Albert Bonniers förlag, 2013.
Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Non-Fiction
In the documentary film Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart (2012), a Finnish rock-musician agonises about the effect of his childhood in Sweden on his Finnish identity. For him, it created alienation from both cultures. The prolific popular historian Herman Lindqvist experienced the exact opposite but, since his return to Sweden, has striven to inform his compatriots about what he regards as a forgotten common history.
In this book, Lindqvist sets out a narrative which details the many connections between Sweden and what until 1809 was the integral eastern part of the Swedish kingdom. He traces the movement of Swedish-speaking people in the early Middle Ages to populate, farm, convert and administer the region for their own interests and that of the Swedish crown. This intrusion, at times bloody but mainly peaceful, was undeniably the movement of one ethnic group into an area populated by another. It established a cultural and political dominance that no amount of intermarriage between the two ethnicities could erode but also produced a veritable host of significant Swedish historical personalities and dynasties with Finnish connections.
Lindqvist uses these personalities, interwoven with the chronology of Swedish historical events, to exemplify their influence on the development of Sweden into a great power up to and during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century and its subsequent decline under pressure from Russian expansion. Indeed, much of the book is taken up with the centuries-long struggle to keep the Russians at bay from Sweden’s eastern borders, whose Karelian fluidity would again haunt independent Finland in the 1940s.
The tales of intriguing and ruthless dynasties such as Oxenstierna, Horn, Brahe and Tott are told with depth and verve while the condition of the ordinary Finnish-speaking peasants is covered understandably more statistically and at arm’s length due to an absence of contemporaneous accounts from this illiterate group. The figures quoted are always thought-provoking: a population of only 250,000 at the end of the middle ages with an average life expectancy of 30 years; 1,200 peasants slaughtered in the 1596-7 uprising; one-third of the Swedish army between 1620 and 1700 was from Finland; of over 48,000 Finnish troops in the late 18th century, only 5,000 returned home. So the Finnish peasantry were plundered for manpower and taxed for revenue, much of it spent on the ultimately vain attempts to fortify the region and repel the Russians. Not that they would have fared any better before 1809 under Russian rule by such as the psychopathic Ivan the Terrible whose treatment of Swedish emissaries is chillingly described here.
Despite these sacrifices, the rulers’ descriptions of their hapless rustic charges were with few exceptions patronising and critical. King Gustav Vasa wrote: ‘… a drunken and unreasonable people who value the ale tankard more than life, property, welfare and honour.’ One exception was a cleric-historian, Gyldenstolpe, who when tasked with enhancing the reputation of all parts of the kingdom wrote in 1657 that the inhabitants’ virtues were ‘moderation, gentleness, patience, modesty, honesty, reliability, loyalty to authority, hospitality and diligence.’ Perhaps an ideal list for exploitative rulers.
As well as serving in the Swedish military and navy, Finnish inhabitants in the 17th century were resettled in the west, for example in areas such as Värmland where 5,000 were encouraged to develop timber and farming in underpopulated tracts and have left a rich cultural legacy. Another mid-17th century resettlement of Finnish peasants was to the colony of ‘New Sweden’ across the Atlantic in what is now Delaware. Closer to home but further up the class ladder, most of the governors of the newly conquered territories and the officers of the armies in the Baltic region were Finlanders. The expanding great power provided opportunities for advancement.
When that power was in retreat from a series of military disasters throughout the 18th century, the governing class in Finland contemplated new solutions to preserve their property and status. When Russian occupation ended in 1722, the region was devastated and accommodating this recurrent threat was to dominate nobles’ thinking during the century. This led in 1788 to a meeting of Gustavian dissidents in Anjala which signalled the beginning of the end of rule from Stockholm and a new constitution under Russian rule. It took another 20 years and a complete rout of the Swedish military by the Russians to turn that into an irreversible reality.
Lindqvist has again produced a history which has drawn on scholarship and excellent narrative technique to portray a past era vividly. Small quibbles about the use of Swedish place names rather than their modern Finnish equivalents leading to difficulty in the identification of the less significant locations should not detract from a whole-hearted endorsement of a book which places much of the last 200 years of fraught Swedish-Finnish relations in historical context. Rather than alienation, Lindqvist appears to have experienced cultural integration.