As Finland celebrates 100 years of independence, GSM’s roving reporter, Basil Herwald, takes us on a guided tour of the country’s philatelic history, before heading to Helsinki to see what Finland’s sometimes controversial modern-day issues have to offer.
On my New Year travels at the start of 2017, I came by train from St Petersburg to Helsinki. This is the high-speed ‘Allegro’ and the journey across the flat frozen borderlands takes just over three hours. The breakfast delicacy I bought on arrival at Helsinki railway station is heavy and tasteless. It’s a sort of black bread base filled with sweet rice. But everyone here likes them. Their very name, Karjalapiirraakkaa, is redolent of the history of modern Finland. For they are named after the region they emanate from, Karelia, or Karjala in Finnish. You’ll perhaps have heard of the Karelia suite; it’s one of the best-loved works of Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer, and brings tears to the eyes of modern Finns. I’ll try to explain as my train from St Petersburg brings me through Viborg station towards the remote border with Finland, a country which celebrates its centennial in 2017.
A history lesson
If you don’t like history you had better skip the next couple of paragraphs – but I fear if you do so, you won’t fully understand why Finland’s postal story is so convoluted. It was the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth in 2015 and his tone poem, named after the Karelia region, is a strong reminder of an area around the Baltic coast which formed part of the Swedish lands for centuries. Finland had always been an integral part of Sweden – hence Swedish being the second language of Finland to this day. But Swedish hegemony waned in the late-17th century and the area of Karelia passed to Russia.
St Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great on what was once Finnish territory. To the west was Karelia, including its main ancient town of Viipuri – in Finnish, or Viborg in both Swedish and Russian. In the early-18th century, Finland became a Grand Duchy of Russia and its territory included Karelia.
With the Russian Revolution in October 1917, Finnish nationalism (which awakened years earlier with the help of composers like Sibelius) reached its zenith. The Finns seized their chance and proclaimed a new kingdom. A brief but bloody civil war ensued between Finnish Bolsheviks and ‘White Finns’. The latter won, with 37,000 dead. Their leader, Marshall Mannerheim, noticed that the proposed king of the new nation , a minor German princeling, was somewhat tainted, given the abdication of his Kaiser. Without a suitable monarch in place, in December 1918, the Finns chose Mannerheim to serve as a temporary Regent of Finland. However, the short-lived kingdom swiftly became a republic and in 1919 Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg was elected as its first president. Mannerheim, who lost out at the elections, retired from public life – at least for the time being. (I hope the reason for this complex history lesson will become apparent, for, as I said, without it you can’t understand the philatelic history of modern Finland).
Karelia, bordering on what was soon to become the Soviet Union, was an integral part of the new Finnish Republic until what we call World War II. However, for Finns, there is no ‘World War II’. In 1939 Finland found itself at war with the Soviets. That year saw a harsh winter, with temperatures of 40 below. Mobile Finnish skiing troops, led by Mannerheim, who had returned to serve as commander-in-chief of the Finnish armed forces, proved so formidable that Stalin was forced to send more and more Russian soldiers to face them. Despite fierce resistance by the Finnish troops the fighting ended abruptly after 105 days with the Treaty of Moscow.
By that, Finland was forced to cede to the Soviets all of Karelia. 400,000 Finnish refugees flooded into Finland, having been given just ten days to leave their homes. There are pictures in the National Museum of these desperate people walking with their livestock across the newly created border. This is what the Finns call the ‘Winter War’. Not content with Karelia,
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