In February 1808, a war broke out between Russia and Sweden.
Known as the Finnish War, it was fought until September 1809 and Russia won. Finland, which had been an eastern province of Sweden for over 600 years, was then annexed to Russia.
Even though Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire, it was given an autonomous status. Emperor Alexander I announced that Finland had been elevated to the status of “a nation among nations”.
It was when the Grand Duchy of Finland was born.
The emergence of statehood
During the Russian rule, Finland’s own administrative bodies were formed.
The Senate of Finland was born in the 1810s. Finland had its own ministries and state budget. Alexander I allowed Finland to have a great degree of autonomy.
The four-estate Diet of Finland was convened in 1863 after a pause of over 50 years. Since then, the Diet met regularly and took part in the legislative process.
The Russian period was also when the Finnish national movement gathered momentum. Helsinki was made the capital in 1812. Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, was published in 1835.
In 1848, Valtio, the Finnish word for state, was introduced. That year, the first national flag was unveiled, and the Finnish national anthem was first sung during student festivities.
In 1862, the Finnish national railway company was established. The following year, the Language Decree was issued, giving Finnish the status of an official language.
Finland was still under Russian control, but the idea of state began to grow in the minds of Finns. It was no longer limited to the intellectuals. The commoners were also learning to view the land they were living in as a state.
The first Russification attempt
In late 1890s, Russia moved to impose Russification policies on Finland, primarily to limit or remove its autonomous status.
The policies also aimed to abolish cultural uniqueness of Finns.
Consequently, frictions between Finland and Russia began to escalate. Russian nationalists saw Finland’s autonomy as an anomaly in the way of their Empire to become a united autocratic state.
The February Manifesto of 1899 issued by Nicholas II was the first Russification measure. It was a decree that gave the Emperor the right to rule Finland without consulting the Senate or the Diet. The decree turned Finland into a province like other provinces under the Russian Empire.
Finns were quick to protest by signing a petition that gathered over 500,000 signatures.
The February Manifesto was followed by the 1900 Language Manifesto which made Russian the language of the administration in Finland. Then came the new conscription law in July 1901 that incorporated the Finnish armed forces into the Russian army.
Also, the Finnish administration was purged and those against the Russification policy were removed. In 1903, the Governor-General of Finland, Nikolay Bobrikov, was granted dictatorial power. He used this power to abrogate Finnish constitutional rights and impose press censorship.
The following year, Eugen Schauman, son of Finnish Senator Waldemar Schauman, assassinated Bobrikov before killing himself.
The first era of Russification came to a halt because of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Finns then got some space to breathe.
In 1906, the Parliament of Finland was created which provided universal franchise. Finnish women thus became the first in Europe to get the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
Resumption of Russification
In 1908-09, the Russification programme was revived.
In 1910, Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin persuaded the Duma (the state assembly) to pass a law that scrapped most aspects of Finnish autonomy.
By 1914, the Finnish constitution had been significantly weakened. Finland was governed from Saint Petersburg as a subject province of the Russian Empire.
In November 1914, the Finnish press published secret Russian government documents containing information on plans for complete Russification of Finland. This further bolstered the unanimity among Finns that they must achieve independence from Russia.
March revolution in Russia
It was the time when World War I was going on.
Finns thought of taking help from Germany. They thought they would easily be able to obtain independence if Germany could defeat Russia in the war. Germany also wanted to strengthen its war efforts against Russia by assisting the Finns.
In 1915, some 2,000 Finns began receiving military training in Germany.
In March 1917, a revolution broke out in Russia and Nicholas II abdicated. A provisional government led by Prince Georgy Lvov took over and it lifted all restrictions on the Finnish autonomy.
A Senate led by socialist Oskari Tokoi was then formed and the Parliament was convened.
In April-May, negotiations on Finland’s status began between the Tokoi Senate and Russia. But the Social Democratic Party refused to co-operate and passed the Power Act in July, enabling the Parliament to hold all political power, excluding foreign policy and military.
The Russian government rejected it, dissolved the Finnish Parliament and ordered fresh elections in October. The socialists resigned from the government in August when the Tokoi Senate broke up.
In the October polls, the socialists won 93 out of 200 seats.
Severing ties with Russia
On November 7, Finnish Prime Minister E N Setälä announced the severance of state connection between Finland and Russia. Three days later, the Parliament decided to attach the “supreme power” to three Regents: Tokoi, Chancellor of Justice P E Svinhufvud, and Centre Party of Finland President Santeri Alkio.
But both Tokoi and Alkio declined to accept the duty, prompting the Parliament on November 15 to hold the “supreme power” for the time being.
On November 27, the non-socialists, who were the majority in the Parliament, elected the Senate headed by Svinhufvud.
On December 4, the Svinhufvud Senate presented the Parliament with a Declaration of Independence. The Parliament approved it on December 6.
The 108-year Russian rule thus came to an end in Finland. Finns were now free. They were living in a country they could call their own.
And this is how independent Finland was born.