Today, Finland celebrates its independence from Russia in 1917. As every year, this patriotic people will light blue and white candles, toast the nation with sparkling wine, and gather in front of the TV to follow the president’s Independence Day reception, the closest thing to a glamorous party that most Finns get to see all year.
The celebration is also closely linked to the Second World War and the Winter War when Finland fought for – and managed to retain – its independence from Russia. This year it will be especially pertinent: winter 2009 marks 70 years since Russian bombs fell on Helsinki and the 105-day war began. But Finland was not an independent state before being joined to Russia in 1809. Before that the country belonged to Sweden and, consequently, both its Russian and Swedish history are part of the Finnish identity.
One way this history manifests itself is in the language question, an age-old feature of Finnish politics and a topic virtually everyone has a strong opinion about. A few weeks ago the debate heated up once more, when a Swedish-speaking member of the parliament, Anna-Maja Henriksson, declared that Åland, the autonomous, Swedish-speaking island west of Finland, might try to join Sweden or become independent if Finland keeps weakening the position of the Swedish language in the country.
Both Finnish and Swedish are official languages in Finland, and all Finns must study Swedish for a least three years in school. This is done to secure the rights of the Swedish-speaking minority, which makes up 5.4 per cent of the population. Despite its relatively small size, the minority is influential. The Swedish People’s Party always holds several seats in Parliament and they usually have a minister’s post in the government. Everyone in Finland has the right to receive public services – such as healthcare and education – in either Swedish or Finnish.
Recently, the Swedish-speaking minority has, however, become increasingly worried over the status of its mother tongue. Since 2005, Swedish is no longer a compulsory subject in the national matriculation exam. Some Swedish-speaking administration districts have been merged with Finnish-speaking ones, despite protests. A maternity ward in Ekenäs, a Swedish-speaking area, is to be closed. Some politicians have even accused the ruling Centre Party of having a secret agenda to weaken the position of Swedish in the country.
Swedish-speaking Finns have a long history in Finland, and they have every right to demand services in their own language. They are a valuable part of the country, not least its cultural life: over the past decades, several leading writers and composers, for instance, have come from among their ranks. But does that really have much to do with forcing Finnish-speaking children to study Swedish?
The results are not impressive anyway – most Finns forget their Swedish as soon as they leave school, as they lack the opportunity or interest to maintain it. In its place, children could study another, more widely spoken language, such as French, Spanish, Chinese – or why not Russian?
Internationally, Finland’s eastern neighbour is a far more important player than Sweden and with its population of 142 million is a huge potential market for services, products and jobs. In a 2006 survey conducted by the business magazine Talouselämä, 29 out of 40 Finnish companies ranked Russian as the second most important language to master after English – but complained about difficulties to find qualified people who speak it.
From time to time, the eastern provinces of Finland have suggested introducing compulsory Russian as an alternative to Swedish, but to no effect. Russian is taught in schools, but not many choose to study it – probably because of the countries’ fraught history. That is a shame. The war against Russia is an inseparable part of Finnishness and the Independence Day celebrations. But it shouldn’t stop Finns from looking forward to where new possibilities and challenges lie. Because, as Kari Enqvist, professor of cosmology at Helsinki University, recently put it: a nation that builds its identity solely on past wars will become a prisoner of its history.