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The Finnish Military During The Russian Time

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by Gunnar Damström

The Borgå Diet of March 1809 was a pivotal point in Finnish history. At this Diet, Czar Alexander I granted Finland autonomy as a Grande Duchy and thus the country became a state, legally and fiscally. Finland was allowed to retain its old laws and administration from the Swedish era, which were distinct from the Russian law and administration. The common denominator was the Czar, Emperor of all Russia and Grand Duke of Finland.

At the request of the Borgå Diet, the Czar, considering the suffering of the Finnish people during the war, gracefully exempted Finland from military service for a period of 50 years. This exemption was later extended until 1878.

During the Napoleonic wars, leading Finnish citizens proposed that Finland should demonstrate its loyalty to the Czar by voluntarily contributing to the defense of the country. As a result, three mercenary ranger regiments were formed in 1812. The Finnish regiments did not take part in the direct war efforts; however, they were retained to provide guard duty in St. Petersburg. The regiments were dissolved after the wars, save for a single battalion, the Guard Battalion (Gardesbataljonen). The Guard Battalion was called to duty during the Polish uprising and the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78.

At the initiative of Göran (Magnus) Sprengtporten, the Haapaniemi Military Academy was established to provide education for younger military officers in the 1780s. In 1819, the Academy was moved to Fredrikshamn. The school had a seven-year curriculum consisting of four years general education followed by three years of specialized training. Most of the alumni of the Academy served in the Imperial Russian Army, many distinguishing themselves for great ability and advancing to high positions.

During the Crimean War rifle battalions were formed by conscription, even though fifty years had not passed since Czar Alexander I exempted the Finnish Nation from military service. These battalions were dissolved during the famine year of 1867.

In the early 1870s, there was a trend on the continent to make mobilization more efficient. Following that trend, Russia instituted general conscription in 1874. In 1878, the Finnish Diet enacted a law regarding compulsory military service. According to the law, when a Finnish citizen turned 21 he became eligible for military service for the defense of the Crown and the Fatherland. However, only a small fraction of the population was drafted for the three-year service (two years if you had completed elementary school; one year if you had completed high school). The total force numbered 5,600. The draftees served in eight battalions, one for each county. In addition, all eligible citizens were provided ninety days of military training concentrated in the summer months.

The officers and non-commissioned officers of the battalions were Finnish citizens and the command language was Russian. Officers were trained at the Fredrikshamn Military Academy. Since there was a limited demand for officers in the Finnish battalions, a large number of the graduates from the Academy still sought commissions in Russian regiments.

In 1898, Bobrikov became governor. The Finnish Diet was called to extraordinary session to consider a law proposition by the Czar to streamline the Finnish law regarding military service with the law of the land. According to the law proposition, Finnish men would be eligible for service in the Russian Army. The Diet considered the law proposition illegal since it had not been prepared in the way prescribed in the Finnish Constitution.

In 1901, the Czar issued a new law concerning military service, despite the resistance of the Finnish Diet. The Finnish nation reacted by implementing a 100% draft strike. Many communities refused to form the conscription boards that the law prescribed and, as a result, the Russian authorities elected not to enforce the law and instead extracted a monetary compensation from the Finnish Treasury. This spared the Finnish nation from the terrible losses sustained by the Russian Armies during the Russo- Japanese war and the First World War.

The lawful Finnish Senate used the 1878 law concerning military service during the civil war to mobilize the White Army.


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