January 1999  


Studying Finland: problems of language and isolation

Who does research on Finland in Britain? There are the established academics, but what about the younger generation? In an attempt to find out, the Finnish Institute hosted a meeting on 4 December to young academics from all over Britain. Encouragingly, 27 British and other students came together from 18 different universities to discuss their postgraduate and postdoctoral research on Finland.

The students shared many concerns. The problem of isolation from others working on the same country remains a rule rather than an exception. Not always, but often, it also involves a lack of specialised supervision and library resources. Lack of contact with other postgraduates can be a problem, too, not to mention the obstacles presented by the Finnish language.

As the students mentioned, however, the very fact that Finland remains something of a minority interest can also be a benefit. Many felt that working on a small country made them adopt a more multidisciplinary approach. They also felt encouraged by the support given from Finland (see CIMO scholarships on the opposite page) and voiced their support for future research seminars to be held at the Finnish Institute or elsewhere in the country.

Below are two examples of Finland-related research undertaken by postgraduates in British universities.

Stuart Burch is writing his PhD at Nottingham Trent University on Monuments in Parliament Square. His MA research deals more closely with Finland.

From Väinämöinen to Kekkonen: Some thoughts on the commemoration of the hero in Finnish art

As an undergraduate preparing to embark on an exchange programme in Finland I distinctly remember being struck by my inability to name a single Finnish painter or sculptor. At the time I recall reading an essay entitled 'Provincialism' by Kenneth Clark (that bastion of traditional art history) in which he attempted to address the relationship between cultural 'centres' and 'peripheries'. His conclusions served to reinforce the cultural hegemony of established focal points of the visual arts. My studies in Finland shifted this focus and availed me with an altogether different artistic canon.

Perhaps it is not surprising that texts (especially in the English language) relating to Finnish art tend to address its cultural traditions from an overtly 'national' perspective. This is often reinforced by the nature of exhibitions in art galleries and museums. To some extent this has dictated my perspective of Finnish art and determined the character of my research. I have examined it within a heavily historical and, especially, political framework. Initially this stemmed from those artworks lauded as the "masterpieces" of the "golden age" of Finnish art inspired by an iconography of Finnish mythology, landscape and rural communities visualised by the likes of Akseli Gallén-Kallela, Pekka Halonen and Albert Edelfelt.

Within such a framework it seemed normal to choose representations of the Kalevala from the early 19th to early 20th centuries. This led me to chart an aesthetic course contextualised by national identity and culminating in political independence. Such an outline inevitably produced a genealogy of heroes, principal among these being Gallén-Kallela and his heroic identification with the figure of Väinämöinen.

An unintentional extension to this theme took the form of my MA thesis entitled 'The sculptural commemoration of Urho Kekkonen: a contextual account of the presidential monuments in Helsinki.' It was inspired by the commissioning of a new memorial to honour Finland's longest serving president. To be sited near Parliament House this sculpture will take its place amongst a pantheon of other commemorative monuments to eminent statesmen. This political valhalla immortalises the nation's 'fathers'. The significance of this lineage, its origins and stylistic expression offer a fascinating insight into the nature of Finnish politics, society and art. Considered in the light of my earlier investigations into the characterisation of Väinämöinen and other cultural heroes the commemoration of such presidents as Svinhufvud, Mannerheim, and Kekkonen provide examples of a burgeoning family tree of national heroes depicted in Finnish art.


Mandy Hoogendoorn, PhD student at Churchill College, University of Cambridge

The unfinished civil war: The politics of memory in Finland, 1918-45

Eighty years ago, Finland was embroiled in a Civil War. This year's eightieth anniversary will be the last major commemorative event that living survivors are likely to see. We have reached that transition, to use Pierre Nora's phrase,redemption.jpg (12046 bytes) when history that was written in blood is changing to one written in ink. Realisations of mortality have spurred some of these last survivors at long last to talk about their wartime experiences. What once constituted a wall of silence in the public space is giving way to lively debate.

I call this study the 'Unfinished Civil War' because it is only now, at the fin-de-siècle, that Finland is making headway in breaking with its difficult past. The Finnish government is currently pouring tens of millions of marks into a project to reckon the names and numbers of victims who perished in the Civil War. Writers and film-makers have also capitalised on the commemorative occasion. A memorial explosion in a subtle fashion, the process is indicative perhaps of the inherent complications associated with remembering fratricidal violence. It is, after all, a process that lacks any definitive resolution or decisive victory for any given group or individual. Ultimately it is a question of compromise.

What I am concerned with is the contest between state and civil society over public remembrance in the interwar period in particular. However, reference to the post-Second World War in the conclusion will add the requisite historical context. I also try to emphasise the ways in which people dealt with the repression and violence of 1918 politically, by tracing the relationship between amnesty and reform on the one hand, and the prospect of social mobilisation on the other. The argument is simple: remembrance of the Civil War has been political from the outset as it always is when it crosses with class warfare.

The bulk of the thesis therefore discusses the war of public remembrance, focusing on the state and its construction of the 'myth' of the Civil War, its themes, and interpretive structures which stressed selection and justification. Moving on to families and civil society, I wish to highlight the inclusive and compassionate codes and cadences of remembrance. Here the concern is with the climate for social mobilization as a means of spurring reform and amnesty.

Inevitably, I will also need to discuss the rise of the extreme political Right in the 1920s and 1930s and its implications for remembrance, and deal with the Second World War and the subsequent prospects for settling accounts. The piece concludes by reiterating how the Civil War has, in many ways, remained unfinished because of the lack (or dearth) of justice through courts and the legal system, reparations, and public truth-telling. As such, I attempt to illustrate the political dynamic between state and civil society through the kaleidoscope of public remembrance, and in the broader context, outline the war's profound and enduring traces in Finnish society.

The photograph is from Olli Saarela's film The Redemption (1997), which decribes the horrors of the Finnish Civil War. (Courtesy of the Finnish Film Foundation)

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