Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the opening of the exhibition “Pro Finlandia – Finland’s road to independence” at the National Archives on 2 December 2014

Finland is preparing for the centenary celebrations of its independence. The theme of the jubilee year, in two years’ time, will be an open, learning and pluralistic Finland. These are the values upon which Finland has been built and will continue to be built. 

The centenary celebrations of our independence are not only for looking back on the past. This is also an excellent moment to stop and contemplate the significance of our hundred year old independence; what does it mean here today? What does it mean for us Finns; who we are; how Finland is placed within Europe and the world?

For answers, we can look to the present, the past and also the future. We will not find them, however, without the understanding that history provides us of the various phases of Finland’s development.

Today we open the National Archives’ exhibition Pro Finlandia – Finland’s road to independence. This is the first in a series of four exhibitions that will examine the development of Finland’s independence as part of the country’s internationalisation. The first perspective on Finland’s independence is that of France and Italy. 

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century France, and especially Paris, had become a magnet for artists, researchers and political activists. Here in Finland, and particularly among students, the unification of Italy under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Redshirts was followed with great interest. With such enthusiasm, in fact, that bookshops ran out of Garibaldi photographs, medals and miniatures. 

The interest was not one-sided. The general public in France and Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, was also gradually becoming more aware of Finland. Finland’s image was being created through participation in world exhibitions as well as international scientific and art events. 

Leading Finnish artists, composers, singers, writers, architects and mathematicians of the time were making Finland known in Europe as well as outside the continent. 

Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallén-Kallela and Helene Schjerfbeck, for example, worked in France or Italy. Jean Sibelius, Aino Achté, Juhani Aho, L. Onerva and Eliel Saarinen as well as many, many others also worked in Europe.

By the 19th century Finland had developed into a strong, distinct and autonomous area within the Russian empire. It had its own senate, and its own Parliament and administrative authority, as well as its own legislation established already in the days of Swedish rule. Finland also possessed its own currency, its own stamps, its own national bank, and even a customs border with Russia. The metropolis of St. Petersburg offered economic opportunities, while tax revenues could be retained for the benefit of the Grand Duchy itself. No wonder Finns were reasonably content with their status in relation to Russia until the end of the 19th century. 

The Finnish autonomy, which all the tsars of Russia had promised to preserve, was eroded by Russia’s policy of unification, which began in the end of the 19th century. This prompted Finland to launch a campaign in defence of its autonomy. This fight was conducted not only in Finland and Russia but also in various international fora.

Its most well-known manifestation occurred in the spring and early summer of 1899 through the rapid gathering of the Pro Finlandia petition, known as the cultural address. Leading European legal scholars, artists and several political figures demonstrated their support for Finland. Here, France and Italy were in the forefront – each country also providing a representative to the delegation that submitted the petition to the Russian tsar. The sovereign declined to accept the petition. Nevertheless – and possibly partly because of this – the address sparked widespread attention throughout Europe. 

The gathering of the cultural address within such a short space of time would have been impossible without the ties formed by Finns working abroad in the 19th century. In a vital way, they had participated in creating an image of Finland as a modern, economically developed and well educated country.

This recognition and strong image of Finland also formed the basis through which Finland was able to gain rapid acceptance of its status as an independent state in 1917. France recognised Finnish independence immediately on the same day as Russia. Italian recognition followed in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference. Finland gratefully acknowledged the support it had received.

A country seeking recognition of its independence must possess the economic, judicial and cultural preconditions for acting as a sovereign state among sovereign states. The political and cultural development at the turn of the 20th century, despite the catastrophe of World War I, provided a credible image of Finland’s readiness to succeed as an independent state. This credibility was the foundation upon which the independent Finnish state was able to continue its national construction – both internally and in its relations with foreign governments. This is why the message of this exhibition we open today is especially important. 

It is my great pleasure to declare the National Archives’ exhibition Pro Finlandia – Finland’s road to independence opened.