The Independence of Finland and the role of chance

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 4/2017. In 1917, Finland was released from the logic of war and found itself in a situation where there was a lack of legitimate legal authority in Russia but those who had taken power were ready to recognise Finland’s independence, Markku Kangaspuro writes.

Finland’s independence was a result of many factors in which Finland didn’t play a part, and many coincidences. The national narrative around achieving independence often emphasises the role of the great historical figures. They have been immortalised in the national memory in the form of statues and stamps, for example. In orations and retrospective narratives and on the pages of textbooks, they are painted as even mythical figures, whose shadows overwhelm both the life people lived and events in the surrounding world.

A little over a century ago, the French philosopher Ernst Renan boiled down the process of the social construction of a nation by saying that misunderstanding of history is part of belonging to a nation.

So, what could have gone differently in those events a hundred years ago? The short answer is that Finland could have remained part of Russia. The prerequisites for Finland’s independence rose mostly from factors that weren’t reliant on us. Without the First World War, the Russian Emperor Nicholas II wouldn’t have been deposed in March 1917. The World War has been considered a war that no one wanted to have. It escalated from a single event in Bosnia, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A Serbian nationalist group that was pleading for the annexation of Bosnia’s Serbian regions into Serbia assassinated Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand. This ignited a chain reaction of declarations of war that lead to the realisation of alliance agreements between major powers of Europe. Nicholas II had no idea that by announcing his support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary in order to secure his influence in the Balkans he started a progression that would lead to his own dethroning.

Germany was successful in the war against Russia. One of Germany’s means of warfare was to support separatist forces along the Russian western border from Finland to Ukraine so that these forces could weaken the empire. This launched the cooperation of Finnish activists with Germany and the training of jaegers in Germany. This played an important role in the Finnish Civil War after Finland had emerged as independent.

For the same reason, Germany released a wagonful of Bolsheviks to return to their motherland in April 1917. This group was led by Vladimir Lenin and had operated in exile, demanding Russia’s disengagement from the war. Nicholas II had abdicated the throne, but the Provisional Government that came to power in Russia committed itself to continuing the war against Germany together with the other Triple Entente allies. So, Germany still saw a role for the Bolsheviks in its war plan, particularly because it seemed unlikely that the Bolsheviks would ever ascend to power.

This decision that Germany made had an impact on the whole of twentieth-century history, and was also crucial for Finland’s independence. However, this wasn’t yet known when Lenin arrived with his group at Finland’s station in St. Petersburg in April 1917. The Finnish Parliament and Senate were preparing to continue life as part of a Russia led by the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government was committed to continuing the war and, for strategic and tactical reasons, they had to maintain Finland’s role as part of their defence system.

A new, unexpected situation emerged as the Bolshevik influence strengthened in Russia, especially on the Western front, and finally as the Soviet Government took power in November 1917. When the weakened Russia disengaged from the war, Germany got what it had been after. Finland for its part was released from the logic of war and found itself in a situation where there was a lack of legitimate legal authority in Russia but those who had taken power were ready to recognise Finland’s independence. This was the government that finally recognised Finland as an independent state on 31 December 1917.

Markku Kangaspuro is Director of Research at the Aleksanteri Institute, Project Manager of the Russian MediaLab research project, and a Board Member at the Academy of Finland’s “Choices of Russian Modernisation” Centre of Excellence.