Growing up and being a Finn in the last century was especially tough. If wars and conflicts didn’t do you in, it was the option of being an immigrant and living with that near-constant yearning and separation in faraway lands. Between 1860 and1999, over 1.2 million Finns emigrated mainly to North America and Sweden.
I was more fortunate than my grandparents, Harald and Aino, who were born in Finland in the early 1890s. Before they turned twenty they had already witnessed enough strife and bloodshed to last them a lifetime: Russification and the struggle that led to Finland’s independence in 1917, the assassination of Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov in 1904, and the terrible Civil War of 1918 between the Whites and Reds, which tore the country in two.
The Finland I knew before I turned twenty was very different from the one my grandparents witnessed. The Cold War and the Vietnam War raged on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Every day I’d on the news about how the U.S. was bombing North Vietnam back to the stone age, when, in fact, the war was severely weakening us as a nation.
Even my grandparents’ early adulthood was characterized by extremes: the New York Stock Market Crash of October 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression, which in turn ignited a new Great War that would end up claiming an estimated 60 million lives.
So many rivers of blood flowed by them during their lifetime that it is quite remarkable that they survived to tell about those days. However, Harald and Aino never spoke about them, and their anguish. They chose silence to reviving with their tales those phantoms that once brought so much terror and death to Europe.
I have read a lot about World War 2. I think it is important to know about that period in order not to go down that slippery slope ever again. Understanding what happened back then isn’t easy, however, and may take more than one lifetime to understand. How are you supposed to grasp the systematic murder of six million Jews or that of 20 million people that died in Russia?
I have so many questions I’d ask my grandparents. Do they remember the day when Finland became an independent nation? What about when the Winter War broke out on a Thursday? What was a typical day of their lives like? No matter how much I try and wish, it’s too late to ask them any questions. Only silence answers back.
Contrary to my grandparents, I will share some of my anecdotes with the dear reader like when I spent the most beautiful moment of my life. I was eleven years at the time and it happened at our summerhouse near Mikkeli. Like magic, I was awoken by the sound of my grandfather sawing wood while the warm sunlight entered my room and mixed with the cool semi-darkness.
How beautiful the forest is in summer with its towering spruces, clean-white birches and sparkling lakes. These images raced through my mind and heart during that special morning pleading with the day and moment to never end.
What was it that made that morning so memorable? Was it summer that was blooming inside of me as sheer beauty? Or was it because I had by chance learned to capture the full moment without the past and future pulling me in opposite directions?
After so much war and suffering during the first twenty-five years of Finland’s independence, our country needed a similar magic moment to rebuild and heal itself from the devastation of war.
Many times I wonder what would be needed for people to turn their backs on war and their destructive social behavior. Would the answer be in more social equality, or tasa-arvo as they call it in Finnish?
Another important characteristic about our successful society today in Finland is that we enjoy a strong sense of community and belonging. Not everyone, however, is part of such an important family. Some of these are visible minorities like the Roma, Saami, non-white Finns, gays as well as other groups.
As we race deeper into the depths of the new century, we need more than ever those very models that turned us after 1945 into a successful nation at peace with itself and its neighbors. Inclusion is one of those very important values.
A lot more work is still needed on this front but we are getting there little by little. I am confident that social equality for all based on mutual acceptance, respect and equal opportunities will take us to a bright future in Finland.
*This column was originally published in the summer 2012 issue of New World Finn.