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The Era of Russification

The Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century faced a number of seemingly intractable problems associated with its general backwardness. At the same time, ethnocentric, authoritarian Russian nationalism was on the rise, as manifested both in an aggressive foreign policy and in a growing intolerance of non-Russian minorities within the empire. The Russian government began implementing a program of Russification that included the imposition of the Russian language in schools and in governmental administration. The goal of these measures was to bring non-Russian peoples into the Russian cultural sphere and under more direct political control. Poles bore the brunt of the Russification policies, but eventually other non-Russian peoples also began to feel its pressure.

Russian nationalists considered the autonomous state of Finland an anomaly in an empire that strove to be a unified autocratic state; furthermore, by the 1890s Russian nationalists had several reasons to favor the Russification of Finland. First, continued suspicions about Finnish separatism gained plausibility with the rise of Finnish nationalism. Second, Finnish commercial competition began in the 1880s. Third, Russia feared that Germany might capitalize on its considerable influence in Sweden to use Finland as a staging base for an invasion of Russia. The Russian government was concerned especially for the security of St. Petersburg. Fourth, there was a growing desire that the Finns, who enjoyed the protection of the Russian Empire, should contribute to that protection by allowing the conscription of Finnish youths into the Russian army. These military considerations were decisive in leading the tsarist government to implement Russification, and it was a Russian military officer, Nikolai Ivanovich Bobrikov, who, in October 1898, became the new governor-general and the eventual instrument of the policy.

The first major measure of Russification was the February Manifesto of 1899, an imperial decree that asserted the right of the tsarist government to rule Finland without consulting either the Finnish Senate or the Diet. This decree relegated Finland to the status of the other provinces of the Russian Empire, and it cleared the way for further Russification. The response of the Finns was swift and overwhelming. Protest petitions circulated rapidly throughout Finland, and they gathered more than 500,000 signatures. In March 1899, these petitions were collected, and they were submitted to the tsar, who chose to ignore this so- called Great Address. The February Manifesto was followed by the Language Manifesto of 1900, which was aimed at making Russian the main administrative language in government offices.

In spite of the impressive show of unity displayed in the Great Address, the Finns were divided over how to respond to Russification. Those most opposed to Russification were the Constitutionalists, who stressed their adherence to Finland's traditional system of government and their desire to have it respected by the Russian government. The Constitutionalists formed a political front that included a group of Finnish speakers, called the Young Finns, and most Swedish speakers. Another party of Finnish speakers, called the Old Finns, represented those who were tempted to comply with Russification, partly out of a recognition of their own powerlessness and partly out of a desire to use the Russians to undermine the influence of Swedish speakers in Finland. These Finns were also called Compliants, but by 1910 the increasingly unreasonable demands of the tsarist government showed their position to be untenable. The SDP favored the Constitutionalists, insolar as it favored any middle-class party.

The measure that transformed Finnish resistance into a mass movement was the new conscription law promulgated by the tsar in July 1901. On the basis of the February Manifesto, the tsar enacted a law for Finland that dramatically altered the nature of the Finnish army. Established originally as an independent army with the sole mission of defending Finland, the Finnish army was now incorporated into the Russian army and was made available for action anywhere. Again the Finns responded with a massive petition containing about half a million signatures, and again it was ignored by the tsar; however, this time the Finns did not let matters rest with a petition, but rather followed it up with a campaign of passive resistance. Finnish men eligible for conscription were first called up under the new law in 1902, but they responded with the so-called Army Strike--only about half of them reported for duty. The proportion of eligible Finns complying with the draft rose in 1903, however, from about half to two-thirds and, in 1904, to about four-fifths. The high incidence of non-compliance nevertheless convinced the Russian military command that the Finns were unreliable for military purposes, and, as a consequence, the Finns were released from military service in return for the levy of an extra tax, which they were to pay to the imperial government.

The Finns' victory in the matter of conscription was not achieved until the revolution of 1905 in Russia. In the meantime, the Russian government had resorted to repressive measures against the Finns. They had purged the Finnish civil service of opponents of Russification; they had expanded censorship; and, in April 1903, they had granted dictatorial powers to Governor- General Bobrikov. These years also witnessed the growth of an active and conspiratorial resistance to Russification, called the Kagal after a similar Jewish resistance organization in Russia. In June 1904, the active resistance succeeded in assassinating Bobrikov, and his death brought a lessening of the pressure on Finland.

The first era of Russification came to an end with the outbreak of revolution in Russia. The general strike that began in Russia in October 1905 spread quickly to Finland and led there, as in Russia, to the assumption of most real power by the local strike committees. As in Russia, the revolutionary situation was defused quickly by the sweeping reforms promised in the tsar's October Manifesto, which for the Finns suspended, but did not rescind, the February Manifesto, the conscription law, and Bobrikov's dictatorial measures.

In 1906, the tsar proposed that the antiquated Finnish Diet be replaced by a modern, unicameral parliament. The Finns accepted the proposal, and the Eduskunta was created. Also included in the tsar's proposal was the provision that the parliament be elected by universal suffrage, a plan that the Finns accepted, thanks to the spirit of national solidarity they had gained through the struggle against Russification. The number of eligible voters was increased thereby from 125,000 to 1,125,000, and Finland became the second country, after New Zealand, to allow women to vote. When the new parliament met in 1907, the SDP was the largest single party, with 80 of 200 seats.

Partly out of frustration that the revolution of 1905 had not accomplished more, the Finnish SDP became increasingly radical. Foreshadowing the civil War, the short-lived revolutionary period also brought about, in 1906, the first armed clash between the private armies of the workers (Red Guard) and the middle classes (Civil Guard or White Guard). Thus the Finns were increasingly united in their opposition to Russification, but they were split on other major issues.

By 1908 the Russian government had recovered its confidence sufficiently to resume the program of Russification, and in 1910 Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin easily persuaded the Russian parliament, the Duma, to pass a law that ended most aspects of Finnish autonomy. By 1914 the Finnish constitution had been greatly weakened, and Finland was ruled from St. Petersburg as a subject province of the empire.

The outbreak of the World War I had no immediate effects on Finland because Finns--except for a number of Finnish officers in the Russian army--did not fight in it, and Finland itself was not the scene of fighting. Finland suffered from the war in a variety of ways, nevertheless. Cut off from overseas markets, Finland's primary industry--lumber--experienced a severe decline, with layoffs of many workers. Some of the unemployed were absorbed by increased production in the metal-working industry, and others found work constructing fortifications in Finland. By 1917 shortages of food had become a major problem, contributing further to the distress of Finnish workers. In addition, sizable contingents of the Russian army and navy were stationed in Finland. These forces were intended to prevent a German incursion through Finland, and by 1917 they numbered more than 100,000 men. The Finns disliked having so many Russians in their country, and all of this discontent played into the hands of the SDP, the main opposition party, which in the 1916 parliamentary elections won 103 of 200 seats in the Eduskunta--an absolute majority.

There were no longer any doubts about Russia's long-term objectives for Finland after November 1914, when the Finnish press published the Russian government's secret program for the complete Russification of Finland. Germany appeared as the only power capable of helping Finland, and many Finns thus hoped that Germany would win the war, seeing in Russia's defeat the best means of obtaining independence. The German leadership, for its part, hoped to further its war effort against Russia by aiding the Finns. In 1915, about 2,000 young Finns began receiving military training in Germany. Organized in a jaeger (light infantry) battalion, these Finns saw action on the eastern front.

By 1917, despite the divisions among the Finns, there was an emerging unanimity that Finland must achieve its independence from Russia. Then in March 1917, revolution broke out in Russia, the tsar abdicated, and within a few days the revolution spread to Finland. The tsarist regime had been discredited by its failures and had been toppled by revolutionary means, but it was not yet clear what would take its place.

Data as of December 1988

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