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Was Finland better off in the Russian Empire than in the EU?

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Was Finland better off in the Russian Empire than in the EU?


Editor’s office of the Russkiy Mir Portal

Teemu Keskisarja, a regular contributor toIlta-Sanomat, a Finnish periodical, historian, and lecturer at the University of Helsinki, wrote an unexpected column in which he compared Finland's standing within the Russian Empire and within the EU. As it turned out, this comparison is obviously not in favor of the European Union nowadays.

Unveiling of the monument to Alexander II in Helsingfors (Helsinki), 1894. Photo credit: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland/

According to the Finnish journalist, whatever sphere of life you take, be it economics, law, or culture, the standing of the Grand Duchy of Finland and its citizens within the Russian Empire was much more independent than the standing of contemporary Finland within the EU. And he even admits with irony: he found himself "suffering from Russophilia."

Let us look at the economy. In the Russian Empire, the people of Finland were responsible for their own well-being. To some, this may seem a disadvantage, because when famine broke out in the Grand Duchy, the Finns had to take a loan to purchase grain (and then give it back) all by themselves. But then there were no restrictive collective measures of the current EU regulating who can catch how much fish, how many cucumbers or tomatoes to grow and what shape they should be. And also redistributing income in favor of its poorer member-states, which, of course, does not make the residents of rich Finland happy.

On the other hand, the empires financial difficulties had little effect on the economy of the self-governing principality and "did not fall on the shoulders of the few Finnish taxpayers."

Moreover, Keskisarja claims that the Finns received from the empire more than they gave back. And even when the once poor outlying districts turned into one of the economically developed parts of the Russian Empire through the industrial revolution, the latter was still in no hurry to drain Finland of money.

In other words, it was not the empire that enriched itself at the expense of conquered national outlying districts, on the contrary, it served as a source of prosperity for them. It sounds like a patent absurdity for those who like to accuse Russia of colonialism, doesn't it?

Being a part of the Russian Empire had a beneficial impact on the Finnish industrialists and traders who enjoyed all the advantages of the huge market. Thus, the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy enjoyed all the benefits of their geographical location, actively exploring both the European and the boundless market of the growing empire. Russia also provided ordinary Finnish subjects with an important strategic commodity - its cheap grains.

Finnish peasants. Photo credit:

The same can be said about labor migration: the Finns could freely travel to work - some went to America, others to Russia; and freely flowing labor forces from both Europe and Russia came to fill their places.

“If in 1916 Finnish entrepreneurs were asked whether the Grand Duchy of Finland should secede from the Russian Empire, many would answer: God Almighty, of course not! All our exports go to Russia; this is our richest piece in peacetime. Rangers yelling for independence and the populist incitements of the Social Democrats will greatly damage Finland's reputation,” says the Finnish historian.

But men do not live by bread alone: the once poor and backward province of the Kingdom of Sweden, and then of the Russian Empire, being the part of the latter, turned into a culturally developed region over time. We shall add here that it happened not least because of the proximity of its main cities to one of the recognized cultural capitals of Europe - St. Petersburg.

The development of Finnish art was facilitated by the virtual absence of censorship (in contrast to the main territory of the empire). Of course, it was impossible to openly abuse the emperor in the newspapers or disrespect the government institutions, but in general, freedom of expression was respected. In any case, disputes related to freedom of speech arose less frequently than now, says Teemu Keskisarja.

So, when it comes to economics, Finland flourished. Its cultural development was fast and unimpeded. The public attitude of minds was quite pro-Russian. According to the Finnish journalist, this continued until the authorities took up "stupid processes of Russification, unification, and oppression." At this point, it is worth recalling that the Russification of Finland hardly had any effect on the countrys culture and education system - everything remained the Finnish-style there. The only areas involved were the administrative and legal ones. However, this is a separate topic, and quite an extensive one.

Nicholas II on vacation in Virolahti (Finland). Photo credit:

Nevertheless, the principalitys residents lived under the actual self-rule following their own legislation. Unlike the rest of Russia, here, for example, corporal punishment was abolished, freedom of institutions was proclaimed.

The Finnish historian believes that, in general, the Grand Duchy enjoyed much greater freedom comparing to Finlands current position in the EU. Furthermore, communication with St. Petersburgs bureaucracy was clearly easier for the Finns 100 years ago than with the contemporary Brussels one. He makes an ironic comment: The general state laws of the Russian Empire would correspond to about a millionth part of EU directives.

According to Teemu Keskisarja, yes, Russia had its faults, but Finland was a self-ruling region to such an extent that those faults did not affect it in any way. Only few people among the nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie, and peasants had a negative attitude towards Russia, the Finn claims.



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