11 December 2006

Independence Day in Oulu

It’s called Itsenäisyyspäivä, and it’s a Very Big Deal.

Enlightened people say that one needn’t bother memorizing dates, because you can always look them up. But I’ve found that properly contextualizing a given event usually involves memorizing a bloody date, like it or not. Finnish independence, which we are celebrating as this post is being constructed, is one of those events.

The story of Finnish independence is vaguely familiar. They declared it, and then they waited for the world’s verdict. In the case of Finland, the world waited in turn for V. I. Lenin to decide what to do. Remember that the October Revolution had just occurred, the implications of which were unclear for Finland, which was a Grand Duchy of the recently deceased Russian Empire. Remember, too, that while hindsight allows us to see that the days of the German Empire were severely numbered, the outcome of the Great War still seemed uncertain on December 6, 1917.

Lenin cleverly recognized Finland’s independence, and then armed the Finnish Red cadres, based in Tampere, to spread the Bolshevik revolution in these parts, while he was taking care of business at home. What happened next is summarized succinctly by the Lonely Planet guide to Finland, and while it might be an over-simplification, it manages to put things in an international context:

On 28 January 1918, the Civil War flared in two separate locations. The Reds attempted to foment revolution in Helsinki. The Whites (as the government troops were now called), led by CGE Mannerheim, clashed with Russian troops near Vaasa. During 108 days of fighting in two locations, approximately 30,000 Finns were killed by their fellow citizens. The Reds, comprising the working class, aspired to Russian-style socialist revolution while retaining independence. The nationalist Whites dreamed of monarchy and sought to emulate Germany.

The Whites eventually gained victory under Mannerheim, with Germany’s help. The devastating war ended in May 1918. Prince of Hessen, Friedrich Karl, was elected king of Finland by the Eduskunta on 9 October 1918—but the German monarchy collapsed one month later, following Germany’s defeat in WWI. Finland now faced a dilemma: the Russian presence was a clear security risk, but Germany was a discredited political model because of its war loss.”[1]

Keep in mind that new Soviet-style regimes were cropping up all over the place—in Kurt Eisner’s Bavaria, for example—and in a world of general strikes and revolutionary rhetoric, even the American “Red Scare” of that era may not have been as far-fetched as it might look to us, with the benefit of hindsight.

At any rate, it was under these unpropitious circumstances that Finland—i.e., the victorious Whites—created a republic, and then the issue was essentially the same one that faced the people of the United States after the ratification of the Constitution—whether they could “keep it,” to nick a good line from Benjamin Franklin.

Finland’s declaration of independence is what we’re celebrating today. Meanwhile, a cone of silence has been lowered over the Finnish Civil War that followed so closely on its heels. Thirty thousand casualties are a lot for a small country, and every casualty represented an incalculable loss, for that is the nature of internecine warfare.

Let me now take this global narrative down to the level of what we used to call the “common man,” and daily life in the city I have called home for these past months.

The Independence Day celebration in Oulu took place from 5:45 to 6:00 at the City Hall (kaupungintalo, literally town house) on Kirkkokatu. Since I got a late start, I had the good fortune to see one of the choirs in procession on Kasarmintie, each member wearing a “school cap” and carrying a torch. I tagged along behind the police escort, and we all moved briskly toward the city center.

A second choir had already assembled on the steps of City Hall, and it was they who did most of the singing. They sang four or five songs, each of which was followed by the clomp clomp clomp of people applauding in gloves and mittens. At the end, everyone was asked to join in singing a song that I didn’t happen to know. I kept busy trying to get a decent photograph in the dark. I failed.

Only one of the songs performed was familiar to me, and that, of course, was Sibelius’s Finlandia Suite. Now, let me back up a minute to say that I am probably as patriotic as the next guy, but I do not normally get all misty-eyed when I hear patriotic music. For me, the Star Spangled Banner means that the first pitch is just moments away. I strongly prefer America the Beautiful, but I am able to contain my emotion when I hear it. I find both God Bless America and its counterfoil, This Land Is Your Land, far too strident. Sousa fires me up, but that’s martial, rather than patriotic, music, per se.

The music of romantic nationalism, on the other hand, “peels my potatoes,” to steal another line, this one from a friend who will let me get away with it. I am not generally a Francophile, or an admirer of the French Revolution specifically, and yet Le Marseillaise knocks me out. Every time. By the way, in the painting above, that’s Rouget de Lisle, composer of Le Marseillaise, singing it for the first time.

As for Sibelius, I am not a fan of his, either. There’s just something about the Finlandia Suite. If I had allowed myself, I would have burst into tears last Wednesday at the Itsenäisyyspäivä ceremonies, and it would have had nothing to do with patriotism and everything to do with music. I have always responded strongly to music—many different kinds of music—and I have always been glad of it. Still, I felt a little silly, choking back my emotions in front of the Oulu City Hall.

[1] Paul Harding and Jennifer Brewer, Finland (Melbourne: Lonely Planet Publications, 4th edition, 2003), p. 13.