Popular movements prepared Finns for social activism and self-improvement

The growth of popular movements in the late 19th and early 20th century coincides with the rapid transformation of Finnish society. The inhabitants of Finland became aware of their nationality and citizenship.

Popular movements or people’s movements refer to social movements created spontaneously by people themselves without guidance or supervision from the authorities or the church. They played a crucial role in the emergence of active citizenship during the last decades of Russian rule. In the early 20th century, the range of social movements covered all areas of life from religion to cooperative activities. Among the most important popular movements were revivalist, women’s, youth, cooperative, temperance, labour, and sports movements.

All popular movements had the temperance aspect in common. The Finnish movement, which was born out of the aspirations of the 19th century intelligentsia, contributed to the emergence of popular movements and shaped their ideologies. The Swedish-language movements, which were created to counterbalance the Finnish popular movements, strengthened the identity of the language minority.

The activities of popular movements, in the early stages in particular, were largely defined by the aspirations of the so-called intelligentsia. However, common people were not just passive recipients in the popular movements, but participated in local activities from the outset. There were tensions within and between popular movements, which affected both local communities and society at large.

 From the 18th century, the first signs of societal change were religious revival movements. They placed emphasis on both individuality and communality in a new way. The birth of secular social movements in the 1860s coincided with a wider social transformation, national unification and emergence of a market economy. The founding of associations was progressively made easier during the reign of Alexander II and was fairly simple, especially from the beginning of the 1880s until the end of the 1890s. It then became more difficult again, as Russification measures increased.

International roots of national movements

Popular movements evolved in close interaction with international ideological currents. The oldest popular movements, i.e. the religious revival movements, had their international counterparts in German and English movements, which emphasised individual faith. The new religious books and spiritual songs reached Finland quickly.

The significance of international factors was different in different popular movements. The gymnastics and sports movement was almost entirely built on influences from outside Finland, which were then given a national interpretation and meaning. The labour movement emphasised that the position of the working population was similar in all countries and sought to be seen as an international social movement. The youth movement seemed purely national with its rural origins, but it was heavily contributed to by modernisation and rising levels of education on the one hand, and imported cultural phenomena, such as sports, on the other hand.

The rise of popular movements in Finland is not only about building a nation but also about the rapid adoption and interpretation of international influences. An example and a benchmark was often provided by the Nordic countries, where the formation of civil society advanced quickly in the 19th century. There were large popular movements in Germany, too. One of these was the gymnastics movement, which had emerged at the beginning of the 19th century. The gymnasts founded the Deutsche Turnerbund organisation in 1848. In 1862, choristers founded their Deutsche Sängerbund and the sharpshooter movement was established.

However, the international influences could not have had permanent effects in Finland had they not contributed to the rise of the nation.

Popular movements and the nationality movement

Underlying the popular movements was the nationality movement, which in Finland was born later than in Western Europe but earlier than in most East European countries. In terms of class structure, Finland resembled Scandinavia, unlike the rest of the Russian Empire. Due to the independent status of farmers, the upper class did not have total control over land ownership, which is why its power and authority was weaker than in Russia or in most parts of Austria-Hungary. Finland was also a much stronger political entity than, for example, the Baltic countries even before Alexander II started regular parliamentary activity.

Due to the large size of the Finnish-speaking rural population (75–80 per cent of the population), it was wise for the upper class to adopt or at least accept the language and culture of the majority of the people. Strengthening the Finnish-language culture helped strengthen Finland’s separatist role in the Russian Empire and weakened the position of Swedish-language culture, thus alienating Finland from Sweden, which was in line with Russian aspirations.

As the Finnish nationality movement expanded in the late 19th century, it increasingly relied on the support of peasants and clergy. At the same time, it was increasingly the common people, instead of the intelligentsia, who defined Finnishness. The youth movement in particular, as well as the sports movement to some extent, were built on local interpretations of Finnishness based on groundwork carried out by the elite. Finnishness was also defined by the labour movement, which was balancing between the national and international.

Fennoman and Svecoman movements

The elite of the Finnish nationality movement found new goals at the end of the 19th century. The principal aim of the new Finnish-language elite, or the so-called Fennomans, was to strengthen the status of the Finnish language and culture. The still-evolving language needed new vocabulary for all walks of life. In economy, the goal was to create Finnish capital and enterprises to supplement and replace Swedish capital and enterprises.

The Swedish movement, which emerged in response to the Finnish movement, sought support from the Swedish-speaking coastal population. The most ardent defenders of the Swedish language, the so-called Svecomans, believed that the Swedish-speaking population descended from a Scandinavian race better than the Finnish people.

As the position of the Finnish-language culture strengthened, the Swedish-language movement underwent a transformation into a conservative movement which focused on defending the rights and existence of the smaller language group. Between the two nationality movements there existed a liberalist movement, which sought to enable a bilingual coexistence of the two language groups.

Popular movements increase Finland’s visibility

The three levels of popular movements – local, provincial and national – changed the perception of Finland. The national organisations almost always had the word “Finland” or “Finnish” in their names. For their part, the popular movements strengthened the perception of Finland as a cultural and state entity in its own right. During the Russification period, the importance of popular movements increased and their operating environment remained good and even improved e.g. in the case of the cooperative movement.

The popular movements were closely associated with public education measures. The movements organised courses for their members and, from the 1890s onwards, founded their own folk high schools after Danish examples. In this way, the popular movements also received eager and qualified activists. The small libraries set up by local associations of popular movements formed the basis for the library institution, especially in rural areas. Many youth clubs, temperance societies and workers’ associations had libraries containing a few hundred books.

The activities of the Swedish-language popular movements were similar to those of the Finnish movements. Among other goals, the Swedish-language movements focused on the preservation of their own language, for which the popular movements provided a good platform.

Active individuals were involved in several popular movements

Many people participated in the activities of several different popular movements, especially at the early stages. The popular movements were not isolated actors, but had a significant influence on each other. The temperance movement promoted total abstinence, which also became part of the agenda of the youth, labour and sports movements. The sports movement initially developed within other popular movements, but as it expanded and adopted more specialised objectives, it became a separate movement in its own right. From the 1890s onwards, the cooperative movement developed alongside the youth, temperance and labour movements.

One of the core ideas of popular movements was the ideal of self-education as part of a larger whole. For conservative organisations, the education served the needs of the state, and for the labour movement, it served the needs of the international working class. Organisation on a large scale increased the number of people interested in social affairs. Risto Alapuro and Henrik Stenius even go so far as to say that the popular movements made the nation.

Citizenship redefined

Increased civic activity led to a redefinition of the relationship between the state and the members of society. Within the Russian Empire there gradually developed an island of civil society whose inhabitants were officially subjects of the Empire and unofficially Finnish citizens who also had rights. The emergence of civil society also affected the state, as “the organisations and movements formally independent of the state created new kinds of social practices, while at the same time expanding the state’s sphere of activity and building a new kind of state.”

From the beginning, the popular movements had a close relationship with Finnish society and also with the state. The labour movement had its international dimension but for the majority of the working population it could also be understood nationally and locally. The labour movement did not want to take a stand on the language question even though it could not be avoided in everyday life. Officially, the Swedish-language labour movement was part of the general labour movement.

In the early stages, women participated in popular movements together with men. The number of separate women’s organisations increased after the 1905 general strike. However, women’s role remained significant particularly in the youth and labour movements.