At the Well blog


The myth of a culturally homogeneous Finland feeds racism

As is the case with all nationalist constructions, also the notion of Finnishness (suomalaisuus) is surrounded by common assumptions that masquerade as self-evident, writes Miika Tervonen, winner of the Vuoden Tiedekynä 2017 award.

In my article Historiankirjoitus ja myytti yhden kulttuurin Suomesta” (“Historiography and the myth of a monocultural Finland”), I discuss one such “self-evident truth”: the idea of the Finns as a culturally (or even racially) exceptionally homogeneous people. The idea of a monocultural Finland is a central myth that frames our national self-understanding, and is reflected in public discourses and in the way in which we imagine ourselves and our society.

However, the idea of a culturally homogeneous Finland is not only a myth, but also an increasingly dangerous one. It legitimises xenophobia and tints our increasingly diverse everyday life with echoes of early 20th century racial thought. It excludes from the notion of Finnishness people who in many cases have been here for generations, centuries – or even millennia.

On the centennial of the Finnish independence, it is high time to face this myth and rid ourselves of it.

As a researcher of ethnic relations and migration, I have argued – along with many others – that Finland has never been the land of “one language and one mind” that it is commonly imagined to be. Or, as Koko Hubara puts it in her book Ruskeat Tytöt (“Brown Girls”) when speaking of racialized Finnish people: “We have always been here”.

Finland has an unbroken history of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity and migration. As far as research goes, much of this story is already well known. The Finnish economy and cities were international from their early beginnings, and subsequent industrialization based on Scottish, German, Swiss, Swedish, and Russian capital and know-how. In the 1870s, fewer than one in three people living in Helsinki spoke Finnish as their native language.

Also rural communities were far from isolated. Swedish was spoken along the coast, Karelian and Ingrian dialects on the eastern border, and Sami and Meänkieli in the North. Goods and services were circulated from house to house by mobile Roma families, Karelian and Russian traders, Italian organ grinders, and Tatar carpet sellers. After the latter established their religious community in 1925, Finland became one of the first countries in Europe to have an Islamic congregation recognised by the state. (The Jewish minority had already had a synagogue in Helsinki since the 1870s.)

Even people who spoke different dialects of Finnish were not carved from the same tree. People from the eastern and western parts of Finland are drastically different from each other in terms of genetics and history, and the further back in time you go, the more fragmented the picture becomes. The surnames that became more common from the 1600s onwards also point to continuous movement of people: alongside the common Finnish Virtanen and Mäkelä were the equally ordinary Virolainen (“Estonian”), Venäläinen (“Russian”), Ruotsalainen (“Swedish”), Tanskanen (“Danish”), Lappalainen (“Lappish”), and many others.

And yet we continue to see Finland and particularly its past as static, ethnically homogeneous and colour blind. Why?

The premise of my article is that the idea of Finland as a homogeneous country has a political history. In the late 1800s, the nation state was being built in Finland, as in many other countries, through simplification and juxtaposition. The idea of a unified people became an important part of the Fennoman ideology.

Under the external pressure of Russification, ethnic and linguistic diversity became politicized and problematized in a new way. Senate underwent debates on the “language question”, “Romani question”, and “Jewish question”. Efforts to reduce diversity were visible for example in attempts to assimilate the Romani and Sami people, in popular waves of changing surnames into more “Finnish” ones, and in expulsions of Russians and Jews.

The educated elite “invented” the Finnish people in order to provide the emerging new state with a basis of legitimacy. As they did so, the past and origins of this people became subjects of intense intellectual interest. From this angle, I was interested in my own profession, the historians. I studied the ways in which Finnishness was constructed in the authoritative general surveys of Finnish history, from late 19th century onwards.

What followed was a surprising observation: most general histories hardly even addressed the question of who the Finnish people actually were. From Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen’s Finlands historia (1874) onwards, one scholar after another wrote about the history of Finland as a self-evident national continuum, despite centuries of Swedish and Russian reign.

The Finnish people and its assumed ethno-linguistic unity was, then, largely in-between the lines (or perhaps rather on the covers of the books, embroidered with ancient-looking lion figures – a reference to imagined past glories). Through the framing of the general histories, an impression was created of the Finnish history as a kind of a biography of a people defined by language and ethnicity. Because this history was written in singular, ethnic diversity did not fit into it. This despite the fact that language in which many of the general histories were written was Swedish (and that the ‘great men’ highlighted as historical actors often had a relationship with “the people” that was tenuous to say the least).

I was thus faced with the conceptual flexibility of the excluding “national gaze”. The same was true for racial thinking. Geographic location in the border zone between the East and the West in international theories limited the popularity of racial theories in Finland. Nevertheless, in the inter-war period, the notion of a homogeneous people began to be increasingly framed in terms of biology. While the concepts of ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’ acted as proxies for ‘race’, ‘Finnishness’ appeared increasingly as an in-born characteristic, an organic whole composed of language, culture and hereditary features.

In the end, the conceptions of Finnishness of most of the historians I studied was characterized by what could be described as ‘ordinary’ exceptionalism – the nationalist tendency to see one’s own nation as standing radically apart from others. Elementally connected to this was essentialism, with its tendency to imagine ‘people’ as clearly delineated and bounded units, regardless of the fussiness, change and constant border-crossing of real life. Finally, a third ism, racism, became increasingly prominent, with its framework of racial and cultural hierarchies.

All these features continue to make their presence felt in contemporary debates on Finnishness – whether between the lines or on them. The half-automatic tendency to imagine Finland as a land of one people, one culture and one language is a problem, however.

The notion of a homogeneously Finnish Finland is not a truthful depiction of our society, nor has it ever been so. Along with global immigration, the myth of a homogeneous Finnish culture is increasingly at odds with reality, and consequently produces increasing problems. On the most evident and acute level, these problems are felt by those excluded by the notion of Finnishness defined by whiteness and Finnish language. More generally, however, the problem concerns all of us, who wish to understand ourselves accurately, and to build a genuinely equal society. It is high time to move on to a more open and realistic notion of Finnishness.


Miika Tervonen

Miika Tervonen is a historian and social scientist from the Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki. Tervonen, who has the title of Docent in Nordic Studies, has focused in his research on ethnic relations, migratory movements and their control, as well as nationalism.