When did Finland become independent?

When we talk about Finland gaining independence, we must distinguish five separate processes: (1) the de facto severance of the Finnish-Russian state connection; (2) Finland’s declarations of independence; (3) the reorganisation of the powers wielded by the Russian sovereign, i.e. the adoption of the constitution of Finland with regard to the mutual relations of the highest state institutions; (4) international recognition of Finland’s independence; and (5) consolidation of the de facto authority of the legitimate government of Finland, meaning, firstly, the expulsion of Russian troops from the country and, secondly, the consolidation of a democratic social order by defeating the socialist revolution in a civil war. Finnish independence is about 100 years old but the Finnish state institutions are about 200 years old and the Finnish language is at least 2,000 years old.

Sweden lost its easterns provinces to Russia in 1809. Russia turned these provinces, populated by a largely Finnish-speaking people, into the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Finland had its own senate (government), ministries, state budget and other independent administrative structures. From the 1860s onward, the four-estate Diet of Finland participated in the legislative process and, in 1905–1907, Finland got its own political government and democratic parliament.

Finland had developed a strong identity over the centuries. The established forms of jurisdiction, administrative structures, local government and parliamentarism made Finland a Nordic society. Finnish, the language of the common people, had become an official language, and education was available to all – from primary schools to universities.

Russification of Finland

Starting from the 1890s, Russia sought to eradicate the autonomy of Finland through its Russification policy, which caused friction between Finland and Russia. Finland’s autonomous government was almost abolished when the World War broke out in 1914. Finland became a Russian war camp, ruled by the local representative of Emperor Nicholas II, Governor-General F. A. Seyn, with dictatorial powers. Finland had no military of its own and its inhabitants were not forced to go to war, but the Grand Duchy participated in the war effort by paying an extra tax, so-called military millions. On the other hand, the Finnish economy benefited from Russian war supplies orders and fortification works carried out to fend off a potential German landing.

In the 1916 parliamentary elections, the Social Democratic Party had won a majority in the parliament with 103 seats out 200, but the parliament had not been convened. Socialism was seeking to free the people, but it divided the people into an owning class and a deprived class. The means to liberate the deprived masses included peaceful expansion of democracy and gradual parliamentary reforms. However, some socialists believed that only a quick armed revolution could overthrow the owning class.

March revolution and Finland

Thus arrived March 1917. Nicholas II, Emperor of war-stricken Russia, was pressurised to stand down. He was replaced by a liberalist provisional government led by Prince Lvov. The provisional government removed all restrictions to the Finnish autonomy on 20 March. This revived the Finnish governmental institutions practically overnight. A Senate was formed, which consisted of representatives of all parties and was led by Socialist Oskari Tokoi. The parliament was convened. Finland sought the widest possible autonomy, but still as part of the Russian Empire.

In April and May 1917, the Tokoi Senate and the Russian provisional government negotiated on Finland’s status. However, the Social Democratic Party, inspired by revolutionary ideas, stopped cooperating and, in July, passed the so-called Power Bill, which enabled the parliament to adopt all political power, except for foreign policy and military matters. This was clear separatism, denounced by the Russian government, which dissolved the Finnish parliament and ordered new elections to take place in October. Russian grain deliveries to Finland came to an end, and a serious food shortage quickly emerged.

Tokoi’s coalition Senate broke up in August, when the socialists resigned from government. The socialists did not approve of the dissolution of the parliament and the party became increasingly radicalised. In the new elections in early October, the socialists were left with a small minority (93 out of 200 seats). The SDP and trade unions presented the Senate with an ultimatum for food and, on 20 October, called upon the organised labour to set up armed Red Guards in all municipalities. Units of armed militia were also being organised on the non-socialist side. The country was quickly becoming divided into two opposing sides.

Severance of state connection on 7 November 1917

The de facto severance of the Finnish-Russian state connection took place on 7 November 1917. In the morning, Prime Minister E. N. Setälä announced that the state connection between Finland and Russia had been severed. Until then, the Finnish government institutions had recognised the authority of Russia’s head of state in Finland, but after Setälä’s announcement, they did not do so anymore. Setälä, who was a Young Finn, had become Prime Minister, i.e. Vice-Chairman of the Senate Finance Department, after Tokoi in early September. Setälä’s announcement may be regarded as Finland’s first declaration of independence. After that, there were discussions in Finland about the form of government, i.e. who or which body would wield the “supreme power”, in other words, the powers that had belonged to the Emperor-Grand Duke and, after him, the Russian provisional government. Setälä had made his announcement knowing that the government led by Alexander Kerensky in St. Petersburg was losing its power.

On 10 November 1917, Setälä called for a meeting of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers of the parliament. On their motion, the parliament decided to attach the “supreme power” to three State Regents. The parliament’s decision confirmed Setälä’s de facto declaration of independence. The three State Regents were supposed to be: Tokoi, a socialist and ex-Prime Minister; P. E. Svinhufvud, a Young Finn and Procurator (Chancellor of Justice); and Santeri Alkio, author and editor, Chairman of the Agrarian League.

However, Tokoi refused to accept the duties of State Regent and, consequently, Alkio did the same. Therefore, on 15 November 1917, the parliament decided that it itself would wield the “supreme power” in Finland “for the time being”. Having thus adopted the powers of the head of state the parliament confirmed the bills on democratic municipal elections and eight-hour working day. But already on the night of that same day, the socialists decided to launch a revolution to achieve the goal of the general strike which had started the day before: to overthrow the social order based on free elections and market economy. However, they were unable to form a revolutionary government, and the strike came to an end on 18 November. The subversive and violent strike caused the non-socialist parties to abandon efforts to form a coalition government together with the socialists.

On 27 November 1917, the non-socialist majority of the parliament elected the senator list topped by P. E. Svinhufvud. The goals of the government programme included the implementation of independence, which is why people started to call the cabinet the “Independence Senate”.

On 4 December 1917, the Svinhufvud Senate presented the parliament with a declaration of independence, which the parliament approved on 6 December 1917, authorising the government to seek recognition for the independence from foreign powers. In 1919, the latter date was selected as the day of celebration of independence.

Soviet Russia recognised Finland’s independence

On 31 December 1917, the Russian Council of People’s Commissars recognised the independence of Finland by promising to take the decision to be ratified by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Russian Workers’ and Military Councils. As Sweden had refused to recognise Finland’s independence before Russia, Svinhufvud’s government turned to Russia. Finland’s request for recognition of independence was first addressed to the Russian Constituent Assembly, which had been elected in November, but the Bolsheviks, who had seized power in the country, did not accept the request.

After that, the request was addressed to the Russian government, but the Bolsheviks rejected that, too. The third request was addressed to the Council of People’s Commissars, led by V. I. Lenin. Already before that, the Finnish socialists had had talks with the Bolsheviks about the recognition of Finland’s independence. At the same time, Lenin’s government was in the middle of peace talks with Germany, which helped the Finnish independence cause.

The All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Russian Workers’ and Military Councils ratified the Soviet government’s decision on 4 January 1918, after which Sweden and France recognised Finland’s independence. Germany announced its recognition two days later, but their recognition document was dated on the same day. However, the First World War was not over. Great Britain and the United States, who were waging war against Germany, did not recognise Finland’s independence until May 1919.

Ensuring sovereignty

Despite the foreign powers’ recognitions of the Finnish independence, the Svinhufvud government still faced many problems. The most important of these was ensuring sovereignty, i.e. ensuring government control over the Finnish territory. In January 1918, there were still some 75,000 Russian troops in Finland who were in many ways implicated in the country’s internal power struggle. The Finnish government did not have an army of its own, not even a police force. On 12 January 1918, the parliament authorised the Senate to establish forces that would uphold law and order in the country, meaning both a police force and an army. With that decision, the parliament in practice founded independent Finland’s defence forces.

Another problem was the social order. The Red Guards, supported by the SDP and trade unions, were again preparing for an armed revolution. The rebellion started on 26 January 1918 when the socialists overthrew the parliament and the legitimately elected Svinhufvud government. A bloody civil war ensued. It ended on 29 April 1918, as the Svinhufvud government’s troops marched into Vyborg, the rebels’ last major stronghold in southeastern Finland. The question of social order was resolved, as democracy and market economy won. The last of the Russian troops left Finnish territory on 14 May. The government troops’ victory parade took place in Helsinki on 16 May 1918 under the leadership of the troops’ commander-in-chief, General Gustaf Mannerheim.

The question of “supreme power”

At the request of Finland and to further its own interests, Germany had carried out an intervention in Finland at the beginning of April 1918. The German intervention liberated Helsinki from the grip of the Reds and helped bring the civil war to an end. At the same time, it meant that Finland became dependent on Germany.

The “supreme power” was held by the parliament, which thus was both the legislator and head of state. On 18 May 1918, the Senate Chairman, Svinhufvud, was elected to wield the supreme power – for the time being. Finland was to be made a constitutional monarchy like the rest of the Nordic countries. The country was to be ruled by a German king. To that end, Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse was elected to the throne at the beginning of October 1918. As Germany was defeated only a month later in the First World War, Frederick Charles renounced the throne.

German troops left Finland in December. The Finnish government and the State Regent Svinhufvud resigned. General Gustaf Mannerheim, who had been commander-in-chief of the government troops in spring, was elected State Regent in December. His main task was to build relations with the Entente Powers. Great Britain and the United States recognised Finland’s independence in May 1919.

In July 1919, Finland’s form of government was confirmed to be a republic. The head of state would be the president, who would be elected every six years by an electoral college consisting of 300 electors. The president was given great powers: the right to dissolve the parliament, appoint the government, be in charge of foreign policy, act as commander-in-chief of the Defence Forces and appoint the highest officials. It was not until the year 2000 that the presidential powers were reduced in the new constitution and Finland adopted a fully parliamentarian system.

Many issues had remained unresolved between Finland and the Soviet Russia. Finns sought to expand their territory beyond the eastern border and made several semi-official armed excursions there. The two countries eventually reached an agreement on the mutual borders and debts on 14 October 1920 with the Tartu Peace Treaty, which entered into force on 31 December 1920.