Finland’s turning point and its national identity debate

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

Any student of society can see that Finland is at an important juncture concerning its future national identity.  At this turning point the country appears to be looking in two directions: To our past and to the future.

Those who are looking to the past are not ready (at least yet) to expand their definition of Finnish national identity to include Finns of other ethnic backgrounds.

Their views of Finnish identity is deeply entrenched in the late-nineteenth century, when we forged a national identity that was modelled for the birth of a new independent nation called Finland. While its limitations were never tested before because there were so few immigrants living in Finland, it is on the defensive today.

An indication that it is embattled was the rise of the Perussuomalaiset (PS) party in the April election as well as the ever-growing menace of ultra-nationalistic associations like Suomen Sisu and Suomalaisuuden liitto.

Thus the big question we should be asking today is if our former way of looking at our identity applies today? Is it too exclusive? How can we make it more inclusive?

Much of  our perceptions of ourselves as a group have been possible through nationalism, which has helped us overlook some important points of our history to accommodate the myth of our ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

Ethnic homogeneity was reinforced in the past century through eugenics and racial hygiene “theories” that were shamefully put in cold storage after the horrors of World War 2.

Even in the 1960s, Finnish social policy experts like Heikki Waris fed the myth. He wrote in a booklet on Finland: “Racial homogeneity particularly characterizes the Finnish people who have practically no racial minorities…Conseuqnetly, racial prejudice and discrimination are nonexistent (sic!).”

The affirmation by Waris is odd taking into account the over million people emigrated From Finland in the last two centuries. Are these Finns and their descendants a separate or integral part of Finnish culture? Not according to Waris.

These types of myths about ourselves were reinforced in our citizenship laws as well. Up to 1984, children born to Finnish mothers did not have the right to citizenship only if the father was a Finn.

The view that Finnishness is ethnic is still evident in our laws. A child born in Finland becomes the citizen of her parents’ countries.

Challenging myths that have been built during most of our independence and reinforced by wars is not an easy task but essential if we want to create a more inclusive society in this century. This will become more critical as Finland becomes more culturally diverse through immigration.

Presently, the number of immigrants in Finland is small at 2.9% of the total population, but it is expected to rise to 7%-8%, according to some experts.

  1. Seppo

    This is very true.

    What we need to do is to rethink what Finnishness is. We need to accept and learn to appreciate different ways of being Finnish. We need to focus more on the present (we are all living in this country, this is our home) and on the future (we all want to make this a better place, together) and less on the past. Finns are all those people who identify with this country, who want to contribute to its development and who feel they share a common future.

    We need to eliminate certain elements which have been, to a bigger or lesser extent, considered as part of being Finnish. Things like skin color, religion or mother tongue should not matter when defining whether someone is a Finn or not. In the end, it is an individual herself and only her who can define her nationality. We have to learn to understand this very important point.

    Of course, this is my view, and I know that there are people who think very differently. To many of them, Finnishness should be based on ethnicity above all. We have to work against that kind of ideas.

    • Enrique

      Seppo, you put it very well. You are a good example that make people have hope for this country. I hope your example will catch on.

  2. Seppo

    “The view that Finnishness is ethnic is still evident in our laws. A child born in Finland becomes the citizen of her parents’ countries.”

    This we need to change. A child born in Finland should always be able to get a Finnish citizenship, immediately and disregarding parents’ citizenship.

    However, an important point is that citizenship does not determine one’s nationality. Citizenship is a legal concept determing the relationship of a given individual and a given state (political unit). To which nation one feels belonging, if any, does not necessarily have to do with citizenship. A child born and raised in Finland is a Finn, I believe, even though he would be only given the citizenship of his parents’ country. Same way, there can be persons with Finnish citizenship who for one reason or another consider themselves as belonging to another nation. Of course, since Finland is a sort of a nation-state, citizenship can here be seen as something making official the bond between the individual and the nation. However, this is not the case in all states of the world out of which many are multinational by nature.

  3. JusticeDemon

    Nationality legislation is no simple matter. It has repercussions for many aspects of public policy and has to be harmonised between jurisdictions. In practice the outcome is always a balance between jus soli and jus sanguinis elements. Strict adherence to the latter creates significant issues of multiple nationality (e.g. should a child be able to gain the nationality of eight countries at birth based on the differing nationalities of its great-grandparents, and if so, then does this imply derived rights of abode in any of those eight countries for the child’s parents?), whereas strict adherence to the former can have wildly unpredictable effects (e.g. a Russian-Canadian child born in Finnish airspace is a Finn and accordingly loses the nationality of either of its parents, both of whom gain derived rights of abode in Finland?).

  4. I-am-here

    I have always sort of defended Finns’ actions to my foreign friends. I always found it hard to believe that Finns could be as racist and hateful as some of my friends described them, so I always found an excuse for their actions.

    However, today something happened which shook me to the core, and which has instilled in me a strong hatred for anything Finnish!

    Today, as we were walking by a playground, my child insisted that we go play there. It was our first time in that particlar playground, and the only other people there were unmistakably Finnish. I could feel the hostility in the air as we entered the playground.There was a 2-swing set occupied by a “pure” Finnish child. As my child and I approached to use the other swing in that set, the Finnish parent of the other child on the swing did not seem very pleased. I actually expected her to move away, but she stayed, giving us hateful stares.

    It so happened that whist swinging, my child let go of the swing, and fell. It was so horrible. I thought that my child had broken his/her neck, due to the severity of the impact he/she made with the ground when he/she fell.I screamed, and rushed to my child, who was screaming and crying from the pain of the impact. I clutched him/her in my arms, all the while feeling to see if there were any broken/fractured bones.We spent about 15 minutes clutching each other on the ground there.

    To make a long story short, NO ONE CAME TO OUR RESCUE!! Absolutely no one. Actually the lady who was pushing her child on the swing next to us just continued pushing, as if nothing at all had happened. I could not believe it. Nothing in life had prepared me for such hatred exhibited by those Finns today.NOTHING! They definitely saw my child fall off the swing, and saw his/her pain.

    How can any civilized human being be so cold towards a mere child? How can any parent hear the screams of another child, and not offer assistance? What has the child ever done to you? To me, only animals can be this way.The human instinct would be to rush to a child who needs help, regardless of who the child is.

    I stayed in that playground and just cried my heart out. I cried because at that moment it dawned on me just how hateful the Finns are.I cried because I felt trapped in a country full of spiteful animals! Now, all I want to do is leave Finland, but that is complicated, since my spouse has said I can’t leave with the child. My spouse is Finnish.I will however seek sole custody and get the hell out of Finland!!! I no longer want to be here among such pitiful,spiteful, mentally sick creatures!

    • Enrique

      Hi I-am-here, welcome to Migrant Tales and I am sorry to hear how upset you are about what happened. I would be too if that were the case. When we live in a foreign country it is important to have the biggest supply of good friends who can help you brush off those negative experiences. A good talk with a friend can do wonders. Those people who didn’t do anything and got you upset are not worth it. If this will help, Migrant Tales would have been the first to assist you and your child at that park. Although we are sad about what happened, it is good that you shared what happened with us.

  5. Seppo

    Well yea..

    At the moment the citizenship legislation in Finland seems to be based only on jus sanguinis, a child can get the citizenship of his parent(s), thus he becomes Finnish citizen only if one of the parents is a Finnish citizen.

    There would not be big problems in changing the system so that one could get Finnish citizenship through jus soli as well. Here we would only need to say that the child has to be born in Finland plus that Finland has to be the place of his residence after the birth, that is, his parent(s) have to be residing in Finland at the moment he is born. This would easily eliminate such cases as a child being born in Finland when his parents are here on holiday etc.

    Anyway, double citizenship is a common thing nowadays and in the future we might have triple citizenship (or do we have it already?). So in that case it could be possible for the child to get a Russian citizenship through his father, a Canadian citizenship through his mother and a Finnish citizenship through the place of birth and first residence.

    The emphasis is on the word ‘could’. It is important that a person born in Finland is able to get a Finnish citizenship, however, it is equally important that if the parents see it unnecessary or even not preferable, the child does not have to become a Finnish citizenship but the choice remains with the parents.

  6. JusticeDemon


    These things are not as simple as you suggest, not least because other countries will not necessarily play the game according to rules enacted on Arcadia Hill. For example the child of foreign parents who gains Finnish citizenship automatically at birth could automatically lose citizenship of the countries of origin of its parents (especially if it has been common for people to emigrate from those countries to the USA). This creates completely unnecessary hassle if those parents are working on assignment in Finland.

    Multiple citizenship can also result in practical problems concerning things like the duty to perform military service.

    I suggest that you take a look at the Finnish Nationality Act, which was revised in 2003. The factors involved in formulating this legislation are elegantly summarised in subsection 2 of section 1:

    Tämän lain tarkoituksena on säännellä Suomen kansalaisuuden saaminen ja menettäminen ottaen huomioon sekä yksityishenkilön että valtion etu, estää ja vähentää kansalaisuudettomuutta sekä toteuttaa ja edistää hyvän hallinnon ja oikeusturvan periaatteita kansalaisuuteen liittyvien asioiden käsittelyssä ja päätöksenteossa.

  7. Seppo

    – “For example the child of foreign parents who gains Finnish citizenship automatically at birth could automatically lose citizenship of the countries of origin of its parents.”

    JD, you are not reading what I am writing.

    I wrote: “The emphasis is on the word ‘could’. It is important that a person born in Finland is able to get a Finnish citizenship, however, it is equally important that if the parents see it unnecessary or even not preferable, the child does not have to become a Finnish citizenship but the choice remains with the parents.”

    I do admit that your probably know more about Finnish laws and generally about laws than me. But as far as I understand, citizenships are not gotten automatically in other than those cases where a child can get only one citizenship (born in Finland with both parents Finnish citizens). Otherwise it is the parents’ choice which citenzhip(s) they want their child to have and I was emphasizing how important it is to keep this choice.

    “Multiple citizenship can also result in practical problems concerning things like the duty to perform military service.”

    They can, they will and they do. This is everyday business in Finland. I have a lot of friends with double citizenship and for what I know, the problems are mostly small and easily fixed. E.g. my Norwegian-Finnish cousins could choose in which country they wish to do their military service. They chose Norway, reported it to the Finnish officials, and that was it. With Russia it is a bit more complicated but still not too difficult.

    I am not a lawyer. What I’m expressing is just my views and opionions as a layman. Maybe they are not possible to realise in real life. I’m still sticking to the view that it should be possible to get Finnish citizenship through jus soli as well.

  8. Seppo

    – “I no longer want to be here among such pitiful,spiteful, mentally sick creatures!”

    I-am-here, I am sorry you feel that way. And I’m sorry you had to feel ignored on the play ground.

    I wouldn’t still make such conclusions out of what happened. Finns aren’t always very helpful. The fact that no-one reacted might have something to do with your immigrant background. Mostly it has to do with the fact that people just don’t care.

    I travel on the tram every day. It is polite to give your seat to older people. Many Finns do, some don’t. Those who don’t don’t care whether the person possibly in need of a seat is an immigrant or born here. They just aren’t helpful. Unfortunately this is how things are at the moment.

    I would not call the act of not reacting hatred. Stupid and destructive ignorance, for sure, but hardly hatred.

    Even less will I accept to be called “spiteful animal” or “mentally sick” just because some of my fellow contrymen did not do what they were supposed to.

  9. Niko


    So, let me get this straight: your child fell down from a swing, she/he cried and you, the mother, came to help her / him. Why should anyone come to help your child, because they are already seeing that you are taking care of her / him? Children fell down from a swing all the time, sometimes they cry, sometimes they don’t. And if there are parents or friends looking after him / her why should anyone else intervene?

    And now you want to move from Finland because of this… wow. Maybe there is a huge cultural difference, but I just don’t understand why you are upset.

  10. Jenkki

    Hello I-am-here:

    My heart goes out to you and your distress. Being a mother is not easy. A mother would literally put her life on the line in order for her child not to feel any pain, isolation, rejection, hate, etc… (as would a father).

    You hit on an interesting point which I think should be recognized and be brought up more often. I am simply amazed how much racism there is in one’s own leikkipuistio!

    The women (“natives”) bind together and basically shut out/smoke out/ stare out any “immigrant” mother who may be in the vicinity. Simply amazing. Even in group situations where staff provide lunch for the young ones and the mothers need to help, they purposefuly ignore the immigrant mother, and even give cold, dirtly looks, stop talking, and leave the kitchen if she decides to wander in and try to help.

    It really is a battlefield in those leikkipuistot if you are a mother of a young child and happen to be of immigrant background.

    To say that a bit of enlightenment is needed in this area is an understatement.

    Having said all this “I-am-here”, I hope that you stay strong and be rest assured that as long as you are around, ain’t no thin’ or nobody who gonna hurt your baby! =)

  11. Allan

    I-am-here: Flipside of the coin – If the Finnish kid had fallen from the swing, the Finnish mother would complain in some blog that “some mentally deranged foreign woman” came and “invaded her privacy” when the kid fell from the swing, you know, as civilized people do not approach strangers if there is no apparent need.

  12. JusticeDemon


    The fact that you consider such disengagement “normal” explains why Finland has the highest suicide rate in the Nordic countries. Social constraints that prevent people from expressing or appreciating empathy are anything but civilised.

    Hopefully immigrants will save Finland from the kind of dystopia that arises when such extreme introversion becomes endemic.

  13. I-am-here

    Well, thanks everyone for your support! Actually, it was a friend of mine who suggested that I relate my negative experience here.

    To the person who tried labeling the behaviour of the Finns in that situation as normal, no, it is not normal. Not by any stretch of the imagination! I have lived in a few cities (some a lot bigger than Helsinki), and never before have I seen such indifference shown towards a child in need of help by adults. Like I said before, the height from which my child fell off the swing was pretty scary.

    I was not expecting everyone to come rushing towards my child and I, but would it really have hurt them to ask if the child was ok? Would it really have hurt the woman in the swing nearby to stop swinging her child so close to my child after he/she had fallen and was crying out in pain?

    I do think that my immigrant background was a MAJOR factor in how my child and I were treated. I do not intend wasting my time waiting for Finns to change their attitude towards foreigners; it will not happen in my lifetime. I am sure that the young children in that playground today, through the actions of their parents, learnt one thing; that it is not ok to empathize with, or help those who are different. See why Finland will never change? The seeds of hatred are being planted in the young!

    Better to leave here, and enjoy my life elsewhere.

  14. Just another immigrant

    I am here arent you being a bit over dramatic over the whole issue, first of all where were you so that you left your child unattended and he/she fell from the swing, second the indifference has little or nothing to do with your background. Last winter I saw 3 elderly people, all of them Finns fell down the stairs in the Finnkino in Hakaniemi and another one got pushed but a younger man, both hit their heads so hard that they were bleeding and guess what? nobody came to help, luckily my friend and I who happen to have some empathy came and checked if they were alright and later called an ambulance and we stayed until they picked them up….and they were not immigrants and seriously your generalization of Finland and Finns after what happened to you is nothing less but despicable! Drama queen

    • Enrique

      Hi Just another immigrant, and welcome to Migrant Tales. Thank you for your comment. Good for you that you had the civic courage to do something. One matter, in my opinion, that we should do when speaking about cultural differences and solutions is to try to pur ourselves in their shoes. If you think the woman overreacted that it ok. But for her it was a shocking to see that nobody helped her. There could be other matters at play that we cannot see in a thread.

  15. Allan

    But there still was no “hatered” or “racism” except in her own imagination. And that is the point – most of this “racism” is in the imagination. It is not real.

  16. Mary Mekko

    For Finns, I think it’s tough to decide when and how to help and intervene. Americans near your crying child, “I-am-here”, may or may not come over to help, depending on hundreds of factors: are they in a hurry, are they tired or stressed, have they no interest in children, etc. I notice these cultural factors mostly on my tourbuses. If a couple comes on with small children, American adults are fairly okay with it, saying how “cute”, etc. (regardless of the child’s ethnic background, and if anything, most effusive over a black or brown child). When such a child boards a full load of British, Germans, or other Europeans, the adults pretend that they don’t see the baby. They say nothing to the parents. Any American would interpret that as “coldness”, when indifference is more the story – not everyone likes kids.

    As the driver or guide, I am personally not happy to see small children. They cry, whine, fuss and sometimes vomit. They certainly don’t belong on a long tour, confined with adults for a full day on the road. There WILL be troulbe, and irritation to the paying customers (adults). I personally cannot stand the wailing of very small children, esp. if I am driving or giving a lecture. No doubt “Iamhere” would consider me as cold as the Finnish parents who wouldn’t run over to her child’s aid.

    If you really want to be involved with the Finnish adults and children, I-am-here, (sam-I-am?), then you as an outsider have to make some big efforts. Perfect your Finnish, learn about as much as you can of Finnish history, literature, music, and cultural cues. Be as involved in Finland and its culture as possible, and NEVER insist that the natives have to be interested in yours. It is their choice to care about your culture, but you are in their country, so throw all your might and effort and brain power into their world. Do it for the sake of your half-Finnish child, so that he/she grows up proud of his/her mother, who cares so much for his father’s native country. Learn the folk songs, the old music and dances. Don’t expect anything, just give- give-give and give to your new homeland. That is how new groups in USA succeeded.

    If you are truly not interested in Finns and their world, their culture and history, if you never speak to them and ask them true questions about their lives and opinions, then you are not making the right effort, not understanding what an immigrant has to do in any country.

    I know whatof I speak. Firstly, my mother was Irish, came to the USA as a 20-year-old, worked for seven years, then dropped out to marry and have five kids. She taught us her anti-American attitudes by rejecting the American food, habits, TV shows, books, and music. She was intolerant, not the least interested in what Americans thought or did. We five kids (now adults in our 40’s/50’s) certainly understood that there are two points of view: our mother’s (i.e.Irish) and the American. She made herself unhappy by not assimilating, not embracing the life around her, getting angry that Americans did not live “correctly”.

    She also harmed her children by making them feel guilty if they wanted to live as Americans.

    Meanwhile, I hit my own 20’s and moved to Germany, then Austria. I realized my mother’s struggle from the other side: many things, habits and food and so on, bothered me in these countries, much as I did like the life in general It was simply small customs that bothered me, such as not having a lot of fresh fruit daily as we do in California, more desserts and meat.

    Perhaps with more effort I could have stayed and assimilated, but after a year I decided it would be better to live in my own country, regardless of the great time I had had abroad.

    If I-am-here is become depressed about how Finns react to her, then she is doing something not quite right – she is somehow not trying in the right way. Get involved, make the first move, embrace everything Finnish, and tell that child that she is Finnish if you intend to raise her there. don’t ever condemn Finnish habits, the neighbors and their boys and girls, the food and so on, in front of your child. That child needs to survive and be happy amongst Finns, not feel like as oddball, plus she needs to study and get a good job later. She can’t do these things easily if she feels (from her immigrant mother’s ideas) that she is not truly a Finn. She will feel herself an outsider, behave differently, then get rejected.

    I know whereof I speak. This mother has to stop blaming the others and get moving with total involvement in real Finnish life. Stop waiting for the natives of any country to care about you; you must care about them since you came of your own free will.

    Otherwise, leave. And then find out it’s hard everywhere!

  17. Tiwaz

    Seppo, so nice to see you fail to think the ramifications of your wishes.

    Should Finnish citizenship system be changed, we would become yet another country in line of “citizenship shopping” via babies.

    Pregnant women coming to Finland to deliver their children, having kids automatically become Finns and then whole extended family with 20 “sisters” demanding residence based on family ties. And of course they would all have to be fed, clothed and cared for by Finnish taxpayer.

    FUCK NO! Keep citizenship as it is. Finnish citizenship is not a right. It is a privilege.

    As it is, children who cannot get any other citizenship upon birth in Finland are granted Finnish citizenship. That is as far as we should ever take concept of jus soli.

  18. Klay_Immigrant

    Getting Finnish citizenship is too easy. It should be like the Swiss requiring at least 12 years residency along with a national citizens test with native language requirements. If married to a native then should be reduced to 6 years with the same critieria. Also dual citizenship should be banned like the Spanish and Danish have done.

  19. Mary Mekko

    I-am-here, you never did answer me. I wonder, what is your background, point of origin, native tongue, and why are you in Finland? What is your education and work in Finland?

    If you are not working, what involvement do you make with Finns? Do you know their language and history as well as you can possibly do? Just the effort alone impresses them!

    I know you have a kid and worry about his/her future. But that future is mainly contigent on your positive attitude to all things Finnish. A negative attitude on your part will without fail poison the child’s view of his (father’s?) country. If he comes to love Finland, then he will begin to hate you for hating the Finns and Finnish customs, which are his own.

    You are the linchpin in creating an emotionally healthy Finnish child who loves Finland.

    Do it for the child, if not for yourself, and if not, then just leave and forget the whole thing. Finland will strive on without an indifferent or angry immigrant mother!

    • Enrique

      Mary, it is pretty incredible how you pass judgement on others being IN San Francisco and having only superficial knowledge of Finnishness.

      Doesn’t it bother you that some on this blog consider your points of view quite offensive and leaning to the far right? By far right I mean those white people who judge other ethnicities and believe in white supremacy.