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As the Ice Age receded throughout Scandinavia, widely scattered Stone Age settlements emerged among the lakes and forests of what is now Finland. The tribes that established these communities were probably nomadic Sami of Mongolian origin, although the mists of time have greatly obscured the exact nature of the communities.

With the arrival of new tribes of Finno-Ugric origin (starting in the 1st century A.D.) and other unrelated Germanic tribes from the southern edge of the Gulf of Finland, the original Sami retreated farther and farther north. Recent genetic research into the distribution of blood groups points to evidence that about two-thirds of the Finnish population today is of Western (that is, European) origin. Nonetheless, philologists stress the uniqueness of the Finnish language, Suomia, whose only close relative is Hungarian. Both languages belong to the Finno-Ugric subdivision of the Uralic subfamily of the Ural-Altaic family, unrelated to the Indo-European family to which almost all Western European languages belong.

The arrival of the Vikings, mentioned in written records beginning about A.D. 800, led to the establishment of cultural and trade routes as far east as Constantinople. Early in their recorded history, inhabitants of the region now known as Finland had many contacts with the Russian empire as well as the kingdoms of Estonia and Latvia. They also established trade links with the shores of the southern Baltic -- the area that's now Poland and part of Germany.

Swedish Intrusions

In A.D. 1155, Eric IX, assisted by the English-born bishop of Uppsala, St. Henry, launched a crusade for the political and religious conversion of the Finnish tribes. Their major opposition was from the Novgorodians (a powerful Russian kingdom) in eastern Finland (Karelia), who were seizing land and spreading the Russian Orthodox faith from the East. A famous battle occurred in 1240 at the River Neva, when Alexander Nevski, a noted hero of Russian literature, defeated Sweden. Later, a treaty between Sweden and the Novgorodians in 1323 divided Finland's easternmost province of Karelia between Novgorod and Sweden. Eastern Finland, from that moment on, became part of the Russian-Byzantine world; that region would not be reunited with the rest of Finland again except for a brief period early in the 20th century.

Meanwhile, with the largest portion of Finland under Swedish rule, most of the population enjoyed considerable autonomy and mercantile prosperity. The Swedish language became dominant. Under Sweden's king, Gustavus Vasa, Helsinki became one of the Swedish Empire's most important trading bases in the Baltic. Lutheranism was introduced into Finland by Michael Agricola (1506-57) who, because of his translation of the New Testament into Finnish and his compilation of a Finnish grammar, is called "the father of Finnish literature."

Sweden's King Johan III (1537-92) granted Finland the status of Grand Duchy in 1581. Unfortunately, Finland became a battleground in the continuing wars among Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland. New boundaries were established in 1671, when Russia was forced to yield certain lands in Karelia.

Finland entered the Thirty Years' War on Sweden's side, to which it was subjugated, its own language and culture suppressed in favor of Sweden's. The great famine of 1676 killed one-third of the population.

During the reign of Sweden's King Charles XII (1682-1718), Russia invaded and occupied Finland from 1713 to 1721. At the end of the war Sweden still ruled Finland, although some eastern territories, including southern Karelia, passed back to Russia. Russia gained new territories in another Swedish-Russian war, which raged from 1741 to 1743.

In 1808, at the peak of the Napoleonic wars, Russia finally seized all of Finland. Under Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825), Finland was granted the status of Grand Duchy, and throughout the 19th century it enjoyed broad autonomy, developing a democratic system without interference from St. Petersburg.

Life Under the Russians

Turku was the capital of Finland until 1821 when the tsar moved it to Helsinki. In 1878, under Tsar Alexander II (1818-81), Finland gained its own independent conscript army, and the Finnish language became the official language, replacing Swedish.

Although Tsar Alexander III (1845-94) tried to follow a liberal policy toward Finland, most of his advisers were opposed, preferring to keep Finland as a buffer zone between the Russian capital (then St. Petersburg) and the rest of Europe. Alexander's conservative and reactionary son, Nicholas II (1868-1918), revoked Finnish autonomy in 1899 and began an intensive campaign of Russification. Russian became the official language in 1900, and the following year the separate Finnish army was abolished. Mass arrests followed. In 1905 Finland called a national strike to protest these conditions, forcing Nicholas II to ease some of his edicts. In 1906 Finland was permitted to have a unicameral parliament (the Diet) composed of 200 elected deputies, but it had little real power.

At the outbreak of World War I, Russia totally dominated Finland, and Finnish autonomy became just a memory. Finland lost its status as a Grand Duchy and became just a dominion of its more powerful neighbor to the east.

An Independent Finland

Finland was saved by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the collapse of tsarist rule. The Russian provisional government restored Finnish autonomy on March 20, 1917. Nevertheless, the Finns called a general strike, seeking total independence. A civil war followed, in which the leftist, pro-Russian Red Guard, supporting Russian troops in Finland, was opposed by the conservative-nationalist civil guard, the Whites.

On November 15, 1917, a proclamation placed control of the country's affairs in the hands of a Finnish government, and on December 6, President Svinhufvrud (1861-1944) declared the independence of Finland. Russia recognized Finnish independence on January 5, 1918, although 40,000 Russian troops were still stationed in Finland supporting the Red Guard.

Baron Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim (1867-1951) assumed control of the Whites with the intention of driving Russia out of Finland. With the help of a German expeditionary force, he managed to win the civil war, which ended on May 16, 1918. At the end of the war, Finland was in dire economic circumstances and faced starvation.

On December 12, 1918, Mannerheim was named regent of Finland, and a constitution was adopted in June 1919, making Finland a republic. The new document called for the election of a president every 6 years. In his position, Mannerheim wielded supreme executive power, as did K. J. Stahlberg (1865-1952), the first president.

Russia and Finland signed a peace treaty at Tartu in October 1920. Russia got East Karelia. Finland joined the League of Nations on December 16, 1920, and the following year the League ruled that Finland -- not Sweden -- was entitled to the Åland Islands.

The 1920s saw continuing struggles between the government and Finnish communists. In 1923 the Communist Party was outlawed, but it returned under the title of the Democratic League. During the 1930s, many social and economic reforms were carried out.

Wars with Russia

A Soviet-Finnish nonaggression pact was signed on January 12, 1932, but Russia continued to make demands on Finland, including the annexation of the Hanko peninsula for use as a Soviet naval base. When Finland refused, Russian troops invaded on November 30, 1939.

The Winter War of 1939-40 was one of the harshest ever in Finland, but the Finns, greatly outnumbered, resisted with bravery and courage. In March 1940 they accepted Russian terms, ceding territories in the north, the province of Viipuri, and the naval base at Hanko. The inhabitants of those districts left their homeland and moved within Finland's new borders.

Resentment against Russia led to a treaty with Germany. Hitler's request for transit rights across Finland was granted. Finland tried to remain neutral when the Nazis invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, but Russia bombed towns in southern Finland and Mannerheim launched the Russo-Finnish Continuation War. Territories that had been lost to Russia were retaken. But in 1944 Russia launched a large-scale attack, forcing Finland to ask for peace. Russia retook the territory it had ceded to Finland and imposed severe war reparations. The situation was complicated since German troops stationed in northern Finland refused to withdraw. Therefore, Finland had to launch a war against the Nazis in Lapland in 1945.

Mannerheim became president in 1944 but was obliged to step down in 1946 because of ill health. In Paris in 1947 Finland and Russia signed an armistice.

Modern Finland

J. K. Paasikivi assumed the presidency of Finland in 1946, and concluded a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union in 1948. In 1952 Helsinki became the site of the Olympic Games, focusing world attention on Finland, which in 1955 joined the United Nations.

In 1956 Urho Kekkonen became president of Finland; he continued in office during the long Cold War era, resigning in 1982 because of ill health. During his 25 years in office, Kekkonen successfully pursued a precarious policy of neutrality, earning a reputation for skillful diplomacy. At the end of his tenure, he saw the decline of the Communist Party in Finland. In 1975 he hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, where he received the heads of state and the heads of government of 35 countries who signed the Helsinki Agreement on international human rights.

Upon Kekkonen's resignation in 1982, Mauno Koivisto was elected president. Nearing the end of the long Cold War, Koivisto was reelected to a second 6-year term in 1988. The country celebrated its 75th year of independence in 1992. After 12 years in office, the two-term Finnish president, Koivisto, stepped down in 1994. In his place, Martti Ahtisaari was elected president. In 1995 Finland, together with Austria and Sweden, joined the European Union.

While Sweden and Denmark have chosen to remain outside the Economic and Monetary Union, Finland continues to support a European single currency (Norway and Iceland aren't members of the EU).

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