Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cold War and the Finns

Today we tackle another one of Jeffrey’s questions.

With where Finland is, what kind of perspective do the Finns have of the tensions that have/had existed between the United States and its allies and Russia (and/or the former Soviet Union)?  Has this changed a lot since the fall of the Soviet Union?

Thank you for yet another excellent question. Finnish history cares less about the United States than one would assume. We had our own tensions with the big bad Soviets. We fought two wars trying to stay out of the Soviet Union after our independence (1917). The winter war (1935-1940) that lasted just a couple of weeks because the Soviets were very ill prepared. They basically thought they would drive across and counter no resistance. They were poorly dressed and from the south so they were unprepared for winter and Finland easily defeated the invaders.

After this we had a grudging peace. The Soviet Union attacked again in1941 and this time the Soviets were better prepared and the fighting lasted until 1944. In the end the Finns were technically the victors but could not afford to keep going. Russia could keep throwing men at the war, Finland could not. Russia actually lost many more soldiers to one Finnish soldier. For this reason Finland had to make some concessions and give up some land.

After this, appeasement characterized Finland’s policy toward the Soviet Union for the entirety of the cold war and the existence of the Soviet Union. The reason for this was simple, we were afraid of having to go to war again. We did not want to lose more of the ones we loved, have our homes destroyed and we were tired of living in fear. We paid our war reparations which paradoxically revolutionized and jumpstarted our economy and ushered us into the modern era of industry.

Only now are the extreme anti-Russian sentiments going away. Finns used to fear and hate them. The fear in fact was so strong in cases that rumours about Soviet communists drinking blood circulated and other extreme tales of the macabre. This resulted in many Finns migrating to the United States to get away from living in the shadow of the iron curtain. They moved to the area of Minnesota in the USA and parts of Canada. So during the cold war I suppose the United States was seen as a safe haven, away from the Soviet Union. After all, we were in it together, in the fear and worry over what would happen with the cold war.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Finnish Holidays

Jeffrey has sent me several questions. I wanted to answer one of them today. This is the first one:

I am very interested in things that people celebrate in different cultures (festivals and holidays).  What are some of the best that are celebrated in Finland? What are some that may be unique to Finland?

Thank you for the question Jeffrey. I cannot think of any festivals or holidays that are just uniquely Finnish other than Finnish Independence Day that is celebrated December 6. Finland got its independence from Russia in 1917. It is a low key holiday that includes lighting of  candles inside and outside and tar candles outside.

 137Picture 004

Finns huddle by their televisions to watch the Independence Day ball at the presidents castle that includes the who’s-who of Finnish celebrities and politicians. We chat about people’s ball gowns, Source: Helsingin sanomat

admire people’s attractive spouses

 Source MTV3

and watch people trying not to pass out as they shake the president’s hand.


Another holiday of note, while not uniquely Finnish, is Vappu (May Day). It is celebrated on May first and second. It is the holiday of students, working class and children. I have been known to refer to it as “the most vomit smelling pee soaked of all the Finnish holidays.” This year I had to be “pee police” at my church for a three hour prayer meeting. It was an endless stream of people attempting to urinate on the church steps, the front steps. I would chase them off only to have the same people try to do it a short time later all over again. I am a little bitter about Vappu I admit. There is more to say but I will leave it at that.

Another is Juhannus (Midsummer’s Eve or summer solstice). It is also celebrated throughout northern Europe. Finnish people like to go to lakes and make huge bonfires and stay up all night as the sun barely dips below the horizon and if you are in Lapland it does not set at all.

That is all I can think of, for now. Hope it helped. I will answer another one of Jeffrey’s questions next week. I will try to cover other holidays over time, in greater detail as they become current.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Linguistic Strife

As the first question asker KaiWen gets answered first.

This is his question:

I hear that there is strife and controversy between the Finnish and Swedish speaking populations of Finland over language. Why is this? From what I understand they have equal legal status. There are plenty of other multi-lingual countries that seem to get along fine, like Switzerland or Singapore.


Well, thank you for your relevant and complicated question. Let’s start delving into this question with some background and statistics. About 5.5% of the Finnish population is Fenno-Swedish. In Helsinki the Swedish speaking population is about 7%. The autonomous region of Åland (Ahvenanmaa) is almost completely Swedish speaking. Most of the Swedish speaking population lives along the coast. My home city of Tampere seems to have relatively few of them. I have only ever met one. Not counting Åland there are about 250,000 Fenno-Swedes. In contrast there are 54,546 Russian speakers. Total population is about five and a half million based on current estimates.

Now that I have given you a bunch of gibberish numbers let me talk about the history of this language debate. The reason Finland has Swedish speakers who are Finns is that Finland was a province of Sweden up until 1800, I lost my history book so that is the best you get and need for the purposes of this article. After this Finland became an autonomous region within Russia. We retained Swedish as our governing language because that is what it had always been and Russia did not make us change it. Finnish was the language of the lower classes and Swedish the language of the educated upper classes. Later Finnish, after independence, was made into the language of government.

Over time the percentage of Swedish speakers has been declining but there are many communities that the percentage of Swedes if so high that some of them do not speak Finnish that well. Also in contrast I speak no Swedish at all, so bork bork bork. I see Swedish on a daily basis when I go to government buildings but in places like grocery stores, and the like, English is a much more common second language to write things in.

Now to the strife: I am sorry to disappoint you, KaiWen, the reports of actual strife are mostly limited to election times and as far as I have observed it is mostly centered on mandatory Swedish learning in schools. This means kids have to start studying Swedish in middle school whether they want to or not. Most people I have met have relatively little motivation for this because later when they are grown they will go to Sweden and use English as the common language because both Finns and Swedes have excellent English skills. Also English can be used to communicate with the Fenno-Swedish population too if their Finnish skills are poor.

During the parliamentary election this came up as an issue addressed by The Finns (Perussuomalaiset). They are a very nationalistic party and in my opinion racist and anti-immigrant in their policies. They wanted to remove mandatory Swedish from schools. This caused pro- and anti- demonstrations and it got a little heated there for a little bit but as the elections were over and the Perussuomalaiset failed to deliver on anything they promised it blew over along with their Get-those-Darkies-Outta-Here initiative.

The discussion about removing mandatory Swedish has been discussed since I was in elementary school and is one that is not likely to be resolved for quite some time now. I don’t think there has been much serious discussion about removing Swedish as the other official language. In conclusion, sorry to disappoint, KaiWen, the reports of language strife in Finland have been greatly exaggerated.

So, how was the first post? Anything I missed? Is the answer completely wrong? I welcome comment, addition and correction.