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Finland's traces of human settlement date back to the thaw of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. The Finns' ancestors seem to have dominated half of northern Russia before arriving on the north of the Baltic coast well before the Christian era. By the end of the Viking Age, Swedish traders and chieftains had extended their interests throughout the Baltic region. Over the centuries, Finland has sat precariously between the Protestant Swedish empire and Eastern Orthodox Russia. For seven centuries, from the 12th century until 1809, it was part of Sweden.

Finland was blighted by constant battles with Russia, and severe famines. From 1696-97, famine killed a third of all Finns. The 1700s were punctuated by bitter wars against Russia, culminating in the eventual loss of Finland to Russia in 1809. With nationalism beginning to surge during the latter half of the 19th century, Finland gained greater autonomy as a Grand Duchy, though new oppression and Russification followed, making Finns emotionally ripe for independence.

The downfall of the tsar of Russia, and the Communist revolution in 1917, made it possible for the Finnish senate to declare independence on 6 December 1917. Demoralising internal violence flared up, with Russian-supported 'Reds' clashing with nationalist 'Whites' who took the German state as their model. During 108 days of a bloody civil war, approximately 30,000 Finns were killed by their fellow citizens. Although the Whites were victorious, Germany's weakened position after WWI discredited it as a political model and relations with the Soviet Union were soon normalised. Political salves did little to heal the wounds of civil war, however, and stories of 'peacetime' massacres are still emerging from these dark days of Finnish history.

Further anticommunist violence broke out early in the 1930s and, despite the signing of a nonaggression pact in 1932, Soviet relations remained uneasy. The Soviet Union's security concerns in the Finnish Karelian territory led to the Winter War in 1939. After months of courageous fighting, Finland lost part of Karelia and some nearby islands. Isolated from Western allies, Finland turned to Germany for help and slowly began to resettle Karelia, including some areas that had been in Russian possession since the 18th century. When Soviet forces staged a huge comeback in the summer of 1944, the Finns sued for peace. Finland pursued a bitter war to oust German forces from Lapland until the general peace in the spring of 1945. Finland's war experience was not only an enormous military defeat, it was an economic disaster because of the burden of reparations imposed by the Soviets.

A weakened Finland took a new line in its Soviet relations, ceding the Karelian Isthmus and agreeing to recognise Soviet security concerns in defending its frontiers. The 25 years of Urho Kekkonen's presidency (1956-81) were a clever balancing act: Kekkonen kept a tight grip on domestic power, and managed to strengthen ties with Scandinavian siblings without alienating the big huggy bear to the east.

The collapse of the Soviet Union came at a difficult time for Finland. Its right foot - bogged in the free market - had to endure the late-1980s slump, and its left foot - tied up by Soviet borrowings - encountered the dissolution of its debtor. Due to Finland's generous social security payments, sudden rises in unemployment put intolerable pressure on government finances. In the 1990s Finland's overheated economy went through a cooling off period marked by the floating of the Finn markka. The currency devalued by around 25%. Finland voted to join the European Union in late 1994 and became a full member in 1995. In the 1995 elections a Social Democrat-dominated coalition ousted the right-wing coalition. In February 2000, Finns elected their first ever female president - left-leaning Tarja Halonen.


Tove Jansson, the author of the Moominland stories, probably has the highest international profile among contemporary Finns, although you cannot escape the design work of Alvar Aalto in public buildings, towns and furniture. Jean Sibelius, one of the greatest of modern composers, wrote recognisably Finnish pieces for the glorification of his people and in defiance of the Russian oppressors. Sibelius and the nationalistic painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela fell under the spell of Karelianism, a movement going back to the folk songs Elias Lönnrot compiled for the national epic, the Kalevala in the 1830s. The Kalevala is an epic mythology that includes creation stories and the fight between good and evil. Aleksis Kivi founded modern Finnish literature with Seven Brothers, a story of brothers who try to escape education and civilisation in favour of the forest.

Finnish is a Uralic language and belongs to the Finno-Ugric group. It is closely related to Estonian and Karelian, and has common origins with Samoyed and the languages spoken in the Volga basin. The most widely spoken of the Finno-Ugric languages is Hungarian, but similarities with Finnish are few. With 6% of the population speaking Swedish, Finland is officially a bilingual country. Finlandssvenska, or 'Finland's Swedish', is very similar to the language spoken in Sweden, but local dialects have many Finnish words.

Finnish food has elements of both Swedish and Russian cuisines, but with a lot of variations and local specialities. Potato is the staple food, served with various fish or meat sauces. Some traditional meals include game: try snow grouse, reindeer stew, glowfired salmon or raw pickled salmon. Strong beers, wines and spirits are sold in licensed bars and restaurants and by the state network, aptly named Alko. Coupled with strict import restrictions, this makes alcohol prices prohibitively high and merry-making a serious business. Finnish humour often ties in the locals' love of a tipple with their legendary reticence to make small talk. This is demonstrated in the joke below, which features the stoic Finnish heroes, Pekka and Toivonen.

One day Pekka and Toivonen meet after a long time apart and they go to a sauna in the woods. They drink vodka for a couple of hours. Pekka asks how Toivonen has been doing. Toivonen says nothing, but continues drinking for a couple of hours. Then, slowly, he replies: 'Did we come here to babble, or did we come here to drink?'

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