Finland’s extensive history stretches from its pre-ice-age days through to its contemporary reputation as a tech hub. For centuries this cold northern land was used as a wrestling mat between two heavyweights, Sweden and Russia. Following its eventful emergence from their grip, it has gone on to become one of the world’s most progressive and prosperous nations, which celebrated its centenary of independence in 2017.

Early Days

What is now Finland was inhabited way back: pre-ice-age remains have been found dating from some 120,000 years ago. But the big chill erased most traces and sent folk scurrying south to warmer climes. Only at the retreat of the formidable glaciers, which had blanketed the country 3km deep, was human presence re-established.

The first post-thaw inhabitants had spread over most of Finland by about 9000 BC. The people used stone tools and hunted elk and beaver.

Pottery in the archaeological record shows that a new influence arrived from the east to southern Finland about 5000 years ago. Because Finland was the furthest point west that this culture reached, it’s suggested that these new people brought a Finnic language with them from Russia. If so, those who lived in Finland at this time were the ancestors of the Finns and the Sámi.

In the 1st century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned a tribe called the Fenni, whom he described as wild savages who had neither homes nor horses. He might have been referring to the Sámi or their forebears, whose nomadic existence better fits this description. Studies indicate that today’s Sámi are descended mostly from a small original group, and some claim that a divergence of pre-Finnish and Sámi cultures can be seen as far back as 700 BC. Nomadic cultures leave little archaeological evidence, but it seems the Sámi gradually migrated northwards, probably displaced by the southerners and the advance of agriculture into former hunting lands. Verses of the Kalevala, which is derived from ancient oral tradition, seem to refer to this conflictive relationship.

Swedish Rule

The nascent kingdom of Sweden saw Finland as a natural direction for extending its influence in the Baltic and countering the growing power of Novgorod (later to become Russia) in the east. Missionary activity began in the 12th century, and legend tells of an Englishman, Bishop Henry, leading an expedition of baptism that ended stickily when he was murdered by Lalli, a disgruntled peasant.

Things started to heat up in the 13th century. The Pope called a crusade against the Häme tribe, which was increasingly influenced both religiously and politically from Novgorod, and Russian and Swedish forces clashed several times in the first battles of what became an ongoing saga.

Swedish settlement began in earnest around the middle of the century when Birger Jarl established fortifications at Häme and Turku, among other places. The cathedral at Turku was also under construction and this city was to be Finland’s pre-eminent centre for most of its history. The Swedish knights and nobles in charge of these operations set a pattern for a Swedish-speaking bourgeoisie in Finland, which lasted well into the 20th century. Other Swedes, including farmers and fishers, gradually settled, mainly along Finland’s Baltic coast. A number of incentives such as land grants and tax concessions were given to encourage new settlers, many of whom were veterans of the Swedish army.

Sweden’s squabbles with Novgorod continued for two centuries. Treaties drawn up by the two powers defined the spheres of influence, with Sweden gaining control of southwest Finland and much of the west coast, while Novgorod controlled Karelia, spreading the Orthodox faith and Byzantine culture in the region.

In 1527 King Gustav Vasa of Sweden adopted the Lutheran faith and confiscated much of the property of the Catholic Church. The Finnish Reformation was ushered in by Mikael Agricola, who studied with Luther in Germany and returned to Finland in 1539 to translate parts of the Bible into Finnish. His hard-line Protestant attitudes meant that most of the frescoes in medieval churches were whitewashed (to be rediscovered some 400 years later in relatively good condition).

Sweden started another chess game with Russia in Savo and Kainuu, using its Finnish subjects as pawns to settle areas well beyond the agreed boundaries. Russia retaliated, and most of the new settlements were razed in the bloody Kainuu War of the late 16th century.

The 17th century was Sweden’s golden age, when it controlled much of the Baltic. Finland was put under the control of various governors.

During the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, political power in Finland was exercised by Count Per Brahe, who travelled around the country and founded many towns. He was a larger-than-life figure who made his own rules: once censured for having illegally bagged an elk, he responded curtly that it had been on its last legs and he had killed it out of mercy.

Although Finland never experienced feudal serfdom to the extent seen in Russia, ethnic Finns were largely peasant farmers forced to lease land from Swedish landlords.

In 1697 the Swede Karl XII ascended the throne. Within three years he was drawn into the Great Northern War (1700–21) between Sweden and allied forces of Russia, Denmark and other Baltic powers, which marked the beginning of the end of the Swedish empire.

From Sweden to Russia

Peter the Great took advantage of Sweden’s troubles and, though losing early engagements, soon stormed through Finland, which had been recently decimated by famine. From 1714 to 1721 Russia occupied Finland, a time still referred to as the Great Wrath, when several thousand Finns were killed and many more taken into slavery. The 1721 Treaty of Uusikaupunki brought peace at a cost – Sweden lost south Karelia to Russia.

Finland again paid the price for thwarted Swedish ambitions in the war of 1741–43, with Russia again occupying the country, a period called the Lesser Wrath.

Tsar Alexander I signed a treaty with Napoleon and then attacked Finland in 1808. Following a bloody war, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809. Alexander pledged to respect Finnish customs and institutions. Finland kept its legal system and its Lutheran faith, and became a semi-autonomous grand duchy. At first Russia encouraged development, and Finland benefited from the annexation. The capital was transferred from Turku to Helsinki in 1812.

Finland was still very much an impoverished rural society in the 19th century, and travel to the interior, especially in Lapland, could be an arduous journey of weeks by riverboat and overland. The tar and paper industries produced revenue from the vast forests, but were controlled by magnates in Baltic and Bothnian ports such as Oulu, which flourished while the hinterland remained poor.

A Nation Born

Early stirrings of Finnish nationalism could be heard in the 19th century. Dissatisfaction with the Swedish administration came to a head with a letter written from officers of the Finnish army to the queen of Sweden questioning the legality of the war they were pursuing against Russia. Meanwhile academic studies of Finnish cultural traditions were creating a base on which future nationalistic feelings could be founded.

The famous phrase ‘Swedes we are not, Russians we will not become, so let us be Finns’, though of uncertain origin, encapsulated the growing sense of Finnishness. Artistic achievements such as Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala and Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s poem Our Land, which became the national anthem, acted as standards to rally around. As Russia tightened its grip with a policy of Russification, workers, and artists such as Jean Sibelius, began to be inspired against the growing oppression and the nation became emotionally ripe for independence.

In 1906 the Eduskunta parliament was introduced in Finland, with universal and equal suffrage (Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women full political rights). Russian political oppression continued, however, and poverty was endemic. In search of work and a better life, many Finns moved south to Helsinki, or emigrated to North America in the first decades of the 20th century.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 enabled the Finnish parliament to declare independence on 6 December of that year. Although Russia recognised the new nation, it hoped for a parallel workers’ uprising, and it fomented dissent and supplied arms to that end.

Following an attack by Russian-armed Finnish Reds on the civil guards in Vyborg, the Finnish Civil War flared in late January 1918. During 108 days of heavy fighting, approximately 30,000 Finns were killed. The Reds, comprising the rising working class, aspired to a Russian-style socialist revolution while retaining independence. The nationalist Whites, led by CGE Mannerheim, dreamed of monarchy and sought to emulate Germany.

The Whites, with substantial German help, eventually gained victory and the war ended in May 1918. Friedrich Karl, Prince of Hessen, was elected king of Finland by the Eduskunta on 9 October 1918, but the defeat of imperial Germany a month later made Finland choose a republican state model, under its first president, KJ Ståhlberg.

Though internal struggles continued, and despite the crushing blows of WWII, Finland gained fame internationally as a brave new nation. Significant events included Finland’s Winter War heroics, Paavo Nurmi’s distinguished career as a long-distance runner, Ester Toivonen’s Miss Europe title in 1933, Artturi Virtanen’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1945, the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 and plaudits won by Finnish designers in international expositions. These achievements fostered national confidence, helped Finland to feel that it belonged at the table of nations, and gave it strength to survive the difficult Cold War period that followed.

The Cold War

The year of the Helsinki Olympics, 1952, was also the year that Finland completed paying its heavy war reparations to the Soviet Union. Mostly paid in machinery and ships, they in fact had a positive effect, as they established the heavy engineering industry that eventually stabilised the Finnish postwar economy.

Finnish society changed profoundly during this period. In the 1940s the population was still predominantly agricultural, but the privations of the war, which sent people to the towns and cities in search of work, as well as the influx of nearly half a million Karelian refugees, sparked an acute housing crisis. Old wooden town centres were demolished to make way for apartment blocks, and new suburbs appeared almost overnight around Helsinki. Conversely, areas in the north and east lost most of their young people (often half their population) to domestic emigration.

From the end of the war until the early 1990s, the overriding political issue was a familiar one: balance between East and West. Stalin’s ‘friendship and cooperation’ treaty of 1948 was used by the USSR throughout the Cold War as coercion in an attempt to limit Finland’s interaction with the West.

A savvy political head was needed to negotiate these choppy waters, and Finland found it in the astute if controversial figure of Urho K Kekkonen, president from 1956 to 1981 and a master of diplomacy.

Canny and unorthodox, Kekkonen realised that he was the devil the Kremlin knew, and he used this to his advantage. Similarly, he did so with the West’s fear that Finland would fall completely under the sway of the USSR. He signed a free-trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1961, which brought Finland closer to a European orbit, but also signed a parallel agreement for preferential trade with the Soviets.

Kekkonen and his government had a close relationship with many of the KGB’s big men in Finland, and political nominations were submitted to Moscow for approval within a framework of ‘friendly coexistence’. Many Finns regard his era with embarrassment, believing that Kekkonen abased the country by such close contact with the Bear, and that his grip on power and web of behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings were uncomfortably reminiscent of the Kremlin itself. Nevertheless, Kekkonen presided over a period in which the nation moved from an impoverished agricultural state to a modern European democracy with a watertight welfare system and healthy economy, all in the shadow of a great power whose actions in Eastern Europe had given ample reason for Finland to tread with extreme caution.

After Kekkonen’s resignation due to ill health at 81, the Soviets continued to dabble in Finnish politics, mostly with the aim of reducing US influence and preventing Finland joining what is now the EU. That particular chapter of Finland’s long and complicated relationship with its eastern neighbour came to a close with the collapse of the USSR.

Modern Finland

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a load was lifted from Finland, but the early 1990s were not the easiest of times. The bubble of the 1980s had burst, the Soviet Union disappeared with debts unpaid, the markka was devalued and unemployment jumped from 3% to 20%.

However, Finland could finally integrate itself fully with Europe. Since joining the EU in January 1995, Finland has largely prospered, and was a founding member of the euro in 2002.

Balancing power between the president and the parliament had long been on the agenda since Kekkonen’s monarch-like presidency, and in 1999 a new constitution was approved limiting certain presidential powers. The first to take the wheel under the new order was Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party, elected in 2000. Referred to affectionately as Muumimamma (Moominmamma), she was well loved by many Finns and was re-elected for a second (and, by law, final) six-year term in 2006 before being succeeded in 2012 by the National Coalition Party's Sauli Niinistö. Finland's next presidential elections will be held in 2018.

Parliamentary politics have twisted and turned in recent years. In 2015's general election, Juha Sipilä led his Centre party to victory. Sipilä formed a centre-right coalition and was appointed prime minister by the Finnish Parliament. In 2017, however, one of the three coalition parties, the nationalist Finns Party, elected anti-immigration hardliner Jussi Halla-aho as its leader, and Sipilä and the leader of third coalition partner, Minister of Finance Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition Party, announced that they would no longer govern with the Finns Party. The government averted collapse when 20 members of parliament defected from the Finns Party, forming the breakaway New Alternative party. Sipilä's government retained a parliamentary majority as the New Alternative continued as a coalition partner, and the Finns Party was relegated to the opposition. The next parliamentary elections are due in 2019.

The country's relationship with post-Soviet Russia remains high on the agenda, and though Finland has experienced far less immigration than most European countries – and despite the Finns Party's decline – immigration continues to be a contentious issue.

Finland’s own indigenous people, the Sámi, have been afforded greater recognition in the last 50 years, with the establishment of a Finnish Sámi parliament and the enshrinement of their languages in regional laws. However, disputes between reindeer herders and forestry firms in the north have ignited debate as to whether Sámi interests continue to come second to those of the country’s timber industry.

Despite the challenges ahead, Finland can feel just a wee bit pleased with itself. It continues to boom on the back of the technology sector along with the traditionally important forestry industry, design, manufacturing and, increasingly, tourism. The country consistently ranks highly in quality-of-life indices and has in recent years outperformed its traditionally superior neighbour Sweden in many areas. For a cold, remote, sparsely populated forest nation, it’s doing rather well.