From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Finns/Varpu LindstrÖm

Finland is the second most northerly country in the world, and its identity and history have been greatly influenced by a rugged landscape. Forests cover 65 percent of the land, while the proportion of the country’s arable land is only 8 percent. Although one-third of Finland’s total length lies north of the Arctic Circle, its temperatures are ameliorated by proximity to the seas, so that its climate and landscape resemble that of northern Ontario.

Finland covers an area of 338,000 square kilometres, and it shares borders with Sweden and Norway in the north and Russia in the east. To the south and west, it is bounded by the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, and the Gulf of Bothnia. The coastline is adorned with over 30,000 islands including the Åland (Finnish: Ahvenanmaa) Islands.

The landscape, especially in eastern Finland, is littered with 188,000 shallow lakes, which take up 10 percent of Finland’s surface area. Numerous shallow rivers connect the many lakes into extensive inland waterways. Throughout their country’s history, Finns have tried to maximize the benefits of the waterways and the forests, often called the “green gold” of the land.

The present-day Finns are descendants of people who began to move into the area now known as Finland about 10,000 years ago following the retreat of the continental ice sheet. These earlier settlers later mixed with migrants from the east Baltic region who arrived at the beginning of the first millennium c.e., as well as with migrants from Sweden.

Life during these early centuries was characterized by a constant struggle for survival. Crops were frequently obliterated by early frosts, and starvation and disease checked population growth. Hence, as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, Finland’s population had barely reached half a million. During the century after 1750, which coincided with the early stages of industrialization, Finland’s population quadrupled and by 1915 it had reached three million. Today, Finland has just over five million inhabitants, 60 percent of whom live in urban areas. Most are concentrated in the south and southwest, including the capital region of Helsinki. Despite such demographic growth, Finland remains one of the most sparsely populated countries of Europe.

Finland recognizes two official languages: Finnish and Swedish. The Swedish-speaking Finns comprise about 6 percent of the population. In the past, the proportion of Swedish-speakers was much higher, about 14 percent at the outset of the twentieth century. In present-day Finland, Swedish is mainly spoken along the southern and western coasts as well as on the Åland Islands. Notwithstanding the presence of Swedish-speakers and other smaller groups (Sami/Lapps and Roma/Gypsies), Finland remains one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries of Europe.

Homogeneity also characterizes Finnish religious life. The pre-Christian Finns practised a pantheistic nature religion and were guided by shamans. The Roman Catholic Church came to Finland in the twelfth century from Sweden. About the same time the Orthodox Church was converting Finns in the eastern part of historic Finland known as Karelia. During the Reformation in the early 1500s, Finland together with other Scandinavian countries became wholly Lutheran and a strong state-church emerged. In addition to spiritual leadership, the Lutheran Church was responsible for education, health, and social services, and it functioned as the local government in rural regions. It was only in 1870 that church and local government were separated and public schools became independent of the church. Today, 87 percent of the Finns belong, at least nominally, to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which continues to be the official state church of Finland. Only 1 percent of Finns are Orthodox and 2 percent belong to dozens of other religious groups. While the last hundred years have witnessed a strong secularization in society, the majority of Finns attend Lutheran church functions at least during rites of passage.

The history of Finland can be divided into three main periods that reflect the political status of the country: the Swedish era (1155–1809), the Russian era (1809–1917), and the era of independent statehood (1917– ). Throughout all three eras, Finland has been a meeting place between eastern and western traditions and cultures. When the first state structures arose in the region during the eleventh century, Finland was squeezed between two powerful countries, the Rus’ city-state of Novgorod in the east and Sweden in the west. In 1155 Finland was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sweden and for the next four centuries Swedish rule was entrenched in southern Finland and part of the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. During the century after 1560, Swedish control was extended farther into northern Finland and eastward into Karelia along the western and northern shores of Lake Ladoga.

During the Swedish period, Finland adopted the Scandinavian legal and social systems, and Swedish became the language of culture, education, and government. Sweden’s domination of the Baltic region came to an end following its defeat by Russia in the Great Northern War (1700–21). Although it was forced to cede some Finnish territory (including Karelia) to Russia, Sweden managed to hold on to the rest of Finland. Nevertheless, military conflict between Sweden and Russia continued throughout the eighteenth century and the Finns suffered greatly during the invasion of their territory by tsarist Russian troops. Swedish rule did not end in Finland until the Napoleonic era, when in 1809 Russia defeated Swedish forces and their Finnish peasant allies.

As part of the Russian Empire, Finland (including Karelia) was granted the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy. The country was allowed to keep its Lutheran religion and its Western-style laws and government. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Finnish patriots were swept up by romantic nationalism, which strengthened the position of the Finnish language. A major achievement of the movement was the publication by Elias Lönnrot of the first version of Kalevala (1835), a collection of mythological poems of epic proportion. The stirring verse of Johan Ludvig Runeberg transformed him into Finland’s national poet, although the mood of the nationalistic Finns was perhaps best expressed by the composer Jean Sibelius in his several symphonies and passionate tone poem, Finlandia (1899).

The peaceful co-existence with Russia began to deteriorate during the reigns of the empire’s last two tsars, Alexander III (1881–94) and Nicholas II (1894–1917). They implemented restrictive legislation to curb Finnish autonomy and ordered the conscription of Finnish men into the Russian military. Rather than submit to the russification of their country, the Grand Duchy turned rebellious, and, in the wake of Russia’s revolutionary disturbances of 1905 and a revolt by the Finns, the autonomous duchy set up a democratic parliament in 1907 chosen by universal suffrage. The experiment was short-lived and the Russian imperial government restored its authority in Finland by the imposition of a military dictatorship.

During the chaotic period of the Russian Revolution which resulted in the end of tsarist rule, the Finns declared their independence on 6 December 1917. The euphoria of independence soon evaporated, however. Internal divisions between Finnish socialists and conservatives resulted in a bitter and bloody civil war between the two camps during the winter of 1918. The government forces, commonly known as the “White Guard,” were led by Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim and emerged victorious in May 1918 with some aid from Germany. After the war, widespread persecution, imprisonment, and the execution of socialists who fought in the “Red Guard” tarnished the newly independent state and left long-lasting scars.

Nevertheless, the independence of Finland was secured and the new government set out to overcome the shortcomings of tsarist rule and the hatred caused by the recent civil war. A land-distribution program favoured by the socialists was introduced and successfully broke up the old landed estates; the debate about language was resolved with the recognition of both Finnish and Swedish; and a dispute with Sweden over control of the Åland Islands was settled by the League of Nations in Finland’s favour.

Finland was less successful in reaching agreements with its eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union, with whom relations broke down just after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. On 30 November, the Soviet Union launched an attack on Finland which resulted in the so-called Winter War. Despite their heroic defence, the Finns were forced to capitulate and in March 1940 to cede several borderland territories, including Karelia along the western shore of Lake Ladoga, to the Soviet Union. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Finland allied with the Germans against their eastern enemy. The defeat of Germany at the war’s end confirmed the permanent loss of former Finnish territory to the Soviet Union. Over 400,000 refugees from Karelia were resettled in post-war Finland, with the result that the Karelian Isthmus between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, and its centre of Vyborg (Finnish: Viipuri), lost permanently its age-old Finnish character.

After the war Finland embarked upon a policy of friendly relations with the Soviet Union. A treaty signed in 1948 called for mutual assistance between the two countries, which included the payment of huge reparations by Finland to its wartime enemy. Although Finland joined the United Nations and the Nordic Council, by tacit agreement between the superpowers it was to remain unaligned to either the “democratic” West or the “Communist” East.

After World War II, neutral Finland experienced rapid urbanization and industrialization. Strong economic growth coupled with progressive social welfare legislation has afforded the Finns one of the best standards of living in the world. In 1995, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union.