Coming out of the stuffy Finnish cultural closet

by , under Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

I would like to thank those bloggers for reading my previous blog entry in which I wrote about the international background of  my Finnish family. I must confess, however, that I thought about writing such a blog entry for months but could not find the right approach to tackle the topic. The answer appeared when I decided to come out.

Coming out of that closet has not been easy because the pressure to remain there has been sometimes immense. So imposing, in fact, that coming out in the previous century could have banished you from that small national group we created in the last century.

In order to be a part of that exclusive white Finnish national identity club, you had to renounce your “Other” and embrace without any questions asked your new identity.  You had to be white as well. That new identity was strongly peppered with nationalism and right-wing ideology and values. After the Winter War (1939-40), the losers of Finland’s Civil War of 1918, were included as well.

Considering that we had a marked class society especially in the first half of the last century, there were strong social and economic differences that determined where you stood in that exclusive club.

Since there were few immigrants in Finland in the 1920s, and their numbers declined up to the 1970s to a mere 7,000 souls (many if not most were expat Finns), the molding of our national identity was relatively easy process. But by defining in such narrow terms our identity we automatically excluded the Romany, Saami and other minorities. We even made it virtually impossible for outsiders to be accepted as equal members of society. The latter is one of the big obstacles that hinders acceptance of new immigrant groups in Finland today.

My great aunts Lally (left) and Irma Handwargh seated with Hannu (surname unknown). Written in French on the back side of the picture: the writer says humorously that Lally would like to have a mustache, which was drawn with a pen on Hannu, would make her look very feminine. The picture is dated “Miekkoniemi (located next door to Savonlinna), July 11, 1920.”

My grandfather, whose father was Jewish, is a case in point how Finns embraced their new national identity and erased their past. A captain in the Finnish army and like many of his generation, he too had learned to loathe the Russians. That suspicion he housed permitted him to erase, or bury deep in his subconscious, his background and even hope that Nazi Germany would be victorious against the Red Army.

He probably knew but refused to face that a terrible fate awaited him and other if Adolf Hitler’s forces would have been victorious in World War 2. Like many others in Finland with Jewish backgrounds, my grandfather and his family would have ended up at concentration camps as part of the Final Solution.

Those who claim that Finns are closely related to a tribe flirt with racism.  Much of our history and our national identity, a social construct, is based on racism. Certainly we can keep the positive matters about such myths, like our desire to be an independent and free nation, but we must banish those matters that continue to fuel our mistrust and suspicions of others, especially the Russians.

As long as we continue to foster such ideas from our history, it will be difficult if not impossible to accept other groups as equal members of our society.

Unless you believe that the Garden of Eden was in Finland, all it takes is a rapid view of our ancestors to understand that we came from somewhere else before they moved to Finland.

Humans have always built roads because they never believed in isolation. Claiming the contrary is nothing more than an exercise in national self-deceit and the fuel that feeds our racism and xenophobia.

  1. Peter of Finland

    Thank you Enrique. Your bravery may encourage others to take pride in their diverse family backgrounds. Being a member of this society is not based on a perverse ethnicized and racialized mentality. All who work together for the common good represent the ideal Finnish citizenry.

    A Finlander is not defined by the color of his/her skin, his/her mother tongue, the religious beliefs he/she olds, or the ethnic ‘group’ to which he/she belongs. Defining inclusion within the nation-state on the basis of such categorizations makes about as much sense as excluding individuals for being left-handed, having ginger hair or specific dietary requirements.

    In the past it was common to deny women political rights based on the mistaken belief that they are ‘less rational’ than men. Even before the formal existence of Finland as an independent state, the Grand Duchy of Finland granted universal suffrage in 1906. Whilst technically not the first self governing nation to grant such rights*, Finland led the way to what is now commonly acknowledged to be the correct democratic practice amongst all European states.

    I now suggest that we take the next step and shed all notions of ethnic-citizenship that are grounded in racist beliefs.

    Whether you consider yourself a Finn** or a Finlander is not important. As long as we respect the difference inherent in the nation and include all who work together for the common good, we can shed the ignorance of past generations and become an ethical society with truly universal suffrage.


    *New Zealand is often acknowledged to be the first nation to grant universal suffrage as it granted women this right in 1906. Prior to this rights were granted to, amongst others, the Isle of Man (1881) and the Territory of Wyoming (1869).
    **I have nothing against those who consider themselves Finns in an ethnic sense. I do, however, argue that this cannot, nor should it be equated with membership in our national community!

  2. Seppo

    A great comment from Peter, completely agree!

    “exclusive white Finnish national identity club”

    I would like to point out that back then it was not primarily a question of skin color. Unless ‘white’ is meant here to represent something else as well. The main elements to include and exclude were language, religion and an elite-defined conception of “the Finnish culture”. Skin color was not highlighted for the simple fact that there were hardly any darker people in Finland. Plus that most of them were excluded from true Finnish-ness on some other basis.

    Lately, however, skin color has definitely become a factor. Luckily on the other hand some of the excluding categories, like religion, have started to lose their meaning.

    All and all, I agree with Peter that when defining what is Finnish-ness and who is a Finn and who is not, none of this kind of excluding categories should have any importance.

    We need to (re)build our national identity and sense of belonging together on elements that allow for – and perhaps even celebrate – diversity.

  3. Mary Mekko

    Do you know a fellow called Erik Alta, similar in your paternal line history in that his family were Russian Jews, the Altmanns? A very funny fellow, I had a great time with him visiting the brand new (2006) Mormon Temple in Helsinki.

    But the first indicator that he considered himself not quite a Finn, although the family was there for generations as yours was, was a telling remark common to Soviet Jews (when they speak of Russians) in the SAn Francisco area: he spoke of the Finns and the Russians as “they”, not “we” and “they”. He considered their ethnic origin and culture to be so similar as to be almost indistinguishable, basically, a hard cold climate had forged a peasant culture of hard-nosed practicality, hard drinking (amongst their men) and a dure nature, used to submission to authority.

    Do you really say “we Finns” or “they, the Finns” when you are thinking in your own head?

    Tell us also why you moved to Finland, why leave the USA? Were you persecuted here, too?