Finns resist Russification, end conscription, regain elections, 1898-1905

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
To resist the “Russification” that resulted from Pan-Slavism of the Russian monarchs that controlled Finland and to regain the abolished rights of freedom of speech and assembly.

For much of the nineteenth century, Finland was under Russian rule. This began in 1809 when Finland was made part of the Russian Empire. As part of the Russian Empire, Finland was autonomous in domestic policy but not foreign policy. Finland was allowed to create its own laws through its parliament, but Russian tsars controlled Finland and decided Finnish foreign affairs. Finns generally had no problem with this situation because the Russian government did not interfere with internal affairs.

In later years, a strong sense of Pan-Slavism led to Russian rulers favoring intense programs for Russification. In 1889, Tsar Aleksandr III annulled criminal laws proposed by the Finnish Diet, in 1890 Russians took over the Finnish postal service, and in 1891 certain Finnish officials were required to be fluent in Russian. More severe attempts at Russification were encouraged by the new tsar, Nikolai II, and Konstantin Pobedonostev, procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. In order to ensure the Russification of the Finnish people, General Nikolai I. Bobrikov was made the Governor-General of Finland in 1898 by Nikolai II.

Bobrikov’s negative impact on the Finnish people was felt immediately. He created a new army bill that increased the traditional term of military service from ninety days to five years, placed Finns in Russian units under the control of Russian officers, and changed the aspects of service from domestic protection of specifically Finland to military service anywhere throughout the Russian Empire. When this bill was rejected unanimously by the Finnish Diet, Bobrikov responded by publishing an imperial manifesto stating that he was given power to decide what affairs would be discussed by the Diet and the extent to which such issues could be discussed.

In response to this, the Senate and the Diet sent representatives to the Tsar but neither group was received. Following this, a petition was circulated among the throughout Finland and within two weeks 522,931 people had signed this petition against the new army bill. Five hundred men from every district in Finland made their way to St. Petersburg, all the while undetected by Bobrikov’s agents, to present their petition to the Tsar personally. Another petition planned by an international deputation was also organized, bearing notable signatures such as Herbert Spencer, Florence Nightingale, Emile Zola, Anatole France, Theodor Mommsen and Henrik Ibsen. Despite two completely legitimate petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures against the new army bill, the Tsar refused to acknowledge either and the army bill was implemented anyway.

Following the implementation of the new army bill, oppression continued in Finland. Bobrikov abolished the rights of freedom of speech and assembly. He also called 25,000 conscripts for military service, but when 15,000 refused, he responded by banishing seventeen publicists who defended them and dismissed fifteen judges who upheld their case. Bobrikov also dismissed thousands of Finnish civil servants from their posts and replaced Finnish police forces, provincial governors, and mayors with Russian officials. Lastly, Bobrikov mandated the teaching of Russian as a language in Finnish schools.

The Finnish population reacted to these reforms with more nonviolent resistance. Finnish authorities refused to sign official documents, judges ignored new legislation, and parents refused to have their children learn Russian. Bobrikov’s reforms also led to the creation of a secret patriotic society which published petitions, organized protests and public demonstrations, and assisted Finns to emigrate to avoid military conscription. Professors and clergymen preached the resistance of Russification to students and followers. An underground publication called Fria Ord (“Free Words”) was published in Stockholm, to avoid detection by Russian officials, and circulated among the Finnish people as a method to unite the population as well as keep morale high. Finnish authorities, though aware of such actions, did not intervene and the struggle between Finnish citizens and the Russian government continued for five years.

Bobrikov attempted to break the nonviolent campaign by trying to instigate violent actions from the Finnish population. He used men hired by the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, to commit acts of violence against Russian authorities in order to give them an excuse to violently repress the Finns or to provoke the Finns into using violence themselves against the Russian authorities. A round of violent action followed when a 1903 regulation gave Bobrikov dictatorial powers and authorized violent repressions against the Finns.

Bobrikov’s plan to instigate Finnish violence backfired when he was assassinated on June 16, 1904 by Eugen Schauman, a young Finnish patriot who then committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, Russian military officer Luitenant-Colonel Kramarenko was assassinated and an attempt was made on the life of M.A. Myasoyedov, the Russian governor of Viipuri. These violent actions were committed by Finns who collected arms for a possible violent insurrection and were in contact with the Russian Social Revolutionary Party.

When Russia was defeated in a war against Japan in 1905, Finnish Social Democrats, a group consisting largely of agricultural and urban workers, called for a general strike. Trains stopped running, factories were empty, and shops, offices, schools, and restaurants were closed. University students formed a corps to maintain order because even the police force had gone on strike. With the involvement of schools and businesses, the campaign created a total economic shutdown, paralyzing the country.

The Tsarist government responded. The reforms implemented by Bobrikov were revoked. The Russians had already given up trying to conscript Finns into their army, compensating themselves by requiring the country to pay money for the exception. They re-established Finnish constitutional government with a new Diet elected by Finnish citizens. The first elections were held in 1907, and the Social Democrats won eighty of the 200 seats.

The Finnish campaign was successful as social defense, that is, in defending against the measures of Russification introduced during that time. It did not include a change in agenda, for example, preventing Russian troops from moving freely throughout Finland or establishing complete freedom of speech.

Within two years the Russian Empire renewed attempts of Russification. The Russian war machine provided economic prosperity for some Finns, resulting in significant class divisions within Finland. Finns mounted some nonviolent resistance, but not at the national level as in 1905. Twenty-three members of the Viipuri Court refused to give a dictated judgment on a case, and were thrown in a Russian jail. Also, two-thirds of the Finnish pilot service resigned because they were unhappy working under Russian officials. Despite these and other acts of resistance, Russification made headway as the Empire pressed its neighboring nation of three million.

Research Notes
Miller, William Robert. Nonviolence: A Christian Interpretation. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

Gene Sharp. Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (20/06/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Gavin Musynske, 04/12/2009