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Finland’s first woman president

Tarja Halonen was voted in as president at the beginning of 2000. She is described in political terms as a Social Democrat, with an intellectual humanist approach to life and the desire to find practical means to improve the society around her. She is called a “pragmatic idealist”. She is probably the most left-wing head of state the nation has ever seen.

She was born and bred in Helsinki, though she lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” in an area that is considered to be very working class. As a girl she suffered a serious speech impediment, which still affects her slightly even today. She grew up learning to be tolerant and sensitive to the “differences” of others—especially those less fortunate than herself. She has always had a life-long interest in human rights and minority issues, and has played an active role in many civil rights associations. She is viewed as kind, tolerant, successful but slightly bohemian! She is extremely competent and very ambitious, and can be impatient and occasionally displays a flash of temper.

Finland’s first woman president

Tarja Halonen began her career as a trade union lawyer, was appointed as a parliamentary private secretary in 1974 and then accepted a junior ministerial position in the 1980s. She became Foreign Minister in the Government of Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen. Her traditional leftist views are in stark contrast to those of Prime Minister Lipponen, whose political ideology leans more towards a market-led social democracy. When elected president at the beginning of the year 2000, as is customary in Finnish politics, she resigned her party membership.

The president was the mother of a 21-year-old daughter, studying in England, at the time of her election. She has a “companion” as the Finns say, of long-standing whom she recently married. Although they had separate flats in the same building because of “differing views on housekeeping”, they both moved into the presidential residence of Mantyniemi. Finland easily got used to having such an unusual “first family”.


Education in Finland

Finns are probably some of the best informed people in the world on global current affairs. Their newspapers are very objective, placing emphasis on fact and evidence far more than on emotive headlines. A large proportion of television programmes are highly educational (or focus on the national obsession of sport). The Finns are world leaders in literacy, mathematics and science.

Education in Finland
Education in Finland

Finland has repeatedly been rated top of the class in international comparisons of educational standards, even though spending on education is low and Finnish children spend much less time in school than children in other countries. In terms of average PISA scores (organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to compare educational standards), Finland rates highest overall among a group of well-performing countries, including the other Nordic countries, Japan, Korea, Belgium, Holland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Foreign educationalists are particularly interested because Finland’s success does not seem to be related to money: OECD statistics show that Finland spends just 6.1 per cent of its gross domestic product on education, significantly below the OECD average of 6.3 per cent, and well below spending levels in many similarly wealthy countries. A surprising factor is the amount of time children spend in the classroom. Finnish children move on from the kindergarten playtime to primary school at age seven. Their schooldays remain short, often ending as early as 12:00 or 1:00 pm. They have a 10–11 week summer holiday, which surely must be the envy of children all over the world. Also, Finnish pupils spend an OECD record low total of some 5,523 hours at their desks, compared to an average of 6,847 hours. In Holland, children spend 8,000 hours in the classroom. Surveys also suggest that Finnish children spend less time doing homework than schoolchildren in many other countries.

The results of Finland’s brightest students are not significantly above those from other successful countries, but where Finland really shines is in the scores of the lowest performing students. This means that very few Finnish schoolchildren are falling foul of the educational system. The Finnish system is designed along egalitarian principles, with few fee-paying private schools and very little streaming of pupils into different schools or classes according to their exam results. Schools were originally set up as part of efforts to form an autonomous Finnish nation, with no regard for any social class system. The whole of society participated in building the schools, including villagers and farmers, and public schools have always been equally intended for everybody. This kind of equality is perpetuated by the homogeneity of Finnish society and the absence of any major immigrant communities or socially deprived groups who could easily be marginalised educationally. It is true that children from better-off socio-economic backgrounds generally do better at school than children from poorer families, as is found in other countries, but such differences are not very pronounced in Finland.

Religion in Finland

There are two official churches of Finland: the Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church. They still collect taxes and register births. Nine out of ten Finns belong to the national Lutheran Church. This Church has about 4.5 million members in 600 communities, and is the third largest in the world. Christianity came to Finland in the 12th century from both the east and the west. Hence Finland has an Orthodox Church of which there are around 55,000 members (about 1 per cent of the population).

Helsinki cathedral

The sparkling white Helsinki Cathedral stands on a hill and is clearly visible even from far out at sea.

There are less than 4,000 Catholics and some 13,000 Jehovah Witnesses. Judaism arrived during the 19th century with Jewish merchants and men working for the Imperial Russian Army. Today, there are around 1,300 living in the Helsinki and Turku areas (south and south-west Finland). Muslims were introduced into Finland with the Russian army at the end of the 19th century. The number of Muslims has increased from 1,000 in 1990 (the long-established Tartar Muslims) to about 15,000 at cross-century (brought about by Somali refugees). The emergence of the immigrant religions in the 1990s is one of the most striking changes in the Finnish religious field since the spread of new religious movements to this country in the 1970s. The number of foreign citizens, including refugees, has rapidly risen since the late 1980s. Consequently, numerous new religious immigrant communities have taken root in Finland, most of which, however, profess Islam. Around 10 per cent of the population have no religious calling, and therefore belong to the civil register.

Religion in Finland

The Reformation of Martin Luther gradually displaced the Catholic Church encouraged by the conversion of the Swedish king to Lutheranism. The first complete Bible in the Finnish language was written in 1642. Nowadays, there are women Lutheran Priests, and the Church is seen to be quite progressive and building for the future. The Church has become very much more popular in recent years and plays an important role in baptisms, funerals and confirmations. Over 90 per cent of Finnish youth attend confirmation camp. The church employs its own social, youth and daycare workers. They help the aged, the disabled, drugs addicts, alcoholics, and counselling is given to those families with financial and social problems. As such, the church is an active participant in the community and plays an important role. The Finns do not necessarily consider themselves religious, but they feel comfortable belonging to an organised church. Although only a few Finns attend church on a weekly basis, it is appropriate to comment that nearly everyone will attend church several times in a year. They are privately reverent and do not suffer a need to attend regularly.

In the town of Nokia, every Thursday evening the church is so full you cannot get more people in it. People are turning to the Church for security and as a way to help them cope with the enormous changes that are taking place in their lives. There are three well-known fashion models who tour the country giving speeches and the Church is especially giving its attention to young people.

Foreign Culture and Religion

“It has been argued, both by researchers and by Muslims themselves, that Muslims are discriminated, for instance in Britain and France, not only because of their skin colour or ethnicity, but because of their religion. A similar kind of atmosphere was apparent in Finland in the beginning of 1990s when there was an influx of Somali refugees. It has been said that their arrival in this country constituted a shock for Finns. Certainly, these new arrivals kindled a heated discussion in respect of foreigners in Finland and, in particular, about the different cultural habits that they brought with them to this country. Very often these habits were (and are) associated with women and, at times falsely, with Islam. In this regard, one need only mention women’s veiling and the circumcision of girls. Interestingly enough, it was only with the arrival of these recent Islamic immigrants that such customs as the circumcision of baby boys and particular ways of slaughtering animals became issues for dispute, even though similar customs had prevailed in Finland for over a century among Jews and the long-established Tatar Muslims.”

It wouldn’t be right to finish the chapter on religion without mentioning the rich tradition of folklore and the mention of the old Finnish gods. The ancient Finns had their own indigenous religious traditions. Their gods included: Ukko, god of growth, rain and thunderstorms was the supreme god, married to Rauni; Ilmarinen, god of winds and storms; Ahti, god of waters and fish; Tapio, god of forests. There were also: Kratti, guardian of wealth; Tonttu, guardian of the home; Kekri, the god of celebrating.

Resources for Other Religions

The website of the Islamic Society of Finland» provides information such as prayer timetables for the year, contact information and numerous other resources. The website is available in Finnish, English and Arabic.

The website can be viewed at:

For a list of Buddhist groups in Finland, see:

Finnish army

Finland has a very small «professional» standing army but has a large reserve force. Young men of 18 are expected to do their national service. They have a choice of either doing military service, with or without arms, or community service. This can be for a period of six, nine or 12 months (11 months for officers and non-commissioned officers in reserves). Since 1995, women have been allowed to volunteer for national service. Some people can opt to do national service when they are older. For men, reserve duty continues until at least the age of 50. Conscientious objectors have the right to choose non-military forms of national service.

Finnish army

Defence spending is low relative to other European countries at 1.5 per cent of GDP and 5.5 per cent of the total government budget. The Finnish army has some Swedish-only units. The most notable role that the Finnish army plays is in peacekeeping activities for the United Nations and they serve all over the world.

Finland remains a relatively safe environment. All forms of public transportation are considered safe. Street crimes, such as mugging and pick-pocketing, remain relatively uncommon, but do occur. Due to the low crime rate, Finland has one of the smallest police forces of any European nation. Outside of key urban centres, they rarely project a visible presence. Finnish police services are excellent.

Police are part of national government and operate under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. Local police are supervised by provincial authorities and organised into town police departments and rural police districts. These manage routine police work. The mobile police assist local police where necessary, but they are responsible for traffic safety and riot control and operate at a national level. The security police are there to prevent subversion and espionage. The central criminal police maintain centralised criminal files, mount extensive investigations and keep contact with foreign police forces. The coast guards and border police are charged with the security of the border areas and would have a military role in times of war.

In Case of Emergency

The telephone number for police and other emergency services throughout Finland is 112.

Finland has a programme to provide financial compensation to victims who suffer serious criminal injuries. According to existing regulations, the victim must report the incident to the police and file an application for compensation within ten years of the date of the crime. Finnish police routinely inform victims of serious crime of their right to seek compensation.

Government, politics and the judiciary in Finland

In 1906, the «Diet of 4 Estates» (the legislative body that was inherited intact from Swedish times) became a parliament of 200 seats called the Eduskunta. The new parliament was elected by equal and universal suffrage in a secret vote, which included women, with everyone having the right to stand for election. After having been ruled by two powerful neighbours for about 800 years, Finland finally achieved independence in 1917. The Finnish Constitution came into effect in 1919 and guarantees equality, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and the freedom to choose one’s own residence. The voting age at present is 18.

Government of Finland

The Finns are governed by means of a presidential republic. The executive government comprises the president, in council with the prime minister and the cabinet. The office of president used to have substantial powers but recently this has been reduced to a more figure-head role, although a powerful one! The president has great influence over foreign policy. The Council of State is made up of 13 different ministries and 17 ministers, plus the prime minister. The president is elected for a six-year term, while the prime minister is elected every four years by the 200-member Eduskunta (parliament). Eduskunta members serve a four-year term and are elected from 14 national districts. The parliament is a single chamber—unicameral. The Åland Islands are self-governing and have their own parliament (Landsting).

Facts: in the March 1999 election, one politician thought it would be wise to visit southern Spain and canvass for votes there, because there were so many Finns living in that part of the world.

Finland’s proportional repre-sentation system encourages a multitude of political parties. Many Finns are floating voters and easily have ten different political parties to choose between, although there are three main political parties that have long been the major players: the Social Democrats (the largest political party—left of right, but right of left), the Agrarian Center Party (rural urbanites) and the Conservative National Coalition Party. There are also the left-wing Alliance, the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Union. The government often becomes a coalition usually consisting of two or three of the largest parties, with one or more smaller parties.

The date of the 2007 Finnish election was near to the 100th anniversary of the first Finnish parliamentary elections, which were held on the 15 and 16 of March 1907 and were the first elections held under universal suffrage in Europe.

Nearly 4.3 million people were eligible to vote in the elections of March 2007, and the turnout was 69.7 per cent of the electorate. Altogether, 2,004 candidates were nominated, 799 of whom were women. About three-quarters of the candidates were nominated by parties currently represented in parliament. The number of female MPs rose as 84 women were elected (formerly 75), now representing a record 42 per cent of the 200 MPs. Election themes included a reduction of income tax and VAT on food. A proposal for a minimum income has been propsed by a few parties. Because of high economic growth in recent years, the government will probably have extra money to use on the welfare state.

The elections were a major victory for the opposition National Coalition Party under Jyrki Katainen. It gained ten seats and took over the position of the second-largest party in Finland. The main government partners, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats, both lost ground. With the Left Alliance also losing seats, the labour parties received the worst result in the 100 year history of Finnish democracy. For the Social Democrats, the result is the worst since 1962, while the Left Alliance has lost seats in every election since 1999. The Centre Party, despite the loss, maintained its position as the biggest party in parliament, with one seat more than the National Coalition. It is also the only time, except for the parliamentary election of 1930, that the Centre Party and the National Coalition Party together have an absolute majority in parliament. The outcome could lead to the formation of a new centre-right government and leave out the left-leaning Social Democrats in opposition for the first time since 1995. In the general election, the Centre Party won 51 seats, compared with the National Coalition Party’s 50 and the Social Democrats» 45 in the 200-strong Parliament.

The parliamentary factions are expected to authorise Matti Vanhanen, the prime minister of the caretaker government (as party leader of the Centre Party), to start formal coalition negotiations and establish the other parties» stands on issues he considers key during the 2007-11 legislative period. Mr Vanhanen is expected to pose questions on services, taxation, energy and climate to the factions and ask what issues they consider important enough to prevent them from joining a coalition. This means that the new government coalition will likely be centre-right.

Foreign Vote

There are over 200,000 people with foreign backgrounds living in Finland, but there is not a single immigrant representative in Parliament. There are estimated 65,000–70,000 immigrants from more than 150 different countries who have received Finnish nationality and are, therefore, eligible to vote, with the Russians forming the largest segment (almost 10,000). There are also 3,258 Somalis, 3,104 Estonians and about 2,000 Vietnamese.

Local government is divided into provinces (laani) with each headed by a prefect. The functions of local government include regional planning, transport, health and education. These are administered by rural and municipal communes.

Holding the EU presidency for the final six months of the 20th century helped raise the international profile of Finland. During this time, policies concerned with the «Northern Dimension» were passed. One decision which was taken was to extend the European Investment Bank’s coverage to Russia, allowing for the planning of a road bypass of St. Petersburg. A road link between St. Petersburg and the Finnish border is now under construction. As this was the first time that Finland had presided over the EU, many of their diplomats and civil servants undertook training sessions on small talk to enable them to appear more sociable.

The judicial branch of government is independent of the executive and legislature. The judiciary consists of two systems, regular courts and administrative courts. Administrative courts process cases where official decisions are contested. The president appoints the judges at one of three levels. The three levels of court in the civil and criminal cases are: the general courts, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Cases are not decided by juries but by magistrates and judges. The barristers (lawyers) deliver a factual appeal (in line with Finnish culture) with much less emotion than may be familiar to some through American TV programmes. Speed and efficiency are the main characteristics of the Finnish system when compared with other countries» judicial systems. Payouts in lawsuits are generally kept to realistic levels—those in the UK would find them modest and those in America intolerable.

Economy of Finland

Among the OECD countries, Finland is one of the late industrialising ones. Up until the 1950s, it was still a predominantly agrarian society. The industrialisation process really took off in the latter part of the 19th century, but the income per capita level remained roughly one half of that of Great Britain—the leading economy at that time. The loss of 10 per cent of its territory, including Viipuri (now Vyborg) and the manufacturing centres of Karelia, during World War II deprived Finland of a substantial amount of its resources. One-third of its hydro electricity, one-quarter of its chemical pulp production, 12 per cent of its productive forests and 9 per cent of its arable land were ceded to the Soviet Union. By the end of World War II, the Finnish economy had virtually collapsed. The reparations schedule imposed on Finland by the Soviets was to be paid in metal goods, heavy engineering products, ships and electrical cables. An intensive programme of investment, much state financed, was undertaken to bring Finland up to the level where it could begin to make reparations. Unlike some other countries devastated by the war, Finland received no foreign aid to help rebuild its broken economy.

Economy of Finland

The transformation from a rural society to an urban industrialised country had to be quick. Driven by the need to meet the Soviet’s reparations, industrialisation made great strides. The reparations schedule eventually ended in 1952. For the next two decades after this, Finland began to prosper. The country recognised that it could not compete in the world of mass production along with countries like the USA and Britain. However, it has become among the top ten industrialised nations of the world, specialising in products in which skill, design, originality and flair account for more than bulk, volume and mass production. Finnish scientists help keep Finland at the cutting edge of new technologies in the fields of electronics and timber products. Production is concentrated on high-value technology orientated products, computer-controlled mechanical systems, special types of vehicles, mobile phones and shipping.

Finnish Expertise

Finland sells its expertise all over the world. Amongst other projects, the Finns designed and built the roads in Tanzania.

Timber is still the raw material of greatest economic value and it is fascinating to see the enormously long trucks, loaded with freshly felled logs, driving across the country. Finland is the most heavily wooded country in Europe, covering 72 per cent of its lands. 63 per cent of the forests are in the hands of private owners, which equates to one in five families being owners. Sixty-six per cent of the total output of the forestry industry is exported. Timber, furniture, paper, pulp, cellulose and various chemicals are its products and Finnish scientists lead the way in finding innovative new ways to use wood and its derivatives. Finland has the largest copper mines in Europe, exports zinc and nickel, but has to import all its oil and coal. Today’s top exports are: first, electronics and telecommunications; second, paper, pulp wood and board; third, metal exports, advance machinery and equipment.

Today, Finland is not only one of the most open economies in the world, but also one of the leading knowledge-based economies. Research and development expenditure in relation to GDP is one of the highest in the world—about 3.5 per cent. Higher education enrollment is well above the OECD average; number of researchers in relation to population is higher than in any other country. During the 1990s, the economy oriented heavily towards ICT (information and communication technologies) and by the end of the decade, the country was the most ICT specialised economy in the world. Finland has been ranked top in virtually all international comparisons measuring competitiveness, or knowledge economy developments—including the World Bank Knowledge Economy Index and OECD’s Student Assessment tests (the so called PISA studies).

GDP structure in 2005

This transition to a knowledge economy is quite remarkable, especially when considering Finland’s economic situation in the early 1990s. Finland went through one of the worst recessions of any experienced by the Western economies in 1990s, characterised by a major banking crisis and the accumulation of government debt from modest levels to over 60 per cent, and approaching international lending limits. The Soviet Union had accounted for 25 per cent of all Finnish exports and its demise cost the country dearly. Once the most expensive country in world (1990), Finland soon became one of the cheapest. From almost full employment, 500,000 jobs disappeared in two years. Finland suffered 20 per cent unemployment, the second highest in Europe. This proved to be an unimaginable burden on the state and in an effort to reduce the deficit the government imposed heavy spending cuts.

However, spending on education and grants for private research and development were actually increased. By 1995, Finland had become a net exporter of know-how and hightech products. By the end of 1999, industrial production had grown by record-breaking figures. The biggest increase took place in the electronics and electro-technical industry, where the growth rate accelerated to 40 per cent. The primary factor boosting growth in industrial production is exports. The Trade Unions, who are a powerful force in the Finnish economy with 83 per cent of the work force, allowed salaries to be pegged at 1.7 per cent over two years, thus helping to keep inflation down. There are strict rules governing working hours and holidays, as Finland pursues a very generous social welfare programme. Finland was one of 11 countries whose economy qualified to begin using the new Euro currency at the beginning of 1999. (Their strict alcohol laws have been relaxed since joining the EU.) By the end of the decade, the country’s macroeconomic performance was among the strongest in Europe.

Main Destinations of Export 2009
Germany10.32 per cent
Sweden9.79 per cent
Russia9 per cent
US7.85 per cent
Netherlands5.9 per cent
UK5.2 per cent
Main Origin of Imports 2009
Russia16.2 per cent
Germany15.76 per cent
Sweden14.65 per cent
Netherlands6.99 per cent
China5.29 per cent
France4.22 per cent

Exports are now about 40 per cent of GDP with IT technology having the highest share of exports today. In 1900, 85 per cent of all exports were forestry related; now they account for only one-third. Finland is the second largest exporter of paper in the world. Nokia is the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile phones. Metal mining, technology and engineering together make up exports almost as large as paper. The service and construction industries are playing an increasingly important part in the Finnish economy. There are very close historical and cultural links between Finland and Estonia which gave Finland a competitive advantage when the Baltic States, with its population of over 7 million, opened up to international trade. Unemployment is down to 7.3 per cent (August 2010) and inflation, which hovers between 1 to 2 per cent annually, is 1.4 per cent (September 2010).

The Finnish experience confirms what the recent economics literature emphasises— institutions and organisations play an even more important role in economic growth than we have thought so far. In the case of Finland, two key elements are worth mentioning: education system and consensus building mechanisms.

The Finnish experience shows that it is possible to make a dramatic recovery in GDP, undertake a major restructuring, and turn a crisis into an opportunity in a short time, as long as there is a real sense of urgency, supporting institutions and political consensus of what needs to be done. The Finnish case is not unique in this respect. Korea turned its major 1997 financial crisis into an opportunity and undertook a major reform of its economic incentive and institutional regimes. The Finnish transformation to a knowledgebased economy was, no doubt, to a large extent a business driven process, but policies and institutions played a role too. There was a clear shift in policy making in Finland in the 1990s. High priority was given to sound macroeconomic policies to overcome the recession, but at the same time there was a gradual shift to microeconomic policies, i.e. innovation, technology and education policies. It was recognised that, after all, the competitive edge of an economy is created at micro level: in firms, innovation and policy organisations, and educational institutions.

Finns and Technology

Figures released at the end of 1999 showed that 67 per cent of the Finnish population had mobile phone subscriptions. As of 2010 there are now more mobile phone subscribers than people! Innovations by small technology companies have brought Finland to the forefront of development in the field of health care, in which the need to improve service efficiency grows as the population ages. One service creates better conditions for diabetes patients to care for themselves by allowing them, via mobile phone and the Internet, to give information on blood glucose measurements, dosage of insulin used, meals and exercise to a database, thus eliminating the need for patients in sparsely populated areas to travel long distances to see a specialist.

In 1999, as it was written earlier: “Finland is poised in a strong position to become one of the world’s most successful economies.” At the outset of 2000, the Finnish Telephone Giant, Nokia, was Europe’s biggest company by capitalisation. In 2003, Finland outranked all other countries in global competitiveness, reflecting the country’s ability to sustain its high rates of growth based on 259 criteria, including openness of the economy, technology, government policies, and integration into trade blocks. Currently, Finland leads the world in The Economist’s Environmental Sustainability Rating. This is based on five broad, durable areas: environmental systems, the reduction of environmental stress, the reduction of human vulnerability, social and institutional capacity and global stewardship. Finland is also the world leader in the management of water resources, and it was back in 1896 that she passed a law forbidding the wasteful use of forest resources and the compulsory planting of new trees to replace any felled to create sustainability. Finland is unrivalled in various fields of technology and number one in the world for network readiness for ICT. No wonder The Economist and the Financial Times in the UK recently stated that “the Future is Finnish”.

Nearly 20 years ago, Finland was a closed society. Foreigners were unable to work in the country unless they had an exceedingly specialist job. Those who married a Finn found that the formalities took forever to grant them the right to live and work there. Finland was like a fortress. Foreigners were not allowed to own land or property without a special dispensation at ministerial level and they were not allowed to hold the majority of shares in any business. Today Finland is open, has more immigrants than emigrants and Helsinki has turned into a very cosmopolitan city.

During the past five years, immigration into Finland from other EU countries has been higher than emigration from Finland to other EU countries. In 2006, Finland had a migration gain of 3,300 persons from other EU countries. Immigration into Finland from other EU countries has been growing since 1997. Emigration from Finland into other EU countries has remained stable during the past few years. However, although Finland seems very welcoming to foreigners, especially foreign scholars and technical experts, the number granted residency is very low: just 0.4 per cent of the population.

Main Economic Indicators

GDP (change in volume, %) 0.9-
Industry (change in volume, %) -0.3-
Imports of goods and services (change in volume, %) 6.5-
Exports of goods and services (change in volume, %) 6.3-
Private consumption (change in volume, %) 1.7-
Public consumption (change in volume, %)
Current account (% of GDP)
General government net lending (% of GDP)4.2-2.7-3.3-1.4-0.8
Consumer price index (change %)
Unemployment rate (%)

Finland first in everything!

The country is dark and cold in the winter and has some of the highest taxes in Europe. But that doesn’t get in the way of Finns» overall happiness. Finland ranks 6th in the world in the happiness stakes in a 2006 survey of life satisfaction undertaken by Britain’s University of Leicester (Denmark was 1st, US 23rd; UK 41st; China 82nd; India 125th; Russia 167th; Zimbabwe last). So, why do they score so highly? Because Finland is a small country with greater social cohesion and a stronger sense of national identity. But happiness isn’t the only thing that they top the class in…

the best ratings in Finland, freedom

Finland has become a champion of civil liberties. Where freedom of expression and freedom of speech are concerned, Finland ranks among the top countries in the world, according to a 2007 report by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organisation. Other top countries include Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands; France was 35th and USA 53rd. In their surveys on the degree of freedom experienced by citizens in various countries, Amnesty International always has Finland appearing near the top list. In a 1998 survey by the United Nations, Finland was rated fifth in the world in terms of quality of life. This survey measured education, income, health and life expectancy. They came first in an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey of European standards of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy in 2003.

In 1999 and 2007, Finnish children were deemed to be the healthiest in Europe along with the Swedes. They are in the top two countries in the economic creativity index and are well ahead of the US in terms of research and development spending as a percentage of GDP. The Finns are fourth in the world for filing successful patents. They easily beat all other countries to the number one position in The Economist’s Environmental Sustainability Index (2004) and top the league in the Corruption Free Index of 2002 by Transparency International. Finland has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards animal diseases and is the only EU country to have a disease-free status. And, more surprisingly than anything else, Finland has won more Olympic medals per capita than any other nation!

All this has been achieved by a population of only five million people. How far this small nation has come in 90 years!

Finland today

Finland suffered more than most European nations during the recession of the early 1990s. The Soviet Union broke up leaving debts unpaid, the markka was devalued, many companies closed, unemployment rose from 3 per cent to 20 per cent, and the tax burden increased alarmingly. With far less hesitation than the Swedes, the Finns voted the country into the European Union by referendum in 1994, and joined in 1995. The economy took a turn for the better: food instantly became cheaper and the country received considerable financial aid through EU assistance with regional development grants. However, the traditional market place for Finnish goods, the Soviet Union, has not been restored and Finland has had to find new markets from all over the world. In 1999 and 2006, Finland took over the EU Presidency. In 2000, Helsinki became one of the Cultural Capitals of Europe and elected its first woman president and woman Speaker of Parliament. In 2002, the Euro was introduced as its currency.

Finland today

The break-up of the Soviet Union into several smaller states has considerably changed the balance of power within the Baltic region. Finland still vigorously pursues its policy of strict neutrality. It has retained commercial ties with the new republics and has offered its technological know-how in environmental matters and financial assistance to buy food supplies.

History of Finland

Many people are surprised to learn that the country we know as Finland today is a very young country—just 90 years old. For almost seven centuries the Finns were under Swedish rule and then, for over a century, under Russian rule. Perhaps this is the reason that the Finns are so enormously proud of their country and nationhood, seemingly more patriotic than many other nations. Also, this might explain why, as foreigners, no one really knows much about the country although we have all heard of it.

History of Finland

Origins of Finland

Much of Finnish history before the 12th century has been passed on through folklore with very few written records concerning the Finns and their country. In 98 AD, Tacitus mentions a people called the Fenni in the Germania, which is how the population of present-day south-west Finland came to be known. The inhabitants of the interior were called Hamme people, a name derived from an old Baltic word meaning “an inhabitant of the interior”.

It is generally accepted that the first settlers came to Finland about 9,000 BC as antler carvings have been found that evidence the first records of mankind in this region. They occupied the coastal lowlands of southern Finland and lived by hunting elk and by fishing in the Baltic Sea, which was then a fresh-water lake. The land was no more than a bleak, tundra-like terrain without its present-day characteristics. Around 6,000 years ago, the Sami arrived from the east.

There are many competing theories as to the origins of the Finns, but it seems that the south-western part of Finland was settled by boat people from western Europe and the eastern part by nomadic tribes from Russia. These people came from the surrounding areas of the Ural Mountains and the River Volga and settled to become the Finns, Estonians and Karelians of today. From them developed the FinnoUgrian language. These peoples displaced the Sami who migrated further north to Lapland and are today’s Laps (Sami in Finnish).

Two distinct cultures evolved influenced from both the east and the west. The two Finnish tribes, the Hamenites in the west and the Karelians in the east, constantly warred with each other. Trading links were set up with the Estonians and the Swedish Vikings. After about 800 AD, the Vikings began spreading eastwards through the Aland Islands, Finland and into Russia, ruling Novgorod and eventually reaching Kiev in 862 AD. The Karelians traded with Novgorod, supplying them with furs and skins. This contact influenced the Karelian culture enormously. Their craftsmen adopted Byzantine motifs for use in art and jewellery designs and these can still be seen today as “traditional Finnish” designs. The Karelians acquired their Orthodox form of Christianity through contact with the east and Russian monks later travelled north to convert the Laps. In the meantime, Sweden brought Catholicism to the tribes in the west of Finland.

An English missionary, Bishop Henry of Uppsala, was the person charged with bringing Christianity to this region. He was murdered by a man called Lalli, who opposed his teachings. Bishop Henry is the patron saint of Finland.

Being Ruled

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Finland became a buffer between many rival powers. Sweden had established a strong monarchy and became a sustained medieval power. Novgorod had become a powerful military base. The expanding Danish kingdom was successfully resisting Swedish supremacy and founded the city of Tallin, in Estonia, in 1219. To the east, the Teutonic knights were encroaching on the lands south of the Gulf of Finland and were busy warring with the Danes as they tried to take hold of the lands along the Baltic coast. The Finns had not joined together as one nation state of their own and were subjected to influences from all these sources. In fact, they were divided into three main groups: the Suomalaiset (as the Finns call themselves today), the Hamalaiset (the Humanities) and the Karjalaiset (the Karelians).

In the middle of the 12th century, the Swedish throne was occupied by King Erik. The Pope had issued instructions that the position of the Church in Scandinavia needed to be strengthened. As a Catholic, Erik led a crusade to convert the Finns to Christianity. He was accompanied by Bishop Henry who was later left in Finland to consolidate the gains of Erik’s crusade while Erik returned to Sweden. Although not the first, it was this crusade that established the beginnings of an organised Finnish Church. The first cathedral was built in Turku in 1229 and dedicated to St. Erik and St. Henry. The bones of St. Henry were laid to rest there in 1290.

In spite of the fact that the Finnish Church was under the supervision of a Danish See, it was the Swedes who ultimately dominated south and west Finland. Eastern Finland was still heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire through Kiev and Novgorod. Turku, in south-west Finland, became the centre of both religious and civil authority in Finland. Swedish occupation began in earnest in 1249. A number of incentives were devised to attract Swedish settlers to Finland. Large estates were created. Tax concessions were given. Soon the upper layer of Finnish society comprised Catholic Bishops and Swedish nobility. Many privileges were granted to Swedish soldiers of the Royal Army to entice them to settle. The Swedish settlers began to colonise the coastal regions of south-west Finland and along the Gulf of Finland. They brought with them their language which established Swedish as a major language in Finland.

From a Finnish reader, Hannu Sivonen: “We are proud to mention that a Finn, Olavi Maununpoika (alias Olaf Magnusson, Olavus Magni, Olave le Grant) was the headmaster of the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1435.”

The next hundred years saw conflict and skirmishes between the Swedes and the rulers of Novgorod, as each tried to snatch land away from the other. Eventually in 1323, a Peace was signed which established the border between the two countries as running in a north-westerly direction from a place near today’s St. Petersburg in Russia to Oulu in northwest Finland. This brought about a period of relative calm and, as a result, Swedish influence gained strength in the south-western half of Finland. This influence brought about contact with Western Europe and Roman Catholicism. Over the next three centuries, Finland became firmly part of the Swedish Kingdom, adopting their laws and administrative practices. There was little friction between the Swedes and the Finns. The Swedes settled along the coastal lands whilst the Finns lived, for the most part, in the interior. They shared religious, judicial and administrative practices and co-existed peacefully. In the meantime, the north-eastern half of Finland was dominated by cultural links with the East and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In 1527, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden adopted the Lutheran faith and this set Sweden and Finland firmly on the road to establishing Lutheranism as the official state religion. Wanting to expand his territories, he enticed his Finnish subjects to push forward the boundaries set down in the treaty with Russia and encroach upon the Savo and Kainuu areas. Turku became firmly established as the capital of Finland (as a “Duchy” or province) from where the Governor General presided from his castle.

During the “Golden Age” of Sweden in the 17th century, Finland was considered an integral part of Sweden, and the Finns were considered loyal subjects of the Swedish monarch. The official language was Swedish, Stockholm was the capital (Turku being a “Duchy” capital), and by Swedish decree Finland began to grow and prosper. Schools and churches were established, ironworks built, transport systems created and a chain of castle defences built to protect against Russian attack. The Turku Academy was founded in 1640 as the first university in Finland and linked the city to the time-honoured family of universities on the continent. Trade increased but the “burgher” class was predominantly Swedish as few Finns made a living from business. The ethnic Finns were largely peasant farmers. A small minority rented their land and worked for the mansion to pay their rent, but the vast majority were free landowning farmers in the fashion of the free farmer concept based on the legacy of the Vikings. The Swedish medieval society did not have a feudal system like the rest of western Europe. The farmers of Finland took part in the political life in Stockholm, just as any farmer in the western half of Sweden proper, by sending their representatives to the “Diet of Four Estates”. This was a legislative body made up of the “Estates” of Nobility, Clergy, Burgess and (free landowning) Farmers.

The 1700s saw Finland fought over and occupied on numerous occasions. The Russians, under Peter the Great, seized much of Finland and even conquered the west coast. In trying to regain its lost territories, Sweden warred with Russia for the best part of one hundred years. The Great Northern War (the Big Hate in Finnish) saw Sweden regain some territory through peace negotiations which had to be later ceded to Russia. Then came the Napoleonic Wars which were to have a lasting impact on Finland. After Tsar Alexandra I and Napoleon signed the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia attacked Finland in 1808. Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809 and the Swedish king, Gustav IV Adolf, lost his crown to Napoleon. One of Napoleon’s Marshall, Bernadotte, was subsequently invited to become the new Sovereign and his descendants still reign today, warmly loved by both Swedes and Finns.

Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire with the Tsar of Russia being the Grand Duke of Finland. This period of Russian rule lasted for 108 years. Tsar Alexander I was a liberal and treated the Finns and their institutions with respect. Swedish laws remained in force, the Lutheran church left untouched, he recalled the Diet of Finland (after a 50-year pause), and power was given to its own senate with only major decisions having to be approved by the Tsar. Russia encouraged Finland to develop as a country, made free basic education available to all, established universities and transferred the capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812. In the mid-1800s, Finland issued its own postage stamps, had its own customs office and gained its own currency, the markka. Equal official status was given to the Finnish language, alongside Swedish. Railroads were built and institutions created. Finland began to benefit greatly from this annexation. Russia benefited by having Finland as a buffer state between itself and Sweden.

The creation of institutions, the distancing of the capital from Sweden, the recognition of their own language, the development of its own money and stamps, and a conscript Finnish Army, lead to a strengthening of the Finnish sense of national identity. Thus, the Finnish independence movement gathered momentum. One of the first to encourage independence was Al Arwardisson, who stated: “Swedes we are not, Russians we will not be, so let us be Finns”. Around this time, Elias Lonnrot published his work The Kalevala, which was an epic poem based on the spoken folklore of the many Finnish “tribes” around the country. This proved to be a lynch pin in the swell of the independence movement because it came at a time when the Finns were beginning to think about who they were as a nation. For the first time ever, their own history and culture were written down and all could learn what it really meant to be Finnish.

The 1860s are referred to as “The Hunger Years”, when almost one-third of the population died from starvation. Many rural advisory centres were established to help farmers manage their farms more efficiently and effectively so they could increase food production. Farmers Associations started and the “seeds of knowledge” were passed on in schools.

20th Century History of Finland

In 1906, a new single-house parliament, the Eduskunta, was created. Men and women alike from all stations in life were given full voting rights. Finland in one stroke changed overnight into a modern state. Finland was the first European country to grant women full political rights— universal and equal suffrage, meaning they had the right to vote AND the right to stand for election to Parliament. Indeed in the first election of Eduskunta of Finland in 1907, there were 19 women elected. So the women really exercised their right.

From Finnish readers: The people were so outraged by Nicholas II’s Russification attempts that they instigated a peaceful demonstration at the statue of Tsar Alexander II in the Senate Square in Helsinki. Here the demonstrators brought thousands of flowers in honour of Alexander’s birthday; Nicholas II could not arrest anyone for respecting his grandfather! In every town, there used to be an Alexander or Nicholas Street. After independence, only Alexander Streets remained.

In spite of the many advances that Finland had enjoyed under the Russians, the Finns still felt oppressed. They had had a hundred years of ruling themselves as an autonomous Grand Duchy and during the turbulent years of the 19th century, they remained loyal to Russia. Then Tsar Nicholas II attempted to turn Finland into a mere Russian Province and his “Russification” methods caused an outcry. Finnish intellectuals and artists were stirred by this greater oppression and helped create a surge of nationalism. Jean Sibelius composed his masterpiece Finlandia and Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted scenes from the Kalevala. This provided a core around which a new nation could rally. The Finns became emotionally ripe for independence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in the seizing of power by the Communists and the ousting of the Tsar. As a result, with their customary speed and efficiency, the Finnish senate declared independence on 6 December 1917. While they were prepared to stay “loyal” to a Tsar, they were not prepared to be loyal to a mob in Moscow and Leningrad. Just one month later, Finland was recognised as an independent state by the Russians themselves.

Independence of Finland

One of the perplexing questions for the new nation was whether it should become a republic or a monarchy. The Finnish Left, “The Reds”, comprising the working classes, aspired to a Russian-style socialist independent nation. The Whites, comprising the newly established government, favoured the option of becoming a monarchy based on the German model. Vladimir Lenin, however, recognising he would need support in the ongoing World War I, decided to give the Finnish Reds 10,000 guns and lend them troops to attack the Finnish Civil Guards (The Whites) in Vyborg. This forced the senate to flee Vaasa and a civil war ensued.

The poor harvest of 1917 meant the Finns were once again facing starvation. The widespread devastation of Russia meant that no food supplies would come from there. Aid committees were set up in Sweden, Britain and US to send food for distribution by the government, but the dilemma arose for these countries as to whom it should be sent. The White Government appeared to be in alliance with the Germans, then the enemy of Europe, and the Reds were supported by Russia, who had just exacted a bloody revolution.

On 28 January 1918, the Civil War started in earnest. It was fought on two fronts: the Reds, supported by the Russians, strove for revolution in Helsinki; the Government Troops (The Whites) fought Russian forces near Vaasa, were commanded by Mannerheim, who had spent most of his military career in the Russian Imperial Army, and were supported by the Germans. This new nation was divided. The Reds claimed the South whilst the Whites stood their ground in the North. The Civil War lasted 108 days and claimed the lives of 30,000 Finns. The Whites eventually became the victors under the military prowess of Mannerheim.

The Civil War ended on 16 May 1918. The Prince of Hessen, Friedrich Karl, was asked to become king of Finland by the Eduskunta on 9 October 1918 and accepted. However just one month later, Germany was defeated in World War I and the Prince of Hessen resigned his kingship and the political model Finland wanted to adopt became discredited (the crown and throne still exist). Finland then chose a republican state model and Professor K J Stahlberg, a liberal-minded constitutional lawyer, became the first president (1919–1925).

The Whites extracted a bloody vengeance on their defeated enemies. Reds and their families were captured and locked up in prison camps where thousands died through starvation and neglect. An estimated 10,000 people died in these camps. By 1924, the problem of political prisoners was gone, though bitterness lingered on through another generation.

The Constitution of 1919, whose main architect was Stahlberg, retained the single-house parliament that was established in 1905. It also stated that Finnish and Swedish would be the national languages of the new republic and established the right of citizens to use their mother tongue before the law courts and administrative authorities. Records and documents were to be written in the mother tongue and this would be guaranteed by law. Regions would be unilingual unless a minority group existed which represented over 10 per cent of the local population. This would be reviewed statistically every ten years. Helsinki and Turku were to be bilingual. At the time, Swede-Finns accounted for only 11 per cent of the total population. The government recognised that toleration and accommodation of this minority would best serve the interest of the country as a whole. Shortly afterwards, Finland was admitted to The League of Nations and was, therefore, recognised by all as a new independent country.

The 1930s saw the fledgling nation at a low ebb. Civil war skirmishes continued with Right- and Left-wing extremists battering and bruising political life. Attempts were made to outlaw Marxism, which resulted in Fascism being made illegal. Fighting broke out between university students of the two language groups and a bitter language war ensued which shook the administration, universities and cultural circles. Finland developed close ties with Germany partly in response to the threat of their predatory giant neighbour, the USSR.

Before World War I, the Finns were said to be the most sober people in Europe. The consumption of liquor in Finland was decreasing year by year. In June 1919, the government introduced prohibition which was generally recognised as a sound strategic policy by the vast majority of the nation. By 1931, the law was repealed. It had turned out to be an economic disaster, creating a lucrative black economy. The State Alcohol Corporation was established having the right to sell liquor. Thus the importation and distribution of alcohol became state owned and state directed.

During the time between the two world wars, this new struggling nation gained an international reputation for bravery, honesty, integrity and hard-work. In spite of the fact that the economy was still agrarian based and two-thirds of the population worked on farms, Finland became the only country to pay its debts to the United States. Towards the end of the 1920s, the country’s industrial production was increasing and there was an export boom in forest-related products which provided much needed foreign currency. At the same time, Finland began to shine in athletics with its sporting hero Paavo Nurmi (the Flying Finn) winning seven gold medals in three Olympics. Continuing success in athletics led to Helsinki being chosen as the venue for the 1940 Olympic Games, which were eventually held in 1952 due to the interruption of World War II.

With war clouds gathering over Europe, the Soviet and German Foreign Ministers signed a pact of non-aggression on 23 August 1939. The pact laid the way for Germany to have a free hand in Lithuania whilst the Soviet Union could move against Finland, Estonia and Latvia; Poland would be divided between the two powers. The Finns hoped to escape the conflict by declaring their neutrality. However, 1939 saw the outbreak of war in Europe into which Finland was reluctantly dragged on 30 November when the Red Army (the USSR) invaded, arguing that its security needed south-eastern Karelia and some other military areas by the sea. Also, the USSR had become insecure and suspicious of its near neighbour creating ties with the West.

The “Winter War”, as it became known, was especially tragic as temperatures during an extremely harsh winter fell to -40ºC (-40ºF) and soldiers on both sides died in their thousands. In spite of inflicting enormous losses on the Russian troops, after 100 days, the Finns had to sue for peace; the south-eastern part of Karelia (10 per cent of its land) was ceded to the Russians and Finland had to find home for 450,000 fleeing refugees. It was this episode that taught the Finns that they would never be safe from their giant neighbour and that they were unlikely ever to vanquish them—therefore, in future, they needed to tread very warily. Also, Finland learned that no other nation would come to its rescue.

The Finns are proud to quote: “Of those countries that participated in the war in Europe, only three capitals were left unoccupied by the enemy at any time of the war: London, Moscow and Helsinki. Of the same countries, only UK and Finland retained a democratic system of government all through the 1930s and the wartime.”

The Soviet Union stepped up their efforts to wrest more land from the Finns and in desperation Finland turned to Germany for help. Although there was never any formal agreement between the two countries, German troops were allowed right of passage through Finland to Norway. When hostilities between Germany and Russia broke out in June 1941, the “Continuation War” between Finland and the Soviet Union began. The valiant struggle of the small Finnish Army resulted in them repossessing Karelia and even land they had lost in the 18th century. However, in the summer of 1944, the Russians overwhelmed the Finns. Mannerheim negotiated an armistice with the Soviets and, as a result, then began to oust 200,000 German troops from Lapland. This struggle lasted until the general surrender in the spring of 1945.

The nation’s struggle for independence, and the heroic and successful fight to retain that independence during World War II against immense odds (2 million vs 300,000), came with a price. In such a tiny population, 90,000 Finnish men lost their lives and 158,000 more had been injured. Finland had been truly unlucky—the Germans razed Lapland to the ground on their way out and the Soviet Union wrested territory and inflicted heavy war reparations. Finland, like Poland and the Baltic States, had been in the firing line as Stalin and Hitler played out their power games. However, unlike them, she did not have to cede her sovereignty and remained independent. The Finnish Army was never routed.

From a Finnish reader, Hannu Sivonen: You mention that Finns are proud of their war achievements… The Finns did not lose the war, but arrived at goal “as good second” as they say.

Post-War Finland

Dreams of a “Greater Finland”, which had been the aspiration of a whole generation, were discarded as the nation faced up to the massive burden of trying to repay its debts. The reparations to the USSR amounted to US$ 300,000,000: 70 per cent heavy engineering (machinery, ships, locomotives, etc) and metal products; 30 per cent wood products, textiles and shoes. The schedule of payments was impossible and, with the USSR controlling the exchange rate, the debt doubled. Once again there was a shortage of food, everything was rationed and poverty was widespread. When America offered Marshall Plan aid, Finland refused, preferring to keep its independence. The government taxed heavily and invested in plant and machinery. Finland went through the fastest process of industrialisation and urbanisation, the like of which has not been seen until today in China. However, the war reparations were finally paid off in 1952.

In 1948, the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance was signed which bound the two countries in a semi-military agreement. Finland still laid claim to its neutrality but the shadow of its giant neighbour meant that Finland still had to bow to the wishes of the Soviet Union, even in terms of its own domestic politics.

Urho Kekkonen, the Finnish president from 1956 to 1981, was a master diplomat and became one of the great leaders of his time. He managed to grasp the nettle in the difficult relationship with the Soviet Union, cautiously walking a tightrope. He gained fame abroad as host of the initial meeting of the “Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe”, held in Helsinki in 1975. He led Finland as a founding member of the Nordic Council. As a result, they enjoyed the same benefits as Scandinavia: free movement of labour, a passport-free zone, joint research and educational programmes and pursuit of the same type of welfare programme.

Finland was accepted into the United Nations in 1955 and joined EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) in 1961. She managed to conclude a comprehensive customs agreement in 1973 with the European Economic Union and made a similar agreement with COMECON of the Eastern bloc countries. The Soviet Union still exercised a great deal of influence over Finland up until the late 1980s, blocking its membership of the European Community and minimalising any influence from the United States. In 1989, Finland became a member of the Council of Europe. By choosing a path of neutrality, Finland opted out of the arms race.

The 1970s and 1980s were boom times in Finland. Free at last from war reparations, Finland’s advance in industry, farming, trade, commerce and the professions was driven by sheer profit. However, from the outset, this drive was not aimed at the gain of the individual citizen but at the welfare of the nation as a whole. Taxation remained high. Through the 20th century, increasing attention was paid to finding solutions to social and economic problems through legislation and public expenditure: “The interests of the people as a whole should be the active concern of enlightened citizenship.”

During the 1960s, many people migrated to the south and large urban areas grew up around Helsinki. Many areas in the north and east lost a large percentage of their young people. Self-sufficiency in food was reached by 1960 with bigger farms and more productive techniques to increase the food supply. This in itself created new problems: what to do with overproduction and how to employ everyone.

The food industry became focused on quality and environmental aspects:

  • Animal husbandry
  • Diary farming
  • Organic farming
  • Crop cultivation
  • Berry production
  • Fishery centres
  • Regional centres for country women and homemakers

Fortunately for Finland, the Soviet Union was so dependent on its products that Finland kept supplying them in exchange for oil and other raw materials. Finland’s economy began to boom.

The Strength of Finland

“Finland’s greatest contribution to the 20th century lies simply in the fact that it has survived intact as a nation state, dedicated to the principles of parliamentary democracy, and that it has been able to maintain a welfare state, rising living standards, despite the battering it has taken from a hostile world during the brief period of its national independence. A small weak nation learned to live alongside a predatory giant neighbour—without losing its sense of national identity.”

Fred Singleton, A Short History of Finland