Finland has always been a small, northern place between the East and the West. Finnish history is a story of trading routes, clashes of cultures and life next to great neighbours.
Finland officially the Republic of Finland is a Nordic country in Northern Europe. It shares land borders with Sweden to the northwest, Norway to the north, and Russia to the east, with the Gulf of Bothnia to the west and the Gulf of Finland across Estonia to the south. Finland covers an area of 338,455 square kilometres (130,678 sq mi) with a population of 5.5 million. Helsinki is the capital and largest city, forming a larger metropolitan area with the neighbouring cities of Espoo, Kauniainen, and Vantaa. The vast majority of the population are ethnic Finns; Finnish, alongside Swedish, are the official languages. Finland’s climate varies from humid continental in the south to the boreal in the north. The land cover is primarily a boreal forest biome, with more than 180,000 recorded lakes.
Finland was first inhabited around 9000 BC after the Last Glacial Period. The Stone Age introduced several different ceramic styles and cultures. The Bronze Age and Iron Age were characterized by extensive contacts with other cultures in Fennoscandia and the Baltic region. From the late 13th century, Finland gradually became an integral part of Sweden as a consequence of the Northern Crusades. In 1809, as a result of the Finnish War, Finland became part of the Russian Empire as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, during which Finnish art flourished and the idea of independence began to take hold. In 1906, Finland became the first European state to grant universal suffrage, and the first in the world to give all adult citizens the right to run for public office. Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, tried to russify Finland and terminate its political autonomy, but after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Finland declared independence from Russia. In 1918, the fledgling state was divided by the Finnish Civil War. During World War II, Finland fought the Soviet Union in the Winter War and the Continuation War, and Nazi Germany in the Lapland War. It subsequently lost parts of its territory, including the culturally and historically significant town of Vyborg, but maintained its independence.
Finland largely remained an agrarian country until the 1950s. After World War II, it rapidly industrialized and developed an advanced economy, while building an extensive welfare state based on the Nordic model; the country soon enjoyed widespread prosperity and a high per capita income. Finland joined the United Nations in 1955 and adopted an official policy of neutrality; it joined the OECD in 1969, the NATO Partnership for Peace in 1994, the European Union in 1995, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997, and the Eurozone at its inception in 1999. Finland is a top performer in numerous metrics of national performance, including education, economic competitiveness, civil liberties, quality of life and human development. In 2015, Finland ranked first in the World Human Capital, topped the Press Freedom Index, and was the most stable country in the world during 2011–2016, according to the Fragile States Index; it is second in the Global Gender Gap Report, and has ranked first in every annual World Happiness Report since 2018.
Finnish prehistory to 1323
People have lived in the region of Finland since the Ice Age, circa 8800 BCE. Habitation first settled along water routes, and since then busy trading traffic has always passed through the region. The name of Finland’s oldest city, Turku, means ‘place of trade’.
The first written sources that mention Finland date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Around that time, crusades brought Finland into the sphere of power of the Roman Pope and the medieval network of Hansa traders.
The Catholic Church spread to the region of Finland from Sweden, while the Orthodox Church did the same from Novgorod, currently Russia, in the East. The struggle for control of the region between Sweden and Novgorod ended with the Treaty of Nöteborg in 1323. With the treaty, the Catholic faith was established in western Finland and the Orthodox faith in eastern Finland. This religious boundary still exists, although the Reformation replaced Catholicism with Lutheranism.
Easternmost part of Sweden 1323–1809
After the Treaty of Nöteborg in 1323, most of Finland was a part of Sweden. For about 500 years, Finnish history is Swedish history. The region of Finland was Sweden’s buffer against the East, and the borders shifted many times in various wars.
Finns consider themselves Western Europeans because the time as a part of the Kingdom of Sweden strongly tied Finns to the Western cultural heritage. For example, Finns fought in the Thirty Years’ War with Swedish troops in Central Europe. At the same time, however, there were also connections to eastern trade centres and the Orthodox Church.
1523 Gustav I becomes King of Sweden and withdraws Sweden from the medieval union of the Nordic countries
1543 The first ABC book written in Finnish is published in Finland
1550 Helsinki is founded to compete with Tallinn for Baltic Sea trade
1640 The first university in Finland is established in Turku
Finland as a part of the Russian Empire 1809–1917
Russia captured the region of Finland from Sweden in 1808–1809. The Emperor of Russia, Alexander I gave Finland the status of a Grand Duchy. Most of the laws from the time of the Swedish rule remained in force. During the Russian rule, Finland became a special region developed by order of the Emperor. For example, Helsinki city centre was built during Russian rule.
Starting from 1899, Russia tightened its grip on the Grand Duchy of Finland. Finland did not take part in World War I, but nationalism also had an influence on the region of Finland. Finland was granted its own parliament in 1906, and the first elections were held in 1907. Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917, and the Bolshevik government that seized power in the October Revolution in Russia recognised Finnish independence on 31 December 1917.
1812 Helsinki becomes the capital
1827 The old capital Turku is destroyed in a fire, emphasising Helsinki’s standing
1860 Finland adopts its own currency, the markka
1906 Universal and equal right to vote, also for women6 December 1917 Finland declares independence
Early years of independence 1917–1945
In the early years of independence, Finland’s position was fragile. Soon after independence, a bloody civil war broke out in Finland. The war was fought between the Reds or labour movement and the Whites or government troops. The Whites received support from Germany and the Reds from Russia. The war ended in the Whites’ victory.
Finland was strongly in the German sphere of influence because the Soviet Union became the biggest threat to the security of the state. In the 1930s, many right-wing and far-right movements were popular in Finland, as in other parts of Europe.
In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed that Finland belonged in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. During World War II, Finland fought on two occasions against the Soviet Union on the German side. Finland lost both wars, but the Soviet Union never occupied Finland.
Because Finland was able to defend its territory in wars soon after gaining independence, Finland’s wars in the 20th century have been considered as a time where the independence of the State of Finland became established.
1918 Civil War between the Reds and Whites
1921 Act on compulsory education makes it mandatory to attend six years of elementary school
1939–1940 Finland is thrust into World War II when the Winter War breaks out between Finland and the Soviet Union
1941–1944 World War II continues as Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union
Rebuilding, industrialisation and the Cold War 1945–1991
As a defeated party, Finland had to pay the Soviet Union heavy war reparations in the form of goods. The war reparations included, for example, trains, ships and raw materials. Finland financed the building of the goods with loans and aid. The production of the war reparations helped Finland evolve from an agrarian country into an industrialised country. The industrialisation started a migration from the countryside into the cities.
In 1948, Finland and the Soviet Union signed an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, where the countries promised to defend each other against external treats. In practice, Finland was in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence throughout the Cold War, and the country’s foreign and domestic policy were guided by fear of the Soviet Union.
1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between Finland and the Soviet Union
1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki
1968 Finnish comprehensive school institution founded
Part of Europe 1991 onwards
The collapse of the Soviet Union and loan-based economic growth in the 1980s caused a recession in Finland in the 1990s. The worst time of the recession was in the early 1990s, many Finnish people were unemployed, companies went bankrupt and the state had little money.
In about 1995, the Finnish economy started to grow, the most important company being mobile phone company Nokia. Finland joined the EU in 1995 and was one of the first countries to adopt the euro as its currency.
1991 Worst economic crisis in Finnish history
1995 Finland joins the European Union
2000 Finland takes 1st place in children’s literacy in PISA studies
2002 The euro is adopted as the cash currency in Finland
2007 Nokia sells 40% of all mobile phones worldwide
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