With an 830 mile border with Russia, Finland recently joined NATO as a response to fear triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Join Active Minds as we explore Finland’s history as a country geographically influenced by its proximity to Russia, but in many ways deeply tied to Europe, economically and politically. We will also cover Finland’s current challenges and opportunities as well as what the future may hold for this country of 5 million people.

Key Lecture Points

  • Slightly smaller than Montana, Finland’s history and place in the world for many centuries were defined by its relationship to more powerful neighbors to the west and east — Sweden and Russia.
  • In addition, its far northern location and position at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea both contributed to the way its people related to nature, and also meant Finland was involved in the rich trade of the Hanseatic League.
  • The Kalevala is a compilation of various oral history sources that establishes the mythology and historical foundation of Finland.  It inspired such artists as composer, Jean Sibelius, as well as the architects that have made Finnish architecture recognized globally, starting with the National Romanticism of Helsinki’s Central Train Station.
  • Finnish architecture and design continue to be recognized globally for a distinctive aesthetic that uses clean, functional lines; natural materials; and light.
  • The Sámi people of the far north also live in Norway and Sweden.  They are traditional reindeer herders, who have also fought for recognition of their native culture.
  • Finland’s prime minister from 2019-23, Sanna Marin, became something of a global celebrity as the youngest national leader globally.  She was also recognized for effectively navigating Finland’s response to the pandemic, as well as steering traditionally neutral Finland to membership in NATO.  Her coalition lost support and she was replaced by a more conservative prime minister in June, 2023.
  • Finland has a strong economy centered around its service, technology, and manufacturing sectors.
  • Historically, Finland attracted tribes from the east and its language is classified as Uralic.  It is close to Estonian, and is not related to Scandinavian or German languages.
  • It was sparsely settled and subject to occupation and influence of, first, Sweden, and then Russia.  Swedish continues to be one of its official languages.
  • Independence was achieved in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I.
  • The Soviet Union invaded and defeated Finland in the Winter War.  As part of the settlement of World War II, Finland pledged cooperation with the Soviet Union and not to undertake provocative acts.
  • Also coming out of World War II, Finland joined the Nordic Council and developed close ties with the Scandinavian countries to its west.
  • With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland became a member of the European Union and adopted the euro currency.
  • Given its checkered history with Russia, public opinion shifted dramatically after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.  Finland and Sweden, its close military ally, sought membership in NATO.  With Finland’s admission to NATO in 2023, NATO’s land border with Russia increased dramatically.
  • Its history and environment have led to cultural attributes similar to those of the Scandinavian countries.  Finns have a strong affinity for the outdoors.  Many have cottages along the over 170,000 lakes, to which they retreat in their free time and enjoy a traditional Finnish sauna.
  • The United Nations has deemed Finland the happiest country in the world for six years running as of 2023.  Those who have studied Finland’s people, however, describe Finns as perseverant and contented with their lives, more than happy.

Discussion Questions

  • How has Finland’s geography and climate influenced its history?
  • How have those factors, along with its history, shaped today’s Finland?
  • Do you agree with the factors and attitudes that result in Finland being considered the world’s happiest country?
  • Have you ever been to Finland and/or the Scandinavian countries?  Given the cultural and social attitudes that they share, what do you find most interesting about these countries?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Meinander, Henrik. History of Finland. Oxford University Press, updated edition, 2020. 288 pages.  A short history that places Finland’s history as part of Sweden and Russia in the larger context of the Baltic region.
    Click here to order
  • Lönnrot, Elias and Keith Bosley, translator. The Kalevala. Oxford University Press, 2009. 736 pages. The great Finnish epic that grew out of a rich oral tradition of the people of Karelia, which inspired much Finnish art and design, particularly some of composer Jean Sibelius’ greatest works.
    Click here to order