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Grand Duchy of Finland, 1809-1917

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Russia planned at first to annex Finland directly as a province of the Russian Empire, but in order to overcome the Finns' misgivings about Russian rule, Tsar Alexander I offered them the following solution. Finland was not annexed to the Russian Empire but was joined to Russia instead through the person of the tsar. In addition, Finland was made an autonomous state--the Grand Duchy of Finland--with its inherited traditions intact. Thus the laws and constitution of Finland remained unchanged, and the tsar took the place of the Swedish king as sovereign. The official forms of government inherited from the era of Swedish absolutism were sufficiently autocratic to allow the tsar to accept them largely intact; however, included in these forms of government was the comprehensive law code of 1734 that protected individual rights.

Imperial assurances that Finland would be autonomous and that its traditions would be respected were encoded in two 1809 decrees that constituted for the Finns the basis of their relationship with Russia. The Finnish Diet that met at Porvoo (Swedish, Borgå) in 1809 seconded the tsar's decrees. As a further gesture of magnanimity, in 1812 the tsar restored to Finland the lands Russia had annexed in the eighteenth century. These conciliatory measures were effective, and, as long as Russia respected this arrangement, the Finns proved to be loyal subjects of the Russian Empire .

According to the terms of the agreement reached between the Diet and the tsar, the government of Finland was directly controlled by the tsar, who appointed a governor general as his advisor. With one brief exception, all of the governors general were Russian. The first governor general was the Swedish-Finn Göran Sprengtporten, who was ably assisted by the prominent Swedish-Finn politician, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. The chief instrument of government in the grand duchy was the Government Council, renamed in 1816 the Senate, which was composed of fourteen Finns appointed by the tsar. The counterpart of the Senate in St. Petersburg was the Committee for Finnish Affairs, composed of Finns, which presented Finnish requests to the tsar; however, Finnish civil servants usually carried on the business of government with little interference from the tsarist government in St. Petersburg. The Diet was formally the lawmaking body of the government; it could not initiate legislation, however, but could only petition the tsar to introduce legislation. The tsar, moreover, could summon and could dismiss the Senate without reference to the Diet. There was an independent judicial system. Finland even maintained its own customs system, and taxes collected in Finland remained in the country. Finns were exempted from conscription into the Russian army.

Despite these safeguards, Finland still felt the autocracy of the tsar. The Finnish Diet was dismissed in 1809, and it was not reconvened for more than fifty years. Although the government of the grand duchy represented an uneasy balance between the traditions of Finnish self-government and those of Russian autocracy, as long as the Russians respected the balance, the Finnish people were satisfied. The period of Russian rule was characterized by peaceful internal development, largely because, for the first time in centuries, Finland was free of war.


Data as of December 1988

Source: Based on information from Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire, 1801-1917, Oxford, 1967, 774.

June Pelo


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