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Finnish history is the story of a people who for centuries were a wrestling mat between two heavyweights on either side: Sweden and Russia. The unfortunate thing about this history is that the earliest chronicles were written by Swedes, and much of ethnic Finnish culture and events before and well after the Swedish crusades has escaped written record altogether.


Little is known of the earliest human settlement in Finland. As the glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age, the first permanent inhabitants of what is now Finland probably began arriving around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Around this time the Baltic Sea formed, flooding what was a large freshwater lake. To this day, it's one of the least saline of the major seas.

But Finland was almost certainly inhabited long before this period. Recent finds of worked flint tools in a cave at Kristinestad suggest sporadic human presence as far back as 100,000 years ago, between Ice Ages.

The first settlers in Finland came from Russia and present-day Estonia. These people hunted elk and beaver using stone tools and weapons and gradually spread out into the whole of the region. Sites have been found in southern Finland dating from around the eighth millennium BC.

Pottery appears in archaeological records in the late sixth millennium BC, marking the beginning of the Late Stone Age, or Neolithic period. The discovery of ceramics makes it easier to identify broad groups of people, and it is clear that a new group arrived in southern Finland in 3000 BC or thereabouts. From this point on, we can see the development of definable Finno-Ugrian cultures. The central/northern culture, who had least cultural contact with the newcomers, have been labelled as proto-Sámi.

The Bronze Age, from around 1700 BC to 600 BC, is characterised by strong trade contacts between southern Finland and other groups around the Baltic Sea, and the use of stone cairns for burials.

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Early Finnish society

In the first century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned a tribe called the Fenni, whom he basically 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 the description than the agricultural peoples of the south. Nomadic cultures leave little archaeological evidence, but proto-Sámi sites do occur from roughly this period on, and it seems the Sámi migrated gradually northwards, probably displaced by the southerners. Verses of the Kalevala, derived from ancient oral tradition, seem to refer to this conflictual relationship.

In the south, the two main Finnish tribes, Hämenites (Swedish: Tavastians) and Karelians, lived separately, in the west and the east respectively, but were constantly at war with each other.

There were trading contacts with Estonians and Swedish Vikings and there were trading posts in present-day Hämeenlinna, Turku and Halikko. Many burial grounds and hill defences remain. It is probable that there was friendly contact between fortresses, despite each having its own social system. A common law and judicial system existed in each region.

The Åland Islands and coastal regions southeast of Turku were frequented by Viking sailors. Six hill fortresses on Åland date back to the Viking era and indicate the former importance of these islands.

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Swedish rule

To the Swedes, Finland was a natural direction of expansion, on a promising eastern route towards Russia and the Black Sea. The Swedish chapter of Finland's history starts in 1155, when Bishop Henry, an Englishman, arrived in Kalanti under orders of the Swedish king. An aggressive period of colonisation and enforced baptism ensued, and Bishop Henry was infamously murdered by a disgruntled local peasant, Lalli. At the time of the Swedish arrival, the population of Finland has been estimated at 50,000.

Swedish crusaders manned Finnish fortresses to repel Russian attacks and protect its Christianisation efforts from Orthodox influence. Swedish settlement began in earnest in 1249 when Birger Jarl established fortifications in Tavastia and on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland.

It took more than 200 years to define the border between Sweden and Novgorod (Russia). In 1323 the first such border was drawn in a conference at Nöteborg (Finnish: Pähkinäsaari) on Lake Ladoga. Sweden gained control of southwest Finland, much of the northwest coast and, in the east, the strategic town of Vyborg (Finnish: Viipuri), with its magnificent castle. Suzerainty was established over Karelia by Novgorod, and it was controlled from a castle at Käkisalmi (Russian: Priodzorsk) that was founded in the 13th century. Novgorod spread the Russian Orthodox faith in the Karelia region, which became influenced by Byzantine culture.

To attract Swedish settlers to the unknown land, a number of incentives were created such as giving away large tracts of land and tax concessions. These privileges were given to many soldiers of the Royal Swedish Army.

In 1527 King Gustav Vasa of Sweden adopted the Lutheran faith and confiscated much of the property of the Catholic Church. Finland had its own supporters of the Reformation: Mikael Agricola, born in Pernå (Finnish: Pernaja) in 1510, studied with Martin Luther in Germany, and returned to Finland in 1539 to translate parts of the Bible into Finnish. He was also the first person to properly record the traditions and animist religious rites of ethnic Finns. A hardliner, Agricola ushered in the Finnish Reformation. Most of the frescoes in medieval churches were whitewashed (only to be rediscovered some 400 years later in relatively good condition).

Sweden was not satisfied with its share of power in the east. In 1546 King Gustav Vasa founded Ekenäs (Finnish: Tammisaari) and in 1550, Helsinki. Using his Finnish subjects as agents of expansion, Gustav Vasa told them to 'sweat and suffer' as pioneers in Savo and Kainuu, territories well beyond those set down in treaties with Russia. Alarmed, the Russians attempted to throw the intruders out. The bloody Kainuu War raged on and off between 1574 and 1584, and most new settlements were destroyed by fire.

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Golden age of Sweden

The golden age of Sweden was the 17th century, and during this period it controlled Finland, Estonia and parts of present-day Latvia, Denmark, Germany and Russia.

Finally, after 65 years of Lutheranism, the Catholic Sigismund (grandson of King Gustav Vasa) succeeded to the Swedish throne. Karl IX, Sigismund's uncle, was given control over Finland. Karl IX didn't care much for the family business. He encouraged peasants in western Finland to mutiny in 1596, and they attacked Turku Castle in 1597 and defeated Sigismund in 1598 to bring all of Finland under his reign.

While Gustav II Adolf (son of Karl IX and king from 1611 to 1632) was busily involved in the Thirty Year's War in Europe, political power in Finland was exercised by General Governor Count Per Brahe, who resided at the Castle of Turku, capital of Finland. Count Per Brahe, a legendary figure of the local Swedish administration, travelled around the country at this time and founded many towns. He cut quite a figure; as well as being the biggest landowner in Sweden, he was a gourmet and wrote his own cookbook, which he used to take with him and insist it was followed to the letter! 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!

After Gustav II Adolf, Sweden was ruled from 1644 to 1654 by the eccentric Queen Kristina, namesake for such Finnish towns as Kristinestad and Ristiina. The Queen's conversion to Catholicism and subsequent move to Rome marked the end of the Swedish Vasa dynasty.

The German royal family of Pfalz-Zweibrücken ruled Sweden (including Finland) after the Vasa family folded. By Swedish decree, Finland grew. A chain of castle defences was built to protect against Russian attacks and new factory areas were founded. The bruk (early ironworks precinct) was often a self-contained society which harvested the power of water, built ironworks and transport systems for firewood. Social institutions, such as schools and churches, were also established.

Ethnic Finns didn't fare particularly well during this time. The burgher class was dominated by Swedish settlers, as very few Finns engaged in industrial enterprises. Some of the successful industrialists were central Europeans, who settled in Finland via Sweden. Furthermore the Swedish 'caste system', the House of Four Estates, was firmly established in Finland. The Swedish and Finnish nobility maintained their status in the Swedish Riksdagen until 1866 and in the Finnish parliament until 1906. Although Finland never experienced feudal serfdom to the extent seen in Russia, ethnic Finns were largely peasant farmers who were 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), which marked the beginning of the end of the Swedish Empire.

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The turbulent 18th century

While King Karl XII was busy fighting for his empire elsewhere, the Russians under Peter the Great seized the moment. The Great Northern War resulted in Vyborg being defeated in 1710 and much of Finland conquered, including the Swedish-dominated west coast.

From 1714 to 1721 Russia occupied Finland, a time still referred to as the Great Wrath. The Russians destroyed almost everything they could, particularly in Åland and western Finland. The 1721 Treaty of Uusikaupunki (Swedish: Nystad) brought peace at a cost - Sweden lost south Karelia to Russia. To regain its lost territories, Sweden attacked Russia in 1741-3, but with little success. Russia again occupied Finland, for a period called the Lesser Wrath, and the border was pushed further west. The Treaty of Turku in 1743 ended the conflict by ceding parts of Savo to Russia.

Only after the 1740s did the Swedish government try to improve Finland's socioeconomic situation. Defences were strengthened by building fortresses off Helsinki's coast (Sveaborg, now Suomenlinna) and at Loviisa, and new towns were founded. Later, Sweden and Russia were to clash repeatedly under King Gustav III, until he was murdered by a group of aristocrats in 1792. Gustav IV Adolf, who reigned from 1796, was drawn into the disastrous Napoleonic Wars and lost his crown in 1809.

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Russian rule

After the Treaty of Tilsit was signed by Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon, Russia attacked Finland in 1808. Following a bloody war, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809 as an autonomous grand duchy with its own senate and the Diet of the Four Estates, but all major decisions had to be approved by the tsar. At first, Finland benefited from the annexation and was loyal to the tsar, who encouraged Finns to develop the country in many ways. The Finnish capital was transferred to Helsinki in 1812, as Russians felt that the former capital, Turku, was too close to Sweden.

Early in the 19th century, the first stirring of indigenous Finnish nationalism occurred. One of the first to encourage independence during the 1820s was Al Radisson, who uttered the much-quoted sentence: 'Swedes we are not, Russians we will not become, so let us be Finns'. His views were not widely supported and he was advised to move to Sweden in 1823.

As a Russian annexation, Finland was involved in the Crimean War (1853-6), with British troops destroying fortifications at Loviisa, Helsinki and Bomarsund. Following the Crimean War, the Finnish independence movement gained credibility. While still a part of Russia, Finland issued its first postage stamps in 1856 and its own currency, the markka, in 1860.

In 1905 the Eduskunta, a unicameral parliament, was introduced in Finland with universal and equal suffrage (Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women full political rights). Despite these many advances, life under Russian rule continued to be harsh. Many artists, notably the composer Jean Sibelius, were inspired by this oppression, which made Finns emotionally ripe for independence.

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The Communist revolution of October 1917 enabled the Finnish senate to declare independence on 6 December 1917. Independent Finland was first recognised by the Soviets one month later. Nevertheless, the Russian-armed Finnish Reds attacked the Finnish civil guards in Vyborg the following year, sparking the Finnish Civil War.

On 28 January 1918, the Civil War flared in two separate locations. The Reds attempted to foment revolution in Helsinki; the Whites (as the government troops were now called), led by CGE Mannerheim, clashed with Russian-backed troops near Vaasa. During the 108 days of heavy fighting in these two locations, 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 dreamed of monarchy and sought to emulate Germany.

The Whites, with Germany's 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 German monarchy collapsed one month later, following Germany's defeat in WWI.

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Building a nation

The defeat of imperial Germany made Finland choose a republican state model, and the first president was KJ Ståhlberg. Relations with the Soviets were normalised by the Treaty of Tartu in 1920, which saw Finnish territory grow to its largest ever, including the other 'arm', the Petsamo region in the far northeast. But more trouble awaited.

Following WWI, heated exchanges between Finnish and Swedish speakers shook the administration, universities and cultural circles. Civil War skirmishes continued, mostly with illegal massacres of Reds by Whites. Despite its internal troubles, Finland at this time gained fame internationally as a brave new nation, as the only country to pay its debts to the USA, and as a sporting nation. Paavo Nurmi, the most distinguished of Finnish long-distance runners, won nine gold medals in three Olympic Games and became an enduring national hero. With continuing Finnish success in athletics, Helsinki was chosen to host the 1940 Olympic Games (these were postponed until 1952 due to WWII).

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The Winter War & its continuation

Diplomatic manoeuvrings in Europe in the 1930s meant that Finland had a few difficult choices to make. The security threat posed by the Soviet Union meant that some factions were in favour of developing closer ties with Nazi Germany, while others favoured rapprochement with Moscow. On 23 August 1939, the Soviet and German foreign ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop, stunned the world by signing a nonaggression pact. A secret protocol stated that they would divide Poland between them in any future rearrangement; Germany would have a free hand in Lithuania, the Soviet Union in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia. The Red Army was moving towards the earmarked territories less than three weeks later.

The Soviet Union made more territorial claims, arguing its security required a slice of southeastern Karelia. JK Paasikivi (later to become president) visited Moscow for negotiations on the ceding of the Karelian Isthmus to the Soviet Union. The negotiations failed. On 30 November 1939, the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union began.

This was a harsh winter - temperatures reached -40°C and soldiers died in their thousands. After 100 days of bitter and courageous fighting Finnish forces were defeated. In the Treaty of Moscow (March 1940), Finland ceded part of Karelia and some nearby islands. About 500, 000 Karelian refugees flooded across the new border.

In the following months, the Soviet Union pressured Finland for more territory. Isolated from Western allies, Finland turned to Germany for help and allowed the transit of German troops. When hostilities broke out between Germany and the Soviets in June 1941, German troops were already on Finnish soil, and the Continuation War between Finland and the Red Army began. In the fighting that followed, the Finns began to resettle Karelia. When Soviet forces staged a huge comeback in the summer of 1944, President Risto Ryti resigned and Mannerheim took his place. Mannerheim negotiated an armistice with the Russians and ordered the evacuation of German troops. Finland waged a bitter war to oust the Germans from Lapland until the general peace in the spring of 1945. Finland remained independent, but at a price: it was forced to cede territory and (the ultimate irony) pay heavy war reparations to the Soviet Union. The Treaty of Paris (February 1947) dictated that the Karelian Isthmus be ceded to the Soviet Union, together with the eastern Salla and Kuusamo regions, and the 'left arm' of Finland in the Kola Peninsula. Many Finns are still bitter about the loss of these territories. Nevertheless, the resistance against the might of the Red Army is something that Finns are still justifiably proud of.

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The Cold War

Finland's reparations to the Soviets were chiefly paid in machinery and ships. Thus reparations played a central role in laying the foundations for the heavy engineering industry that stabilised the Finnish economy following WWII. Finland had suffered greatly in the late 1940s, with almost everything rationed and poverty widespread. The vast majority of the population was still engaged in agriculture at that time.

Things changed quickly in the following decades, with domestic migration to southern Finland especially strong in the 1960s and 1970s. New suburbs appeared almost overnight around Helsinki. Areas in the north and east lost most of their young people, often half their population.

Urho K Kekkonen, Finnish president from 1956 to 1981, a master of diplomacy and one of the great leaders of his age, was responsible for steering Finland through the Cold War and its relationship with the Soviet Union. Often this meant bowing to the wishes of the USSR who, using veiled threats, influenced Finnish politics. Political nominations were submitted to Moscow for approval within a framework of 'friendly coexistence'.

As recently as the late 1980s, the Soviet Communist Party exercised Cold War tactics by infiltrating Finnish politics, with the aim of reducing US influence in Finland and preventing Finnish membership of the European Community (today's European Union, or EU).

Relations with Scandinavia were also extremely important in the decades following WWII. Finland was a founding member of the Nordic Council (along with the Scandinavian countries), pursuing a similar social welfare programme to Scandinavia and enjoying the benefits of free movement of labour and joint projects with its Western neighbours.

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Modern Finland

In the 1990s Finland's overheated economy, like many in the Western world, went through a cooling off period. The bubble economy of the 1980s had burst, the Soviet Union disappeared with debts unpaid, the markka was devalued, unemployment jumped from 3% to 20% and the tax burden grew alarmingly.

Things began to change for the better after a national referendum on 16 October 1994, when 57% of voters gave the go-ahead to join the EU. Since January 1995, Finland has prospered, and was one of the countries to adopt the new euro currency in 2002.

In 2000, Finland elected its first woman president, Tarja Halonen, who has been a popular figure. Briefly in 2003, Finland was the only country in Europe to have a woman as both president and prime minister; Anneli Jäätteenmäki, leader of the Centre Party, won a narrow victory in elections but barely two months later was forced to resign over having lied to parliament. She was replaced by Matti Vanhanen, the current incumbent.

Finland consistently ranks highly in quality of life indexes, and with a strong independent streak, a booming technology sector and a growing tourism industry, it is one of the success stories of the new Europe.

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