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Better people - who are they?

I grew up in Eastern Finland, in a small village called Juankoski. And vast majority of Eastern Finland speaks Finnish - you hardly hear Swedish anywhere, and certainly you don't need the language in your daily life. Yet learning Swedish is mandatory in Finnish elementary school, we typically start studying it around the age of 14 or so. And the general attitude was that Sweden is somehow bad, a stupid country, and learning the language is waste of time, and nobody likes the idea of being forced to study the language. Swedish speaking people were viewed as 'Swedish-speaking better people', ie. arrogant snobs who think they are better than the ordinary people, that because of their Swedish they are entitled to an elite position. At that time, I didn't question the mentality, I had uncritically adopted the attitude - even though two of my aunts live in Sweden, I have cousins there and our family had visited Sweden many times. When there, I never saw anything particularly wrong or stupid about the country, but then - attitudes and prejudices they often have little to do with facts and evidence, so no evidence could change the emotional negative attitude I had adopted.

Now, of course, one can ask why learning Swedish is mandatory in Finland? Well, that is because Swedish is the second official language, meaning that basically you are supposed to be able to deal with the public services anywhere in the country speaking Swedish only. Need to report a crime? Got stopped by police? Want to build a house and need to file an application for a building permission? All of this should be possible to do speaking either Finnish or Swedish, says the law. (but not in Sami language - only up in the North, the true Sápmi region you can handle such issues speaking the indigenous Sami language. But the law doesn't require each and every public servant in big towns and small villages of Southern Finland to be able to speak and to understand Sami language, even though it is one of the languages native to Finnish territory). As a side note, when I was at school, most of the kids started studying English around the age of 10. Studying second language is mandatory, but the law doesn't say that it has to be English. In some bigger schools students can choose German, Russian or some another language as the language they start at the age of ten. (Personally, later on, around the age of 16 I started studying Russian, because I like the language and the culture.)

Well, there is a considerable Swedish-speaking Finnish population along the West and South-West coast of Finland, and in the beautiful archipelago of those areas. (And, Åland which is a Swedish-speaking yet semi-autonomous region of Finland.) So why is it that Sweden is the second official language, nationwide, although the Swedish-speaking population is located only in a minor area in one corner of the country? For that we have to go back to the history.

Rewind 1000 of years back the history. At that time there wasn't a concept of Finland - the area was populated with pagan tribes, each speaking their own dialects of the same language, but there weren't things like national identity. It seems that there were some forms of in-tribe organization and co-operation, although the daily live was mostly run by independent families without any sort of central government. Sure, there might have been spiritual leaders, and respected frontmen of war bands, but nothing like the established organization of Medieval Europe. Well, but the King of Sweden had converted to Christianity, and at some point they got this idea of conquering Finnish territory. They even got a mandate from The Pope, to launch a holy crusade to bring the pagan tribes of Finland under the holy rule of The Church. We fought hard and we fought bitter, the pagan tribes putting up armed resistance. But little did that help, eventually the western part of Finland was converted to an Eastern province of Sweden.

Well well. Bit later The Russian Novgorod got the same idea, and so the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church ended up fighting the western Latin Orthodox Church, both aiming to conquer the territory which today is Finland. They fought hard and they fought bitter - this time a lot of Finnish peasants fighting in the ranks of the army of King of Sweden. A peace treaty was signed in 1323 AD, establishing a settled border between Sweden and Novgorod. But kingdoms and empires, they have this tendency of not being satisfied with established borders. So, later on warring continued. The King of Sweden had already recognized that Finnish peasants not only make good tax-payers to fund a war, but they also make a heck of warriors. So, Finnish fighters were sent to this and that war-zone here and there, depending on where the King of Sweden wanted to expand his territory. Eventually, at 1595 AD a new peace treaty was signed, re-defining the border between Sweden and Russia. (As a side note, the border defined in 1595 ran through the area what became Juankoski. We often visited a nearby rocky hill which was one of the territorial border marks, with the symbols of Sweden and Russia inscribed into the cliff-side).

And on goes the history of Finland as an eastern province of Sweden. For the King of Sweden the population of Finland was a good resource to be taxed, and to be drafted for military service. (Did I already mention that ancient Finns made fierce warriors?) Just like in the rest of Europe, the medieval Sweden was a feodal society - which, among other things, means that the nobles didn't need to pay taxes. And that sometimes special people were awarded with the status of a noble, and granted a mansion - also in Finnish territory. So, the Finnish peasants saw that they were constantly taxed and sent to fight wars, while the Swedish-speaking nobles sat in their mansions having Finnish-speaking workers do all the farm work for them. A situation like this doesn't suit very well with the stubborn Finnish mentality, to the point that in 1596 - 1597 AD there was a peasant uprising in Finland. Little did that help, as the Swedish army outpowered Finnish peasants.

So we have centuries of Swedish speaking ruling elite, and tax-paying hard-working fiercely-fighting Finnish peasants. For the most of the country, that is. It should be noted that already at this point certain parts of Western and South-Western coastal areas are dominantly Swedish-speaking, so that there the ordinary coastal farmers and the archipelago fishers are Swedish-speaking, certainly not members of the elite. As you might guess, the kingdoms and empires, they seldom are happy with their established borders. And, no matter how hard the Finnish troops (both the Finnish-speaking Finns and the Swedish-speaking Finns) fought, in 1809 AD Sweden lost a war to Russia. Finnish territory became an autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire. The years under Russian rule saw a lot of different phases, changing as the policies or Russian czars changed. Sometimes Finns were tried to be forcibly Russianized, sometimes the Grand Duchy was allowed more autonomy.

During the Russian rule it was still so that the elite - factory owners, mansion land-lords, the educated and the intelligentsia - were either Swedish-speaking or Russian. The ordinary Finns worked hard, paid the taxes and got belittled by the elite. (But in times of war, the Czar or Russian Empire was happy to send Finnish troops to fight wars in faraway countries.) Finnish language was regarded as the language of the brutes - the farm workers who were only good for transporting cow manure, they spoke Finnish, while all the sophisticated stuff was discussed either in Swedish or Russian. (Bear in mind that most of what I write in this post is slightly exaggerated and over-generalized, just to cut a long story short. The reality is always a lot more detailed and more ambiguous than a short synopsis can convey). But during the 1800's new movements started to emerge, and people started to speak about a Finnish national identity. (Now, a lot of that movement was started by Swedish-speaking Finns, the members of cultural and economical elite, who wanted independence from Russia, and didn't want to rejoin Sweden but rather preferred independent Finland as a separate nation).

In the latter half of 1800's the Finnish nationalistic movement gained significant momentum. There was the so-called Golden Era of Finnish art, with nationalistic-minded artists like Sibelius, Leino and Gallen-Kallela. (composing of the saga Kalevala is connected to this cultural movement). Here I will especially mention Aleksis Kivi, a Finnish-speaking writer who wrote the first significant novel in Finnish, called Seitsemän Veljestä which translates as Seven Brothers. The novel is translated to various languages, and is still well worth reading, I do highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history and the mentality of Finnish people. (And for anyone playing UnReal World, as one of the main themes of the novel is if it is plausible to abandon the organized society and to go live in the woods.) One of the slogans of the nationalistic independence movement was 'we are not Swedish, we won't become Russian, so let us be Finnish!'. Eventually, quickly after the turmoil or Russian Revolution, Finland got independence in 1917. Hehe - remember that all this historical account started with the question why is Sweden the second official language in Finland. Now we get there. In the freshly independent nation most of the educated people were Swedish-speaking. And most of the law-makers were educated people. So they wanted and got the official status of Swedish to be enshrined in the law.

As I might have mentioned, there was a bloody civil war soon after Finland declared independency, but the society slowly started to get stabilized after that. And, for the most part the big picture was the same; along the western and south-western coast (and the archipelago) we have the Swedish-speaking population, up in the North we have the Sami speaking indigenous minority, and the rest of the country is populated by Finnish-speaking Finns. So, for the majority of Finnish population the situation is so that either you don't have Swedish speaking people around, or if you do they are your local economical and cultural elite. In case it hasn't already became clear, the average normal standard general Finnish attitude is that ordinary working people don't love the ruling elite. Especially if the members of elite themselves think that they are somehow better or above the ordinary people. Which some of the Swedish speaking elite sometimes did. Not all of them, not all the time, but enough to fuel the general negative attitude among the poorer Finnish-speaking population.

Hey, have I already mentioned that kingdoms and empires, they seldom are satisfied with their established borders? In November 1939 Soviet artillery fired rounds at Soviet troops, the Soviet ruling elite blamed Finland for that, and they invaded Finnish territory. (Why am I telling this? Because the leaders always need a way to make a war appear as legitimate for the ordinary soldiers. So the Soviet top brass couldn't just say that 'now let's start an unprovoked war to invade Finland, simply because we are evil or something!' - no no, they wanted to tell the troops that Finland has fired at them, wants to destroy them, and therefore they are forced to defend their nation by invading Finland. Always be careful if the top brass of your own country tells you this story...) Of course, all that was a part of the bigger puzzle of WWII. Once again, the Finnish peasants fought hard and bitter. Sweden managed to stay neutral and safe (behind the back of Finland, as many of the Finnish people felt). The Second World War raged on, from the Finnish point of view there was an intermediate period of peace, and then a second take on warring, called 'the continuation war'. Sweden sent some money and a small number of voluntary troops. The Swedish speaking Finns living along the coast fought equally hard and bitter as anyone else defending their country.

Enough of stories of wars. Finally, a peace treaty was signed, Finland lost some territory to Soviet Union, a lot of people were forced to leave their homes and got re-settled all around the remaining Finnish territory. (Nearly all around, that is to say. Some of the dominantly Swedish-speaking areas refused to grant land for Finnish-speaking refugees to settle in. Did I already mention that there is a long history of prejudices running on both directions?) In the post-war years poor agrarian Finland was struggling with rebuilding the country. In the 1960's and 1970's a lot of Finnish people migrated to Sweden, because there they had a lot more of work opportunities available. I partly mention this to provide a background for posting a musical link to come. As, many of the Finnish people living and working in Sweden faced some sort of cultural struggle trying to integrate with the Swedish society. Not only was the language different, but many Finns were prone to over-drinking, starting fights and generally causing trouble. Many of the children of Finnish parents living in Sweden have said that they weren't considered real Swedes. And every summer they travelled back to Finland, where the local kids treated them bad because they were not seen as real Finns - now they were those 'arrogant Swedes who think that they are better than the ordinary Finns'. Prejudiced and attitudes, they are sometimes based on reality, but not nearly always... Well, but some of the Finnish-speaking kids living in Sweden especially remember the summers in Finland, when the families gathered to dance to Finnish tango (that was the popular culture of those times.) Finnish tango is a lot about nostalgia - longing for happiness which you once nearly had for a short moment but then lost for ever. The essence of Finnish tango gets perfectly distilled in this performance of a band of young Swedish people with Finnish roots. Yes, she sings in perfect Finnish, it's her mother tongue despite having grown up in Sweden.

OK, now all of this might appear as explaining why there has been a general, unquestioned, traditional attitude in most of the Finnish-speaking Finland that Swedish-speaking people are arrogant and need to be dragged down, ripped of their assumed privileges. But that is only a very partial view. So let me continue.

When I got my driving license - that was in the small town of Juankoski - some of my class mates said 'remember, if you drive through the village of Nilsiä, keep on driving faster than 60 km/h, otherwise they will steal the hubcabs of your car!'. Shortly after that I happened to browse a book of collected folk sayings. And a saying from Juankoski, dating back to pre-war times, said that if you wander through the village of Nilsiä, remember to change your backpack to your belly-side, otherwise the locals will steal your stuff from your pack. Nilsiä is located some 25 km away from Juankoski. And I have absolutely no idea if this prejudice of 'in Nilsiä they are all thieves' is based on any kind of historical evidence, but anyhow it seemed like an attitude which got passed on from a generation to next. And two or three times a year young men from Juankoski grouped together to have a fist-fight with the posse of young men from Nilsiä. Just to see who is better or something, I don't know. Observing all this I started to feel that this stuff makes no sense. So I went on questioning my own prejudiced and attitudes towards the language and people of Sweden - and found them unnecessary, ungrounded and worth abandoning. I started to put more effort in learning Swedish, so that I could read books in Swedish. (Unluckily, nowadays both my Russian and Swedish are badly rusted since I haven't been using the languages for so many years).

But let me guess, this phenomenon of neighbouring villages fighting each other, this might be somewhat universal? (Or at least, it hast long roots in Finland, the novel of Aleksis Kivi, written in the late 1860's starts with the theme.) And especially the area along the western coast of Finland is known for its strong culture of pride - national pride, family pride, local pride. I think our news recently said that there had been two posses fighting with fists and baseball bats there, simply to sort out if our village is better than your village. I find this phenomenon rather strange. Back in the 1994 I had recently moved from Eastern Finland to the city of Tampere (where people speak a lot different dialect), I sat with my then-girlfriend in a bus, and we had a discussion in strong Savo-dialect characteristic of the area where we grew up. There was a grandma on the bus, she gave us an angry look and said 'you there, go back the Savo where you came from, we don't need your kind in Tampere!'. Everyone else in the bus laughed at the grandma, so it was not a widely shared opinion among people living in Tampere. In Finland we call people with 'our village is better than your village'-attitude by the name 'nurkkapatriooti' - literally 'a corner patriot'. An online dictionary suggest a translation 'provincial', but I don't know if it quite delivers the nuance of feeling strongly patriotic for your own tiny corner of the room =)

Hehe, as you might guess, this story is written in response to Mr. Polecat's question about possible tensions between Swedish-speaking Finns and Finnish-speaking Finns. So let's conclude; yes, there might be some kind of historical background for many Finnish-speaking Finns feeling that 'Swedish speaking people are arrogant elite who needs to reminded that they are no better than anyone else - preferably by punching them in the nose'. And similarly, Swedish-speaking Finns have historical reasons for being wary of Finnish-speaking Finns who seem to be savage rebels looking for any opportunity to start a fist-fight. Especially, if you happen to be living in such an area of Finland where your own village is mostly Swedish-speaking but the neighbouring village is mostly Finnish-speaking. Now all the hotheaded corner-patriots have even more reasons to start a fist-fight, or at least to intimidate the people from the neighbouring village simply because they speak the wrong way, and they are not 'us' but 'them' etc.

And, if you ask me today, I think none of this makes much sense. The boys of 'our village' fighting the boys of 'neighbouring village' simply because we are 'us' and they are 'them' and we need to find out who is better - or the Kingdom of Sweden fighting with the Empire of Novgorod / Russia over conquering this or that piece of territory. It is all the same, equally miserable and silly business, which only sows unnecessary hatred and bitterness, and gives rise to persistent negative attitudes which easily get passed on from generation to another. Also, if you happen to own a factory and to employ a hundred of workers who don't speak your language, I don't think it entitles you to think that you are somehow better or above the less educated poor workers. Can we just quit 'us' fighting 'them' trying to find out who is better? Better people don't exists, if you ask me - as a human beings we are all fundamentally equal, each human life is worth the same. (This is purely my personal opinion. I know there are some corner patriots who are offended by this kind of talk about fundamental equality. I know, there won't be a rational argument to convince a corner patriot to abandon his narrow-mindedness, so I'm not even going to try that. And this, this is not a reference to anyone who has been reading or commenting on my blog, but more like my thoughts on a few random people I've talked with in various comment sections of The Internet.)

A long post, and sorry no pictures this time. Instead, if you didn't already do so, listen to the Darya & Månskensorkestern, they are good =)

13 users have voted.


Very interesting!

Although I am mostly ignorant of Finnish history, I have an old M-39 rifle that was apparently used in the Winter War, assuming I have identified the stock joint type correctly. I have hunted some deer with it, but it is mostly to shoot for fun, and as a collection piece. When I first got it, I took it all apart to clean and refurbish everything, and to fix a broken firing pin, and found some dirty pine needles trapped between the stock and the barrel. Assuming that they got in there during the Winter War, I set them aside, and then put them back inside the rifle how I found them, when I put it back together. I guess kind of an an honor to the forgotten Finnish person who endured hardship while carrying it. It is a really good old gun, especially for a Mosin-Nagant, but very heavy. Hehe.

Your thoughts on feuds between villages is interesting as well. Here, there used to be kind of an us-vs-them mentality between the northern and southern parts of the county (which was then a part of Virginia, now a border-county of West Virginia). Apparently it dates back to the American civil war, where the northern part of Pendleton county overwhelmingly voted to remain in the union, whereas the southern part overwhelmingly voted to secede. I live in the southern part, but these tensions seem to have entirely disappeared in my generation. However, as a youngster, many of us kids would get together and have BB-gun wars with the kids from the North Fork. But just for fun, rather than out of a sense of malice. To this day, I still wonder how nobody lost an eye in all that, but I remember only a small amount of blood (and a lot of little purple bruises), haha. But as adults, we all laugh about it and get along fine. :)

Is patriotism and nationalism in Finland closely linked to non-egalitarian philosophies? Sometimes I get confused discussing such things with European friends, because we seem to mean vastly different things when we use those words. It seems like, here in the States (well, at least in the part where I am from), the grassroots sorts of patriotism and nationalism are very closely linked to egalitarian principles, with non-egalitarian philosophies often being shouted down as "un-American". It gets me to thinking that maybe "patriotism" and "nationalism" may not be very useful labels, as they seem to mean entirely different things to different people and to different sub-cultures within my country. Or perhaps they have been used as emotional labels on subjective issues for so long that they have lost any fundamental meaning in the contemporary discourse.

But I dunno..... I am too dumb to figure such things out, LOL.

Hehe, I watched most of your videos on fixing the M-39, but I didn't comment since I'm not an expert on firearms. Unluckily, I happened to miss the part about pine needles - that would've been a thing to comment on, just to say that I like the gesture of keeping the needles =) Yeah when we were kids, me and my brothers, we didn't play winter war, but we spent couple of summers building kotas and shelters, crafting bows, spears and fishing rods, and once we tried to spend two days of self-sufficient life in our camp-site. Seems like some of that attitude has carried into my adulthood =)

A further reflection on my story about 'us vs them' tensions in Finland - I know the story would be a lot different if written by a Swedish-speaking Finn. Or by a member of Sápmi people. My own point of view is heavily based on the Eastern / Central Finland experience, and I know very little of how life actually is in the Swedish speaking western coast. But what little I know, for the most part people get along pretty well, no matter which language they speak. The troublemakers are often just a tiny minority - but then that is enough, if walking down the street you feel that one in twenty of the passer-bys is ready to punch your nose simply because you speak the wrong language, then that makes an atmosphere of violent tensions, even though one in twenty is a small minority of thugs. But, yeah, these are mostly my general guesses based on what I've seen and heard, I never discussed these things in detail with anyone from the Swedish-speaking area.

Oh well. I think your observation on "nationalism" and "patriotism" is very clever. I mean, to me it seems that a lot of difficulties arise from people using same words for different things, and then not noticing it. All too often when people argue about something, they actually are speaking of two different things, so no wonder they can't agree =) Also, it seems that certain words become 'trigger words', touching some more primitive parts of the human brain, summoning an agitated gut-reaction. And when agitated, the human brain doesn't stop to discuss philosophy. If one feels that the essential core values are under an existential threat, one doesn't want to slow down to discuss 'hey what exactly do you mean by this or that term, can we go into details of defining concepts before we punch each other in the nose?'

That being said, I think 'Europe' is a far too broad term to define a set of common mentality. Although, yes, I'd guess on average there are some typical differences between American and European way of seeing certain cultural values - and also, here in the Nordics we had developed a society slightly different from the rest of Europe, which again makes the concepts of like 'state', 'nation', 'taxes', 'society', or 'government' appear differently, depending if you ask the average Swede or the average Italian. Simply because we have grown up in different kind of cultural environments. And, indeed, in addition the imaginary 'average people' there sure are divides and different subsets of values. For some 'national pride' means that you are entitled to hate and to bully people from other countries. And for some 'national pride' means that if your country would be invaded you'd take up arms and fight back, but otherwise you are perfectly happy to socialize with people from your neighbouring countries, preferring peaceful coexistence over hatred.

As you might know, these topics have heated up over the past two years or so. In Europe we have had a surge in refugees, and at the same time the old Russia vs. The West military tensions have been building up. Personally, I've been baffled by the sheer amount of misinformation, agitation, trolling and hatred which seems to swallow up every attempt at rational discussion on these topics. That was one of the reasons I've been writing more of personal diaries and less commenting on philosophical themes related to groups, tribes and values =)

So, a final note for this comment. Once when Finland's ice hockey team won a game against Sweden's team there were reports of a peak in Swedish-speaking people getting bullied. And a posse of Finnish people even drove cross the border to the Swedish side, breaking stuff and insulting people etc. This is the sort of ugly 'national pride', which for some people seems to mean that you believe that your tribe is above the others, and that pushing others down makes you feel high. Also, from the European point of view, not so long time ago there was a certain leader in Germany who rallied people to believe in this sort of national pride. It didn't go very well, neither for Germany nor for the other European countries. I think this sort of questions still affect the way we think and speak about 'nationality' etc. And the way I see it, instead of sticking with the stone-age concepts, I think we'd better seek new ways of understanding things like 'nationality'. To me it doesn't seem like a hard thing - if you love your own cultural tradition, it makes it easier to peacefully coexists with people of different traditions - simple like that? But, somehow, seems like this topic has been generating huge amount of trolling and hatred.


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