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Finland As A Grand Duchy - The First Years

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by Ulf Fagerlund

Czar Alexander I planned the 1808-09 war in Finland as a "blitzkrieg" to be concluded before Sweden could gather its army. He assumed that Finnish forces would be unable to put up serious resistance. On February 21, 1808, Russian forces attacked on three fronts and by the end of March 1808, the Czar announced to the world that Finland was a conquered province, now part of the Czar’s empire.

In accordance with this policy, Alexander demanded an oath of allegiance from the people of Finland which had an adverse reaction: the demand raised the Finnish obstinacy rather than its subjugation. The summer offensive by the Finnish forces under Vilhelm Mauritz Klingspor, combined with the tenacity of the Finnish soldiers and the uprising by the farm population in many parts of the country, culminated in several victories for the Finnish army.

The liberal mind of the Czar and the influence of his equally liberalminded state secretary Mihail Speranskij contributed to a change in Czar Alexander's attitude. On June 21, 1808, Russian commander General Fredric Vilhelm von Buxhoevden was ordered to send to St. Petersburg a delegation consisting of representatives of all the Estates. It was the wish of the Czar to get to know the concerns and the needs of his newly-acquired citizens. Fear that the delegation would have a role contrary to the country's constitution was alleviated when Alexander announced that the delegation would only have an advisory capacity.

In the fall of 1808 the Finnish Deputation led by Carl Erik Mannerheim traveled to St. Petersburg. It emphasized that it did not constitute a legal representation of Finland and that a gathering of the Estates should be called. Alexander showed a benevolent attitude by appointing Göran Magnus Sprengtporten as Governor General and, more importantly, by making a promise in December to call a Diet as soon as possible.

The Diet opened on March 28, 1809 in Borgå while the war against Sweden continued. With much of the country occupied, the essential matter to be decided was Finland's relationship to the czardom. The most important result of the Diet - the reorganization of the State - could not have proceeded more advantageously for Finland. In his regent declaration Alexander promised to uphold "the country's religion and fundamental laws as well as the privileges and rights which each Estate ... until now, in accordance with the Constitution, has enjoyed." Thus, the autonomy of Finland was secured.

The Estates dealt with four propositions concerning defense, state revenues, the monetary unit and the establishment of a domestic government administration.

The question of defense was solved by maintaining the form of recruitment used in the past and the troops were to be disbanded. The ruble became the official monetary unit, although for a long time Swedish paper notes were also in use. The revenues flowing to the state coffers through crown taxes were to be used for the country's own needs.

The Estates gave consent to the establishment of a central administrative body which commenced its function in October 1809 and in 1816 became The Imperial Senate of Finland. The Council consisted of two departments: the Finance Department and the Justice Department.

The Diet was dissolved on July 18, 1809. Czar Alexander, who had traveled around the country, was present. In his speech to the Estates he declared that, "the Finnish People for all time have been elevated to National Status." His words were powerful and cited often through history.

By December 1809, the Czar had decided that all matters regarding Finland were to be presented directly to him. In the beginning these matters were presented to Alexander by his advisor, Mihail Speranskij, who was in favor of constitutionality and whose influence on the Czar's enlightened politics was of decisive importance for Finland. He was assisted in 1809 by Count R.H. Rehbinder. This appointment was precipitated by the Czar's wish to have someone near him who was more familiar with Finland's interests.

Two years later a committee for Finnish affairs was established in St. Petersburg. Its duties were to prepare matters to be presented to the Czar. The committee's first chairman was Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt and the secretary was Rehbinder.

To a large extent through Armfelt's influence, those parts of Finland lost to Russia in 1721 and 1743, the county of Karelia, also referred to as "Old Finland," were annexed to the Grand Duchy. The social and administrative conditions in the seceded parts where the population lived under serfdom had developed in an unfortunate direction. The annexation therefore demanded substantial reform work which took a considerable time to accomplish.

Two other undertakings are intimately connected with Armfelt's name. One was the establishment of Helsingfors as the capital of Finland, and the transfer of all administrative functions as well as the university from Åbo to the capital. It was the desire of a group of people associated with Armfelt to demonstrate the country's devotion and loyalty to the new ruler.

When the war between France and Russia erupted in 1812, Finland raised as a sign of the Grand Duchy's solidarity, three infantry regiments, each made up of two battalions totaling 3,600 men. The regiments played only a minor role but were a significant expression of the nation's rallying behind its ruler.

It is remarkable that three years after the signing of the peace treaty, Finland was willing to support the Czar with military force although not everyone was willing to answer the call. Segments of the society still hoped for a unification with Sweden. They regarded the affinity with Swedish culture and view of life essential. For them the turning point was the outbreak of the war against Napoleon. The politics of the new regent in Sweden, which showed friendliness towards Russia, negated any dreams of reunification with the old motherland. For the majority of the population, the good will shown by the Czar towards Finland dictated that the people should wholeheartedly embrace the new regime.

In his directive to the Governor General in 1810, the Czar stated as his intentions, "to give the people political presence so that it may not regard itself as conquered by Russia, but attached to that country through its own obvious advantage."

Other arguments favoring the new status were raised. The helpless and resigned way with which Sweden had conducted the war had resulted in disappointment and bitterness. Resistance was futile, acquiescence judicious. Also, the conquest carried certain advantages.

The separation from Sweden opened the way for Finnish patriotism and national feelings. Later in 1843, one of the emerging nationalist poets, Zacharias Topelius, remarked that before 1809 Finland had been a Swedish province and so lacked its own history, but after 1809, "it had a legally-confirmed constitution under His Majesty the Emperor's wise and mighty scepter."

This view of Finland's history was not shared by many leading cultural personalities of the time. Beside idealism, practical viewpoints became obvious. For the officers, the Russian army and navy provided the possibility of military careers. Even within the Russian civil service there were opportunities to gain advancement. In this way Russia attracted a significant amount of Finnish talent, which was available in many fields of endeavor. An example relating to the Northwestern United States was the appointment of Finns as governors, civil servants, and seamen in Alaska while it was a Russian province.

After the years of settling Finland's relationship to Russia, there followed an uneventful era. Hopes for a new gathering of the Estates were raised in 1818 when Alexander, in principle, supported Rehbinder's suggestion to call for a Diet. But the issue was delayed and finally abandoned.

The period characterized by the Czar's benevolent policies towards Finland was followed by a more conservative mindset, the influence coming from similar tendencies in the rest of Europe and from the Czar's experiences during the war. Another pressure on the Czar was the opposition among Russian nobility concerning Finland’s separate treatment, which became more pronounced with time.

During the decade after 1810 a national movement was born. Called the Åbo Romanticism, it was in line with similar developments of national and romantic ideals elsewhere. An attempt was made to give an identity to Finland, to bring forward and develop what was unique for the country. "Swedes we are not," it was said. "Russians we do not want to be, so let us be Finns."

Following a trend in Europe, national poetry gained attention. However for those who had an international outlook, Finland may have appeared as an appalling province steeped in self-righteous isolation. The cities were small, the rural areas backward, and the upper class indifferent. No enthusiasm among the leaders, no renewal in the society, everywhere only the trivialities of daily life. The will for cooperation had been replaced by conservatism. The fear of opposition prevailed together with stagnation. From a casual observation so appeared the existence in Finland during the 1820s; however, behind the facade could be glimpsed an attempt to a richer national life.

It is during the following decades that these impulses were put in motion through the emergence of outstanding representatives of all forms of Finnish culture. Two of the foremost proponents of nationalist feelings were Johan Ludvig Runeberg's "Elgskyttarne" published in 1832 and Elias Lönnrot's "Kalevala" appearing in 1835. Later in this period the Finnish language gained status within the bureaucracy.

  • Based on "Inledning" by J. A. Eriksson in "After 1809"
  • published by Bernces Förlag AB, Helsingfors, Malmö, 1981.



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