EAGLE St.- to Index
Risto Alapuro:

Finnish Nationalism Between East and West

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Finland’s recent entrance into the European Union have redefined the latter’s position as a country between East and West and have led to a peculiar reappraisal of nationalist assumptions.

Originally Finland consolidated itself between two established members of the European state system, of which Sweden was economically and culturally dominant, and Russia politically dominant but economically backward. In the nineteenth century Finnish nationalism evolved in the shadow of Imperial Russia which had annexed Sweden’s Finnish regions during the Napoleonic wars (in 1809) and established a Grand Duchy of Finland within the empire. A century later the Bolshevik revolution left its mark on the entire conception of nationalism in Finland. Not only did the country break away from Russia but the Finnish Reds attempted a revolution which failed . Two and a half decade later Finland narrowly survived a war fought with the Soviet Union, preserving her independence and her Western institutions, but had to comply with political limitation imposed by the Soviets - in a way which during the Cold War made the term "Finlandization" a part of the Western political vocabulary . As a result, "in Finland the independence means independence from Russia" .

Today, with "the short twentieth century" passed , the two external co-ordinates of Finnish identity and politics have been fundamentally altered. Naturally the decline of Russia is of the utmost importance but this decline is accompanied by the rise, not of Sweden this time, but of the West in general. The Finns are very sensitive both to the disintegration in the East and to the integration in the West. The character of this combination seems unique among the countries reacting to the ongoing transformation in Europe and makes traditional nationalist assumptions based on Russia as "the Other" problematic.

Past experience has provided Finnish identity with an overwhelming defensive or reactive element: there is a keen sense of being under threat, and consequently a great caution and a permanent vigilance in the face of possible intrusions from outside. This dimension was especially accentuated in the interwar period when, after the abortive revolution of 1918, the outside enemy seemed to have gained a hold within the nation, in the guise of Finnish communists. But it is discernible in the post-war liberalisation from the 1960’s as well. Then the communists who returned from the cold in 1944 to become at one stage the largest party in parliament, were successfully integrated into the political system through a pluralist policy of accommodation. This policy was actively carried out by the liberals, true, but it was also an integration strategy aimed at furthering national unity. In the 1960’s, "integration had to be equality and diversity", as a political scientist put it . This view amounts to saying that people had to be liberal in order to further national identity!

A heightened sense of obligation towards the national whole has been observed by a number of historians and social scientists. It has been argued, for example, that in labour relations Swedes tend to stress the citizens’ right to work, whereas in Finland the stress is laid rather on the obligation to work. While Swedish welfare ideology is based on the idea of a mutual compromise between interest groups, in Finland the compromise in conceived negatively, as a duty necessitated by the common good .

It is true, of course, that the stress on a national whole has greatly diluted since the interwar years. Yet in continued to underline Finnish national identity during the post-war decades of careful manoeuvring with the Soviet. Also, an intimate linkage exists between the conceptions of the nation and of the state or, put somewhat differently, between nationality (i.e. cultural similarities) and citizenship (i.e. political rights). The connection goes back to the epoch of the Grand Duchy, but it was reinforced by the experiences of 1917 and 1918. Significantly, the Finnish words for nationality and citizenship are, respectively, kansallisuus and kansalaisuus, both derived from the word kansa, meaning the "people". Moreover, the fusion of the two concepts is revealed by the expression of suomalainen kansanvalta for Finnish democracy. ("Finnish democracy") .

In Finland the "ethnic-genealogical" and the "territorial-civic" conception of the nation became and have continued to be very closely connected. This shows the way in which Finland’s position between East and West has shaped nationalist assumptions. Both the ethnic conception common in nineteenth century Eastern and East-Central European minority regions and the civic conception typical of the established Western European states evolved in the Grand Duchy and were finally more or less fused. The connection was facilitated by the comparative homogeneity of Finnish culture .

It should not be forgotten, however, that internally Finland is a country with a long Western institutional tradition. What stressing Finland’s position between East and West means today is that underlying the Western social structures and institutions there are aspects of national identity which make the Finnish configuration specific: a heightened sensitivity to the survival of the political unit (and the overwhelmingly political conception of independence implied in it), and a close connection between the state and the nation (orbetween the political system and cultural representations).

The specific combination of eastern and Western influences is important in trying to make sense of the Finns’ reactions to the present large-scale redefinition of their country’s position in Europe " reactions which constitute an example of "the recurring and contested nature of national identities even in (i) the established Western states" . But so far, no unambiguous picture has emerged. A few examples may demonstrate the complexity of the present situation.

Two reactions are clear, even obvious. There is a (rather limited) resurgence of statist nationalism of the interwar type, largely a reaction to the previous decades of “Finlandization” which led to a deliberate downplay of overtly national manifestations. Now, to take two examples, the civil guards, i.e. the armed anti-socialist organisation banned at the end of the Second World War by the armistice stipulations, are celebrated, and the re-annexation of the part of Carelia conquered by the Soviet Union in 1944 is also openly discussed. Another, more widely shared reappraisal had forced a number of leading politicians of the 1970’s and early 1980’s into the background , and provoked a painful and/or liberating examination of the years of "Finlandization".

At the same time the present situation has nurtured a degree of national self-confidence which may lead to more tolerance of cultural diversity and to a less suspicious attitude towards foreigners in general. At best this trend could even allay the pronounced suspicion of immigrants and refugees " in a country with reputedly the lowest percentage of non-native population in Europe. Opinion polls, among other things, show that today a pride in Finnish nationality is markedly more often expressed than before and that this positive feeling is most discernible among the young educated middle classes. The latter result is perhaps no news, but interestingly the most widely discussed ideological line of the new liberalism sees itself as a heir of the so-called Young Finnish tradition, whose constitutionalism and assertiveness vis-à-vis Russia fell into disrepute during the post-war decades .

An instructive demonstration of the prevailing nationalist assumptions and their complexities was provided by the process that led Finland to join the European Union in the beginning of 1995. As never before, this process forced the Finns to take an active stand on a national issue that will determine the future course of the country. As never before, the decision was not reactive: this time Finland did not face a fait accompli making the country comply with conditions dictated from outside, as was the case when the major European wars - the Napoleonic wars and the two world wars - redeterminated the country’s path. Now the Finns themselves had to make the choice.

The referendum campaign displayed the two national(ist) fears that until now have been closely intertwined: fear of losing its precious and politically or institutionally defined independence, and fear of Russia. But unlike earlier, this time the two fears worked in opposite directions, defence of independence against membership and fear of Russia on behalf of it. Alongside potential economic losses, the question of independence apparently contributed to the most distinct feature of the vote, the farmers’ clear-cut NO to the EU. On the other hand, an echo of the latter fear was discernible in the middle class "yes for Europe", even if Russia was not expressly mentioned. The pro-EU campaign evoked the threat that in staying outside, Finland would be excluded from the Western community, i.e. from the Finns’ "natural reference group", and left alone. Significantly, Finland’s belonging to Western Europe required a special emphasis.

A secure majority of 56 per cent of voters supported membership which was considerably more than in Sweden. One reason for the result certainly lies in Finland’s history as a state and a nation. In Sweden there was no need to stress Sweden’s status as a Western European country, for example. There the issue seems to have been more clearly an economic question than in Finland, where not only the opponents but also the protagonists of the membership presented other than economic or "instrumental" arguments .

Finally, the composition of the new government, formed after the parliamentary elections in March 1995, tells much of the erosion of the long line originating in 1918. Both the Conservatives and the ex-Communists have joined the Social-Democrat-led government in a unique coalition bringing together the two parties that most definitely represent the antagonism of the civil war in 1918. In the opposition is pushed the rural- and agrarian-based Centre party, which is hostile or at best very reserved towards European integration. Western integration has emerged to shape political divisions, but the change would be inconceivable without the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

Yet Finland still lies between East and West, being the only EU-county with a common border - a long common border - with Russia. Therefore the Finnish national identity or, rather identities will continue to be defined, redefined, and perhaps reinvented in relation to both parts of Europe.


Risto Alapuro is Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. He is the author of "Suomen synty paikallisena ilmiönä 1890-1933" (The Birth of Finland as a local phenomenon 1890.1933), publ. Hanki ja jää, 1994:, "State and Revolution in Finland", Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

See Risto Alapuro, State and Revolution in Finland (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), chs. 5, 6 and 9.

The Soviet-Finnish relationship established the term "Finlandization" to cover compliance or tacit submission to the interests of the Soviet Union in foreign policy and in politically sensitive internal matters, without changes in institutional structures. Also, the phenomenon implied a self-censorship, or a voluntary self-limitation that denied its character as submission (actually any denial of dependence could be considered as an indication of the symptom itself).

Matti Klinge, "Mitä on Suomen itsenäisyys" [What Is the Independence of Finland?], Helsingin Sanomat, 12 October 1994.

See Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century (Michael Joseph, 1994).

Ilkka Heiskanen, "Epilogi: yhteiskuntatieteet, käytännön yhteiskuntateoria ja maamme älyllinen ilmasto" [Epilogue: Social Sciences, Social Theory of Practice and the Intellectual Climate in Finland], in J. Nousiainen & D. Anckar (eds.), Valtio ja yhteiskunta. Tutkielmia suomalaisen valtiollisen ajattelun ja valtio-opin historiasta [State and Society: Essays in the History of the Finnish Political Thinking and Political Science] (Helsinki: WSOY, 1983), p. 321 (italics in the original).

Pauli Kettunen, "Palkkatyö ja pohjoismainen kansanvalta Suomessa" [Wage labour and Nordic Democracy in Finland], in M. Majander (ed.), Ajankohta. Poliittisen historian vuosikirja [Juncture: Yearbook of Political History] 1992, pp. 133-161.

Pauli Kettunen, "Politiikan menneisyys ja poliittinen historia" [Past of Politics and Political History], in P. Ahtiainen et al. (eds.), Historia nyt. Näkemyksiä suomalaisesta historiantutkimuksesta. [History Now: Views on the Finnish History Writing] (Helsinki: WSOY, 1990), pp. 163-207.

See Klaus Mäkelä, "Kulttuurisen muuntelun yhteisöllinen rakenne Suomessa" [with an English summary: Social Structure of Cultural Variation in Finland], Sosiologia, Vol 22., 1985, No. 4, pp. 247-260, 324-325. " It should be noted that about six per cent of the total population in Finland consists of a well-established minority of Swedish- speakers.

As an integral part o f the Swedish kingdom up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, Finland shares the administrative system, the Evangelic-Lutheran religion, the legal system and other central institutional arrangements with the other Nordic (Scandinavian) countries.

John Hutchinson, "Back from the Dead? The Rediscovery of Cultural Nationalism", The ASEN Bulletin, No. 8, Winter 1994-1995, p. 4.

A case in point is the former Centre party leader and a former foreign minister Paavo Väyrynen.

As a react to the administrative Russification at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Young Finns or the liberal wing of the Finnish national movement adopted a policy of passive resistance and formed (with the Swedish party) the so-called constitutionalist bloc, whereas the Finnish party of the Fennomans (the Old Finns) followed a course of compliance or appeasement with the Russians.

Erik Allardt summarises the Scandinavian debate in saying that outspokenly moral and emotionally appealing arguments were used by the adversaries, whereas the arguments in favour of membership were economic and instrumental. See Erik Allardt, "The Europe of Scandinavia and Scandinavians", in H.E. Chahabi & A. Stepan (eds.), Politics, Society, and Democracy: Comparative Studies (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 137-140.

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