Why you should care
Because this “exit” vote set a nation on a better course.
The bloodshed came later. But Dec. 6, 1917, was a triumph of the peaceful, democratic variety. Finland’s parliament, the Eduskunta, voted that day to leave post-revolution Russia, and Vladimir Lenin, a man with other preoccupations and ulterior long-term motives, decided not to put up a fight.
Nearly a century before Great Britain voted to “Leave,” this Nordic country — now 5.5 million strong — engineered its own exit from a superpower. Though it initially looked like a clean break, the departure really sowed seeds for a disastrous civil war that erupted a year later amid the continent-wide upheaval of World War I. Still, Finland has maintained a stable independence and is now a peaceful, high-income success. Other nations that were in a similar boat in 1917 — like Ukraine — remained under the Soviet thumb and went in a starkly different direction. But Finland was hardly a font of anti-imperialism in the early 20th century, according to University of Helsinki history professor Laura Kolbe, who says Finnish independence arrived “more or less by accident.”
Lenin was so confident of Marxist doctrine and worldwide revolution that he was convinced Finland would come crawling back.
The country, which is slightly larger than the U.S. state of New Mexico, had spent the previous century as a semiautonomous region of Russia; before that, it was part of Sweden. Finland developed its own bureaucratic institutions and governing system for just about everything except the army. It even had its own currency while enjoying the protection of the Russian emperor — so there was not much of an independence movement. There was also good reason for Russia to hold tight but treat Finland well, as czarist-era Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin told the British historian Bernard Pares, noting how the Finnish border was only 20 miles from St. Petersburg, as recounted in The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy, by Tuomas Tepora and Aapo Roselius. Would England tolerate an autonomous state within its empire that close to London? A few years after he made the comment, World War I broke out, shaking all assumptions about the world order.
The Great War’s decimation helped lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917, ending centuries of imperial rule and leaving a sudden political vacuum. Torn between two powers, Finland elected a pro-German government, and its leaders declared that they wanted out from under Russia’s rule. Following the November takeover by the Bolsheviks, Finnish leaders quickly drafted and passed a Declaration of Independence.
A Finnish delegation headed by Pehr Evind Svinhufvud went to St. Petersburg to meet Lenin and ask for a clean break, which the new leader provided. Kolbe says Lenin was so confident of Marxist doctrine and worldwide revolution that he was convinced Finland would come crawling back. “Independent states, sooner or later their working class creates revolution and wants to be part of the Soviet Union,” Kolbe says. “That was his genius plan.” Lenin’s idea was not too far-fetched. Inspired by the Bolsheviks next door, Finnish socialists had declared a general strike in November, and the new independent government was not eager for compromise. The departure of Russian troops left the streets unpoliced, and the revolutionaries were emboldened by unrest throughout the region.
Finland’s four-month civil war began in January 1918, pitting the urban working-class Red Guard against the bourgeois Whites. It was also a proxy war between Russia and Germany — though the Russian troops pulled back early. There is no verified figure, but more than 30,000 people died, an astronomical sum within just a few months — many perishing in refugee camps or through extrajudicial means, not just in battle. Russians were murdered “in circumstances that can only be described as ethnic cleansing,” Tepora and Roselius write in The Finnish Civil War 1918.
The Germans were briefly in control but left by year’s end, after losing World War I. Finland was again a Soviet-Germany battlefield in World War II, but it remained independent, never giving in to Lenin’s fantasy. The working class was incorporated into the political system, and the Communist Party never gained much traction. It eventually turned into a stable liberal democracy, compared to other Russian border states. Next year marks the centennial of the “Finlexit” vote, and the government is preparing for Finland’s biggest-ever birthday party, beginning with a televised bash on New Year’s Eve. As far as birthday presents go, it would be hard to top a proposal in neighboring Norway, where leaders are considering shifting the border and offering their 4,478-foot Mount Halti summit to Finland — giving the nation a new highest peak with which to celebrate its centennial.