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A Guide to Finland

I wrote this thing in 2008–2009 for my blog. It is accurate to the level of someone telling you “facts” over a cup of coffee. It's neutral and unbiased if you're willing to believe I am.

Unfortunately I got distracted before I could finish writing all of (my version of) Finnish history; so this account takes you only from the darkness of ice to the year 1947 or so. But then again, after that nothing horrible and dramatic has happened in Finnish history.



Think about it.

A place somewhere. A country. Europe, maybe? Not a newsworthy place — do they have a woman for a president? Goodness gracious me.

Finland, uh, let me think about it. Nokia?

Finland, Finland… Santa Claus?

Do they have polar bears?

This booklet is about Finland. It is not meant to be a guidebook, and it is not meant to be a history-book either.

This is a booklet that contains the attempts of a Finn — a Finnish person, that is, and that is me — to explain some details and outlines of Finland to people that don't know much about it.

This audience consists most probably of people that come a-calling to this blog, and to the pages and posts that contain the various parts of this Guide to Finland. They might be exchange students, or those fascinated by the harsh extremes of nature and culture, or — I guess — they might just be people that Google for a random phrase totally unrelated to Finnish things, and end up here.

And, just to facilitate that — “pictures of edible underwear”.

No, you are not missing any pictures. That was just a random phrase to make the people finding this Guide a bit more diverse a crowd.

Trust me. I wrote a Carlin-comedic thing on dead bodies once and when I put it on my blog it got Google hits about “thing you can put dead bodies in”.

There's an audience for everything. Everything.

I would like to thank all the willing young and lithe Finnish maidens who have aided me in getting a large enough statistical sample of females for my study of their intimate manners, habits and moans.

I would like a pony, too, but you don't always get all you want. Sometimes you don't get any.

Ah, a serious and real thank-you, now. I would like to thank the various exchange students I have known over all my years of holding a corner of a rather loathsome shared apartment. Their googly-eyed wonder has led me to believe that there is an audience for true horror stories about this ogrish land of mine. So, exchangers — you know who you are, and I've forgotten your names already anyway.

Cheer up. There's no place for tears in Finland.

The winter's much too cold, you see.


The first thing you should know about the piece of land known as Finland is that it rests on ancient stone.

Well, since stone is hard and uncomfy, maybe ‘rest’ is a bad word.

Finland squats on ancient stone.

That’s better.

Finland squats on ancient stone, with only a thin layer of sand and mud hiding the slow undulations of bedrock. In many places the bedrock juts up from under the rocky soil, and waves at the sky in scarred and tired hills, with frequent slopes of bare and polished stone showing striations and grooves like the marks of some giant parallel claws. This is all because of ice.

Ice? Oh, ice is the first part of Finland's history, the history before man. In that history, the latest Ice Age started around 20 000 years ago, and ended around 10 000 years ago. Between those dates there was no Finland, only ice.

When an ice age comes, the masses of ice at the mountains of Fennoscandia — Norway-Sweden if you so will — grow, each winter accumulating a few inches more of snow, and each inch pressing those below it into pounds of ice, and each pound pressing the mass outwards. When an ice age comes and each winter brings more snow than the summer melts away, the snow-fields and glaciers grow, and then creep outwards, south and east, and towards and over Finland.

Slowly the glaciers move, each cold winter making the next one colder as white snow and ice reflect sun-rays away forever, away with all the life and warmth they imply.

Slowly the ice advances, crushing trees, freezing lakes, covering flowers, and grinding all living things away. The ground groans under it, pressed down by the weight of ice, finally a mile thick or more. These are not the glaciers you see on a mountain or mountain-range somewhere today — the only place where glaciers to rival these monsters currently exist are Greenland and Antarctica.

Those mountains of ice, as they grow and slither towards warmer lands, scrape away all soil, carry shards of stone and pieces of rock with them, and thus gouge wounds and valleys into bedrock, endless cold fingers scarring stone. Rivers of frost and hands of ice grasp pebbles and house-sized boulders and carry them with and under the front of white death, depositing some where the glacier stops, at the northern parts of present-day Germany.

All of Finland is covered by ice for centuries, for millennia, pressed down under unimaginably heavy miles of frost.

Then the ice age ends, slowly, and just as slowly as they advanced, the fields of ice retreat. Cold streams gush from the depths of the glaciers, rearranging the barren lands at the cold’s edge. An under-glacier river might drag and drive silt and rocks with it, and leave a meandering ridge in its own shape, or then gush the pieces of soil out on the glacier's edge, creating a ridge paralleling the ice's edge when the melting stopped for a century or some other equally short time.

A rock several meters in diameter might get caught by a thaw-stream, and spend centuries turning in place, scraping and grinding a hole for generations of men to wonder over: what force could have polished a pit like this, ten meters wide and equally deep, into solid stone? Men would call it a hiidenkirnu, a devil’s churn. So small their imaginations, always conjuring up some spiritual phantasm, when all that is, is the wonder and terror of nature.

Meltwater fills lakes, and as the glacier thaws, immense rocks and pebbles without number fall from its weakening grasp, hundreds of miles from their original locations. Meltwater rivers disappear, leaving only the patterns of topsoil they shaped. Hilltops receive one last brush of stone-scarring ice, and then shiver naked under a weak sun.

Life returns to Finland, and ever so slowly the land, pressed down by the weight of ice, rises upwards, and the icy Baltic Sea recedes. Over centuries the coast recedes as the land rises, and this is happening still, a few millimetres each year. Ice and its effects are slow, patient, and much stronger than man.

The pits and gouges left in the bedrock by the ice are filled with tepid water. There is some semblance of mild weather, a few trees, and some frail bipedal things.

The hills and valleys of Finland are coated with warmth and life, but you don’t have to dig deep anywhere to find rock, solid rock down to the burning foundations of the earth, still disfigured by the touch of old heavy ice. You only have to look around to see the hills and ridges and drumlins created by rivers that flowed from the glaciers, on the glaciers, under the glaciers. The geography of Finland consists of one word, repeated again and again: Ice.

Finland squats on ancient stone, with only a thin layer of sand and mud hiding the endless undulations of glacier-scarred rock. And one day the glaciers will come again, as they have come many times before, a force that cannot be stopped, only fled.

This explains why Finnish property values are so low.

Seriously, it’s difficult to accept any talk of promised lands of forefathers or ancestral abodes back to the beginning of time when you know that your most remote ancestors crept here under the constant white threat of a receding glacier, cursing it as a fleeing or dying god-beast, and when you know that your descendants might one day rather leave than engage in a futile fight against a grinding, moving eternal winter, the resurrected beast of nature.

That’s Finland: here for a moment, just a thin coating of living slime on the scarred bedrock.

Sooner or later the ice will return, and then there will be Finland no more. Just ice and rock. All mistakes, erased. All achievements, erased.

That’s perspective.

Oh, and the other parts of this Guide will be a bit cheerier.


I like snowstorms. I like howling winds and spells of cold that make you gasp and shiver even when you're inside. Likings like this are common among Finns.

That's not difficult to explain. Most Finns are nuts.

Seriously, did you think that any group of sane and sensible people would come to live here in the cold and dark north? Here, where everything is always blanketed either by snow, mosquitoes or darkness, huh?

Finns are composed of the lunatics, outcasts and hermits of all other nations. Our language is from beyond the Urals, from deepest and most dismal Siberia (not Russia), but our ancestors have come from all over the place.

We are the people your ancestors prodded with spears, suggesting they go and lick a glacier before they'd get thrown under the sacrificial mammoths.

We’re the ones that moved away rather than introduced themselves to new neighbors.

We're the ones that went to find the North Star, the golden nail of the heavens' pillar, and then got lost.

We, the Finns, are nuts.

You might find this explains a great lot about Finland.

Oh, and those few Finns that aren't nuts most probably have Swedish ancestry: any tendency towards irrational nuttiness was quickly weeded out from among an olden horde of raging Vikings. People whose personal survival depends on good hand-eye (or hand-axe) coordination are highly rational and clear-minded.

(Nowadays, Swedes are nicer. Probably the kill'n'plunder genes burned themselves out, along with a few thousand barns and homesteads.)

So, the ancestors of Finns come from among all their neighbors — Germanic folks, Slavic folks, forest-loving Vikings, leftover Basques and Picts, Greeks and Hittites that got really badly lost, people like that. In contrast, the Finnish language is a legacy of the very first settlers of Finland, a bunch of primitive Siberian hunter-gatherers that wandered to Finland after the latest Ice Age ended some ten thousand years ago, happy that there was some place others hadn't grasped yet. Those Siberians weren't Slavs like Russians, not Germans like (uh) Germans, but Siberians (Fenno-Ugric guys; have your pick) pretty much unrelated to anyone else.

The surviving linguistic relatives of Finns consist of Estonians, Hungarians, Sami, and various minuscule tribes marooned in Siberia or stranded in the middle of legions of Russians. That explains why Finnish language is so difficult to learn: any two of Spanish, Kurdish, Russian, Bengali and English are closer to each other than any of them is to Finnish.

Those first Finns had their own language, and when other, more European settlers came, either marrying or slaughtering the first settlers the best they could, they adopted the old language.

Well, they brought new words for new, exotic inventions like a “window” and an “axe”.

Finn: “What's that?”

Russian: “An axe!” (hits the Finn with the axe.)

Finn: “Oh, the impersonal brutality of modern warfare! It was so much better in the days of bare fisticuffs!”

But enough fun. Ten thousand years ago the first Finns came, and after that various other ancestors came intruding in and made themselves comfortable, but the language — the darned, complex, maddening Finnish language — has remained common to all.

It's probably the reason there're only five million Finns. If we'd had a simple, even simplistic, language like English — but no, that is idle fantasy.

Well, Finns lived worshipping their brutish gods, drinking and snorting powdered fly agaric mushrooms, occasionally axe-murdering each other or freezing to death, and years passed. A survey of Finland's history runs into something interesting when, around the year 1100 CE, a bunch of Christianized Swedish Vikings decides to crusade over into Finland for loot, land, peons and converts.

When we'll continue with that, we'll encounter a bishop named Henry (Henrik), an irate Finnish farmer named Lalli, and an axe belonging to Lalli and partly embedded in the bishop, but this has been enough about the origins of Finns.


Finns — a mixed bag of bloods east and west, with a common language — have lived in Finland for a long time, probably since the latest ice age ended some ten thousand years ago.

Finns were content living in the woods, around their ten thousand lakes, growing wheat, distilling teeth-dissolving alcohol, getting drunk on it (or getting seriously skewed by snorting powdered fly agaric, but that's another tale entirely) and singing about their pagan gods, for a long, long time.

Drinking, one should add, is still very popular in Finland. There really isn't much else to do during the winters, since singing about pagan gods is somehow unfashionable nowadays. (Except for heavy metal bands.)

Ah well, back to the history. The pagan history of Finland — the worship of the old gods, like Ukko the greatest of gods, the god of thunder, ylijumala or high-god (think Yahweh plus Thor), and his consort Akka — coincidentally, these names mean, in modern Finnish, something like “old chap” and “old crone”. Oh, so mighty are fallen the proud gods of yesterday!

Then there was Tapio, the slightly less great god, the god of forests and hunts, and Mielikki the slightly less malevolent than the previous divinities goddess of flowers and fowls.

There were guardian spirits and ghosts and doppelgängers; spirits for trees and forests, streams and stones; there were sacred groves and leering totem poles; there were feasts on bear-flesh, and the skulls of the said beasts nailed high on trees to appease the spirit of the great bear, the holiest of animals.

There were shamans who, after a generous helping of various alcoholic, medicinal and holy substances, flopped around and screamed, and then told long, ramblings lays of Tuonela, the dark land of Tuoni, the lord of death, beyond a cold river where hungry iron pikes swim, where the dead sleep, like, dreaming.

If the shaman was too zonked on mushrooms and booze, there would always be others willing to abuse a stringed instrument and sing a tale or two, too: how everything was made from the egg of a bird, broken because the fool of a fowl had laid it on the knee of a woman resting in a great lake. (Questioning the origin of the said fowl and lady wasn't apparently common; since there was no CG in those days, everyone had a well-developed knack for the suspension of disbelief.)

And of course there was Väinämöinen, the arch-shaman, the great singer and knower and ladies' man, with piercing eyes, a wrinkled brow and a ridiculously immense white beard, the hero who foiled the screeching iron birds of malevolent neighbours and sang at rude youngsters until the fetid swamp waters gobbled them up, who caused despair by hitting on girls a fraction of his age, who built traditional string instruments (kantele) from the jawbones of giant fishes, who bargained with sleeping giants for wisdom, and who — oh, the tragedy — had just left, and wasn't expected to come back any time soon.

To put it shorter, all the good, half-drunken religiosity that existed before anyone had heard of penances and crucifixions: lots of permanently half-drunken and half-spooked savages, singing and drinking and being merry.

Thus ages passed in Finland, long uncounted and changeless years, and similar half-poetic expressions, until neighbors came a-knocking.

For — you see — Finns were, even in the beginning, cursed with the most obnoxious neighbors possible: Swedes and other Vikings in the west, and Russians in the east. Now, neither are bad people, but in the dawn of history both were loot-hungry barbarians-turned-civilized, and thus permitted to savage other barbarians just as much as they wished, oh my.

And, for Finland, the “dawn of history” comes a bit later than in other lands. Imagine the 12th century, the fag end of the Middle Ages, in the dark and cold of Northern Europe. In the west, a kingdom called Sweden has come into being, as the last Vikings hung up their horned helmets and began calling their neighbors earls and dukes. In the east, there were great churning proto-Russian kingdoms.

And in between there was a woody no-man's-land called Finland, because, obviously, uncivilized barbarians don't count.


So in the 12th century, under the pretext of spreading Christianity, Swedes crossed the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland in several waves and grabbed a hold of Finland's coasts, and of anything of commercial value that could be pried loose. Finns called these “crusades” something else entirely, but since they were heathen barbarians, no-one was interested.

After a long time and one episode that allegedly involved a bishop, a farmer and an axe, and ended very badly for the bishop, Christianity took root.

I might as well detail that mythic episode, just to entertain you. Since this is all just legends invented long years after the alleged events, and since there are many, many different legends, I've cooked up an amalgam version that I myself like.

The tale tells that with the Swedes came a bishop, called Henry, or Henrik in Finnish and Swedish. He was born in England, and around the year 1150 CE he became the first bishop of Finland.

This bishop-post included going around in Finland, spreading Christianity and obedience to the Christian Swedish king — named, however, not Christian but Eric — and thus one wintry day bishop Henrik, riding alone, came to the house of a wealthy Finnish farmer called Lalli.

Lalli was away, but his cold and haughty wife was there, and against all common courtesy she did not give the bishop food, nor hay for his horse. (I suppose this was just one of those inexplicable character defects, or then an overly tight case of parsimony.)

After some arguing the bishop, being basically a decent man but in some hurry, took by force the supplies he needed and left a generous amount of money for the food and hay, and then left.

Soon after Lalli came back, and found his wife quite beside herself. She told him how the bishop, a cold and haughty man, had ridden to the hall, screaming and threatening, and taken food, taken hay for his horse, and then left without pay or recompense, cursing the house and the terrified wife.

(This represents the traditional Finnish view of the way women behave; we're honestly considerably less sexist nowadays. If you hear otherwise, it's just akkain juttuja, or “female tales”.)

Lalli, quite naturally, was enraged by this lie, and grabbed his skis and his axe, and pursued the bishop. On the ice of the lake Köyliö, he overtook him, and with the blunt, heavy axe killed him.

Since these old tales don't end the way you'd expect them to, poor Lalli, who took the mitre and the ring of Henrik as recompense, was cursed: he placed the mitre on his own head, and his hair and scalp fell off; he put the ring on his own finger, and when he took it off, the flesh sloughed off his hand.

The moral of the tale is unknown to me: probably it is something along the lines of, Don't kill bishops. That seems like a decent Christian moral, right?

A fun fact is that in a recent tv show called Suuret suomalaiset or “The Greatest Finns”, seeking for the greatest 100 persons of all Finnish history, Lalli, the cursed, violent bishop-killer and the husband of a malicious liar, was ranked #14.

You don't want to know the people below the fourteenth place.

The alleged episode of Henrik and Lalli wasn't a very good beginning, but things went much better, later on. The Swedish language took root at the coasts of Finland, and further inland castles were built, partly to protect Finns from various Russian robbers from the east. After all, once you've stopped robbing your neighbors and taken them under your wing, it'd be outright rude to let others rob them.

Besides, what would your tax collectors collect then?


The medieval history of Sweden (and Finland as a part of it) is long and complex, and since I mostly don't know squat about it, I won't discuss it beyond this short chapter.

Besides, it quite soon degenerates into royal feuds between Sweden, Denmark and whatever other neighbors exist, including generations of cross-border raiding and border post moving between Sweden and Russia, much to the bebotherment of Finnish peons, in whose lands this squabbling took place.

While there was a Swedish king in Stockholm, in Sweden, there was in Finland, opposite to that capital city, a castle and a city called Åbo in Swedish and Turku in Finnish. It's the oldest city of Finland, and still one of the largest. Most of modern Finland was either under Swedish rule, or then unclaimed wasteland (natives don't count), or, in the eastern reaches, claimed by the various pre-Russian and Russian princes.

Beyond Turku and a few similar coastal cities, there were villages and occasional castles and manors inland, but most of Finland was just forests and swamps, snows and darkness.

Ah well, most of Finland is still that, and there isn't anything it could be that would be better.

In my old schoolbooks that Stockholm-ruled kingdom was called “Ruotsi-Suomi” or Sweden-Finland. I don't know if Swedish schoolbooks call it Finland-Sweden; probably not. Finland was just a province, though a large one, and I think a province much like any other, except that the peons were a bit more drunken and disorderly.

Oh, and they had a crude, brutish language of their own, totally unrelated to the dulcet tones of Swedish.

(There was slight sarcasm in the previous sentence. Still, I won't even mention that some think spoken Swedish sounds like a legion of cats yarking hair-balls of gigantic-enormous size. That would be an outright scurrilous hint.)

The few well-educated Finns learned Swedish because that was the language of education and business, the language of writing and of royal proclamations. There weren't many of them, but in those times there weren't many educated people anywhere.

So, Swedes evolved from crude Vikings into stolid late medievals, and after a 16th-century king called Gustav Vasa (or in Finnish, Kustaa Vaasa), Sweden evolved into a real world power.

Well, Europe-power. Let's not exaggerate.

A kingdom, an empire even, that included Sweden and Finland and the Baltic states of today, and the site where St. Petersburg stands today (it hadn't been founded by the Russian 17th-century reformer-king Peter the Great yet), and in due time Sweden even took some disunited German states under its wing, and even sent colonists into newly-found North America.

Those colonies didn't stick. If you live in Delaware, you might be treading former Swedish ground. You might even have brave Swedish blood — or dour Finnish blood — in your veins. If you're eminently sensible and calm, or prone to violent binges of drinking and manslaughter, well, then it surely is so.

Being a great power in the north of Europe (heck, all of Europe) meant fighting many bloody wars, and Finns were very good in fighting as long as someone told them who they were supposed to fight. After the Protestant Reformation swept over Sweden, Swedes and Finns fought in the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) under their king Gustavus Adolphus, gleefully raping and pillaging Germany for the glorious Protestant cause.

In those wars Finnish light cavalry was known as hakkapeliitat (sing. hakkapeliitta), which probably comes from their war-cry of “Hakkaa päälle!”, which best translates as “Cut them down!”

I trust that the opposing forces understood their intent, if not their words. When a troop of frothing, sword-waving, screaming, pistol-shooting soldiers charges at you, heavy horses churning the ground and the riders yelling strange broken backwards-Latin curses, you can usually trust they mean to cut you down, or worse.

It's a common view in Finland that these Finnish cavalrymen were widely feared and respected, instrumental in Sweden's success in the wars the kingdom fought, and maybe even thought invulnerable by their Catholic opponents because of some dark Protestant witchcraft. Swedes apparently think the victories were because of their advanced military tactics, but since this is a Guide to Finland, we shan't believe that.

Scary witchy Finnish kill-riders! Booga booga! Hakkaa päälle!

Sweden was a great power of varying success and extent, and Finland a part of it. All the various medieval and post-medieval shenanigans happened: mad kings, noblemen thrown out of windows, strife over Polish princesses and Catholic queens, the whole lot. Finland contributed a general here and there, a governor now and then, maybe a bishop or a professor, and quite a lot of dumb country boys willing to die for a few coins or some yellow-and-blue piece of cloth: the same as any province of Sweden.

In Finland, some years were bad, some slightly better. The 17th century was, by most accounts, a pretty bad time: the population of Finland was roughly the same 400 000 people both at the beginning and at the end, and given the family sizes at those times quite many famines, plagues and years of misery were needed for that.

In the years 1696–1697 alone, the so-called nälkävuodet or hunger-years, when two consecutive summers failed to give enough grain, almost a third of Finland's population shuffled off this mortal coil, ground down by hunger and sheer exhaustion. One part of the diminishing diet in those days was pettuleipä, a poor man's bread partly made from ground wood because there just wasn't enough flour. Apparently the part of coniferous trees just under the bark can be ripped off, cleaned and ground to something resembling flour; but one needs to be either starving or a nature food enthusiast to find the result palatable.

Besides, the resulting bread is not healthy if you eat it for too long — but it beats starving. Also, I've heard that the number of horses in one part of Finland went down from one thousand to just two haggard beasts; when one is starving to death, horses and dogs start to seem very tasty. When there was nothing left to eat there was nothing to do except leaving and begging, and with beggars various plagues traveled across the country, much quicker and more successful than the beggars themselves.

It is a curious fact that while Finland's history is mostly a tale of suffering and misery, Finns themselves find it uplifting and heartwarming. Well, at the very least it shows your ancestors had some grit, some endurance, all ancient claims of cannibalism notwithstanding.

At times the wars of Sweden, and of Finland as a part of it, were successful. At times not: the Great Northern War between Sweden and most of its neighbors began in 1700, and Finland, the eastern province of Sweden, was occupied by Russian troops from 1713 to 1721. Because of the things soldiers tend to do when in a land not their own, and because of the ways popular historians tend to term things, that period is nowadays known as isoviha, the Great Hatred. (Meanwhile, the Swedish king decided to attack Norway during the winter, which proved to be every bit as deft an idea as attacking Russia during the winter.)

At about the time when the Great Northern War finally wound down and the troops of the eminently successful Russian emperor Peter the Great left most of Finland, something foreign but very useful landed there: the potato, an export of South America, a traveler from Prussia and Sweden, that now ubiquitous and arch-Finnish vegetable, that reliable source of bland, ovoid underground tubers.

Potatoes might not be very exciting, but they feed people, and in the humble opinion of the writer, they certainly taste much, much better than the previous Finnish staple, turnip. However, the real staple of Finnish food-making, here millennia ago and here today, is rye, and it has only good qualities. There's nothing bad that can be said of a slice of freshly-baked rye bread with butter melting on it.

Well, except the danger of getting burns in your mouth and down your gullet, and spending the next night passing gas every three minutes, but such rustic woes aren't worth a mention here.

Now this account of Sweden, Finland and wars still needs one of the third before the first two part, and thus we must recall that, with the ending of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars began. In one of that bloody snarl of wars Russia battered Sweden.

Apparently Russia was allied with France at that time — the year 1807 — and thought that the best way of getting Sweden to their side was to batter it a bit. The war consisted mostly of the Swedish troops retreating, and the Russian ones advancing. All of Finland was overran, there was a coup in Stockholm, and then a hurried peace. Some Finns weren't so disappointed by this, since this seemed like a chance for autonomy, and maybe even outright independence.

Finland was first occupied and then annexed by the Russians — since this is 1809, these are Imperial Russians, ruled by an Emperor, also called a Czar — and, quite curiously, Finland became a separate Grand Duchy, with the Czar as its Grand Duke. The old Swedish laws and customs were preserved in this strangely separate part of the great Russian empire.

And with that semi-independent Grand Duchy the next part of this brief history of Finland continues, below.

Oh, one thing more about the war. There are some monuments to it, the so-called Finnish War (Suomen sota), but it's mostly remembered because of a famous epic poem or cycle of poems called The Tales of Ensign Stål (in Finnish, Vänrikki Stålin tarinat), penned by a Finn called Runeberg some fifty years later. It contains all the usual ingredients: heroes, dunderheads and the occasional combination of the two, and plenty of death, sorrow and machismo. The curious part of it is that it was originally written in Swedish, which at the time of its writing still was the language of the civilized elite.

Well, just at that time, the halfpoint of the nineteenth century, things were about to change: Finns began to think that since they were no longer a part of Sweden, and not quite a part of Russia, maybe they could just as well be something else entirely: Finns?

But that's something the next chapter will tell more about.


As has been told before, in 1809 Finland passed from being a province of Sweden into being a part of the great Russian Empire.

Something strange happened in that transaction, however, either out of expediency or benevolence, or then because of simple administrative inertia: the old Swedish laws and systems of Finland were retained, the Finnish army stayed a separate force of its own, the Finnish senate stayed at the top of Finland's chain of political critters, the Finnish post office issued its own stamps, and there were some border checks between Finland and Russia, and so on. Finland even grew in size a bit, as some Finn-infested borderlands of Russia were sloughed off to be a part of the new borderland entity: a separate Grand Duchy of Finland, with the Russian Emperor as its nominal Grand Duke, and a Russia-appointed Governor-General in Helsinki, Finland's capital, representing the Emperor who no doubt was busy in St. Petersburg doing something else.

I don't know what — inspecting parades, maybe? That's what most royals seem to do.

Oh, and early in the Russian era Finland's capital was moved to Helsinki, opposite across the Gulf of Finland from Russia-ruled Estonia, and especially its capital, Tallinn — the two were together quite a pair of fortresses and lookout-posts for the glorious Russian capital of St. Petersburg should the navy of some foreign foe come a-calling.

No navy did; ah well.

The geopolitical reason for moving the capital was that Turku, the old capital, had been too close to Sweden — almost but not quite across the Baltic narrows from Stockholm, Sweden's capital, actually. An incidental result was that by inertia Helsinki's been Finland's capital ever since: and its university, lifted wholesale from Turku at the same time, has been Finland's biggest.

It cannot, however, be the best since the author of this document doesn't work there.

But back to the history —

For a long while, the nineteenth century from that on was a very pleasant and exciting time in Finland. Being cut off from Sweden and not quite a part of Russia, Finns became slowly more aware of their individuality among nations: the usual Romantic thing of finding a past, a language and bucketloads of glory for one's newly discovered nation.

A Finn called Elias Lönnrot, a schoolteacher with feet of steel, wandered in the isolated borderlands of Finland and Russia, listening to the songs and tales of the old folk. The Finns of those regions (Karelia in English, Karjala in Finnish) were less dour and sullen than average Finlandfolk, and enjoyed singing long, partly improvised tales of gods, heroes, steel and death. Not the usual grandiose stuff of Arthurs and Iliads, though — Finnish imagination doesn't seem to stretch to quite such levels of epic buffoonery. Lönnrot collected and collected, and because the intellectual climate of the day seemed to demand more and more national tropes for Finland, edited some of those tales together into something like a loose narrative, and released it under the name of Kalevala, giving birth to a Finnish national epic.

Kalevala's main character was Väinämöinen: a long-bearded sage, a man of great wisdom, a singer of songs of magic and insight. Maybe it tells something of Finland that an old man playing a kantele (a traditional string instrument) was the main character, instead of some young and loud sword-swinger.

(Or maybe it tells something of the long-bearded old men who sang the songs at Lönnrot.)

In fact, if I am not mistaken, the young, loud swordwielders of Kalevala fare very badly — one loses a duel of magical songs to Väinämöinen and is sung by the power of his knowledge deep to a swamp until he cries uncle; another, after a life full of woe, sleeps with his own sister by mistake and then kills himself. Readers of Tolkien already know that this unlucky Kullervo was Tolkien's model for the equally sad life of Turin Turambar.

Thus Finland had a national epic; and it acquired a national song (Maamme-laulu or “the song called Our Land”), and even a flag (a blue cross on white) to wave. Of various nationalistic writings, the Tales of Ensign Stål has been mentioned already. An interesting bit of history is that the national song, and the Tales, and most of the nationalistic “Finnish” productions of those days, were originally written in Swedish, just because in those days the well-educated and wealthy of Finland still spoke the old language of culture. As this avalanche of nationalism quickened, some “translated” their names from Swedish to Finnish, learned a bit of the common language, and made it their purpose to tell the bumpkins what a unique gift their history of toil and misery was.

Hopefully the reader isn't aggrevated by the writer's lack of proud patriotic fervor: while the writer dearly loves his country, he can't quite whip up the necessary frothing-at-mouth mindset.

One might wonder at the reaction of the Russian overlords at this seething invention of a mythology and an identity. For a long time, the Russian emperors and thus their appointed Governor-Generals were tolerant, probably out of sheer disinterest; in return, Finns rather liked the Russian lords. There still is a very prominent statue of Alexander II (reigned 1855–81) in the middle of the Finnish capital. By all accounts Alexander, the second of his name, of Russia was a progressive and likable chap: liberating serfs, doing away with censorship, and so on.

But then, of course, things went straight to hell. Or, rather, straight to Russia. Alexander was killed by an anarchist's bomb; his son and successor Alexander III was a staunch nationalist, a glassy-eyed son of Mother Russia and a friend of the Russian Orthodox Church (strange how often nationalistic and religious manias go together). Since his father had been killed by anarchists, he diagnosed the realm's disease as one of openness and liberty, and took all possible steps to squash those troublesome afflictions.

One of his bluntest weapons in this was Russification — making things Russian. For the borders of his empire, and for at least a third of the empire's population, this meant the end of special freedoms and privileges.

In Finland, this meant the adaptation of Russian (instead of some gobbledygook Swedish) as the official language of business, the doing away with of the silly restriction of Finnish conscripts doing service in Finland only, and so on. That wasn't exactly the best thing to do in a country that was just going through the most fevered phase of the infection of nationalism.

In 1894 Alexander III died and was succeeded by his son Nikolai, who would be the last czar — a term he apparently preferred over “emperor”; thus he shall be for the duration of this document called by the latter term. Like father, like son: Russians and others may adore him as a hero of some sort, even a saint, because by some obscure leap of logic the victims of murderous villains are elevated to those heights, but for Finland, Nikolai II was a Russifying, oppressing disaster just like his father.

(A scoundrel might remark that Nikolai also continued with the religious blindness of his father: the writer cannot rank very high anyone that lets a frothing Siberian monk mystic, the infamous Rasputin, become the chief medical help of his sick son. Ah well, by what the writer has heard Nikolai was a weak man too certain that there was a strong God just like him behind him — such men usually easily do very stupid things.)

The fact that Finns suddenly hankered for more independence, and Russians for, well, more Russian-ism, continued to make the climate of Finland very ugly indeed.

In 1898, a Russian called Bobrikov, Nikolai Bobrikov, was made the Governor-General of Finland. He was a career soldier, and a useful instrument for the purposes of the emperor and other Russian nationalists like him. (Naturally entirely different from the Finnish nationalists, since pushing patriotic hufflepuff down people's throats is okay if those are your own people.)

The next year the Emperor declared that the laws of the Empire overruled those of Finland, its component part; in a stirring example of the power of democracy, half a million Finns (a fifth of Finland's population!) signed a petition protesting this decision, and the Emperor failed to receive the legation bringing the signatures.

Bobrikov was intensely disliked, and actually outright hated in Finland: no wonder, as his innovations went against all the Finnish nationalists were clamoring for. Official government papers changed their language from Swedish to Russian. The separate Finnish army was disbanded, and since no conscript ever escapes, Finns of suitable age were directed to serve in the Russian army. Quite many failed to show up for this — six out of ten the first time, in 1902. After a few years, or in 1905 to be exact, conscription in Finland ceased, apparently because getting the conscripts out of the woods and alleys when they didn't want to go was an intolerable bother. After all, of what use is a soldier if you need two others to find him?

Since bureaucracy can never be thwarted, instead of men Finland was levied money — and since tax collectors are harder to avoid than mere soldiers, Finland paid.

Finns cursed and simmered — both of these are skills Finns have a gift for — and then, as was bound to happen sooner or later, someone lost his patience, abandoned all care, and took up a gun.

Thus, in the June of 1904, Eugen Schauman, a government clerk and a fierce Finnish nationalist, aged 29, an avid reader of both current papers and of the poetic Tales of Ensign Stål which told of the war against Russia which Sweden lost in 1809, losing Finland — well, one sweet day he took a gun and marched to the senate building, to which he had access because of his position.

Soon Governor Bobrikov entered, and on the stairs they met: the Russian governor going up, the Finnish clerk going down: and five shots later neither would go up or down no more. The first two shots were deflected by the medals and buttons of Bobrikov's coat (at last an explanation for all that military hardware!), but the third hit his beltbuckle, shattered it, and fatally and terribly wounded the Russian.

Schauman took a couple of steps back, fired two shots at his own chest, and died instantly. Bobrikov tottered down the stairs on his own feet, but despite being rushed to a surgeon, he died the next night.

In the murderer's pocket, a letter addressed to the Russian Emperor was found. Schauman swore he had acted alone, without the knowledge of his family; and begged the ruler to look at the evils (i.e. Russia) plaguing the non-Russian edges of his empire.

And then there was much open celebration among Finns, and other kinds of rejoicing; and, unlike in most similar cases, immediate reciprocal slaughter did not result. The new Russian governor was more lenient than Bobrikov had been, and naturally Finns attributed this to the three magical bullets of the clerk.

Schauman was quietly buried in a pauper's grave, but a few years later, when things had quieted down a bit, he was, with much ceremony, reburied in the Schauman family grave. The place of the shooting is decorated with a plaque that says “Se pro patria dedit”, Latin for “Gave himself for the fatherland”. The words refer to Schauman, but a contrarian could read them as Bobrikov's epitaph as well.

Ever since then some have seen Schauman as a hero, a self-sacrificing champion of freedom, the killer of a man that symbolised all the evils and fears of the Russian oppression; some have seen him as just a murderer.

Your dear author can't quite decide: but given that I've already given such space to Lalli, the mythic bishop-slayer, some perverse sense of equality forced me to say something about Schauman, too. Oh, and if you still recall that a modern TV show voted wife-cheated, priest-killing Lalli to be the fourteenth-greatest Finn of all time — well, Schauman was number 34. Maybe because Finns love tragedy; maybe because Finns understand people who snap and stand up to set the entire world aflame.

Or just maybe many Finns adore Schauman because there still are a lot of Finns who don't like Russians, any Russians, whether imperial or Soviet, not one tiny teeny-weeny bit. (Or Swedes, either. Then again, which man or nation ever loved his neighbors?)

After Bobrikov, the Russification abated for a while, then intensified again, and in one form or the other continued until the fateful year of 1917. Then, in the middle of the First World War, Russia went down in flames: the flames of revolution. Some Finns sympathized with the Red revolutionaries; others didn't, and for a while the nays carried the day. In the sixth of December, 1917, the senate of Finland declared that state independent and free of Russia.

The then-current rulers of Russia, both Red and imperial, could not be interested in this at the moment, as they had other problems of their own. (Meanwhile, the emperor Nikolai was drifting ever closer to a cold basement and the rifles of a squad of soldiers just obeying orders.)

Despite this declaration and Russia's noninterference, troubles soon began: some parties and interests were keen to return to the bosom of the Communists; others saw this as desirable only if they were allowed to let a bayonet precede them. The Communist-friendly Reds flexed their muscles, organizing some militias, partially with the help of revolution-friendly Russian troops still stationed in Finland, and the other parts and parties of the Finnish parliament fled the capital.

Now, a word about the friends of Finland needs to be said. Such a distant and cold place as Finland isn't the likeliest friend-getter of the international world; usually gold and diamonds and similar adornments are needed to stay popular in the cutthroat world of alliances and protectorates. There was, however, one nation that was keen to support the Finns: namely, Germany.

The reason for this is, as mathematicians say, obvious, if one only draws a picture — that is, consults a map for the relative positions of Germany, Russia and Finland.

Thus the Germans (imperial Germans at that time) had been eager to support the Finns, if only a cheap and flashy way could be found. A few thousand Finnish youths, smuggled to Germany, fought the World War against Russia in German ranks, getting plentiful military training (as in, “If they shoots back, they're the enemy. If they shoots back and curses, they be us and you be court-martialed.”). When the trouble with Reds began, these volunteers, the so-called Jääkärit (Jaegers, or light infantry), were shipped home.

The civil war of Finland (1917–1918), known by many names the use of which depends mainly on the rhetorical positions of the user, then followed: the Reds in the south of Finland, supporting Communist or socialist ideals, the new mistakes of the day, and the Whites in the north, reinforced by the Jaegers, supporting the old parliament, the rich, and various other old mistakes of the day.

The White side was led by a man called Mannerheim, one of Finland's greatest heroes, a child of a Swedish-speaking aristocratic family who had risen to the rank of a general in the Russian army, and returned home as Finland split from the empire. We shall meet him again.

The war was brutal and unpleasant, as civil wars tend to be. The Whites marched south and won the war; at the same time, a German division just happened to land at the southern tip of Finland and marched up to offer its help to the Whites. If the war was unpleasant, the aftermath was even uglier. The Reds, despite having lost the war, had had time enough to stage plenty of spontaneous executions and all kinds of random burning, looting and butchering among the folks they didn't like; and the victorious Whites were not entirely averse to this sort of thing either, and in addition were in a position to organize all kinds of prison camps, with rapid-fire courts (pun intentional) attached, and toilets and sanitary spaces entirely lacking. There isn't much anything cheerful that can be said of waiting whether bullets, hunger or disease will kill you first.

In time, those camps were closed down and the last inmates let free; and with time most of the old grudges were forgotten. Sadly enough, the main motivator in erasing the old hatreds was the wondrous unifying power of xenophobia, hatred of the Foreign Devil; but the episodes of the Second World War, and the wars against Russia, must wait until the next chapter of this guide.

Also waiting in the wings for the next chapter are various other details — the rise and fall of Finland's homegrown fascists, for example, and the curious episode of a man who almost became a King of Finland.

A note — Political assassinations in Finnish history: For modern times, I only know of the killing of Bobrikov by Schauman (1904), the death of Eliel Soisalon-Soininen, a perceived Russian sympathizer, by Lennart Hohenthal (1905), and the killing of Heikki Ritavuori, the then-minister of the interior, by Ernst Tandefelt (1922), who apparently was something of a lunatic. All of these three were shootings, and the murder of Ritavuori in 1922 was both the latest political assassination in Finnish history, and the only since the independence of Finland (1917).

A note — Bobrikov was shot in June 17, 1904, and I'm told that some quite famous book depicts the happenings of that day in Dublin, even referencing the assassination. I haven't read the book, so I can't tell you more.

Between Wars

There are two interesting things in the history of Finland between the end of the civil war (1918) during the First World War's flames, and the start of the Second (1939): the episode of a King of Finland, and the tale of Finnish Fascists. Both are tales of failure.

Oh, there was a Prohibition too, from 1919 to 1932, but it's not usually talked about because everyone's afraid it might happen again if mentioned.

We Finns like our alcohol. We can handle the drink, though not the drinking, and we like our chosen poison.

So, the year 1918. Finland had declared independence from the ruins of Russia, and had fought an unpleasant civil war between republican-aristocratic Whites and socialist-communist Reds: the latter had lost, and thus were either rotting in prison camps, or doing the same six feet under, or otherwise not in a position to have a great deal of say about the ways the country was ran.

The First World War was still raging; and as to the perceptive and wise leaders of Finland the invincibility of the German war machine seemed certain, they queried if the German Kaiser could find a suitably lofty lord, preferably a relation of his, to take up a crown for Finland, to cement the love and friendship between the two countries, and to create a royal millstone the greater realm would be willing to defend should some calamity — say a war against Russia — happen.

For the most part, Finnish history has consisted of waiting for the next war against Russia.

This royalty request was made to Germany because there wasn't anyone else — the other side of the Great War wasn't interested in helping a country whose civil war had involved a few German soldiers and more German-trained ones on the side now crowing its victory; the newly red Russia wasn't keen on the red-crushers, and Austria-Hungary… eh, I guess they didn't know where this speck called Finland was. Anyway, Germany had for a long time been a source of culture and science for Finland, being more cosmopolitan than Sweden, and less distant than France or Britain. (Also, Germans understood that a man just has to get roaring drunk now and then.)

The Finns doing the asking were a mixed bunch: some were idealists, and certain that since there was no lofty enough nobility in Finland — leftover Swedish nobility, sure, and maybe some expatriate Russians, but no real gloriously all-Finnish royal blood they could imagine with a crown — a foreigner from a strong, well-regarded neighbor was the only choice.

Besides, said others, Finland had been ruled by a Swedish king when the land was under Sweden, and sort-of ruled by a Russian King/Tsar when under Russia, so surely this newfangled democracy stuff was against all the laws in the books. (Well, Finland had been sort of declared an independent republic in 1917, but that had been before the unpleasant anti-monarchic red stuff of the civil war, and all.)

Finally, some were more pragmatic, and felt that a king, a strong symbol, would be necessary to keep the uppity peasants and troublesome reds from causing too much trouble.

Some politicians weren't royalists, but since most of the left-leaning leaders were out of favor and out of office because of the recent civil unrest, the royalists carried the day, the Kaiser gave a name, and on the ninth of October, in 1918, the Finnish Parliament elected Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, brother-in-law of the Kaiser, as the King of Finland. (“Charles I, King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Prince of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North”, some say. Karelia's the border region of southern Finland and Russia; Åland those isles off the southwestmost point of Finland, Lapland the northern half of Finland, and Kaleva just a traditional name that just might mean Finland, all of it.)

Soon after this king-election the invincible German war machine went down the tubes, and on the 14th of December, 1918, after a “reign” of two months, without ever coming to Finland, without a single command or coronation, Frederick Charles politely said “No”. Thousands of enthusiastic Finns sighed in dismay, and the sale of formal royal portrait postcards plummeted.

Almost immediately, by one of those amazing feats of hindsight, when it now became clear there wouldn't be a king, no glorious monarch from Great Germany, quite everyone suddenly confessed he hadn't been a royalist, not really.

Finland quickly adopted a republican constitution, with a president as the (uncrowned) head of state. The 200-seat Parliament was already in existence, as was universal suffrage — Finnish women were, in 1906, among the first to get the vote.

So, after these royalist missteps, Finland thus became a democracy — and like so many democracies, was eventually threatened by the bogey of fascism. The Finnish branch of this unlikable ideology manifested in the western coasts, called Pohjanmaa, and was named after one of its cities “Lapuan liike” or the Lapua Movement.

Ah, Finns aren't very good in thinking up striking names.

Basically, the movement was a continuation of the victorious White ideas into rather brutal extremes. Eventually the prison camps were closed down, and the remaining skeletal prisoners walked free. Elections were held, parliamentary occurences occured, and the socialist parties came back to the Parliament.

Since this restoration wasn't exactly what some factions wanted, there was much grumbling, and much of this happened in Pohjanmaa, the part of Finland stereotyped as stout, quiet, slightly homicidal coastal-plain farmers who, when they've had enough, whip out the traditional knife and do ugly things with it.

This backwoods nationalist-slash-fascist movement was basically an immense, burning hate affair against everything even slightly red in color. Rallies were held, action from the government (e.g. “Ban the reds!”) was demanded, and though there was some response from that direction, it never was enough.

Now and then, when enough liquor had been consumed, some suspected red-sympathiser was bundled into a waiting car by a clutch of knife-wielding ruffians, driven a long way eastwards and then kicked out. This practice, which sometimes ended with the beaten and terrified victim shivering in some wood near the Russian border, or then in some town of eastern Finland, was known as muilutus — the term is impossible to translate, but throw Shanghaiing and mild lynching together, and you have an accurate enough description. Sometimes such antics ended in a murder.

As time passed, the list of reddish people grew by bounds that now seem almost ludicrous — socialist? liberal? pacifist? labour unionist? Damned commies all! Most probably atheists, gays, book-reading types, foreigners and people who just spoke funny were included as well.

The movement had many initial sympathizers — after all, anti-communism seemed necessary in those days, with the muscle-flexing giant Soviet neighbor and all — but as educated and power-holding people couldn't quite understand the use or charm of violent eastward-rides and other paranoiac populist yells, that support soon waned, and as Finns aren't good in rising up in open rebellion, the movement found itself in trouble. Even the formerly acquiescent generals and White militia leaders started to question the increasingly shrill things they were told. (“No, I am rather certain that rifles don't rust because there's a stealthy communist blowing on them!”)

When the ultra-nationalists then made the mistake of kidnapping the ex-president Ståhlberg — he was, after a rough eastward ride, released in some small eastern town — the polite if forced smiles turned into frowns. The moderates said “Ah, copulate this all!”, and as only the extremists were left, they got even shriller, even more demanding. In 1932 they tried a rebellion of sorts, with little support and less planning. The then-president, Svinhufvud, made a radio speech — possibly along the lines of “Come on, guys. What the fuck do you think you're doing? Go home and sleep that booze off.” — and the rebellion crumbled. Some trials, some prison time for the leaders, and a general feeling of embarrassment followed. The movement was dead.

Finns aren't very good with mindless populist fervor; it's probably because of the cold, cold winters.

In 1933, fascism-related things failed to crumble in Germany, with bad results.

Curiously enough, these two little things related here were the most dramatic occurrences between the wars (1918–1939), but they aren't considered very important by Finns. No, of all the happenings of the 20th century, the distinction of universal recognition falls on the wars just before and just after them — the kinslaying civil war, and the wars related to the general brouhaha of the Second World War, to which we will turn in the next chapter.

Now, one would think that after all this Finland would be a bitterly divided and fragmented nation: grumbling royalists, haughty aristocrats, harried democrats, leftover Jaeger soldiers, careful socialists, stealth communists, frothing nationalists, rabid fascists, bumbling hicks, and so on. Maybe that was so, but in 1939, when this tale continues, Finland was united by the strongest unifying force of all.

No, I am not speaking of love.

Rather I refer to xenophobia: the fear and hate of the External Enemy — in this case, Soviet Union.

Finland would really be lost without some variant of Russia at its eastern borders.


Between 1939 and 1945 the Second World War was fought all over the world. So in Finland also, but that term isn't usually used — mostly because those parts of that terrible conflict that touched Finland can be broken into smaller, individually named parts.

The very short history of Finland for that period is this:

  1. First a war against the Soviet Union, all alone; ended in a truce with Stalin nursing a bloody nose and Maid Finland breathing heavily, panickedly.
  2. Then an “Interim Peace”; curiously enough that was the contemporary name for it.
  3. Then, once the Nazis attacked eastwards, a new war against the Soviets, now with the Finns attacking, and now with German help. Eventually, after Stalingrad and the ensuing rout, that ended in a settlement, too: Finland lost, but wasn't overrun.
  4. Finally, there was the job of marching the Germans out of northern Finland, where they had waged their private unsuccessful war against Murmansk.
The wars ended with Finland left independent, but very conscious of the Soviet bear at its eastern border.

Since that description would make this chapter disproportionately short compared to the others, the four periods of the Finnish theatre of the Second World War are described in more detail below.

Oh, you should know this period of history is the one most Finns are most familiar with. Many couldn't name the president ten years ago (or, indeed, the prime minister today), but all know, and most are intensely proud of, the events below. An American should think what follows is for Finland the Revolutionary War and the American parts of WWII rolled together and marinaded in loss, blood and the bittersweet sugar of battered survival.

Winter War (1939–1940)

On the first of September 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and the Second World War began. Finland declared itself a neutral in all this. Then the Soviet Union attacked Poland, too, and suddenly all of Finland was sitting straight up, terrified beyond all words.

Soon Poland was gone, and on September 28th the two invaders signed a paper called a German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty. A secret article specified the spheres of influence between the two signatories — Finland and the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) fell to the Soviet side. If this had been known in Finland, there would have been paroxysms of terror.

If you want to comtemplate terror, you could do a lot worse than imagine yourself a Finnish diplomat called to visit Stalin while the Soviets are rolling tens of thousands of soldiers into what used to be a neighboring country of yours. (“Well, giving them a few bases is better than this threatened invasion.”) And then, of course, a speedy referendum shows that an impressive majority of the said neighbor's people seem to want — nay, plead for! — a place in the swell and swelling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And then Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania cease to exist.

On the twelfth of October the Finnish delegates met Stalin and Molotov in Moscow. The demands were the same: military bases, maybe a bit of border adjustment. Just trifling things, really.

A few days later, Stalin dropped a hint that if the negotiations wouldn't succeed, there might be “an accident”.

Meanwhile, the Second World War seemed to be winding down — there was a little bit of fighting in the borderlands of France and Germany, Poland was burning quietly, and the war was, quite accurately, called a Phoney War.

Since Finns aren't total saps, they'd been fortifying the Soviet border the best they could, but as one can see with a glance at any map, that border is long, over one thousand kilometers. A population of three and a half million — roughly that of a large city in more populous places — had some serious work in fortifying that. Luckily, the most attractive avenue for the enemy's advance was the Finn-held Karelian Isthmus, around one hundred kilometers wide, between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, with Leningrad sitting on the eastern, Soviet, end of it, very close to the Finnish border, and Viipuri (Vyborg in Swedish), Finland's second-largest city, sitting on the western end. North of the Isthmus, roads soon became scarce, separated by wide wilds impossible for cars or tanks to come through.

Well, Finns had their fortifications, and a national spirit solidified by their distrust of the grasping giant neighbor — but precisely because of these fortifications, close to the border, border adjustments were impossible to accept. You don't give the only line of defense you have ready to a neighbor known to be a greedy border-adjuster, no matter how concerned he is about the defence of Leningrad. (Not that Stalin feared a Finnish invasion — ah, even Finnish pride doesn't stretch enough to assume that — but one the Finns would allow through their territory.)

After a month of increasingly difficult talks, the Finnish negotiators left Moscow in the middle of November. Soon after, the Soviets informed the Finnish government that someone had shot across the border — and according to the Soviets, not in the anticipated direction. No, the evil Finns had used a cannon that must have been stolen from the Soviets, since there was no record of it existing in Finnish hands; and the shot had killed a few Soviet servicemen that had been entirely innocently loitering somewhere near the border along with a few divisions of armored infantry. As a result, the horrendously offended Soviet Union had no choice but to act in pure self-defence.

A few frantic days later, there were Soviet bombers in the skies of Helsinki, raining an unexpectedly heavy autumn storm down on Finland's capital. The war began on the 30th of November, on December's eve, and was soon and afterwards known as the Winter War. If you come to Finland, you should know something about it, since there's no other event in Finnish history as celebrated and well-known as these few months of desperate glory.

The invading Soviets had a million men, over six thousand tanks, enough planes to fill the skies, and seemingly endless supplies and reinforcements. Finns had a quarter-million badly equipped men (some were issued only a cockade, a belt and a rifle; but you can't see civilian clothing under the snow white camouflages anyway), thirty tanks, and 130 planes. That's four Soviets for every Finn. (Then again, a wartime saying commented that “every Finn is worth ten Russkies.” The exchange rate of, say, Finns and Californians is unknown.)

Then again, Finland had two great allies.

No, not France or Great Britain or America or Germany. No help from any of them. The first two planned an expedition of sorts, mainly to get an excuse to drop the most of them into northern Sweden, where some mines seemed to be too alluring to the Germans, but even these plans never got off the ground. America was too far away; Germany still intent on honoring the hidden agreement with the Soviets.

Finland's first ally, though he never intended to be such, was Stalin himself. It's certainly nice when your opponent is a paranoiac that executes half of his army's officers fearing disloyalty and political incorrectness. That does funny things to your enemy's leadership qualities and their general tendency to go for independent thought and initiative.

Stalin gave Finland yet another blessing in heavy disguise, too: he was not willing to negotiate since, by another freak accident, he just happened to find a clutch of very dedicated Finnish communists (those that had fled to the Soviet Union after the civil war in 1918) in Terijoki, the very first Finnish village the Soviets took — and naturally Stalin felt those nicely malleable Finns and not the recalcitrant chaps in Helsinki were the sole legitimate Finnish government, and the only one he could negotiate with.

Also, those in Terijoki were much more willing to cede land and all kinds of other piddling sovereignty things — partly a question of shared ideologies, and partly one of this government having a lot of free time since it didn't actually, erm, have anything to govern.

Finns were not exactly amused by this, and tricks like this made sure even the left-leaning Finns took up arms and shot at anything red that moved westwards; as a propaganda exercise the Finnish Democratic Republic was both a foot in mouth and a shot in the said foot.

The second great helper was Nature itself — herself, if you so will. The war began on the eve of December, and the winter of 1939–40 happened to be cold. Beyond cold. Colder than death. So cold that it approached the anecdote where spit tinkles on hitting the ground. Temperatures of minus forty degrees weren't uncommon that winter — curiously, minus forty is the same in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. And too many of the Russians sent to invade Finland were farm boys from sunny Ukraine, shivering in their dark summer uniforms, clustering miserably around cannons and field kitchens broken by the cold and trucks and tanks halted by snowed-in roads.

And the opposing side — well, white-clad Finns that skied out of the seemingly endless, trackless woods, took a few potshots at the captains and the field kitchens of a Soviet convoy slowly crawling along a snow-choked road, and then vanished. And a few hours later the same would happen again, until the whole column froze in place — you can't chase an enemy into the forests if you don't have skis, and even having them isn't going to help you if you haven't skied all your life. The Soviets sent to invade the north of Finland didn't fare well; there weren't many towns to occupy, just roads through a hostile, cold wooded wilderness, where the enemy seemed to be everywhere. Entire divisions went in and didn't come back: once stretched long along a wilderness road they were cut to pieces (the so-called “motti” tactics), and the pieces then destroyed by fire, cold and surrender.

And, of course, once a whole division surrenders to you, you suddenly have ammo again!

The winter helped some, though less, in the southern parts, in the Karelian Isthmus. The war there was terrible, an endless roar of Soviet guns and cannons. The Soviet tactics were straight from the previous war and left a lot to be desired — mass charges across a flat expanse against fortified positions do eventually work, but the focal word here is eventually — but four or more against one (with only the four being replenished as they fell) and immensely worse odds in guns and ammo eventually had an effect, and Finns slowly retreated, as fighting becomes difficult when you start to run out of bullets before the enemy runs out of men.

Imagine that: You have no allies, or, even worse, you have just spectators: people that sympathize but offer no help, no guns, no soldiers, no ammo; and all the while this juggernaut batters you, and though it suffers terrible losses, it seems to have a bottomless larder full of soldiers and guns. You're drowning in the enemy, and though its advance is slow, it doesn't stop. And, worst of all, it is led by Josef Stalin.

Since both fear and realistic appraisal of geopolitical realities are alien to the Finnish mind, Finns fought. Five Soviets fell for each Finn, broken tanks and burned trucks littered the sides of every road to Finland's insides, and the Isthmus began to resemble the surface of the Moon, but the enemy just kept coming. Since the great and terrible Stalin could not be wrong, unfortunate things kept happening to the Soviet commanders that couldn't execute what had seemed to all a simple pushover. (Apparently some Russian units had been specifically ordered to be careful to not cross over to Sweden; well, no such trouble.)

There was plenty of goodwill towards Finland, and a few brave unofficial volunteers from Sweden and from more distant places, but bravery can only take one so far, and every winter must eventually end. The Winter War began on the last day of November, 1939, and on the 13th of March, 1940, with encouragement from Sweden and Germany who, for reasons of their own, wanted the war over with, an armistice was signed. (Meanwhile, the Terijoki government vanished in a puff of political hot air.) The Soviets fired a few final volleys and then the fighting ceased. Finland was exhausted, out of ammo and intact foxholes. The Soviet Union was embarrassed by its failure and the abysmal performance of its army — a little time later a certain dictator would decide that invading Russia wasn't as risky as it had seemed.

Estimates of the losses vary — 66 000 dead and wounded, a third of them in the first category, seems an an accurate estimate of the Finnish losses, while the Soviet losses were in the 300 000 — 400 000 range, with a similar division. For the Soviets, that was an alarming sting; for Finland, it was two percent of its population.

Finland ceded a large part of Karelia — one-tenth of its territory — to the Soviets, giving Leningrad an ample buffer zone. Some 400 000 Karelians — over one-tenth of Finland's population — were evacuated, in many cases by troops marching past, coming from battlegrounds that were to remain deep in the ceded territories.

Interim Peace (1940–1941)

The following period was, even while it lasted, called “Välirauha”. That translates as the Interim Peace, and gives you either a good picture of the Finnish grasp for geopolitical realities, or then of the Finnish gift for sullen grudges.

Finland came out of the Winter War with considerable international goodwill (“Oh! Poor brave little nation!”), so what was the logical next step? Naturally an alliance with Nazi Germany! And here we hit dangerous waters. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Finns took up arms in their part of the world as well, but they weren't exactly allies. The term Finns liked to use (and still like to use) was “co-belligerents” — two realms that just happened to share an enemy. (Not that that prevented the various Allies from declaring war on Finland; and historiography seems to be revealing the difference was almost entirely semantic.) The stupid and monstrous Nazi cruelties did not spread to Finland — actually, a few Finnish Jews serving in the “co-belligerent” Finnish army were offered an Iron Cross by the impressed, grateful German “allies” warring nearby. They declined to accept the decoration.

(Well, to be exact, Finland did extradite eight Jews to Germany, with predictably awful results. It is good and necessary to face the uncomfortable details of one's history; but at the same time there is some little cowardly relief (though of course no excuse) in the fact that the uncomfortable parts are not so overwhelming as those of others.)

Continuation War (1941–1944)

Now, those that know the general history of the Second World War (and I'm afraid even the above has been terribly confusing if you don't) know that initially Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, went well. Invasions of Russia usually do, for a while. So it was for the co-belligerent Finns, too: as the Wehrmacht was quite something for the Soviets to handle, there weren't so many Reds facing the Finns, and the revenge-hungry, innocent boys of the north marched and fought and with barely an effort reached the old borders and went even a bit beyond them.

Not much, though: the Finn in command of the military operations — Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, who had been a general in the Russian Tsar's army when there still was such a thing — wanted to be a moderate in some things. Thus Finns stopped short of Leningrad's walls, and short of the railway that ran south from Murmansk to the Soviet heartland and carried American aid.

There were Germans in Finland, too: as waging an offensive war is a very man-intensive business, the northernmost parts of Finland's east border (Lapland, that is) were given over to German forces (coming from Nazi-occupied Norway) that waged a rather unsuccessful war there.

Meanwhile Finns, not being such great conquerors, stopped at the river Svir (Syväri in Finnish), dug in, and started to wait and see. Soon things were rather World War I — not the screaming mass attacks bit, but the trenches and endless waiting sort. (Oh, the term Continuation War — Jatkosota in Finnish — was used to indicate that the Winter War hadn't been all there was, and this was payback. Also, Finns have this knack for really imaginative names.)

Here's a map of the thing. You can see Leningrad (nowadays Sankt-Petersburg or something like that) there, right? The big lake to the northeast of it, with the red arrow in it, is Ladoga (or Laatokka in Finnish). The big lake to the northeast of that is Onega (Ääninen in Finnish), with the city of Petrozavodsk (Petroskoi) by it; the river Svir (Syväri) flows from Onega to Ladoga, and was where Finnish soldiers sat for the most of 1942 and 1943, wondering what the fuck they should do now; surely no-one thought they were supposed to go to Kamchatka all by themselves? (The modern Finnish-Russian border corresponds roughly to the Interim Peace border. The pre-Winter War border was only a dozen miles from the outskirts of Leningrad on the Isthmus, and halfway to Svir on the north side of Ladoga. Vyborg/Viipuri, lost in both wars but once the second largest city of Finland, is in a bay on the southern coast of the Isthmus, just on the Russian side; you might need to zoom in to see it.)

The most worrisome thing about this stilled state of affairs was that Finland was occupying lands somewhat beyond its old borders — and the inhabitants there (and the new ones in Karelia) of course mostly weren't Finns or even distant relations; Finland's ally/co-belligerent being who it was, the Finnish solution to this was to round up those that seemed likely to be troublesome, and those that were expected to be moved out of the old Finnish lands once the borders were restored; and this rounding-up resulted in concentration camps.

Now, don't panic yet — a concentration camp is “just” a clutch of people in poor hygiene and with barely adequate food and care; Finns weren't neurotic and psychotic enough to turn the camps into ones of extermination. What losses there were (admittedly higher than in the civilian population) were mostly due to disease and malnutrition. (Still, this is one more of those things that more perceptive Finns remember, and feel somewhat uneasy about. War corrupts everyone.)

So time passed: Finnish soldiers made cows out of pinecones and sticks (the cone is the body; you need four twigs for the legs), lined their trenches with pretty stones, made constructive use of their knives whittling and making wooden figurines, and occasionally got drunk, got a holiday to go home to do the hay, or then just acted in disrespectful and oafish ways towards their officers. The people evacuated at the end of the Winter War returned to their homes and rebuilt their lives (and occasionally homes) the best they could. Meanwhile, elsewhere, people died, bullets flew and bodies grew colder, and the German invasion of Russia turned to Stalingrad, and then to a rout.

While general-issue Finns aren't much for geopolitics (I believe I have mentioned this several times already), Finnish generals and politicians were somewhat sharper, and after the debacle of Stalingrad careful feelers of peace were sent eastwards: beggars can't be choosers, and a tiny nation can't be too proud in the cruelest of all wars if it wants to survive.

Well, I believe I have also mentioned this gentleman called Josef Stalin several times, too. He wasn't inclined to do anything except the old “Stalin smash!” routine. Finns were lucky his bomber-planes couldn't get up to more than a 5% accuracy, and his soldiers had plenty of other things to do.

In the summer of 1944, around the time American boots hit the ground in Normandy, there was finally land action: a big Soviet offensive against the Finnish positions, guns on guns and tanks after tanks. Against guns you can just hunker down; against tanks there's not much you can do if you don't have anti-tank guns, and Finns didn't. Many tries with guts and petrol canisters (Finns say Finns invented the Molotov cocktail, by the way) showed the new heavy Russian tanks weren't as easy prey as the Winter War targets, and thus — since to fight a war you need guns — the Finnish president Ryti went to the metaphorical devil, and personally signed a treaty with the German foreign minister, Ribbentrop: Ryti would not lead Finland to seek a separate peace if it only got the Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks it needed. (Those bazookas translate to Panssarinyrkki and Panssarikauhu in Finnish, and to something like Tankfist and Tankfear in English — the Finnish names sound considerably less silly.)

These weapons stabilised things for a while, but eventually the endless enemy pushed again, attacked with overwhelming force, and Finns retreated, civilians crying their way away from their homes for the second time — away from Onega, away from Ladoga, back to the outskirts of Vyborg-Viipuri. There a battle was fought, called that of Tali-Ihantala: 50 000 Finns against three times as many Soviets, the former again running out of all supplies (except, of course, courage and the perverse unwillingness to die unless your teeth are clenched at the jugular of the world; Finns call it sisu, and it is something between bravery and stubborn stupidity), and eventually the Soviets were halted again. Then Stalin, eager to extricate his troops and press for Berlin, finally agreed to a peace settlement. His generals had whispered to him, depending on how you want to put it, that either doing this again and again until all Finland was occupied would bleed the Soviet Union dry; or then that this much bloody hassle for such a place as Finland simply wasn't worth it.

Now, you remember president Ryti and his agreement with Ribbentrop? Good. Did you notice that I called it a personal agreement? I did that on purpose, and so did the president: he resigned, the parliament appointed marshal Mannerheim as the president, and dropped to his platter the matter of ending the war, which he performed with due alacrity. On September 4, 1944, the armistice started.

Well, if you were a Finn it did. The Soviets kept on shooting, just for the fun of it, for an additional 24 hours.

The borders went to those decreed at the end of the Winter War, plus a bit more off the northeastern part of Finland, plus a military base from the coast, plus lots and lots of money. Plus the Finnish army had to demobilize, like, yesterday. Oh, and those Germans in the northern parts of Finland? Fourteen days to kick them out or something terrible happens.

And the kicking-out of those Germans is the final part of Finland's world war.

Lapland War (1944–1945)

Now, Lapland — I hope you know Lapland (or Lappi in Finnish) is the northern part of Finland, almost the northern half of it, beyond the forests and lakes: fells and rolling tundra with nothing much except a Sami here and a reindeer there. That was where German troops had waged a war against the Soviet border there, without much success, not really making much of a fuss of themselves. Now when Finland sent soldiers northwards — all the while shedding them back to the sorry state of being a civilian, too — the Germans retreated quite amicably at first. (“Sheesh! Okay, I know when I'm not wanted. Fine! I'm going — look, I'm going already! No need to wave that bayonet around!”)

Well, as even small good things don't usually last, there was some haste and a bit of bitterness, and eventually a large portion of the north's towns and villages went up in flames. (A cad might note it would have been worse had this been a part of Finland that, even on Finland-scale, actually had much anything flammable except an occasional very dry reindeer — but I won't say such a thing. Scorched earth is no joking matter.)

And where were the Germans going? Well, they retreated to northern Norway, and from there to the shrinking husk of the evil Nazi state. Finns stopped at the Norwegian border, put down their rifles, and waited to see what would happen next.

The final peace-terms (Paris, 1947) were much like those of the armistice: a border adjustment (“Finland! Now with 10% off!”), hefty reparations, and a general message that the Soviet bear would really, really like to not be messed with again. The reparations were 300 million US dollars, that is, an immense shitload, all to the Soviets. Paying that, and paying it all, motivated Finland into building some serious industry — the thing about Finns is that they will sweat blood and shit barbed wire paying their punishment, no matter how injust, no matter how great a cretin the receiver, rather than give anyone the chance to say they did not comply. (After the reparations were paid this trucking of paper and metal products eastwards became a rather lucrative trade to the newly-built Finnish industries.)

The curious thing, though, was that unlike all other Axis countries and their allies Finland wasn't fought all over or occupied: the war stopped at the eastern borders, and excepting bombers and a bit of naval action hadn't ever been anywhere else. Given what a war can do rolling over a country Finns were very lucky, but at that moment they did not feel like it — should they celebrate what was left, or mourn what they had lost, or fear the future?

Oh, and the losses of this second round? For the Finnish side, with roughly 500 000 Finns and 200 000 Germans in arms (the Germans safely in the relatively unharassed north), the dead and wounded numbered 200 000. Do consider, if you so will, the significance of these numbers for a population of three and a half million: one in seven was in arms, and nearly half of that came back damaged or not at all. Most Finnish villages, no matter how small, have a crowded nook in their churchyards for the victorious dead.

The Soviets deployed over one million men at any one given time, replenished all the time as they were ground down, and 600 000 came back damaged or not at all. These were much stiffer losses than those of the Winter War; but it is that first iteration of these hostilities that shines the brightest in Finnish memories — it's one thing to fight alone as the great war lies stilled for a while, and quite another to be just another theatre of the greatest military grief of the century, and an ally of the dragon against the leviathan.

Now, one final thing — Finland wasn't occupied, and Finland didn't become a communist travesty of a nation, either, like East Germany and Poland and all those other violated puppet-states. Instead — this is the Finnish view and it is largely true — Finland became this little country in between: declining the help of the Marshall Plan because that would have irritated the Soviets, and resisting a membership in the Warsaw Pact because that would have been falling off the other side of the knife. That had some untoward side effects over the years — when you live next to fitfully sleeping bear, you tend to whisper a lot. Finland kept dancing on that knife-edge between east and west for forty-five years, never bowing so deep to the Soviets it would have meant mooning the West, and vice versa.

Then, in around 1990, the Soviet Union disintegrated, no doubt worn down by long years of preparing for a Finnish invasion. (Well, one can hope.)

Before turning to those years after 1945 — long dangerous years full of politics and devoid of exciting action — a word about the lost lands of Karelia, twice lost in the Second World War, needs to be said.

There still are some Finns who yearn for the return of Karelia: Ladoga Karelia (between the current border and lake Ladoga) and the Karelian Isthmus (between Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland), and sing and speak of the sweet lands beyond the border where their grandfathers lived when they were boys. Most are romantics resigned to this loss being for ever; others still wish and plan.

The writer can't really sympathise with that lost cause: most of the people are here in Finland, as life under Stalin didn't seem all that enticing to them, and Karelia is settled by people who have lived there for over sixty years: Ukrainians and others brought there by Soviets wishing to make some use of the new, disquietingly empty borderland. They're not Finns, and no matter the way their ancestors came there, who would have the heart to evict them, even if a giant country could actually stomach giving some of its land to a smaller neighbor? And with them there, what right do Finns have to demand their lands? Maybe it's true that if you get away with villainy for long enough, it becames so that it would be an equally great crime to set things to how they were.

Not that that has ever stopped dreamers, and Finns have this tendency to always long for things they can't ever get. That's yet another part of the Finnish psyche; and one more is the tender, proud way they remember their great romance, a lost war fought against a tyrant, with monsters for allies.

(Oh, one final note. The English Wikipedia has long, fact-rich articles on the Winter War, the Continuation War and the related subjects, with more details and nuances than this writer can or will include — and thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks, the weird names and terms there can be puzzled out rather quickly. Also, the writer seems to recall that William Trotter's A Frozen Hell was a quite good and very evocative account of the Winter War.)

The next few chapters weren't ever written. They would have been IX Cold War and X Right Now; I'm skipping them now and providing the culture chapters I actually wrote.

Their contents would have been, roughly —

Cold War (1945–1989): Finland stays neutral; having such a border with USSR as Finland has, this neutral is at times quite red. There's more self-censorship than censorship; it doesn't do to moon the East by bowing too deeply at the West. No NATO, no Warsaw Pact. On the other hand, when you have good Soviet relations and a non-Soviet economy, it's possibly to make lots of money selling paper and metal products to the Soviet Union. Urho Kekkonen is the president from 1956 to 1982, which sounds really bad. It's easy to get into arguments about whether Finlandization was a fair term, accurate, or just horribly awkward. Despite this all, things mostly and monotonously improve all around: industrialization, welfare state-building, not getting into fights, except as a part of UN peacekeeping forces. My dad's born into a household with no electricity; I'm born into one with PCs.

Right Now (1989—): Finland joins the EU in 1995. and has lots of computers (Linus Torvalds rah rah!). There's a recession that nobody enjoys; see the previous paragraph about a trading partner that also had problems. Nokia is a Finnish company as long as it is good. The Finnish school system gets a lots of praise in the international press. Finland is an affluent welfare state where life is nice and not very interesting, unless you ask the Finnish people; they still complain about everything.

If inspiration strikes, I'll write these chapters more fully later. Now, cultural differences!


If you are a foreigner — not a Finn, that is — you probably know all about small talk.

Well, if you come to Finland (or worse still, are already here) you should know about the Finnish equivalent: the no-talk.

Let me give you a prolonged example.

Living in a shared student-matchbox has brought me to contact with many students, both Finnish and exchange. The exchange students have been nice — clueless, but nice. Very curious and keen to know of my family history and field of study.

The Finns, on the other hand, have stayed a bit of a mystery to me: not exactly nice, but rather not not-nice. I would have noticed any clearly “not-nice” behavior, such as nailing a rotting goat carcass to my door at midnight. Since that hasn’t happened (though I’m still not quite sure of the present batch) I conclude they have been passing fine people. Maybe murderous serial cannibals, but passing fine when I’ve been around, and that’s what counts.

A typical talk with a Finnish flatmate might be like this:

Me: “Hi. Moved to room D, huh?”

He: “Yeah.”

Then silence. We’d not see each other again, as he’d sit in his room, the door closed and locked, and probably a thick mattress propped against it to ward off all sounds of (shudder) other people.

Six months or a year later I’d notice he’d moved away, or died in his room under a suffocating cloud of dust. (A Finnish male, once away from both his mother and his army basic training, never wants to wipe dust or mop floors again. Despite frequently requesting this of the housing company, no girls have been given a part of our flat so I can't comment on them. “Oh, the terrible injustice!”, he cried lecherously.)

Now, that would be typical social interaction with a Finn; with the exchange students, on the other hand, there would be a lot of saying “Hi!” each time we’d see each other, and asking “How’s it going?” and “How was your day today?”, and so on.

For a Finn those small social questions are terribly awkward. A Finn, hearing one, is usually trapped in a long moment of composing a five-second explanation of the goings of it or his day. After remembering that the question isn't supposed to be really answered, he just grunts and mutters a faint: “Uhjustfinebuggeroff.”

Finnish people are bad with small talk; they're fine with big talk. A Finn has only two settings in his mind: no-talk and big-talk.

Oh, and possibly also screaming-spitting-biting-drunken-nonsense, the good old “They're coming through the walls!” commentary.

Also, Finns aren't so good in talking to strangers. They will talk, when in the mood, the ears off their relatives and dearest friends, but a random yo-yo in a bus, or an unknown next to them on the bench? Not a word. Nothing is said, nothing is expected in return.

Finnish people just are comfortable with silence. I've heard that the urban Japanese, living in a very crowded society, have learned to carry an invisible bubble of being alone around them. Here on the other side of the world, the ancient Finns, not being equipped to handle lots of unknown people, handed down their gift of just treating other people as a variety of unaesthetic doorknobs or dull wallpapers; social stress is easier to avoid when there's no socializing being done.

Exchange students — I'll use them again as an example, since most foreigners I've met have been such — usually are curious and friendly, and to be honest that still continues to creep the excrement out of me. It seems unnatural.

The Finnish way is to ignore the other guy until we absolutely have to interact or lose limbs. Calling for help if, say, your finger is stuck inside a fridge, is unacceptable. Get an icicle and cut yourself free! You’ll lose less face that way.

In some exotic and puzzling places you can “lose face”, or social standing, by behaving asininely — that like, like an ass. (The animal.)

Now, my theory is that in Finland you lose face by talking to people.


Your relatives and most intimate friends, and your spouse after ten years of marriage, are exceptions. Otherwise, every time you talk to someone, you lose a fistful of “respect points”. For every moment the conversation continues, you lose more points, faster and faster.

I think this is a very sensible hypothesis, and explains a lot about Finland.

First Finn: “Hi! I want to give you free money!”

Second Finn: “Grnmn.” (walks away)

And since respect is hard to come by, getting money or healthcare really isn’t worth the points loss. “My arm’s green and smelly? Maybe it’ll go away. Sure ain’t gonna talk to no doctor.”

If this loss-of-face hypothesis doesn't seem sensible to you, I can also give you another, best formulated as —

A Fable About Finland

A Finnish man asks his friend whether or not he should propose to his girlfriend. The friend mumbles: “Hell, yeah. What a prime idea.”

The friend, confident that his tone was easy enough to understand, shouts for more beer and drops the subject.

Consequently, the Finn proposes and is rejected: the girlfriend’s shrill and forceful tones are, even to him, quite easy to understand. The Finn leaves, heartbroken, and after three days notices that his sorrows float, and thus cannot be drowned in alcohol. Paying the bartender, he has a sudden epiphany: people are the source of all his problems!

Thus he utilizes an axe on both his friend and girlfriend, and since drunken people are supposed to do stupid things, after some years he walks free, and thus, out of our three characters, only the one with worst communication skills survives to breed.

Indeed Finland is a vicious downward spiral, or: maybe Finns don’t talk because talking means communication, and communication always holds the seeds of misunderstanding, offense, and grisly axe-murders. It’s not a good idea to offend anyone in Finland: just think of all the sharp instruments and the blunt ones, the aggressive drunken people, and the empty places where no-one can hear you scream.

And so Finns avoid social situations, being withdrawn and introverted by nature, and having little opportunity or inclination for honing their communication skills. For them, all is fine as long as one can point at a beer bottle and grunt: the bartender will understand.

I have a hunch that I'll be returning to the subject of axes and alcohol later on, this being after all a Guide to Finland.

There of course are many other explanations for the Finnish habit of no-talk. Since they aren't something I've thought up myself they must all be both stupid and wrong.

Some say it's a self-destructive habit, with the usual Finnish winters, to do something that often opens such a wide and ugly heat-escape as one's mouth. Thus such habits tend to be rare, and thus Finns don't talk.

Some say that, when the ancient Finns cohabited these woods and swamps with bears and wolves, easily irritable moose and heat-seeking mosquitoes, then talking a lot was a bad idea, since it tended to attract unwelcome critters: hungry bears and such, or mosquitoes homing on the smell of one's breath.

Just remember, o foreigner, that Finns aren't good with chit-chat, and that they aren't inclined to start talking to strangers. Once you start talking to them, about something really worth talking about, you'll get all the mangled and badly pronounced conversation you want.


This chapter consists of a few random notes about what happens when Finns and alcohol meet. Since those meetings often cause considerable discontinuities in memory and good judgment, this chapter's similarly broken into short, gulp-sized pieces.

Drinking can be a dignified, social occasion. In France, I hear, and in similar highly dignified places, people can sip wine at supper, and enjoy a taste of brandy in the evening.

Not so in Finland.

Finns — your standard, stereotypical male Finns — drink anything that has alcohol in it, including antifreeze, and drink it until it's all gone. They don't sip, they don't behave in a civilized manner, but they drink — because when a Finn does something, he does it without frills and without too much thinking.

Or, all too often, without any thinking at all.

The good part of drinking with Finns is that there are no occult rules to be followed: no toasts to saints or ancient gods, no abstaining from absinthe after midnight, no special cups, nor speeches or careful comments about the taste — just the single-minded task of getting drunk, treating the liquor, no matter whether fine or foul, as just another work to be done, another nail to be hammered down.

The bad part of drinking with Finns is, of course, that such indiscriminate drinkers will get raving, biting drunk quite soon, and then it's a knife-slashing, axe-fighting, rifle-shooting buddy-slaying time all night long, or until a policeman comes.

For Finns, such violence is a sport of sorts, free of malice and forethought, just another detail in the way things are, and have always been.

In the army, where I was a frighteningly long time ago, there were constant and rarely substantiated tales about the desperate tricks thirsty soldiers did during long, leaveless camps — running lighter fluid or truck antifreeze through a triple slab of bread, and drinking the resulting near-alcoholic paralysis-liquid.

Soldiers returning from their leaves staggering, dirt poor and still roaring drunk aren't a solely Finnish phenomenon, but Finns do even these wild binges quite singularly without any reservations or second thoughts whatsoever — drinking until there's no drink, no money or no glass-lifting hand steady enough left.

Finns are usually quiet and restrained types, but alcohol makes them alarmingly talkative — it's as if the average amount of social activity over time is the same everywhere, but Finns have just divided their social activities into short, intense outbursts separated by long days of near-catatonia.

Actually, this “sudden peaks model of Finnish behavior” is one of my best explanations for the ways Finns behave. Frenchmen might be moderately talkative and cheerful all the time, but Finns keep their words and worries bottled up, until they all burst loose in a short, violent gush of social interaction.

Alcohol or some other mind-altering stimulus (like hearing that Finland won the European wheelchair-stair bowling championships) often triggers one of these manic outbursts.

With the usual Finnish winters, and the usual company of the other Finns, life in Finland can be a bit dark, tiresome and depressing. After the liquid claws of alcoholism dig in deep, the valleys and troughs of life get darker, tiresomer and even more depressing, but the occasional (or near-constant) bright highs of loud drunkenness make forgetting them easier.

Each summer many Finns — dozens, I'd guess — drown because of alcohol. The usual scheme goes a bit like this: Midsummer. A drunken Finn. A rowboat. A nice view from the middle of the lake. A sudden need to piss. An unsteady form in a boat, trying to stand up and empty his bladder into the lake. The next day, a three-line notice in the local newspaper.

During winters, the more bravehearted drunken Finns go outside to run around in the snow, sometimes wearing only their underwear, sometimes not even that. Sometimes some don't come back.

This Darwinian selection has made Finns into people that, instead of resisting the lure of drink, survive very well in cold places instead. Ah well — evolution has no foresight, and neither do Finns.

Some Finns do their drinking in company, some do it all alone. Some talk a lot when drinking; others are quiet. These two groups don't overlap as nicely with the previous two as you'd want.

Some Finns prefer beer; some drink ciders or long drinks or whiskey or toxic goo from vats hidden in student-apartment closets. (The author's knowledge of these things is very limited.)

Most Finns go for quantity instead of quality. With drinks, as with many other things, Finns don't understand or care about formalisms, manners or highly cultivated tastes. A bottle of France's finest might cause gasps, and a bit of Scotland's best might dredge up a lusty smile, but if you really want to delight a typical Finn, bring a mixed crate of beer and cider with you.

(In Finland, cider or siideri apparently always means a mild alcoholic drink. The author, being a filthy absolutist, isn't really the person you should trust when learning about these things. Consult a Finn less challenged in the popular pastime department and, if necessary, make him translate a bit of the Finnish Wikipedia for you.)

Of course not all Finns — not even all Finnish males — are disastrously suicidal (or just homicidal) alcohol-abusers. Many know where their limits are, or at least realize, after an amnesiac weekend, that they've gone beyond their limits once again.

Not all Finns are drunks, but instead of giving you excuses and accurate facts, I much rather mutter our own stereotypes and folk-tales; after all, if you come to Finland, you'll have to deal with the Finns' picture of themselves as much as with the way Finns actually are.

Foreigners can have a tough time in Finland. Consider, for example, this.

You are in a Finnish city. You are louder than the people there usually are. You raise your voice more, your tones vary more, and you gesture and show your emotions much, much more than the people there usually do. You have a few similar people with you.

When (or rather if) you talk to other people, your speech is difficult to understand, as if it was in a foreign language, and even if you speak Finnish your pronunciation is exact, even exaggerated, but a bit stilted or slurry. If a Finn speaks to you, in common clear and rapid-fire Finnish, you have trouble understanding his intent, or answering him.

Who are you?

In Finland, most often, you are either a foreigner, or you are drunk. Since foreigners are much rarer than members of the second category, this might explain some of the looks a foreigner (or a clutch of them) gets in Finland.

Remember, scaring the pants off you with cultural notes like this is a valuable public service, and since no-one else seems to be doing it, I do.


All summer long Finnish people moan and complain about insects: the Finnish brand of mosquitoes, the shrilly buzzing, blood-sucking menace, or then about various other pests — the silent, speck-sized things whose bites bleed for forever, or then common flies that go bump, bump against the ceiling all night, keeping you awake and your eyes filled with red-tainted visions of unspeakable cruelty.

Then again, Finns are habitual nags and grumblers; things aren't really bad until the Finn stops complaining.

And this chapter deals with that thing that can strike even a Finn quiet.

There is one Finnish word you really should know, now when your teeth aren’t yet chattering too loudly to prevent forming words. This word is kaamos.

It has two meanings.

There is an English equivalent to one meaning of the word, namely, polar night: that period when, north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t rise for a couple of days in the darkest winter. The farther north you go, the longer this period of sunlessness. (In the summer, it is balanced by a few nightless nights, when the sun never sets.) If this seems improbable or impossible to you, you can use your good deed of the week on buying a physics student a cup of coffee and asking her about the tilt of Earth’s axis.

Now, in most of Finland, you don’t have to worry about days without sun, because the Polar Circle divides Finland at Rovaniemi, north of which there is nothing but reindeer and snow.

And a few Sami and a few Finns, but on the average only reindeer and snow. (And Santa, who is too hefty to be erased by any averaging process.)

Still, when the Finnish winter comes, the nights will be long, the days will be lightless and wan, and snow will cover all, like a silent, cold shroud.

If you're really unlucky, it is warmer than usually and the first permanent snow is delayed — then it is even darker, with Finland seemingly painted with just the reds of constant sunrise-sunsets and the blacks of dripping, haggard birches and rain-slick conifers.

So, whether the snow is early or late, Finnish winter often leads to the second meaning of the word kaamos — namely, a mental state: winter depression.

You might know about autumn depression, that sad feeling when leaves fall from the trees, or spring depression, when everything’s covered with rain and sludge. There might even be summer depression, but as a Finn my observations on summer are too few to comment on that. But winter depression, ah, that’s something!

Every day will seem the same, dull and hard, except that ever so slowly mornings dawn with increasing tardiness, as if they were tired too, and evenings darken sooner, like the sun was too weary to stay up in the skies. Every day will be a bit colder, the wind a bit more biting, the rain a bit more like a shower of needles. Then will come the snow, and for a moment everything will be clean and wonderful. Then you’ll notice that it isn’t the white of purity and enchantment, but the color of sterility and lonely death —

Well, anyway, kaamos is a thing that makes me write depressing things like that, and I’m a Finn. It can be even harder for foreigners, because it’s so shocking and seemingly wrong — who ever heard of the sun altering its course and time in the skies? — and because it just lasts and lasts.

And then, when you've almost gotten over it, the heavy-handed specter of Christmas, the ghost of Stress Yet to Come, comes.

Thousands and thousands of Finns suffer from kaamos depression, or depressio hiemalis as the fancy Latin of doctors terms it. Depression, anxiety, exhaustion, restlessness — it's all mostly because of the lack of light. How are you supposed to wake up and keep moving when it's dark outside when you go to work, and dark again when you get out? It's as if the cold colorless world outside settled into your bones — unfeeling, unmotivated, a dull ache, a hunger that can't be satisfied, a sleepiness that can't be shaken — all in all, not a nice thing at all.

Apparently there's one treatment for this: kirkasvalohoito or bright light treatment — not some New Age poppycock despite the name, but half an hour spent sitting next to a very bright lamp every day. Since this is supposed to be a sun-replacer, it helps if you have a good imagination and a robust gift for the suspension of disbelief.

Oh, and the period when this depression usually claws at people? From September to April. Some Finns suffer through it every winter.

Do you now understand why there are so few people in Finland? Try getting excited with your spouse when neither really wants to move a limb.

It's not the physical cold of winter that makes Finland so eerie — it's the mental cold and darkness that oozes from everything here, and slowly sinks its fangs into you, year after year. (Oh, by the way: this Guide isn't sponsored by the Tourist Ministry of Finland. Just lettin' you know.)

When autumn turns to winter it is the time when demented people get lost outdoors and disappear into the darkness, never to be seen again. It is a season of depression, white pills, suicides, drunken fights, nervous breakdowns, sick leaves and exhaustion that seems impossible to shake off or get over.

If you wonder why Finns are the way they are — well, the cheery and social ones were ground down and bowled over by endless years of cold kaamos centuries ago. Living in Finland requires, so I tell myself from time to time, requires grit. Or in Finnish sisu, the special Finnish perseverance that refuses to quit even when there's nothing left to fight for.

Please, don’t be alarmed by this. Don’t take a taxi to the airport and demand a ticket back home.

It’s impossible, you see. Too many Finns fleeing the cold dark to Rhodes or the Canary Islands.

That's a solution, too, though it costs more than a bright lamp.

A third “cure” for kaamos, one that's especially available to you, dear stranger, if you're not a born Finn, is cornering your local Finnish gal or guy and talking to her/him. Finns are good company if you just warm them up a bit. (In contrast, if you throw a Finn to the middle of a circle of twenty exchange students and expect him to be funny and engaging, you'll discover that Finns make great pillars of salt, too.) And there's lot to talk about in Finns and Finland. Use the dark evenings of sleet and blizzards, and your southlander social wiles, to your education and entertainment.

Oh, and “southlander social wiles” is what we Finns expect you suave, cultural, elegant foreigners to have. If you don't have any, relax: just call things recherche and you're a-okay.

Since I realize the above can be a bit depressing, here's what the 6th century historian Jordanes happened to say about life near the arctic circle in his Getica (III 19–20), the history of Goths.

No, not the black-dressing friends of good music. The old, hairy, axe-swinging sort.

Jordanes's “Scandza” refers to the peninsula of Sweden-Norway, which does indeed seem an island if you only know the southern parts. The “Adogit” were the northern Norwegians of those times.

Now in the island of Scandza, whereof I speak, there dwell many and divers nations, though Ptolemaeus mentions the names of but seven of them. There the honey-making swarms of bees are nowhere to be found on account of the exceeding great cold. In the northern part of the island the race of the Adogit live, who are said to have continual light in midsummer for forty days and nights, and who likewise have no clear light in the winter season for the same number of days and nights.

By reason of this alternation of sorrow and joy they are like no other race in their sufferings and blessings.

And why? Because during the longer days they see the sun returning to the east along the rim of the horizon, but on the shorter days it is not thus seen. The sun shows itself differently because it is passing through the southern signs, and whereas to us the sun seem to rise from below, it seems to go around them along the edge of the earth.

(From the Getica hypertext at the University of Calgary; thanks, Canada!)

“Like no other race in their sufferings and blessings”? I hope that cheers you. There aren't many places where you can so clearly see the machinery of the universe turning, and even burning — because in the darkness of winter, you can always hope to see the revontulet, or aurora borealis, the northern lights.

Revontulet (always a plural) means fox-fires. Apparently an old legend of Lapland tells of ghost foxes fighting, their tails sweeping across the sky.

If kaamos depresses you, just remember there's plenty of beauty even in the darkness.

Small Things

The other chapters try to tell you about the big things of Finland: history, winter, silence, barely controlled homicidal introvertism, things like that.

This chapter is just a collection of little details, little things that might help you understand Finland a little bit better.

Tango. Yes, the South American form of dance and music. It came to Finland after the Second World War, and it's hugely popular — well, among the more aged anyway. There are endless Finnish songs in this form, and they're all melancholy: no love, no hope, no money, dog died yesterday, stuff like that. Then again, something like one-half of all Finnish music is like that; almost all of the rest is music you need to be drunk to appreciate. Still, if you come to Finland and are in the risk of dancing outside a disco-rave context, knowing tango might be a plus.

Computers. Why, surely it cannot surprise you that a nation of introverted people loves its mobile phones, computers and other gadgets that make avoiding people easier? Since the temperatures of Finland are not good for easily excited people (e.g. key won't fit, throws key away, looks for it, dies lost in the snow), Finns tend to be patient and thus good with computers. For an example consider one Linus Torvalds, whom the world must praise/blame for Linux. Because there isn't much anything of value in Finland (well, some trees maybe), Finns are good in working with intangibles — like computer programming, or then designing thingamajics like the quite famous mobile phones of Nokia, the Finnish company.

All your friends know this. You were the only one to think Nokia a Japanese name. And now you know better. Go embarrass someone.

Metal. Again, it must be because of all the darkness and gloom: Finns are quite good in making heavy metal music of various kinds. If you're interested in that sort of a thing (I am!) you might have heard of… (scratches head) Nightwish, Stratovarius, Children of Bodom, HIM, Lordi? I guess listing names is pretty futile; if you're a fan of the genre, you know this already, and if you aren't, listing names won't do you any good. Just remember that when the lyrics turn to death, sorrow and anger, Finns know how to put them down and raise them up.

Karaoke. A microphone, prerecorded background music, a view of the lyrics, and one tone-deaf person trying to sing. I'm sure you know the concept, right? Karaoke is originally from Japan — kara ookesutora is Japanese for “an empty orchestra” — and it is one of those many things that Finland and Japan share, like the ability to be alone and aloof in a crowd, a love of bathhouses, and a difficult language unrelated to those of (most) neighbors. One wouldn't straightaway think a common Finn very musical — and, oh boy, that thought is right — but karaoke is still popular; that might have something to do with the use of alcohol. Most Finnish excesses can be explained by asking this simple question: Is this something that a very, very drunken person would do? I suspect that if the weather was a bit warmer, streaking would be endemic every time the bottles get drained.

The most horrible karaoke experience occurs usually in a bus — one that has a TV-VHS/DVD combination to keep the travelers content during longer trips, and a microphone near the front — don't attend an informal company trip or a youth get-together or something similar unless you're sure of earmuffs or a baggage check.

Coffee. Though coffee beans don't grow in Finland, Finns drink coffee like maniacs. This is often forgotten, because it's overshadowed by the fact that Finns drink alcohol like crazed maniacs on speed. The kaamos depression — caused by the endless dark days of winter — makes getting up and going a bit difficult, and many Finns can't start their day without a cup of coffee. There's no consensus on whether coffee should be drank black and disgusting or nicely disguised with milk and sugar, though the writer has an opinion.

Note to biologists: Prohibit importing coffee, and in five years you'll have a human that hibernates. Okay?

Subbed, not dubbed. If you open a television in Finland, you see that the foreign programs are subtitled, not dubbed over in Finnish. As a happy result of this, Finns are pretty good with English, the majority of foreign programming being either British or American, quite all of the series famous in the latter filtering to Finland sooner or later, from CSI to House, and from that curious lady Oprah to Conan O'Brien.

Also, it seems Germany cannot make a police series without it being shown in Finland sooner or later, and over and over again: Derrick, Der Alte, and so on. Other countries are more sporadically represented — the writer has to admit to finding Los Serrano, a Spanish daytime drama series, very amusing. Now, in more populous areas programs might be dubbed (spoken over) by local actors; in Finland the smallness of the audience and the general crappiness (personal opinion) of Finnish voice actors (again, a size of the pool issue) mean that only the shows aimed at really young children — so young they can't read, or criticize voice acting — are spoken over.

Someone optimistic could say this leads to Finns learning either to read or to understand foreign languages better, or in the best case both. Someone less so could at the very least note that there have been several amusing books published in Finland that contain subtitling bloopers — understandable given the nervous strain of having to endure the Bold and the Beautiful for more than the half-hour, but still highly amusing.

Politics. Not something that has excited people for the last couple of decades — parliamentary elections (eduskuntavaalit) tend to get the count of those that voted to the sixties, presidential elections (presidentinvaalit) to the seventies. There doesn't seem to be much difference between the parties, no particular fighting spirit, no immense ideological wars or divisions, and absolutely no rioting whatsoever no matter the results. Finland is happily in the post-democratic age where elections are regular and honest, the candidates reasonably upright, the reactions stolid and restrained, and the people bored to death by the whole exercise.

Complaining. Now, this might be universal, but Finns love to moan, gripe and bitch. With some other nation this might lead to bloodshed or revolution, or it might be balanced by brags of Manifest Destiny and past glory — not so in Finland. Finland is an inferiority complex wrapped in resignation inside a shell of kvetch. It might be the knowledge of the often warred-home fact that we are a very small nation between big ones: remember that until the Napoleonic wars Sweden was a Power — and it has been a power, lower-cased, since compared to Finland. And the various incarnations of Russia, powerful and slightly power-mad — well, ask a Canadian to imagine living next to the US without the help of the UK, and something similar emerges: for we have no Slavic, Germanic or post-Imperial grand family of kith and kin to call our own; and the first Finn to waltz to the dubious borderline of legend and history did so only 900 years ago, and did so by getting into a rage and killing a bishop. You try building national confidence from that.

Things Finns see as threatening. Increased alcoholism. Unemployment. Youth getting on the lawn. Russia. Unhealthy food. People complaining about unhealthy food. People griping about people complaining about unhealthy food when it's only in their own good interests, and so on. Debt. A dearth of doctors and waiting for medical services. Every service draining out of the villages and into big cities. Not enough children. Too many foreigners. The sort of stupid troglodytes that would make a comment like the previous one. Russia. The foreigners seeing us as backward and dumb. The possibility that we might actually be backward and dumb. The prospect of having to teach your grandmother to use Twitter. The resurrection of Stalin. Russia.

Things that don't bother Finns much. Corruption — there isn't much any. Sweden — well, okay, they're the butt of a thousand jokes, but we're good neighbors really. Religion — who cares? Political ideologies — unless you're one of those scary gimlet-eyes achiever-types. Ambition — heck, just getting and keeping a job would be nice. Fashion, haute couture, and anything beyond denim and tracksuits — unless you're one of those neurotic about the Image of Finland, or live in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, where people are all uppity. Terrorist attacks, civil wars, genocides, volcanic eruptions and giant chinchilla attacks — because those don't happen outside the World News section.

Now, a concluding word: stereotypes and generalizations most often aren't true, but I hope that if I throw up enough of them, something like the truth will shine through. This was just another volley.