SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

The Russian Government and the Finnish Question, 1905-1917

Antti Kujala
(Helsinki University)

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

In this paper I attempt to analyze the motives and underlying causes of the Imperial Government's policy towards Finland between 1905 and 1917 as well as the two approaches or alternative policies of the time. Russian policy aimed at partial political and administrative integration of the Grand Duchy with the rest of the Empire. Administrative Russification related only to the political structures and elites, whereas cultural or ethnic Russification applied to national minorities as a whole. The concepts of administrative and cultural Russification have been put forward by Edward C. Thaden. Because of Finland's separateness from the rest of the Empire, cultural Russification was doomed to only a subordinate role in Finland. The situation was completely different from that of Russian Poland, for example, where the Poles had to conduct their business in government offices and courts in the Russian lan guage, not to speak about the Ukraine, where even the existence of a separate Ukrainian language was officially denied up until the year 1905. The Russian government treated the various borderlands so inconsistently that any idea of a coordinated policy must be abandoned. The borderlands were too many and too different to render a consistent policy concerning them possible.

Finland's separate institutions became anachronistic as Russia's administrative and political system was modernized in 1905-6. This modernization went hand in hand with the rise of Russian nationalism. As Russia could not channel nationalism into an assertive foreign policy after her defeat in the Far East, it had to be diverted to strengthening the central government at the expense of self-government in the Empire's borderlands. Prime Minister P. A. Stolypin sincerely believed in the Russian nationalist objectives of his policy, but he also deliberately employed Russian nationalism and centralist borderland policies to bolster his government and its cooperation with the majority parties in the Duma and State Council, that is in the legislative bodies of Russia, on which he was very much dependent. As a result, the Finnish question shifted from being one of borderlands politics to becoming part of wider domestic politics within Russia.

In fact, Stolypin did not only have to take the majority parties in the Duma into account but also the Tsar, on whose goodwill his continuance in office ultimately depended. Nicholas II had felt bitter towards the Finns since 1899 when they had accused him of breaking his word and had started an international campaign against the government, passive resistance, and openly rebellious action. The Tsar revealed his anti-Finnish feelings to the German envoy at the beginning of 1907: The Finns are at an even lower level than the Russians, "especially with regard to morality, and nothing good is to be expected from them."

In many respects, the Emperor proved willing to go further in limiting Finland's autonomy than Stolypin. In September and October 1909, for example, Nicholas supported the abolition of the Finnish Senate (that is the domestic government) and the transfer of its powers to the Russian Governor-General of Finland. Stolypin, in contrast, resolved the crisis by appointing a group of Finns who had served long periods in Russia and who owed allegiance to the Russian government rather than Finnish parties to replace the Finnish politicians who wanted to resign from the Senate. This was a completely legal solution and was intended to prevent a repetition of the passive resistance that had been seen between 1899 and 1905. Stolypin argued that every possible effort should be made to rule Finland through Finnish institutions and officials, and above all, using legal means, as coercive measures would lead to the dead-end experienced during Governor-General N. I. Bobrikov's time (in office 1898-1904).

It was Nicholas who persistently kept first Bobrikov and then F. A. Zein (1909-17) as governor-general, despite the fact that their misjudged measures only served to alienate the Finns without generating any real benefit for Russia. It would certainly be unfair nevertheless to describe Nicholas as a Finnophobe. However, he was seriously unaware of the realities of his empire, something which his obsession with plans to declare a state of war in Finland and to subjugate it by military reconquest indicate only too well. In any case, a determined ruler would have had plenty of time to bring a small and powerless country like Finland to heel, instead of which the Russian government wasted valuable time in endless discussions and conferences.

The government's Finnish policy was to a large extent based on the idea that Finland constituted a threat to the security of the Empire's political system, its government and the city of St Petersburg. After 1907, the Finnish threat ceased to exist because the Finnish government suppressed Finnish "separatism" and expelled Russian revolutionaries and terrorists from the Karelian Isthmus. Governor-General Zein and the Russian Gendarmerie stationed in Finland, however, continued to assert that the threat still existed because it backed up their intentions to dismantle Finnish autonomy.

A state of war was almost imposed on Finland twice during 1907 and again in 1909 and 1911. Although the imperial authorities did have cause to be concerned about Finland being used as a base for Russian revolutionaries in 1906 and 1907, the plans made in 1909 and 1911 for declaring a state of war were based on a fundamentally inaccurate reading of the situation. The Finnish parties remained firmly committed to legal parliamentary and other means. The most the authorities had to fear was a campaign of passive resistance, and even this did not develop as a result of the government's caution and disputes between the Finnish parties.

As the gap between the peaceful state of affairs in Finland and the lurid picture painted in police reports began to grow, an investigation into the activities of the Russian gendarmerie in Finland was commissioned in 1912. The true nature of its work was revealed in this review carried out by Colonel N. I. Balabin.

Balabin discovered that the Finnish "Union of Liberation", a secret separatist organization, whose members were reported to include such prominent subversives as the Japanese Emperor, did not exist except in the imaginings of the gendarmerie and that nobody in Finland was planning a rebellion. Balabin went through all of the gendarmerie's secret agents in Finland, both Finnish and Russian, and came to the conclusion that the majority of them were no better than "blackmailers", "useless", or "feeble". He described how some agents clumsily forged circulars supposedly produced by subversive organizations in Finland and used the money they earned to buy liquor.

It is difficult to understand how a great power was able to operate such an ineffectual intelligence-gathering network, but ultimately it was not a question of whether any credence was given to the distorted picture of reality that it provided. True or not, its distortions served the goals of Russian politicians keen to make use of the Finnish question only too well.

As a result of the investigation, the content of the gendarmerie's reports changed dramatically, and the exaggeration of previous years was replaced by a new sense of realism.

Following the Russian government's realization in 1912 and 1913 that its policy on Finland up until then had been based on a serious misreading of the situation, it could in theory have changed tack and begun to build bridges with the Finnish non-socialist parties then in the majority in the Finnish Diet. While this approach would undoubtedly have been difficult, it would not have been impossible. No such attempt was made, however.

It is difficult to say whether Stolypin would have had the courage and wisdom to take such a step if he had still been prime minister. Perhaps not, as he very much built his career on the basis of aggressive Russian nationalism. Stolypin's successors in any case proved unable to control the government as he had done. Governor-General Zein continued his divisive approach in Finland with the full consent and approval of the Emperor. All this highlights how badly Russia was governed after Stolypin's death.

Following the outbreak of World War 1 in summer 1914, a state of war was declared in Finland but without recourse to the sort of draconian measures included in the plans drawn up in preceding years. The over 800 leading members of various parties that were supposed to be imprisoned were, with a few exceptions, not taken into custody. The wartime state of war proved much more amenable than its peacetime counterpart.

At the beginning of December 1914, Governor-General Zein received a letter from the Russian Council of Ministers informing him that the local administration should avoid all measures that might strengthen Swedish antipathy towards Russia and encourage Sweden to ally herself with Germany. The banishment of the former speaker of the Finnish Diet, P. E. Svinhufvud, to Siberia was criticized as a serious mistake in this respect. Zein was requested to attend the next Council of Ministers meeting to discuss "the necessity of softening our policy on Finland".

Looking at the attitude of the Russian government to Finland between 1914 and 1917, it can be seen that the directions received by Seyn at the end of 1914 remained unchanged until the fall of the autocracy. Finland was the only part of the Empire where conscription or prescribed labour were not introduced. The softer Russian approach did not change even in 1915 when it was revealed that contingents of young Finns had been dispatched to Germany for military training with the intention of using them to form the backbone of a future army of liberation. In spite of the restraint in practical politics neither Zein nor the Russian government proved able to give a clearly positive signal to the Finns. This and the leaking of the so-called Great Russification programme in 1914 served to irreversibly estrange many elements of Finnish society from Russia.

An examination of the dilemma faced by the Russian authorities over if and when to declare a state of war in Finland shows that the Finnish question was primarily not one of securing the Empire's north-west frontier for Russian politicians, but rather a weapon they used in the Empire's domestic politics. This is the only explanation for the strange fact that the issue of ensuring law and order in Finland only became a matter of importance in Russian politics when law and order was not a problem in Finland, while amid the threats posed by the World War Finland was largely left to her own devices. During the war, the Finnish question lost its significance in Russian domestic politics, and avoiding anything that might provoke Sweden to join forces with Germany became a more important priority.

Two approaches shaped Russian government attitudes to the Finnish question. The dominance enjoyed by the more uncompromising approach until the outbreak of World War 1 ultimately derived from the fact that it was the one supported by the Tsar.

SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.