Debating Finland’s cultural diversity is opening up old wounds

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

Ever wonder why immigrants, multicultural Finns, immigration to Finland and refugees don’t have any history in Finland? If historical importance could be measured like a loaf of bread, the history of older minorities like the Saami, Roma, Tartars, Jews and others would be mere crumbs.   

The question why immigrants and minorities don’t have a history in Finland is like investigating the history of the exploited by the exploiters. By not having, or denying a group its history, you forsake them a place in society. Since they don’t exist they have no rights never mind the right to demand them.

In many respects, the social construct of the prototype Finns as the bonafide Finn in the last century was a pretext for steamrolling minorities and denying them their right to be Finns.  It explains why a large part of the population has today difficulty in accepting cultural diversity as natural in Finland.

If we look at the independence of the United States in 1776 or that of other Latin American countries during 1808-1826, there is a big difference with Finland’s independence in 1917. Even though the former loathed the political system that permitted their exploitation under colonialism, a large number of them were former inhabitants or descendants of these European kingdoms. They even spoke their languages as well as practiced their culture and religion.

In Finland, however, it was a different story. History teaches us that we sought independence because we didn’t want to be or were Russians. In order to build a national identity we amalgamated or “fennified” our culture through measures like changing our surnames into Finnish ones. Killing our cultural diversity was acceptable because of our hatred of groups like the Russians.

Does this same hatred affect our good judgement today as a modern twenty-first century nation?

Difficult questions about our history and cultural roots had to be conveniently forgotten by history in order for us to forge a near-monolithic Finnish national identity.

One group that were nearly forgotten were Finnish immigrants and their descendants.

Thanks to the over million immigrants that left this country from the 1860s, Finnish culture has evolved in many lands. Instead of accepting our rich cultural diversity that Finnish immigrants and their descendants gave this nation, we passed strict citizenship laws that disjointed them from us.

Debating what happened to our cultural diversity and why it was nearly erased would be questioning the whole essence of our reason for being as a nation in the twentieth century.

What will come out of such a debate in the future is a question mark. One matter is for certain, however: It should make us stronger at the end of the day because Finnish culture will be more acceptant of its diversity.

  1. Hannu

    “Thanks to the over million immigrants that left this country from the 1860s”


    And erasing “diversity”… I do have friends whom name is like Hagelin and Berg, i also know by fact that many of their relatives changed name to finnish one in time of oppression to make clear statement that were finns so fuck off. One of namechangers were grandfather of my grandmother.
    Name didnt change a fact that they had been in finland decades and it was just clear way to show off foreign oppression that they cant use us to their goals, were all finns.
    And about different cultures, it wasnt divided by names so youre an idiot according to one sami who has “finnish” name and his “finnish” name can be traced to 1730 and still he does sami stuff just for fun and “because”, we noticed that his “sami” stuff was almost exatly same as “finnish laplander stuff”. After long discussion we didnt found any major difference between us, both used vesihiisi to scare kids out of water and both had entities of forest to look up for us and malicious ones to keep kids out of dark forest.
    Infact my great granpa had more reindeers than his and did employ his great uncle. My greatgreat something granpa hanged his great… uncle because of stealing reindeers tho 🙂
    That could be seen as oppression, finns didnt understand that no one owned reindeers and forced owning to others…..

    • Enrique

      –“Thanks to the over million immigrants that left this country from the 1860s”

      Hannu, take a look at page 3 on

      1860-1999 a total of 1.212 million. The source? Migration Institute of Turku.

      Tell your buddies at Homma forum and Scripta that when they speak of immigration they should know that we have had 1.212 million. Were all of these social bums? Criminals? Rapists? Please don’t soil an immigrant’s or refugee’s good name because he/she is only searching for a better life elsewhere just like over one million Finns did during 1860-1999. Is there anything wrong with that?

  2. Seppo

    – “the social construct of the prototype Finns as the bonafide Finn in the last century was a pretext for steamrolling minorities and denying them their right to be Finns”

    I’d say it has also been the other way around – minorities were encouraged to be just Finns and denyed to be Russian, Sami, Roma etc.

    – “Killing our cultural diversity was acceptable because of our hatred of groups like the Russians.”

    National identities are built on severeal elements. An emerging nation does often require an enemy in order to stregthen the inner solidarity. The emerging Finnish nation found this enemy in Russia and Russians.

    The downplaying of cultural diversity has to do with the basic ideology of nationalism which wants to see the nation as unified and united as possible. Russofobia and intolerance to cultural diversity are products of one and same thing – the romantic nationalism of 19th century.

    Thus “the killing of our cultural diversity” was acceptable because of the very eager and powerful adoption of a narrow Finnish national idea.

    Even though the image of Finnishness, who is a Finn and who is not, is quite narrow, it still has included such groups as Swedish-speaking Finns who have been given the right to preserve and develop their separate language and culture while being recognized as Finns. I think this is a good basis to build on in the future. We can have several groups like the Swedish-speaking Finns – people who speak different languages, have certain cultural features of their own, but who are still seen as, and who see themselves as, Finns.

  3. JusticeDemon

    A few points about surnames.

    1) The idea of a family name passed down through several generations appears to be a foreign import or at least a rather late development. Other arrangements were used in the middle ages. Typically in Western Finland people tended to take the name of the farm where they lived, which could even change several times during a person’s lifetime. Hereditary patronymic derivations became early surnames in Eastern Finland, but women often continued to use a feminine form of their fathers’ names even after marriage.

    2) Church and other official records in the later middle ages and early modern period tended to list names in the language of the literate, which meant Swedish. This Swedish version would then overwhelmingly tend to be the name used by a Finnish speaker who advanced in any social, ecclesiastical or academic capacity.

    3) The Finnish language did not even have an orthography before Mikael Agricola, and literacy in Finnish remained rare even for a long time thereafter, especially outside of religious contexts.

    Most of the name changes from the Swedish to the Finnish form reflect these historical facts, and it is simply dishonest to assert that finnicisation of surnames was an act of explicit rebellion against any perceived oppression. This idea is ill-informed nationalist claptrap. To view any such name change as a protest is a bit like taking a leak to spite the sewage department. For most people finnicisation simply meant changing the name shown in official records so that it corresponded to the name that Finnish-speaking individuals used on a daily basis. This is only meaningful to people who need to read and write for official purposes, and it was obviously far easier to change the official record than to change the name in common use.

    A typical example of this renaming process concerns the Tennispalatsi building, which was originally constructed to provide services for motor vehicles. Use of the otherwise empty roof space for tennis was very much an afterthought, and the building was originally known officially as Autopalatsi. It was only after everyone began to associate the facility with tennis that the official name was changed to reflect the common use, which is the kind of thing that happens all the time. Were the people of Helsinki engaging in some kind of rebellion against the internal combustion engine in rejecting the “official” name?

  4. Seppo

    “J. V. Snellmanin syntymän satavuotispäivän yhteydessä vuonna 1906 kirjailija Johannes Linnankoski kehotti suomalaistamaan vierasperäiset sukunimet. Toukokuun 12. päivänä 1906 julkaistussa Suomalaisen Virallisen Lehden lisälehdessä noin 24 800 henkilöä ilmoitti suomalaistaneensa nimensä. Samana päivänä perustettiin myös Suomalaisuuden liitto.”

    People changed their names for many reasons. For some, ” finnicisation simply meant changing the name shown in official records so that it corresponded to the name that Finnish-speaking individuals used on a daily basis”. For many, and I would say, most, it was meant to show how true Finns they were and how deeply devoted they were to the Finnish national idea.

    If nearly 25 000 individuals suddenly realize that they have a “wrong” kind of surname which does not reflect their national identity, and they all decide to change their names for “better” ones on the 100th birthday of our national philosopher, then there is something else to it.

    The names chosen tell their story. People wanted to be called Paasikivi, Kariluoto, Honkajuuri, Peurakoski, Teräsniska, Helmenkalastaja (!) etc. These names had usually two parts which had not been common before. Some of them were direct translations from previous Swedish names – Koivulehto (Björklund), Tuomenoksa (Häggqvist) – but many were just invented. The point was not only to get a very Finnish name but to get a beautiful, powerful name.

    This was not a rebellion against Swedish rule or any other rule. But it was directly connected to nationalism, fennomania and the growth of nationalist thinking that Finland was experiencing at that time.

    In the end it is important to note that most people who adopted a Finnish surname in the 19th century did not change their previous surname – they hadn’t had any before.

    A good short overview of the history of Finnish surnames:

    • Enrique

      Hi Seppo, this is pretty familiar to my family, which changed its name in the 1930s to Harvo from Handwargh or Handtwargh. What is even more surprising that some could tell by the name if it was “original” or changed/converted from another langauge. I guess the only thing that linked Handwargh with Harvo was the “h.”

      From a sociological point of view, it is interesting how people were amalgamated into Finns. Ethnically it wasn’t a problem except for the surname and some anecdotes about a person’s past.

      While this worked in the 1930s, a period when fascism was rising in Europe and globally, it could not work today. Can you imagine a movement where immigrants and people with immigrant backgrounds changing their surnames? While this isn’t uncommon in immigrants, the big difference to the 1930s and early 1910s is that societies are more globalized and diverse. The way we see each other as a nation and our ethnicity has changed dramatically. So it the pressure was to amalgamate or be damned in the last century in the new century it is learning to live with cultural diversity. We can keep our last names if we wish and celebrate being Finns at the same time.

  5. Hannu

    “Hannu, take a look at page 3 on

    1860-1999 a total of 1.212 million. The source? Migration Institute of Turku.”

    Ah so now i should call my “little cousin” as migrant? He has born by finnish parents but he has never moved anywhere, his parents did move as kids tho.I stress that fact HE NEVER MOVED ANYWHERE. Also his child of course haves finnish roots but HE AND HIS PARENTS NEVER MOVED ANYWHERE. And you still count them as migrants, idocy i call that.

    • Enrique

      Hannu, you do not decide who is a Finn but the person. Identity is a personal thing. When others start to push their weight around on this issue we sometimes call it racism, prejudice or in worst cases genocide.

  6. Tiwaz

    But you cannot demand me to accept you as a Finn if you do not carry enough things which would identify you as one.

    How can one be Finn if they do not speak, look or act like a Finn?

    To say anyone can claim to be Finn and be correct is idiotic and cheapens MY identity, by claiming that I have none. Because being Finn is what I am. Finn I was born and Finn I shall die.

    • Enrique

      Tiwaz, why is it that everytime you make it to Migrant Tales once in a BLUE MOON you barge and start to insult people? You can speak gently and forcefully on Migrant Tales but without the insults.

      What does looking like a Finn mean to you? Are people who are deaf, dumb and blind Finns? What is acting like a Finn? If you’d give us a list we could pass it along and people would have no problems in becoming Finns in an instant.

      Thank you for your cooperation.

  7. Tiwaz

    Say, Enrique, have you already done test on how other groups accept your theory of “you can be whatever you want”?

    I suggested you to test it with group of for example Somalis you do not know. Go to them, tell that you are one of them and demand to be treated as one.

    Or alternatively, go do that with Roma.

    Let’s see how tolerant they would be towards your ideology.

    Or don’t you dare to do it?

    • Enrique

      Tiwaz, all of my views are tested constantly in the real world. What about you? How many Somalis do you know. Or are you afraid to invite them for tea?

  8. Tiwaz

    Insult people? I insult ideas. I consider your idea that anyone can be anything idiotic. I did you say you are idiot, only that your idea is. And someone has to work in this country you know, to pay for all the benefits people can be ungrateful for.

    After all, Finns are still carrying this country on their shoulders. Nobody else.

    As for passing for a Finn.

    Test is simple. Blind meeting with a natives, as close to “average” Finn as possible.

    If you can have them accept you as Finn, you are Finn.

    Trick is, you are already judged on that meter and found constantly wanting.

  9. Hannu

    Enrique what you are talking about, you claimed that over million moved and provided link what said clearly there werent over million movers and now you ramble about “who is finn”. THEY DIDNT MOVE, THEY ARENT MIGRANTS. This concludes that you are indeed racist wanting to label my swedish relatives as finns to suit your needs. They are by fact swedes who just happen to know some finnish (not all of them, some dont know any), i would say limited in best even by ones who moved from finland as kids. Their (great)granma will die soon and after that they dont have any real ties to finland and even before that it was marginal in best since their and their parents life was and is in sweden under swedish system and thru swedish ways. Finnish surname or finnish heritage doesnt make them finns.

    • Enrique

      Hannu, sometimes you really insult my intelligence. Either you don’t read the threads carefully enough and sometimes you just jump to conclusions. I think I have said many times that it is the PERSON WHO DECIDES WHAT HE OR SHE IS. If your relatives feel like Swedes in Sweden that is fine. However, to act like you or the groups you may represent are the guardians of Finnish culture is absurd and in bad taste. Nobody controls Finnish culture except for those that claim it as theirs.

      That is why I asked you to tell your buddies on Homma and Scripta to take a little deeper look at what is immigration and who are Finns. It’s a simple and honest requst.

  10. Hannu


    • Enrique

      Hannu, you are calling me an idiot?! Read page three. It says EMIGRATION. Do you want me to give you a knife and fork so you can eat what you said? Here.

    • Enrique

      Hannu, the problem is that you don’t read carefully and that you don’t get it. There is a difference between people who EMIGRATED and those Finnish USAmericans and Canadians who claimed Finnish ancestry.

      The two sources point to this: One tells you how many Finnish USAmericans and Canadians there are and the other tells you how many emigrated from Finland between 1860 and 1999.

  11. Allan

    Enrique, get your vocabulary straight: the Finns who left are EMIGRANTS from Finland point of view. The country where they moved to, there they are immigrants. The only “Finnish immigrants” would be “paluumuuttaja”.

    • Enrique

      Allan, it depends from which perspective you are looking: If I am in USAMerica they are immigrants but from Finland they are emigrants. But to avoid this type of confusion, probably the best term is migrant.

  12. Hannu

    Ok Enrigue, you said “over million left finland”. and provided a link.
    Your link startet counting from where finland didnt exist, and according to you it doesnt exist today, its just some kind of weird social construct.
    Did they leave finland or russia? were they finns or russians? You should know.

  13. Mary Mekko

    When my father was a navigator, or first mate, during WWII and into the 1950’s, a lot of the American merchant ships had Scandanavian crew members. He was always perplexed about the term, a “Russian Finn”. There were Finns, Russians, but the, “Russian Finns”. Never could it get it right,so he asked me if I knew after my return from Europe.

    So perhaps it’s an old term, pre-1917, when a Russian who stayed in the new Finland became a Finn, but was technically a Russian in the eyes of the Finns. Many Russians in Finland then were not even Russians, but Jews, hence the small population in Finland now of “Finnish Jews”.

    He remembers with a chuckle how they kept to themselves in the cafetarias, were given herring and knackerbrot while the rest of the crew members had eggs, oatmeal and toast. The smell of the fish would bother the others and they’d call them “fishheads”.

    Does anyone else remember such things in the older generation there in Finland?

    BTW, if a Mexican in the USA is third-generation, is he or she American or Mexican?

    A lot of them still claim they’re Mexican first!!! Then they claim that California is still theirs!
    Sigh! Will no one open a history book south of the border?

    I suppose the Russians could claim that Finland is theirs, but no Finn would accept that!

    Not so true of European immigrants, or even the Asians or Africans. I have Asians on my tourbuses who’ve only lived in the US five or ten years, but they’re “Americans” and won’t say where they’re from, except “Chicago” or “New York”. A German living in the USA over 30 years will say, “I live in LA, but I’m German”. If you ask pointblank to an Asian, “Are you from Mongolia?” he will then say, “I am born in China but live in the US now ten years.”

    Strange how different groups want to erase their point of origin; others are very proud of it.

    How is it in Finland? Does a Somali say he or she is a Finn if you ask, since they’re ten years in Finland?