According to archaeological evidence, the region that is now Finland was inhabited when the previous ice age’s ice sheet retreated about 8500 BCE during the Stone Age. The items left behind by the earliest immigrants have features with those discovered in Estonia, Russia, and Norway. The first humans were hunter-gatherers who used stone tools. When the Comb Ceramic culture was introduced around 5200 BCE, the first pottery emerged. Between 3000 and 2500 BCE, the emergence of the Corded Ware civilization in southern coastal Finland may have corresponded with the beginning of agriculture. Even when agriculture was introduced, hunting and fishing remained significant components of the subsistence economy.
The Bronze and Iron Ages (1500–500 BCE) were marked by significant interaction with various civilizations in the Fennoscandian and Baltic areas. There is no agreement on when Uralic and Indo-European languages were initially spoken in the region that is now Finland. Early Finnish was spoken in agricultural communities in southern Finland throughout the first millennium AD, while Sámi-speaking people inhabited the majority of the nation. Although closely related, the Sami are a distinct people that have maintained the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a longer period of time than the Finns. The Sami cultural identity and language have persisted in Lapland, the country’s most northern region, although the Sami have been displaced or absorbed elsewhere.
Swedish monarchs progressively strengthened their authority in Finland as part of the Northern Crusades throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, with the first, second, and third crusades against Finns proper, Tavastians, and Karelians. During the Middle Ages, Swedish-speaking immigrants conquered the coastal areas. Swedish became the main language of the aristocracy, government, and education in the 17th century, while Finnish was primarily a language of the peasants, clergy, and local courts in largely Finnish-speaking regions.
The Finns progressively converted to Lutheranism during the Protestant Reformation. Mikael Agricola produced the first written works in Finnish in the 16th century. The Royal Academy of Turku, Finland’s first university, was founded in 1640. Finland had a terrible famine in 1696–1697, during which about one-third of the Finnish population perished, as well as a devastating plague a few years later. Warfare between Sweden and Russia in the 18th century resulted in the occupation of Finland by Russian troops twice, known to Finns as the Greater Wrath (1714–1721) and the Lesser Wrath (1742–1743). It is believed that the Great Wrath killed almost an entire generation of young men, owing to the devastation of houses and farms, as well as the burning of Helsinki. By this time, Finland had become the prevalent word for the whole region stretching from the Gulf of Bothnia to the Russian border.
Two Russo-Swedish wars in twenty-five years reminded the Finnish people of their perilous situation between Sweden and Russia. An increasingly outspoken elite in Finland quickly realized that Finnish connections with Sweden were becoming too expensive, and after Gustav III’s War (1788–1790), the Finnish elite’s desire to split with Sweden only became stronger.
In the late eighteenth century, a politically engaged segment of Finland’s aristocracy grew persuaded that, as a result of Sweden and Russia’s recurrent exploitation of Finland as a battlefield, it would be in the country’s best interests to pursue independence. There were plotting Finns even before the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–1790, such Col G. M. Sprengtporten, who had backed Gustav III’s revolution in 1772. Sprengporten had a falling out with King George III and resigned his service in 1777. In the decade that followed, he attempted to gain Russian support for an independent Finland and subsequently served as an advisor to Catherine II.
Despite the attempts of Finland’s aristocracy and nobles to sever ties with Sweden, Finland did not have a real independence movement until the early twentieth century. In reality, the Finnish peasants was incensed by their elite’s activities at the time and nearly entirely backed Gustav’s measures against the conspirators. (In 1793, the High Court of Turku convicted Sprengtporten as a traitor.)
Russian Empire era
Finland became an independent Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire until the end of 1917 on March 29, 1809, after being taken over by the troops of Alexander I of Russia in the Finnish War. Alexander I integrated the Russian Vyborg region into the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1811. The Finnish language started to gain popularity throughout the Russian period. The Fennoman movement, a significant Finnish nationalist movement, developed from the 1860s forward. The publishing of what would become Finland’s national epic – the Kalevala – in 1835 was a watershed moment, as was the Finnish language’s equal legal standing with Swedish in 1892.
The Finnish famine of 1866–1868 killed 15% of the population, making it one of Europe’s deadliest famines. The famine prompted the Russian Empire to relax financial restrictions, and investment increased in the decades that followed. Economic and political growth occurred at a fast pace. The GDP per capita was still half that of the United States and one-third that of the United Kingdom.
The Grand Duchy of Finland gained universal suffrage in 1906. However, the Grand Duchy’s relationship with the Russian Empire deteriorated as the Russian authorities moved to limit Finnish autonomy. For example, universal suffrage was practically useless in reality since the tsar did not have to ratify any of the legislation passed by the Finnish parliament. Independence grew in popularity, initially among radical liberals and socialists.
Civil war and early independence
Following the 1917 February Revolution, the status of Finland as a constituent republic of the Russian Empire was called into doubt, primarily by Social Democrats. Because Russia’s head of state was the tsar, it was unclear who Finland’s top executive was following the revolution. The parliament, which was dominated by social democrats, enacted the so-called Power Act, which granted parliament the greatest power. The Russian Provisional Government rejected this, and the parliament was disbanded.
New elections were held, and right-wing parties gained a narrow majority. Some social democrats refused to recognize the outcome, claiming that the dissolution of parliament (and therefore the subsequent elections) was illegal. The two almost equal political blocs, the right-wing parties and the social democratic party, were fiercely opposed.
The Russian October Revolution altered the game entirely. As the Bolsheviks seized control in Russia, the right-wing parties in Finland began to rethink their resolve to oppose the transfer of ultimate executive authority from the Russian government to Finland. On December 6, 1917, the right-wing administration proclaimed independence rather than recognize the authority of the Power Law enacted a few months earlier.
The formal starting shots of the war were fired in two simultaneous incidents on January 27, 1918. The government began disarming Russian troops in Pohjanmaa, prompting the Social Democratic Party to attempt a coup. The latter was successful in taking control of southern Finland and Helsinki, while the white administration remained in exile in Vaasa. This triggered a short but bloody civil war. The Whites, who were backed by Imperial Germany, defeated the Reds. Following the war, tens of thousands of Reds and suspected sympathizers were imprisoned in camps, where many were executed or perished as a result of starvation and illness. Deep social and political animosity developed between the Reds and Whites, which would continue until the Winter War and beyond. Eastern ties were strained as a result of the civil war and activist excursions into Soviet Russia.
Finland established a presidential republic after a short flirtation with monarchy, with Kaarlo Juho Sthlberg chosen as its first president in 1919. The Treaty of Tartu in 1920 established the Finnish–Russian boundary, mainly following the ancient line but giving Finland Pechenga (Finnish: Petsamo) and its Barents Sea port. Finnish democracy withstood Soviet coup attempts and the anti-Communist Lapua Movement. Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union was strained. After the Nazis came to power, Germany’s ties with democratic Finland deteriorated as well. Army commanders were trained in France, and ties with Western Europe and Sweden were strengthened.
The population was 3 million in 1917. Following the civil war, credit-based land reform was implemented, increasing the percentage of the people holding capital. Approximately 70% of employees were employed in agriculture, with the remaining 10% employed in industry. The United Kingdom and Germany were the two biggest export markets.
World War II
Finland fought the Soviet Union twice during World War II: once in the Winter War of 1939–1940, after the Soviet Union had attacked Finland, and once in the Continuation War of 1941–1944, following Operation Barbarossa, during which Finland aligned, but was not allied, with Germany following its invasion of the Soviet Union. Finland signed an armistice with the Soviet Union after fighting a significant Soviet assault to a halt in June/July 1944. The Lapland War of 1944–1945 followed, in which Finland battled against retreating German troops in northern Finland.
The treaties negotiated with the Soviet Union in 1947 and 1948 contained Finnish responsibilities, restrictions, and reparations, as well as further territory concessions from Finland beyond those in the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940. As a consequence of the two wars, Finland was obliged to surrender the majority of Finnish Karelia, Salla, and Petsamo, accounting for 10% of its land area and 20% of its industrial potential, including the ports of Vyborg (Viipuri) and the ice-free Liinakhamari (Liinahamari). Almost the entire population, or about 400,000 individuals, left these regions. Finland was never overrun by Soviet troops; nevertheless, it maintained its freedom at a cost of about 93,000 men.
In apparent respect to Soviet objectives, Finland refused Marshall assistance. However, in order to preserve Finland’s independence, the US gave covert development funding and assistance to the (non-Communist) Social Democratic Party. Establishing commerce with Western countries such as the United Kingdom, as well as reparations to the Soviet Union, led Finland to transition from an agricultural to an industrialized economy. The Valmet company, for example, was established to provide materials for war reparations. Even after the reparations were paid, Finland, which lacked essential resources required for an industrialized country (such as iron and oil), continued to trade with the Soviet Union on a bilateral basis.
In 1950, 46 percent of Finnish employees were employed in agriculture, while one-third resided in cities. People were soon drawn to the towns by the new employment in industry, services, and commerce. The average number of births per woman fell from 3.5 during the baby boom in 1947 to 1.5 in 1973. When the baby-boomers joined the labor market, the economy was unable to produce adequate employment, and hundreds of thousands moved to more industrialized Sweden, with emigration peaking in 1969 and 1970. The 1952 Summer Olympics drew tourists from all around the world. Finland was a member of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Finland, which claimed to be neutral, was in a limbo between the Western nations and the Soviet Union. The YYA Treaty (Finno-Soviet Pact of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance) provided the Soviet Union with some domestic political clout in Finland. President Urho Kekkonen used this frequently against his opponents. From 1956 on, he had an effective monopoly over Soviet contacts, which was critical to his continuing popularity. There was a tendency in politics to avoid any measures or comments that might be construed as anti-Soviet. The German press used the term “Finlandization” to describe this tendency.
Despite strong ties with the Soviet Union, Finland maintained its status as a Western European market economy. Various sectors benefitted from trade concessions with the Soviets, which explains the broad support for pro-Soviet policies among Finnish economic groups. The postwar period saw significant economic development, with Finland’s GDP per capita ranking 15th in the world by 1975. In the 1970s and 1980s, Finland established one of the world’s most comprehensive welfare states. Starting in 1977, Finland signed a deal with the EEC (a precursor of the European Union) that largely eliminated customs charges towards the EEC, but Finland did not completely join. After 25 years in office, President Urho Kekkonen was forced to resign in 1981 due to deteriorating health.
Finland responded warily to the Soviet Union’s demise, but quickly started growing integration with the West. Following Germany’s reunification decision nine days earlier, Finland unilaterally declared the Paris Peace Treaty obsolete on September 21, 1990.
Miscalculated macroeconomic choices, a banking crisis, the fall of its single biggest trade partner (the Soviet Union), and a worldwide economic slump all contributed to Finland’s severe early 1990s recession. The slump ended in 1993, and Finland had sustained economic development for more than 10 years. Finland, like the other Nordic nations, has decentralized its economy since the late 1980s. Financial and product market regulations have been relaxed. Some state businesses have been privatized, and some minor tax cuts have been implemented. Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995 and of the Eurozone in 1999. Much of the late 1990s economic development was driven by Nokia’s remarkable performance, which had the unusual position of representing 80 percent of the Helsinki Stock Exchange’s market capitalisation.
With a birth rate of 10.42 births per 1,000 people per year, or a fertility rate of 1.8, the population is aging. Finland has one of the most mature populations, with a median age of 42.7 years; half of voters are expected to be over 50 years old.