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Independence Day

Galas, protests & war memories
This Saturday Finland celebrates 97 years of independence. The glittering Presidential Reception may steal the limelight each year on December 6, but memories of Finland’s hard-earned struggle to retain its independence linger just under the surface.

For Finns, Independence Day is not a time for fireworks and jubilation, but for serious reflection and gratitude for those who fought to keep Finland a united and sovereign nation.

In this special feature, Yle News highlights the ball and all of its glamour, but also moves back in time to shine a light into the dim recesses of Finnish history, examining the genesis of the Independence Day celebrations and highlighting vignettes from the past that have come to define how Finns see themselves as a people today.

The Presidential Reception attracts Finns to their televisions like moths to the fire – it has been the number one TV event of the year for the past decade, attracting close to two million viewers from a population of some five and a half million.

The ball is not only the most-watched event of the year, but it also the most talked-about event in Finland for the next month. What names were included on the guest list and why? Who had the most beautiful gown? Who snubbed the dress code? Which guest got into hijinks after drinking too much of the punch? These and other equally pressing questions keep the glossy magazines and gossip columns in business for the entire month of December every year.

Colourful MP Pertti "Veltto" Virtanen makes a memorable entrance

How Finland came to be an independent state

In 1809 Finland passed from Swedish to Russian rule, and the seeds of independence were sown. The largely Swedish-speaking elites began to assert their difference and identity as an autonomous part of the empire, and that opened opportunities for a greater level of freedom.

Laura Kolbe, Professor of European History at the University of Helsinki, says that Finland’s special status as a Grand Duchy within the Russian system gave it an edge.

“The rule of law and administration, a remnant of the Swedish reign, were an integral part of the Finnish identity and culture. Municipal and state affairs were steered by the Finnish people, who were educated here at the university. So in effect we had a very independent political and administrative system which was of course linked with St Petersburg. This autonomous structure was unique in the Russian Empire,” says Kolbe.

Finland declared itself independent in 1917, shortly after revolution broke out in Russia. Despite the solid administrative systems that were in place, there was glaring disagreement about who should run the fledgling country and how. On January 27, 1918, the Finnish Civil War began, pitting the working class socialist Reds against conservative peasants and nobility united under the banner of the Whites. Kolbe explains the events that led up to the tragic confrontation:

“Internally, the country had a strong working class movement, so there was of course also political tension between the bourgeois society and the Socialist movement. The movement was very much inspired by what was happening in St Petersburg, beginning in 1905 when the general strike affected the Finnish political climate dramatically.”

Swedish crusades bring Christianity to Finland.
Finland becomes part of the Swedish realm.
Finland is ceded to Russia by the Swedes, although the Finns retain a considerable amount of autonomy.
Helsinki becomes the capital of the country.
Russian Tsar Nicholas II starts Russification effort in Finland. Civil disobedience begins.
General strike across the Russian Empire, including Finland. Socialist agitators form the Red Guard, while liberals ponder reforms.
Parliament of Finland is formed, replacing the Diet of Finland and the Four Estates.
Finland declares independence.
Finland fights a bitter Civil War in which the leftist Red Guard is put down by the conservative Whites, as led by General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.
Finland becomes a republic with Kaarlo Ståhlberg as the first president.
The Soviet Union invades, sparking the Winter War. Finland loses some territory but remains independent.
Finland is a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany in the Continuation War.
Finland declares war on Germany, pushing Wehrmacht troops out of Lapland.

What Finland chooses to remember
and what it chooses to forget

In celebrations of Finnish independence, the country largely stays quiet silent about the Finnish Civil War that followed independence in 1918. Some 37,000 people died in the war, out of a total population of 3 million. The divisive chapter of Finnish history has left many scars.

The white-run civil guard then became an important institution across the country, a visible reminder and at times enforcer of the divides that opened up after independence.

Rare video footage of Helsinki during the Finnish Civil War in 1918, with commentary from University of Helsinki history professor Laura Kolbe.

“Partly when it comes to the memorization of 1918, you can still see that there is the White memory and the Red memory,” says Laura Kolbe.

“The dramatic result of the Civil War was that the Socialist and Communist movement was pushed underground for almost 25 years, meaning the Red memories weren’t allowed to be spoken.”

“So in practice Finland was a White, right-wing country during the 20s and 30s, and this created a deep division. Also, when it comes to individual family histories, there are a lot of painful memories.”

This divide manifested itself in separate sport clubs, community centres and even grocery stalls that were aligned with one political group or the other.

“In practice after the Second World War, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the main aim in creating the welfare state was to try and overcome the gap in society between the Reds and Whites and unite the people through education and welfare. You could say this was a success story of sorts.”

Laura Kolbe explains why the Winter War and the film The Unknown Soldier have become such a large part of Finnish Independence Day commemorations today.

The Unknown Soldier

For over a decade now, a movie adaptation of 1955 version of The Unknown Soldier has also been a part of Finnish Independence Day. The film is based on Finnish author Väinö Linna's iconic novel, a story about the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union in World War II, as told from the viewpoint of ordinary Finnish soldiers.

The film brought difficult themes to the fore in post-war Finland, at times contradicting a heroic narrative about the conflict. For that it was criticised and some editions were censored, but ordinary Finns made it a huge hit. It’s now a national classic—and an integral part of Independence Day.

For years the movie was shown on Yle in the afternoon, before the President’s Reception was scheduled to begin, but in 2012 a recommendation banning violent content on television during hours that children were watching forced Yle to push the broadcast back to five pm. After several complaints, the film’s showing time was pushed even farther back to 10 pm so as not to overlap with the reception broadcast. That brought a storm of criticism from commercial media, veterans and wider society.

In 2014 it was agreed that content appropriate for 7-12 year olds can be shown on television before nine. The Unknown Soldier has been given a K12 rating, so this year, the film will be shown once again in the afternoon, starting at 1:40 pm on channel one.

In this short excerpt from The Unknown Soldier, brave and headstrong Corporal Rokka defends his Karelian homeland.

A day of time-honoured traditions

Finland is just three years away from celebrating its centennial, which is surely to be recognised on a grand scale. For the last few decades, however, the country has celebrated its birthday in largely the same fashion, with the same series of events scheduled throughout the day. Here is a play-by-play rundown of the events in Helsinki on Finland’s Independence Day.

9 am The raising of the Finnish flag at Tähtitornimäki, choir performance, address from the Speaker of the Parliament

9:06 am Sun rises

12 pm Finland’s President and top ministers attend an ecumenical church service at the Lutheran Cathedral in central Helsinki, televised on channel one

12 pm Military parade, arranged in a different city each year. In 2014 the tanks will roll through the streets of Hämeenlinna, including an impressively loud flyover from Air Force F-18 Hornets. Several other cities throughout the country arrange parades or concert performances in the afternoon.

1:40 pm Broadcast of the 1955 film The Unknown Soldier on channel one.

3:16 pm The sun sets.

4 pm Student groups, dignitaries and residents normally pay homage to Finland’s war veterans with visits to World War II memorials and cemeteries. Part of this tradition entails lighting candles at the graves of war heroes and former presidents. Many of Finland’s presidents are buried in Helsinki’s Hietaniemi cemetery.

4:30 pm After dusk arrives, Many Finns light candles in the windows of their homes, a tradition that dates back to the 1920s.

5:00 pm Around this same time, university students begin a torchlight procession through the town. In Helsinki, the students leave from the Hietaniemi Cemetery at 5 pm and pass the Presidential Palace where the President usually greets the procession from the balcony. The march then proceeds to the Senate Square, where just before 6 pm patriotic hymns are sung by the Helsinki Male Voice Choir and the mayor of the city reads a speech.

6 pm One of every three Finns then ends their holiday evening by settling down in front the telly at 6 pm to watch the President’s Independence Day Reception. Live television coverage is shown on both channel one (in Finnish) and two (in Swedish). Many Finns will invite guests to their home and watch the reception together.

This recap of 1951 Independence Day celebrations features Finland’s then-Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen.
The 2000 Presidential Reception hosted by Tarja Halonen saw a grand entrance from Finland’s highest-ranking war veteran at the time, General Adolf Ehrnrooth.

The same Independence Day traditions that serve to bind a nation together can also act as an irritant, particularly in times of social and economic distress. The gathering of the country’s crème de la crème against the backdrop of job redundancies and brutal cuts to basic services have caused disenfranchised groups to seize the opportunity to rebel against the pomp and circumstance of the presidential ball.

In recent times, some MPs have stridently declined their invitations to the event, denouncing it as frivolous waste of taxpayer’s money – all in an attempt to increase their populist currency.

Others working at the grass roots level have sought to include society’s outliers in the celebrations by organizing alternative events. One of them has been the late philanthropist Veikko Hursti. In his own ‘poor man’s ball’, Hursti distributed free food to the poor and underprivileged for years in Helsinki. Since Hursti's death in 2005, the tradition has been carried on by his son Heikki.

Face masks and firecrackers

Others go much farther. Referred to as the ‘party crasher’s reception’, a random mix of largely peaceful demonstrators in front of the Presidential Palace, morphed into an increasingly violent protest.

In 2013 when the ball was temporarily relocated in Tampere, youngsters stoked with anti-establishment fever organised their own alternative event to thumb their noses at what they saw as a dated and aristocratic legacy of the past. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Tampere Concert Hall grew highly agitated and began destroying nearby property.

28 people were arrested that night and held by the Tampere police. The ball returns to Helsinki in 2014, and the Helsinki police have called in reinforcements to ensure that the otherwise peaceful celebration is not marred by violence.

Text: Pamela Kaskinen. Design: Ville Juutilainen, Juha Rissanen.