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The Battle of Poltava was the turning point in the Northern War (1700-21) between Sweden and Russia. Peter I the Great of Russia won over Charles XII of Sweden. Illustration: “The Battle of Poltava” by Dennis Martens the Younger (1726)

This highly prized country, placed precariously between two strong empires was the subject of many a battle with its borders continuously changing through the ages. The positioning of Finland made it an integral part of a countries repertoire. Positioned on one side of the narrow gulf leading to Russia meant it was valuable land for both trade and defense.

Sweden and Novgorod (now Russia) border Finland with the Baltic to the south. Records as far back as 1150 show the Swedes attempting colonization of their neighbor. Following failed attempts, many other secular powers attempted to bring the Finns under their rule including Denmark, Republic of Novgorod and Germany. It wasn’t until 1323 when the squabble ceased and a peace treaty was signed between Sweden and Novgorod dividing Finland. The area to the east was ruled by Novgorod, the areas to the west and south ruled by Sweden.

While the beginnings of the Swedish rule are debatable, the Swedish empire dominated Finland in one form or another from 1320 to 1809. Finland was treated as a province within the Swedish empire with Stockholm the capital. Shortly after Sweden took charge, a new city was established across the Baltic Sea in the southwest corner of Finland. Turku was Finland’s first city established to bridge the trading gap between Sweden and its new province. The countries first university was established in Turku in 1640.

The Battle of Sävar and Ratan, two battles fought a day apart by the same armies between Swedish and Russian forces in the Finnish War. Illustration: Battle of Ratan, a 19th-century painting.

Even after the peace treaty was signed, the battle over Finland didn’t cease. Between 1617 and 1721 the Swedes were a powerful force and used this power to push the eastern border back into Russian territory, expanding the Swedish empire further. This period of Swedish rule heavily impacted the countries culture which remains visible today with all students learning the Swedish language in primary school and all signage in both the Finnish and Swedish language.

1809 saw the end of the Finnish War, a battle between Sweden and Russia over Finland’s territory. The country became a true autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. Shortly after the capital city was moved from Turku to the new-found Helsinki which was much closer to St Petersburg and severing any remaining ties Finland had with Sweden. The elevation of the Finnish language to the ‘national language’ and increased independence assisted Finland in establishing its own identity. When Russia attempted ‘russification’ of the Finns, the country in a civilized “Finnish” way demanded independence through a political agreement on December 6, 1917.

White general staff on a parade at Esplanade in Helsinki on May 16, 1918. Picture: Gunnar Lönnqvist


This was a tumultuous time in Russia’s history. With a weak tzar in command and a looming communist movement angling to take control, the instabilities had burst into a revolution. Finland was scared that it, too, would be sucked into the turmoil. Lenin, who served as head of government of the Russian Republic, signed the Declaration of Finnish Independence on New Year’s Eve 1917-18. By doing so, he wished that it would speed up any instabilities that could turn into a revolution in Finland after it would be separated from its mother country.

Lenin’s prognosis came true. There was indeed a revolution looming. Seeing an opportunity for change during this new era, the Red Guard (workers) uprose in January 1918 to battle against the White Guard (middle and upper class) in what is called the Finnish Civil War. This was a fight for the human rights of oppressed workers and culminated in three and a half months of bloody warfare. A massive toll resulted in about 36,000 deaths (1.2% of the population) and 10,000 orphans. Many of the remaining Red Guard fled to Russia following their defeat. Another result was the deep division of Finnish society with many citizens referring to themselves as ‘citizens of two nations’.

At the ruins of Turku barracks in Helsinki on May 17, 1918. The Turku barracks was a building for Russian soldiers, located in Kamppi near the old bus station. Picture: Gunnar Lönnqvist

Unlike other nations, Finland doesn’t celebrate its Independence Day with fanfare or fireworks. Theirs is a more solemn and respectful occasion. It doesn’t only celebrate the beginnings of the independence; it’s a Memorial Day for all generations who fought and defended the country during the wars.

The day commences with raising the flag in central Helsinki, Observatory Hill. In fact, the flag is raised on every flagpole spanning the country and on each building throughout the cities. Numerous memorial services occur during the morning.

In the evening the president holds a ball at the Presidential Palace, inviting celebrated guests from around the country including war heroes, dignitaries and a long list of well-known Finns. This event is much anticipated, especially for the fashions, and televised across the country.

Finally, each household lights two blue and white candles to place in each window at dusk. This is a silent mark of respect to the fallen whose sacrifice enabled independence and originates from the civil war when the White Guard knew they could gain shelter in any house displaying these candles.

With all this in mind, Finland is excited about 2017. Finns are putting all their energy into celebrating 100 years of independence. While the nation awakes after the winter slumber, the summer season promises to be full of parties, festivals and excitement. What started with beautiful New Year’s Eve firework displays and concerts throughout the country, to ring in this much-anticipated year, is sure to continue all the way to its crescendo on December 6.

Samba dancers at Esplanade on June 18, 2016. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

The Finnish government has acknowledged the significance of 2017 and are using the opportunity to increase unity and equality among its citizens. It is a great opportunity to learn from the past while looking forward to the future. An organizing committee has been created to ensure Finns get the full jubilee experience.

Along with giantizing any event normally held this year, any new Finnish passports or ID card issued in 2017 will be a special jubilee edition. They include a jubilee logo and pictures of local scenery.

As far as showing off on the world stage, Finland will host both the Figure Skating World Championships in Helsinki from March 29 to April 2 and the Nordic World Ski Championships being held in Lahti from February 22 to March 5. Numerous other events have been organized across the country including much loved Finnish artworks touring – “Stories of Finnish Art – the Ateneum collection on tour” and many other fabulous exhibitions. Be sure to be part of this fabulous milestone birthday for a country which has demonstrated to the world that anything can be accomplished with the right attitude. Happy Birthday, Suomi!