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När Finland var Sverige Herman Lindqvist, När Finland var Sverige (When Finland Was Sweden)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2013.

Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2014:1

Review Section: Non-Fiction

Second Edition

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.

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Other reviews in SBR 2014:1

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