Finland Gains Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After being under Swedish and Russian rule for more than seven centuries, Finland declared its independence in 1917 but was not fully recognized as an independent nation until 1920.

Summary of Event

“Swedes we are not, Russians we can never be; let us therefore be Finns.” Thus wrote Adolf Ivar Arwidsson in an apt characterization of the Finnish sense of self-identity. The challenge was especially daunting as the small Finnish population had to endure six centuries of Swedish domination followed by another century of Russian rule. Finland;independence [kw]Finland Gains Independence (Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920) [kw]Independence, Finland Gains (Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920) Finland;independence [g]Finland;Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920: Finland Gains Independence[04400] [g]Russia;Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920: Finland Gains Independence[04400] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920: Finland Gains Independence[04400] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920: Finland Gains Independence[04400] [c]Independence movements;Dec. 6, 1917-Oct. 14, 1920: Finland Gains Independence[04400] Arwidsson, Adolf Ivar Snellman, Johan Vilhelm Nicholas II [p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Russification of Finland Bobrikov, Nikolai Svinhufvud, Pehr Evind Mannerheim, Carl Gustaf St �hlberg, Kaarlo Juho Holsti, Rudolf

The story of Finland’s striving for national independence is a lengthy one. Swedish control over Finnish territory began in the twelfth century and steadily expanded. Because of Finland’s isolated location, a degree of regional self-rule became possible, but the Finns were still a subject population. Finland’s geographic location unfortunately placed it in the middle of competition between the empires of Sweden and Russia. Under Peter the Great, the Russian Empire expanded to the northwest toward the Gulf of Finland. Extended warfare continued between the two nations, especially in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Russian forces invaded the Swedish Empire in 1808, and Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in the peace treaty of 1809.

Shifting masters did not initially reduce existing Finnish rights. Czar Alexander I promised to continue Finnish institutions and legal practices. A governor-general served as the czar’s personal representative in the Finnish city of Helsinki. Gradually, however, Finnish autonomy and institutions eroded or vanished.

Despite Finland’s transfer to Russia, substantial Swedish influence continued. Swedish was the primary language of the duchy’s social elite, as well as being used in local government, education, law, commerce, and culture. Finns were widely perceived as rustic, illiterate, and incapable of leadership or importance. This perception began to change in the 1820’s and 1830’s with the emergence of a Finnish cultural and national consciousness. During this period, the patriot Arwidsson was banished from Finland for his views. Several individuals began collecting the national epic, the Kalevala, Kalevala (Finnish folk epic) comparing oral variations to re-create the story, which represents an ancient literary and cultural manifestation of early traditions and Finnish mythology. Elias Lönnrot is the most famous of those who compared the versions of the Kalevala and developed a coherent written story. Also during this period, philosopher and politician Johan Vilhelm Snellman advocated the use of Finnish, a language with no clear connections with Swedish or Russian, as it was the daily tongue of the ordinary people.

Relations between the Russians and the Finns improved in the 1860’s, during the reign of Czar Alexander II (1855-1881), and expanded use of the Finnish language was authorized by an 1863 decree. The Russian monarchy also permitted the creation of a Finnish parliament (the Diet) in 1863. By 1878, Finnish military units were authorized. These positive changes enhanced the Finns’ sense of national identity.

This improved atmosphere deteriorated in the 1890’s, however, with the imposition of policies representing “Russification” Russification of Finland of the Finnish grand duchy. These events coincided with the assignment of General Nikolai Bobrikov as governor-general. Finnish army units were merged with the Russian army and placed under Russian officers. The term of military service was extended, and a new conscription law was imposed in 1901. Many youths evaded this unpopular draft. Russian became the compulsory language in Finnish schools, and Russians dominated the Finnish civil service. In 1899, a decree of Czar Nicholas II confirmed the primacy of Russian laws over Finnish laws. The Finnish Diet continued to meet, but it had reduced powers and influence.

These infringements on Finnish liberties led to widespread resistance. More than half a million Finns (out of a population of fewer than three million) signed a petition protesting Russification. A delegation of five hundred traveled to St. Petersburg to present the petition personally to Nicholas II, but he refused to see them. Finnish feelings of nationalism grew and were reinforced by such cultural elements as composer Jean Sibelius’s famous work Finlandia (1899; revised 1900). First performed in 1900, the piece became an example of musical nationalism. Russian authorities occasionally banned its performance because of its anti-Russian effect on Finnish audiences.

As Russification policies continued, various factions considered their responses. The “Compliants” argued that by accommodating Russian authorities and policies, Finland might retain a degree of autonomy. The “Constitutionalists” looked to the historic rights of the Finns and demanded that the Russians honor those principles and institutions. The “Activists” opposed past, present, and future Russification and called on Finns to strive for national independence, advocating the use of force if necessary to achieve that goal.

A new unicameral legislature was created in 1907, with two hundred elected members. A revised suffrage law gave the vote to all Finns twenty-four years of age or older, including women, making Finland a prominent example of voting democracy. The nation’s granting of suffrage to women was the first such example in modern Europe. This reform increased the number of voters in Finland from 126,000 to nearly 1.3 million. Twenty-five women won seats in the 1907 Diet elections. A second assembly was elected in 1910, but the Russian authorities quickly dissolved it. A third assembly was elected in 1910 but was also dissolved before the end of the year. These conditions greatly increased Finnish antagonism toward Russian influence and authority.

Finland’s chance to declare independence came in the chaotic period of World War I and the Russian Revolution, as Russia was weakened by military defeats and a deteriorating internal situation. With the overthrow of the Russian monarchy in March, 1917, events moved rapidly. Pehr Evind Svinhufvud provided executive leadership as the head of Finland’s government following his return in 1917 from exile in Siberia. The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) gave the leaders of the Finnish independence movement the confidence to declare Finland’s independence on December 6, 1917. On December 31, 1917, the new Soviet government responded favorably. National unity appeared to be a reality, but the next several years brought more trauma to the Finns before complete independence was confirmed in the fall of 1920. In early 1918, Finland became embroiled in a civil war between diverse parties and ideologies attempting to determine the shape and values of the new state. Violent conflict pitted Finnish “Reds” against Finnish “Whites.” Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a later president of the republic, commanded the “White” forces in this conflict.

By the civil war’s end in May, 1918, the prosocialist and pro-Bolshevik “Red” movement had been defeated decisively at a cost of approximately twenty-four thousand dead on both sides. This critical period also included a short-lived German intervention in the last year of World War I. Only afterward could the Finns create the institutions of an independent state. A new constitution was written, elections took place, and in July, 1919, Kaarlo Juho St �hlberg became the first president of the Finnish Republic. Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti successfully gained the support of the Paris Peace Conference for this new infant republic.

Even then, Finland had to resolve some problems with the Soviet government. Boundary disputes and other controversies slowed the process, but negotiations in the summer and fall of 1920 culminated in the Treaty of Tartu, Tartu, Treaty of (1920) signed on October 14, 1920, by which the Soviet Union guaranteed Finnish independence. The same year, Finland entered the League of Nations as a full member.


Achieving national independence permitted the Finns to develop their national institutions and to adapt them as conditions required. Finland’s freedom as a sovereign nation in the twentieth century illustrated the nation’s fundamentally democratic outlook and its ability to adjust to its dominant Soviet neighbor.

After independence, Finland established the political system called for by its July, 1919, constitution: a republic with a national parliament elected by universal suffrage on the basis of proportional representation. In 1991, the minimum voting age was lowered to eighteen. Finnish political parties offer voters a wide spectrum of ideologies and proposed agendas. Cabinets are usually formed by coalition, as one party rarely wins a majority of parliamentary seats. This situation encourages representatives to compromise in reaching consensus and in making formal decisions. Executive power is placed in an elected president, and civil rights are guaranteed and protected by the state.

Initially, the major challenges to Finland’s independence and foreign policy came from its neighbor, the Soviet Union. Although the Treaty of Tartu appeared to resolve major issues and guarantee independence, the years following 1920 saw major confrontations and even several wars between the two nations. Disputes over the Karelian area led to severe problems in the early 1920’s, and in the late 1930’s, deteriorating relations culminated in the Soviet invasion of Finland in November, 1939. This conflict, known as the Winter War Winter War (1939-1940) (fall, 1939-spring, 1940), was an uneven match between the large Soviet and small Finnish populations, and Finland surrendered in March, 1940. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Finland and the Soviet Union became combatants again in what is known as the Continuation War Continuation War (1941-1944) (summer, 1941-fall, 1944). Finnish defeat in this war resulted in shifts of territory and the imposition of reparations to be paid to the Soviet Union.

Because its location creates potential dangers, as history clearly shows, Finland adopted a policy of strict neutrality in the post-World War II years. This policy is especially identified with President Juho Kusti Paasikivi Paasikivi, Juho Kusti (1946-1956), who helped negotiate the Treaty of Tartu in 1920 with the Soviet Union. Finland refused to join either the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Warsaw Pact. This policy of “Finlandization” has been viewed as a model for other small nations in similar circumstances, adjacent to large and powerful neighbors. Finland became a member of the United Nations in 1955 and joined the European Free Trade Association as an associate member.

From its beginnings as a free nation, and especially since 1945, Finland has been very successful in continuing its national development and providing opportunities for the enhancement of the rights of its citizens. The nation’s progressive leadership and policies have been widely admired for the social, economic, and political benefits they have provided the hardy Finnish population. Finland;independence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jagerskiold, Stig Axel Fridolf. Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Biography of the famous military and political figure provides excellent coverage of Finland’s independence and postindependence periods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jussila, Osmo, Seppo Hentilä, and Jukka Nevakivi. From Grand Duchy to a Modern State: A Political History of Finland Since 1809. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. Informative volume divides Finnish history into three periods—1809-1917, 1917-1944, and 1944-1999—each of which is addressed by an individual author. Includes useful appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jutikkala, Eino. A History of Finland. 5th rev. ed. Helsinki, Finland: W. Söderström, 1996. Readable account of Finnish history provides ample coverage of the period of Swedish and Russian control. Presents a clear narrative of the independence movement and further development of the nation after World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirby, D. G., ed. Finland and Russia, 1808-1920: From Autonomy to Independence. London: Macmillan, 1975. Collection of primary source materials provides a thorough examination of conditions in the grand duchy of Finland and how the gradual loss of autonomy contributed to the nationalistic drive for independence from Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klinge, Matti. Let Us Be Finns: Essays on History. Helsinki, Finland: Otava Publishing, 1990. Interesting collection of essays on various aspects of Finnish history and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mannerheim, Carl Gustaf. Memoirs. Translated by Eric Lewenhaupt. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954. Autobiography includes information on vital periods of Mannerheim’s life and leadership but is sometimes selective in choice and interpretation of events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mead, William Richard. Finland. London: Benn, 1968. Solid account of Finnish history, including the Swedish and Russian periods as well as the years after independence. Focuses more on political issues than on Finnish social or cultural life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paasivirta, Juhani. Finland and Europe: The Early Years of Independence, 1918-1939. Helsinki, Finland: SHS, 1988. Social and cultural history describes life in Finland in the interwar period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rintala, Marvin. Four Finns: Political Profiles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Brief, readable profiles of four major figures in Finnish history in the twentieth century: Mannerheim, Paasikivi, St �hlberg, and Väinö Tanner. Places them in the context of the political and national issues in which they played central roles as active participants in the independence movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singleton, Frederick Bernard. A Short History of Finland. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Lively survey of the history of Finland provides comprehensive information on the struggle for independence. Easily accessible to the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, C. Jay. Finland and the Russian Revolution, 1917-1922. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 1958. Detailed account of the relationship between Finland and Russia in this critical period. Includes discussion of political, diplomatic, and military aspects as well as Russification policies from the 1890’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tillotson, H. M. Finland at Peace and War, 1918-1993. Wilby, Norwich, England: Michael Russell, 1993. Comprehensive history of Finland in the twentieth century includes discussion of the independence period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Upton, Anthony F. The Finnish Revolution, 1917-1918. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. Excellent, thorough history of the revolution. Includes maps to both help clarify border issues and identify sites of military conflict.

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Categories: History