privileges and rights, which came under threat from the Finnish speaking majority. The Language dispute divided Finns mainly into two parties”: The Svecomen and the Fennomen (a 3rd party, which was rather minimal) . The Language issue divided the educated classes of Finnish society, and few remained neutral in the debate.

In 1869 it was decreed that the Finnish Diet should convene at least once every five years, but in actual fact it convened even more frequently. In 1879 electoral laws were loosened and greater economic freedom was granted. The Finns became increasingly autonomous within the Russian Empire, and thanks to the gradual liberalization of the government, political parties began to develop. The Svecomen and Fennomen parties that concentrated on the Language issue were the first parties to emerge. After the split within the Fennomen party the Young Finns were the first to come up with some sort of social programmes with the aim to improve conditions of the poor rural peasants. After Russia’s Russification policies started in earnest in the 1890’s, the Young Finns had a strict agenda to preserve Finland’s autonomous position within the Russian Empire. They were backed on this issue by the majority of the population, and it was the threat of Russification which politicized ordinary Finnish peasants. The new hostile attitude towards Finnish autonomy displayed by Russian officials was seen as threat to the gains that had been acquired earlier. Opinions on how to resist Russification were split, but that it should be resisted, was agreed on. One group, known as the Activist, thought that direct action must be taken, in the form of strikes and may be even military insurgency, to resist the oppressive Russification policies. The Old Finns on the other hand believed that careful negotiation was key to ensuring the continuing progress they had made. They believed otherwise, the Russians might decide to take Finnish matters into their own hands entirely, and that everything that they had worked for would be lost.

After a century of nation-building by many politicians and romantic-nationalist cultural figures, the Finns, both Swedish and Finnish-speaking, had grown fond of their rights and their autonomous position within the Russian Empire. Finnish speakers had found new confidence as the language rose in status. It was no longer a language for the rural poor and the uneducated classes, but it was now an official language of government. The Finns had a new-found glorious and mythical past that came with the Kalevala, and Finns had to a certain extent, the power to decide over their own matters. In short, the Finns were suddenly something which resembled a nation, they had found an identity of which they could be proud of. Russifiacation threatened to take away this new identity, and all the rights and gains that came with it. The Post Office Manifesto of 1901 really shows the extent to which Finnish society had become politicized, defiant in the face of a common threat. In Response to the February manifesto and the conscription decree of 1901, Finns raised petitions, and the first of these was signed by half a million Finns out of a total adult population of 1.5 million. When one considers the vast expanse of wilderness between settlements, the sparsely spread population, one begins to realize the extent to which the Finnish people had become determined to resist Russification.

In conclusion, it was the cultural golden age, followed by a starkly contrasting time under Russification, which made Finns realize that what they had was something they had never had before, and that if they did not do something, they might never have it again. It is quite surprising, that in a country like Finland, where most of the people live off farming, such a large percentage of the people were politically active. This trend continued throughout the early 20th century, until independence in 1917 and the Civil war which followed in 1918.

Fred Singleton, “A short History of Finland”