Our Finnish national identity in the new century

by , under Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

For some anti-immigration groups, my background as a Finn must be a nightmare. The bad dream these groups dread to see is nothing more than the present and future staring back at them. It is the new Finland of the twenty-first century looking, together with others from our ever-culturally diverse society, confidently at the future. 

Some anti-immigration groups and even some white Finns dread us because we are the long-overdue Finland that has been swept under the rug for so long with the help of nationalism and concocted myths.  

The bad news for those who cling to these views about ourselves is that war, which is glorified by such groups as an important quality about our Finnishness, will play a lesser role in our identity. The history of those days, which only served to underline who are enemies are, will be undermined by our more open and diverse view of ourselves and the world.

This new way of looking at ourselves will seek effective solutions not constantly remind us and keep us from never leaving that ditch of the wrongs of history. We survived those times and now we must build a new reality because our survival in this century depends on it.    

 My great great grandfather David Nykänen and his grandchildren Alexander and Ira Cherkassky. Alexander, who was born in Boston, and his sister visited their grandparents of Mikkeli every summer. The picture was taken in the mid-1920s in Mikkeli (Vuorikatu 13). In the background the Naisvuori Observation Tower. (Tessieri family collection)

You may ask, dear reader, what made me so different from you in the previous century?  Let’s answer that question from my mother’s side. 

My great great great grandfather was Jacob Weikain (1758-1848), the first Jew to be granted permanent residence in Finland in 1832. His grandchild, Karl Jakob Hantwargh, a goldsmith, raised with his wife Anna Johanna a big family of eight children in Sääminki, located next door to Savonlinna in Eastern Finland.

Even if my relatives of Savonlinna lived in a very rural part of the country at the time, they were very international. Some of them worked in St Petersburg before the October 1917 Revolution and naturally spoke fluent Russian, French among other languages. 

My great aunt Irma married a U.S. diplomat, who worked in countries like the former Soviet Union, China, Afghanistan and Kenya.

Angus Ward and my aunt Irma speaking with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in Nairobi, Kenya. Irma had come a long way from those rural landscapes of Savonlinna in Eastern Finland.

 My aunt Irma (standing right) with her husband Angus Ward chatting with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Nairobi, Kenya. Irma had come a long way from those rural landscapes of Savonlinna where she grew up.  (Tessieri family collection)

Another great aunt called Lally wed Eero Tammisalo, a Helsinki University professor, was the personal dentist of the first presidents of Finland up to Marshal Carl Mannerheim.

My grandmother Aino was born and brought up in Mikkeli, a town located about 100km west of Savonlinna. She was very international as well and fluent in Finnish, Swedish, Russian, English and even spoke some French. Her first marriage was with Paul Cherkassky. He was already a celebrated violin virtuoso in his teens.

Like many at the time, Paul had fled the Russian Revolution and moved to Finland, where he served as concertmaster of the Helsinki City Orchestra during 1919-23. As a violin soloist, he gave the premiere performances of the Six Impromptus of Jean Sibelius at the composer’s request. In 1923 he was invited to become a member of the first violin section of the Boston Symphony.

Even if my family was never afraid to explore the world outside Finland like hundreds of thousands of Finns who emigrated between 1860 and 1999, I am especially concerned about those Finns who still speak of our ethnicity in the same terms as some political leaders in the 1930s. 

I can say with confidence that if we don’t allow these antiquated views about our national identity to get the best of us, the future will be ours as a unified nation bonded by our diversity. A key value that will strengthen our society will be mutual acceptance and respect.  

There never was, is nor be such a thing as a “typical” Finn. The so-called typical Finn is only a social construct.  

If my ancestors from five generations who made their lives in Finland could speak to us today, I am pretty certain that they would wholeheartedly agree with what I am saying. 

  1. andi

    So true. Finland has always been a very international country with interbreeding going on between Finns and immigrants as well as Finns themselves going out and exploring the world. The Finnish national hero Mannerheim is famous for having explored throughout Europe and Asia during his time as an officer in the Russian army.

    This idea of a typical Finn is something of a myth created originally by the Lappua movement and encouraged by the government after the civil war and continuing through the second world war and the reconstruction which followed. This myth has been propagated in the education system and now has been taken over by the extremist political parties.

    There is nothing wrong with a nation having it’s national myths and legends, nor with a people being proud of their heritage and history. I am from Britain and consider myself to be a Yorkshire Scot and am very proud of the fact. I also work in my local community here in Finland to raise awareness of the heritage of the area. What is wrong is when these myths and heritage are manipulated by extremists to create a hysterical hatred and mistrust of immigrants and internationalism.

    I hope that in the future those who are now growing up in a very international Finland will manage to overcome the bigotry that is being spread and will reach the enlightenment that they are truly capable of. Most Finns are already very open and enlightened to be honest, but they just don’t make a fuss and instead just quietly get on with things.

    Oh, and can I say that I really enjoyed looking at the photos. I am always fascinated by old photos.

    • Migrant Tales

      Thank you andi and keep up the good work! History teaches us that we cannot take our democracy for granted. We are educated by our schools as well to defend our civil liberties from groups that would be more than happy to compromise them. Some of these groups are far right and populist parties that naively believe that they can keep an ogre like racism/hatred on a short leash. As we saw in Norway on July 22 with Anders Breivik, the monster can bite back and hard.

  2. Marion Piironen, nee Easton

    Thank you for your blog. I entirely underline your thoughts. My family is from Scotland. My grandfather came to Jakobstad in1902 to study how to run a sawmill; married his old flame and set up a family in Wiborg. During the second World War the family fled during exiting situations to Britain. During the war my grandfather worked in Scotland for the Ministry of Supply in the Timber Control. He knew 8 languages. My mother, his daughter-in-law knew also 8 languages. We came back to Finland in 1950, but my grandparents didn’t.
    I was 9 then and was sent to a Finnish school. I think people didn’t quite know how to cope with foreigners in the 50’s. Me and my brothers tried to become Finns! We were given even Finnish names.( our English names were hard to pronounce!) Later when we wanted to get a job it was better to apply for it personally.
    Lately I have been concerned how the racism has increased in this country. My family has always been international also on my mother’s side: mother’s dad was originally Finnish- Swede and my grandmother was born in St Petersburg.

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Marion and welcome to Migrant Tales. I am happy that we have met on Migrant Tales. Your family history reflects a very important part of our history which, for some strange reason, has been put in cold storage. All of us, and there are many of us, should write and tell about our family histories. The more people and the more our history acknowledges us again the more difficult it will be for anti-immigration groups to spread their racism.

      World War 2 had a terrible impact on Finland. It was as if it had erased a great part of our diversity. I know some of my relatives were concerned about Finland’s alliance with Nazi Germany and what it would mean for them if Hitler would have won the war. My grandfather, a captain in the Finnish army, was very nationalistic and his hatred for the Soviet Union allowed him to make a compromise with Germany. It was very odd and sad.

      However, our international background as Finns is taking new importance even though some groups would want to take us back to the 1930s, a terrible time even in Finland politically.

      Welcome on board!

  3. gloaming

    Fascinating family history, worthy of pride.

    But I’m afraid the intro is just a carnival of fantastic paranoia.

    What are “some anti-immigration groups”? Why should you think you are important to these “groups”? And most importantly, why should you think that your glorious family history would be “dreaded” by these “groups”, or have any sort of relevance or impact to the ongoing political discussion about the south-to-north immigration?

    • Migrant Tales

      Thank you for the kudo gloaming. However, there is no “paranoia” at the beginning of the blog entry. I have written on a number of occasions that you cannot let out racism from the cage and naively believe that it will be your humble servant. Breivik is a good example of how that ogre can bite back.

      There is, therefore, no such thing as “selective hatred.” This means that you can go around bashing, victimizing and excluding one group and believe it does not affect other parts of society, especially immigrants and minorities. If, for example, you take away civil rights (the ones you have) from a minority such a measure impacts the whole of society. Far-right groups and right-wing populist ones like the PS do just that. They concoct scapegoats to reap political benefits. They attack and victimize groups that don’t have an equal chance to defend themselves because they don’t have political and economic power.

      This I find shameful. It is like a cancer that has spread in our society and that is threatening us. Can you find greater opportunism and chicanery in a party like the PS where politicians work hard to place negative labels on immigrants and minorities? On top of that, they get elected to office and chair important parliamentary committees with the approval of other parties. Something has gone wrong in Finland.

  4. gloaming

    Enrique: “Pyysalo’s name was found on a membership list of the neo-Nazi Suomen Kansalinen Vastarinta (SKV) association.”

    Not quite. She was found to have submitted a web application to that club. The actual membership roster has not been made public, so I suppose it was not cracked, either.

    • Migrant Tales

      How long had she been on that list, gloaming? She put in her application a while back if I recall. Didn’t they accept her or did they accept her and her name was on the original application? All this is irrelevant. The question is that she applied for membership in a neo-Nazi association, the SKV.

  5. gloaming

    If I remember correctly, the application was time stamped less than a year back. Whether she was accepted, I have no idea, I think she refuted ever joining. If she would have had any wits, she would have claimed that her identity was stolen, obviously the web site did not confirm the identity of the applicant in any way. In the radio interview that followed she appear to be, well, not the sharpest instrument of the OR, a less than ideal choice for her position as an aide to an MP also in this regard.

  6. BlandaUpp

    What a fascinating family history! I could get into my own family history but it would take far too long. The major detail is that our family name was changed from a Swedish one to a made up Finnish sounding one by my grandfather and his brothers in the 1930’s. My grandfather also stopped speaking Swedish after he married my grandmother and didn’t speak it to my father at all! I’m actually thinking of changing my surname back to the Swedish one because it sounds much cooler.

    • Migrant Tales

      BlandaUpp, thank you! I’ve been thinking for months how bring my family “out of the closet” and show that we are international and culturally diverse. The “monocultural” view of our society is nothing more than a social construct built with the help of past wars. We must overcome these past wrongs and move on. This, as you know, is a long process that will take generations. The sooner we begin the better.

    • Migrant Tales

      Mark and BlandaUpp, thank you but the reason why I took my family “out of the closet” was to show that many of us if not all came from somewhere else. It is disingenuous to claim that Finns are some indigenous group in Europe being invaded or threatened by immigrants. Believe it or not, even people with university degrees believe this baloney. Then you have others who live in the same world as Nazi eugenist Eugen Fischer , who still believe in racist concepts like “racial hygiene.” Check out the Nazi-spirited Suomen Sisu association. About 20% of the PS’ MPs belong to this far-right association.

  7. Mark


    Mark and BlandaUpp, thank you but the reason why I took my family “out of the closet” was to show that many of us if not all came from somewhere else.

    No fear on that, Enrique, you made the point eloquently in your post.

  8. Mary Mekko

    Enrique, I asked you on an earlier post when you mentioned that your Italian ancestors left Italy for Argentina “because of the war” if you were Jewish. Most Italians weren’t afraid of persecution unless they were Communists, so I realized that either you were Jewish or partly so, and furthermore, perhaps descended from Italian Communists. Was your family also in trouble in Argentina in the 1970’s, its younger members disappeared or could have been?

    I think you can claim to be a Russian Jew whose family ultimately made it to Finland in the 1800’s through Russian Army service and became “Finnicized”. That you are of foreign religion and bloodlines is obvious, and certainly you should not have hid it or played disingenuously.

    Tell us more about their integration, what kind of work they did and so on. Do you and your loved ones retain their original religion and Jewish identity, or has it been lost?

  9. Rocker


    ”I’m actually thinking of changing my surname back to the Swedish one because it sounds much cooler.”

    Have you ever heard of Swedish (sur) names in Finland that are actually not Swedish but Finnish?