Finland’s Civil War I

Not surprisingly, events in the imperial capitals were immediately reflected in the near periphery. The northwest borderlands were Russia’s interface with Europe. Having felt the brunt of fighting on the Eastern Front during the war, they profited from the collapse of central authority and the presence of enemy troops to break away. By the end of 1918, five new countries had declared their independence here: Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.

The area that later constituted Finland had been acquired in 1809 as a result of war with Sweden. Consolidated in 1812 as the Grand Duchy of Finland, it retained its governing institutions (a Senate and a Diet), an army, courts and laws, currency, and tariffs. In the 1890s, a shift in policy toward the region resulted in these privileges being gradually curtailed. The army was dissolved, Russian was introduced as the official administrative language, and the governor-general acquired absolute power. As the Empire began to behave more like a nation-state than an empire, attempting to suppress regional and cultural differences in favor of centralized control and uniform administration (on paper, at least), it stimulated a powerful sense of national pride among local leaders and their constituencies. In the case of Finland, the loss of the Duchy’s original rights deepened the sense of shared identity between Swedish and Finnish speakers.

Regional nationalism was, of course, no simpler than the nationalism of a Russia that was only partly Russian. A remnant of the days of Swedish rule, the Finnish elite was largely Swedish-speaking. Finnish society was also divided along class lines, the division becoming ever sharper as Finland began to industrialize and its population expanded from 1.7 million in 1870 to 3.2 million in 1917. The country remained primarily agricultural, but as cities grew, so did the working class. The workers here too became targets of revolutionary agitation. Finland developed a strong German Social Democratic or Menshevik-style trade-union-oriented labor movement. By 1905, the Finns therefore displayed the full panoply of grievances affecting other regions: local resentment against the imperial center, desire for a greater role in political life, and the basis for class conflict.

The 1905 Revolution itself demonstrated the ease with which endemic social tensions could escalate into civil war. Forced to make constitutional concessions after 1905, the tsar restored Finland’s traditional rights, pleasing the moderate, establishment parties. On the left, however, Finnish socialists were faced with the militancy of their own popular base. The same Baltic sailors who were to fuel Bolshevik radicalism in 1917 attempted mutiny in 1906, without the backing of party leaders. Indeed, in Finland the 1905 Revolution turned in against itself, as newly formed Red Guards battled middle-class Home Guards. Even the Social Democrats participated in elections to the Finnish parliament, but in 1908, Russifying policies went back into effect, and the parliament lost the rights it had recently regained. The Finnish political classes became increasingly anti-Russian, while the workers became increasingly radical in their resentment of class privilege.

The outbreak of war in 1914 presented the leaders of Finnish society with a dilemma. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich’s proclamation to the Poles in August 1914 led them to await a similar promise of postwar autonomy, but none was forthcoming. Instead, the Finnish parliament was suspended, delegates were imprisoned or exiled. As the Empire weakened, some Finns therefore made overtures to the Germans, who could be expected to hasten that progress by endorsing Finnish independence. The idea of German backing attracted support not only among the Swedish-speaking elite but also among socialist leaders, who expected the German Social Democrats to embrace their cause. Germany made no firm promises, but did allow Finnish volunteers to form a Jäger Battalion in the Prussian army. The Battalion’s role was unclear and was still under discussion when the monarchy collapsed and the situation changed completely.

Though Finland was technically at war, along with the rest of Russia, the Finns were not subject to conscription. Though shielded from the full impact of combat and occupation, Finland instantly felt the shock of revolution. On February 28, 1917, the General Staff ordered troops stationed in Finland to march on Petrograd and crush the revolt. Rear Admiral Adrian Nepenin, commander of the Baltic Fleet, at first declared a state of siege, but once the Duma Committee emerged, he accepted the new authority. By March 3, the sailors of the Baltic Fleet stationed at the Sveaborg Fortress in Helsinki harbor had mutinied, murdering thirty-eight officers, including Nepenin, who refused to relinquish his post without orders from the new government. He was shot in the back. Dual power with a vengeance.

Soviets emerged in Finland, as everywhere else, and adopted the posture of conditional support for the Provisional Government. In Finland the situation was complicated by the division between the relatively moderate local Social Democrats and the more extreme soviet leaders representing the Russian soldiers and sailors stationed in Helsinki and Vyborg, eighty miles northwest of Petrograd. Not only were the troops foreign, but they were out of control. “The first days of the revolution in Helsingfors,” the social psychologist Henning Söderhjelm recalled, “took the shape of a huge riot of the soldiers and the mob. Detachments of naval and land forces dashed about in the motor cars of their commanders, all with rifle or revolver in hand, with the finger on the trigger, firing volleys of shot into the air for joy, or shooting straight before them in order to increase the din and noise caused by the furious speed. They were hunting for the officers who had concealed themselves. The latter were killed wherever they were found, in their houses, in the street, or on staircases. … The city was entirely in the power of the Russian soldiers.” The forces of order had become forces of disruption.

The national question and the class question converged on the issue of lower-class militancy and aggression. Russian troops were not the only threat to the propertied classes. Everyday life had been a potential battlefield, Söderhjelm observed. “It was felt in the streets and in tram-cars—everywhere where people of different classes came together—that Finland had got a ruler, that the working-men with the assistance of the Russian soldiers had come to feel that their ‘class’ was the one that ruled the country.”

The Provisional Government, for its part, was eager to prevent the kind of social conflict in Finland that would open the door to German penetration. It therefore restored the former duchy to its original rights under the monarchy. It authorized the return of the parliament, entrusted with drawing up a new constitution. Despite their political differences, socialists and constitutionalists agreed to work together. Assuming it had the full sovereign power to do so, the Provisional Government issued a manifesto on March 7, which defined the interim status of Finland within the Russian state. It acted despite the fact that in relationship to Russia as a whole the new ministers claimed only temporary authority pending final resolution by the anticipated Constituent Assembly.

Pleased as they were with this turn of events, Finnish leaders overlooked the manifesto’s basic contradiction. By reversing the monarchy’s discriminatory policies, the Provisional Government restored Finland to political life, while still asserting the authority of the capital. Acting as the successor to Nicholas as Grand Duke of Finland, it at the same time granted Finland “internal independence.” By accepting these terms, the Finns claimed the right to self-rule while also acknowledging their constitutional link to Russia. The principle of national self-determination, invoked instead by some Swedish-speaking deputies, would have resolved this tension. The Provisional Government, for its part, was content with the latent contradiction, as it had no interest in promoting the breakup of the state now in its hands.

Faced with the Provisional Government’s adherence to the idea of constitutional succession (what or who was to replace Tsar Nicholas as Grand Duke of Finland), socialist and bourgeois deputies to the Finnish parliament joined to pass a bill, asserting that body’s executive competence. Leaving military and diplomatic affairs to Petrograd, Finland would exercise domestic self-rule. The proclamation, endorsed by the Finnish soviets, was issued during the July Days, when the Petrograd government seemed about to topple. Unaware of what exactly was happening in the capital, the Finnish Bolsheviks learned belatedly that the government had not in fact fallen. Following the party line, they retroactively denounced the attempt at insurrection as untimely.

In response to the bill, the Provisional Government, its energy now restored, sent troops into Finland. None of the bill’s sponsors wished to provoke an armed confrontation, however, not even the socialists. With the backing of those who hoped new elections would reduce the socialist majority, Kerensky dissolved the parliament, on the grounds that Finland had no right to challenge the current government’s authority or to preempt the decisions of the future Empire-wide Constituent Assembly. The destiny of the Finnish nation, he declared, “can only be decided on the basis of agreement with the Russian nation.” The Petrograd Soviet endorsed the dissolution of the parliament, accusing the Finns of putting the Revolution itself in jeopardy.

Of more immediate concern than the Constituent Assembly, however, was the threat of armed violence, both on the part of the same rebellious soldiers and sailors who were making the revolution in Petrograd and in the event of German invasion and Russian retreat. The Northern Corps of the Imperial Army, composed of Russian soldiers under the command of General Vladimir Oranovskii, was stationed in Vyborg. In response to Kornilov’s move on Petrograd, the Vyborg soldiers and sailors had formed a Military Revolutionary Committee. When General Oranovskii naturally refused to submit to its authority, the committee had him and a number of his officers arrested. Confined to a guardhouse, the captives were soon assailed by a crowd of angry soldiers, who mocked and beat them, then threw them into a canal and gunned them down as they tried to climb out. The Helsinki Soviet justified the murders as an expression of righteous anger. Lenin commented: “The Vyborg soldiers have demonstrated the full power of their hatred for the Kornilovite generals.”

The Russian forces still on Finnish soil remained under the authority of the government in Petrograd, but when in mid-October Kerensky tried to activate the Vyborg garrison, he was informed by the new commander that the troops would not obey. The Bolsheviks’ influence in Finland, as demonstrated in the case of General Oranovskii’s murder, was concentrated in the armed forces. By late September 1917, they dominated not only the Northern Army but also the so-called Regional Committee of Finland (Oblastnoi komitet Finliandii), representing Soviet Russian interests and Russian military personnel still in Finland. The Regional Committee competed with the Finnish Soviet, created on the Russian model but representing the ethnically Finnish working class. The essential conflict between the Finnish Social Democrats, close in spirit to the Russian Mensheviks, and the Russian-centered Bolsheviks is the key to the Finnish story: two models of socialism face to face and complicated by the ethnic (national) factor.

By early October, the Bolsheviks had also gained control of Tsentrobalt, the committee representing the sailors of the Baltic Fleet. Lenin counted on the radicalized troops and sailors across the nearby Finnish border as backup for the anticipated takeover in the capital. The Finnish Social Democrats had other concerns. At the end of September, as a result of new elections, they lost their parliamentary majority. They did not therefore hurry toward armed confrontation, although they did establish an official Red Guard. The Bolsheviks were unwilling, however, to provide them with arms, since the Finns could not promise that their men would fight on the Russian side, even in the case of a German invasion. The Finnish comrades were not only obstinately moderate but also patriotic.

In the aftermath of the parliamentary elections, the Provisional Government decided the safest way to ensure stability in Finland, as a bulwark against German aggression, was to grant self-government in advance of the Constituent Assembly. This was also a way of winning the support of the Finnish bourgeois parties, which opposed the more radical socialist program. The Provisional Government thus issued a decree on October 24, renouncing its “sovereign prerogatives over Finland, with the provision that foreign affairs be retained, as at present, by the supreme authority of Russia, and that Finland shall not alter the military legislation, or the laws concerning Russian nationals and institutions in Finland, without the consent of the Russian Government.” The Provisional Government, which did not have the legal right to do so, thereby devolved the authority formerly exercised by the Grand Duke onto the governing bodies of Finland. The formulation angered the socialists, who contended that parliament already exercised the authority the Provisional Government did not have the right to bestow. Delegates from Petrograd arrived in Helsinki with the government’s response on October 25, just as the Bolsheviks were unseating its ministers in the capital. The decree was therefore moot.

The Finnish Social Democrats had been unaware of the Bolshevik plans to seize power, but Bolshevik activists in Finland played a key role in Lenin and Trotsky’s scheme, by mobilizing the sailors and garrison in support of the takeover. The Finnish socialists would have preferred to avoid direct confrontation with the bourgeois parties. They were not sure the Bolshevik victory would last; they were not ready for actual class warfare. Their hand was forced, however, by the Bolshevik activists in Helsinki, who threatened to provoke the Finnish workers to revolt, over the heads of their own Social Democratic leaders; indeed, the Bolsheviks had already established a presence in the Finnish Red Guard.

Marxists of all shades on both sides of the border shared the conviction that socialism in Russia could survive only in the context of a pan-European workers’ revolution. Lenin believed that Russia should nevertheless set the pace. The Finnish socialists, like the Russian Mensheviks, felt the time was not ripe. They pressed for the current parliament to accept the socialist program and then resign, allowing a peaceful transition, which would not alienate the Finnish bourgeoisie, whose historical moment had not yet passed. The socialist leaders spoke of legality and the need to avoid armed confrontation. Finnish delegates visited Lenin in Petrograd, where he urged them to follow the Bolshevik example, but they left with the impression that the survival of Bolshevik power was not a sure thing, which of course it wasn’t.

The Finnish socialists thus dickered in exactly the manner that most annoyed Lenin, for whom actions shaped reality, not the other way around. Finally, on November 1/14, a general strike was declared, which was intended as a show of strength but not as a bid for power. In the big cities, the Finnish Red Guard, buying or borrowing weapons from the Russians, who were unwilling to give them away, easily gained control. Their members were untrained and inept, but met little resistance. The Russian-led Tsentrobalt did not offer to help them. The strike was successful, but the socialist leaders did not seize the reins. The most important result of the strike was to enhance the power and confidence of the Red Guards.

Finally, ten days later, parliament convened, with a mix of socialist and bourgeois deputies. The Social Democratic congress meeting at the same time continued to debate whether the moment was yet right for the proletarian revolution in Finland. The Helsinki Red Guard sent a delegation which demanded the seizure of power, but the party refused to be pushed. The socialists had avoided confrontation, and little blood had been shed. Altogether thirty-four people had been killed in the confrontations between the bourgeois Home Guard and the Red Guard, most by the latter. While the socialists debated, on November 13/26, the bourgeois parties in parliament appointed their own government, headed by Pehr Evind Svinhufvud. The goal was statehood, not social transformation. In November 1917, Svinhufvud was almost fifty-six years old. A lawyer and judge from a Swedish-speaking middle-class family of aristocratic origin, he was dismissed from the Finnish court of appeals in 1902 for resisting the policy of Russification. From 1907 to 1912, he was the speaker of the Finnish parliament, but his renewed resistance to Russian policies landed him in Siberia, from which he returned only after the February Revolution.

Like the Provisional Government, the Finnish parliamentary leaders were obsessed with legality and procedure, which they saw as the key to legitimacy and hence to authority and power. Russia still had legal sovereignty over Finland, but Svinhufvud’s government did not want to negotiate with the new Bolshevik rulers. The upstarts were not sure to last, but before departing the scene they might intervene on behalf of their socialist comrades. The Finnish government therefore invoked the authority of the anticipated all-Russian Constituent Assembly. The socialists, by contrast, despite their earlier reluctance to claim power in their own name, preferred to recognize the Bolshevik regime and accept the offer of immediate independence extended by the commissar of nationalities, Joseph Stalin.

The contrast between the positions of the two Finnish camps resulted in a war of manifestos. On November 21 (December 4, NS), the bourgeois government presented a constitution that declared Finland an “independent republic,” with “parliament as the holder of the sovereign power.” The socialists echoed the key phrase but insisted that “an effort must be made to realise this independence by negotiating an agreement with Russia.” A vote was taken, and the bourgeois version prevailed. December 6, 1917, became Finnish Independence Day, but the final outcome was yet to be determined and was not exclusively in Finnish hands.

As part of their bid to free themselves from Russian domination (regardless of the ideological color of its regime), in November the Finns had sent a delegation to Berlin, requesting German intervention. General Ludendorff rejected the idea. Instead, he presented the Finns with conditions that took into account the recently expressed Soviet interest in opening separate peace negotiations. Once the Germans and Russians had concluded an armistice, Finland was to “claim the right to self-determination,” insist that Russian troops withdraw, and explicitly request German support, in exchange for which Ludendorff promised to include the issue of Finnish independence in the peace negotiations. The terms of the armistice with Russia in December, however, did not mention Finland.

It was difficult for the Finns to find a sponsor. The Entente would not support Finnish independence because the anti-Bolshevik groups they did support insisted on maintaining the old borders. Nevertheless, the Finns could not afford to be openly pro-German. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, officially proclaimed their readiness to recognize a free Finland. What they meant by this was clear from the fact that they were also encouraging the Finnish proletariat to “take power into their hands.” Such independence was to involve a special, federative relationship with Russia. “We are now conquering Finland,” Lenin declared, denying this was a form of imperialist aggression. Once the Finnish workers had conquered power at home, they would naturally ally with their socialist brethren, accomplishing the triumph of the international proletarian revolution. Whether cynical or sincere, such a vision was entirely consonant with the Marxist world view on both sides of the border. Russian troops of course remained in Finland, to guard against possible German advance. The Soviets did, however, begin partial demobilization. Many soldiers simply deserted; whole divisions self-demobilized. Lenin was ready in any case to forfeit Finland and the Baltic states for the sake of peace with Germany; the Finns did not believe this and continued to badger the Allied and Scandinavian powers for recognition.

Russia still called the shots. The day parliament announced its sovereignty, the Sovnarkom declared the Regional Committee to be “the highest organ of Russian state power in Finland.” Despite Russia’s military and economic leverage, the parliament nevertheless persisted in ignoring the new regime. The Finnish socialists, on their side, presented the December 6 declaration of independence directly to Lenin and Stalin, but Svinhufvud communicated only with the vestigial representatives of the overthrown Provisional Government, on the grounds that the Constituent Assembly was still to come. Finally, on December 12/25, the Finnish Social Democratic Party appealed to the Sovnarkom to recognize Finland’s independence, hoping to take the wind out of the bourgeois nationalist sails. The parliamentary Finns, for their part, could not be sure if the Constituent Assembly would meet at all or whether it might not deliver a government less hospitable to Finnish desires. The respectable politicians arrived in Petrograd, where they were subject to a series of petty humiliations until the Sovnarkom on December 18/31, proclaimed its readiness to support “the separation of Finland from Russia.” Lenin apparently believed the concession was a relatively painless way of gaining propaganda points on the issue of national self-determination.

A few days later, though still regretting the reluctance of the Finnish socialists to take power into their own hands, the Congress of Soviets Executive Committee gave its approval; only the SRs demurred, still invoking the authority of the impending Constituent Assembly. Lenin, though reluctantly, met with Svinhufvud as two heads of state. Finnish independence was recognized in short order by Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and Germany. Britain and the United States held out, hoping still to get Russian forces back into action against the Central Powers. On December 26, 1917 (January 8, 1918, NS), Svinhufvud told parliament that “the Russian people has generously fulfilled its promise to realize the right of self-determination of small nations.” Finland declared itself neutral.

Secession from the former Empire did not, however, separate Finland from Russian politics or from social conflicts that ignored the border. As in Russia, the Left was fragmented. The Finnish Social Democrats, despite Lenin’s urging, refused to launch their own revolution, but they were not in control of the forces they themselves had set in motion. The Red Guards had flexed their muscles during the general strike. In Helsinki the Red Guards and the Bolsheviks were particularly aggressive, engineering attacks on government personnel and property, defying not only Svinhufvud’s government but the Social Democratic leadership as well. Independent of the Regional Committee or the Bolsheviks, the Red Guards also managed to gain control of the city of Turku, where they set about pilfering government property, intimidating public servants, and looting and trashing shops. On the Red side, to sum up, there were therefore at least five centers of power or potential influence in Finland: the Finnish Social Democratic Party; the Red Guards established by that party but escaping its control; the Finnish Bolshevik Party organization in Helsinki, the Russian-dominated Regional Committee; and the Bolshevik Party in Petrograd.

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