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Finland - Geography

Like the other countries in the Arctic region, Finland published an Arctic strategy, first of all in 2010 and with revisions in 2013 and 2016. Perhaps the most significant thing about this document is that it defines the country as an Arctic one in its entirety, i.e. it is now conceived of as Arctic from the edge of the Helsinki conurbation (the “wolf limit”) to the land of Santa Claus. The recognition and acceptance of Finland’s northern status has never been stated as boldly and unambiguously as this.

Practically the whole country is located north of latitude 60°N, so that the Finns constitute no less than 25% of all the inhabitants of this circumpolar zone. On this criterion Finland is without doubt an Arctic country. Given that their ancestors migrated to the area now known as Finland soon after the ice sheet of the last glaciation retreated from it, around 11,000 years ago, the Finns may be said to have had a long experience of living with protracted winters and brief summers and adapting to cold conditions. How are these collective memories reflected in opinions of the Finns and in the image that they have of themselves.

Since Finland is a long, narrow country (1157 km from north to south and 542 km wide at its narrowest point), its “northernness” affects the inhabitants of different parts of it in different ways. The people of Helsinki see the Ring III road built around the city in the 1960s as dividing their civilized urban area from the uncivilized area lying “further north”. The ring-road was in fact known at one time as the “wolf limit”, the implication being that everything beyond it, i.e. more than about 20 km from the center of Helsinki, was wild, untamed countryside.

A tourist advertisement film from the same period praises Helsinki as the “capital of the north”: “In winter the sea surrounding the White City of the North is wrapped in a glistening mantle of snow and great perseverance is needed to keep the harbours open. The gleaming snow emphasizes the clean lines of the buildings and the snowy landscape reminds us of how close to nature even the people of Helsinki are living. The city borders directly on forests that provide excellent opportunities for hiking and skiing excursions.”

The feeling of the Arctic that one gets on passing beyond the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland is far more convincing, however. Here the snow can be as much as a couple of meters deep and it is in Lapland that the most severe frosts have been recorded, -51°C. The Arctic is also well known for its period of winter darkness, as the sun remains below the horizon for two months in Utsjoki, Finland’s northernmost local government district, although it is seldom totally dark, thanks to the moonlight and the starry skies, and most of all the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, which can set the whole sky aflame on clear, frosty nights.

The dazzling beauty of nature in the snow, and in general the vast coniferous forests to be found all over the country, are felt to have a curative and invigorating effect on the Finnish mind. The forests not only purify the air but they also refresh the mind, and there are plenty of opportunities for the Finns to have these experiences, as their country is one of the most intensively forested in the world, with 72% of its surface area covered by forests.

One distinctive feature of the history of Finland in the 19th and 20th centuries was the exploitation of the natural resources of the north. It was just over 150 years ago that the coniferous forest zone of Northern and Eastern Finland became a source of timber for the steadily growing sawmill and pulp and paper industries. The forests became Finland’s “green gold”, bringing work and affluence, developing the communities of the marginal areas of the country and linking the wilderness areas to the main roads.

After the Second World War two of the mighty rivers of the north, the Kemi and Oulu Rivers, were harnessed for hydroelectric power and two large reservoirs by European standards, Lokka and Porttipahta, were built to ensure regular supplies of water for the power stations.

Sweden and Russia clashed a number of times over the centuries and most of the battles were fought on Finnish soil. The Treaty of Teusina, concluded in 1595, ended a bloody guerrilla war between the two countries (known as the Long Wrath) that had been raging for 25 years. Under the Treaty, the northern section of Finland’s eastern border made a great leap eastwards, reaching the Arctic Ocean. In a war known as the Great Wrath, Tsar Peter the Great reconquered the areas Russia had ceded to Sweden in the 17th century. Under the Treaty of Uusikaupunki, which brought the conflict to a close, Finland’s eastern border was moved to more or less where it is today. Two decades later, Russians invaded Finland again. The occupation, known as the Little Wrath, ended with the Treaty of Turku under which the areas east of the Kymijoki River and those around Savonlinna were ceded to Russia.

Nineteenth-century scholars involved in drawing up maps of the territory of Finland had already become convinced that the Arctic Ocean coast and the Kola Peninsula, together with areas of Karelia on the other side of the border, were “natural” parts of Finland. This view was based on the existence of ancient Finno-Ugric dwelling sites in the surroundings of Viipuri (Vyborg) and on the coast of the White Sea, and the subsequent migration of Finns to the Murmansk coast in the 19th century merely reinforced this notion of a “Greater Finland” that was expanding eastwards. The history professor and left-wing politician Väinö Voionmaa (1869–1947) observed in 1917 that ”Finland without Russian Karelia and the Kola Peninsula is like a loaf of bread without its crust”.

After protracted negotiations a narrow strip of land extending from the eastern border of the Inari district to the Arctic Ocean and bounded on its two sides by the rivers Luttojoki and Paatsjoki, which separated it from Norway and the Soviet Union respectively, was ceded to Finland in October 1920. It was given the name Petsamo, which was derived from the Skolt Sámi word for a pine tree, Piäccâm. The discovery of Europe’s largest deposit of nickel ore at Kolosjoki caused the railway project to be reconsidered, and once the mine had begun functioning in 1938 several bills were put before parliament with the aim of building the Petsamo railway.

Finland’s eastern border was redrawn for the last time during the Second World War following conflicts between Finland and the Soviet Union. Under an interim peace treaty in 1944, Finland again had to cede to the Soviet Union the areas around Vyborg and to the north of Lake Ladoga, the Petsamo area, and parts of the northern municipalities of Salla and Kuusamo. Almost the entire population of these areas, some 400,000 people, were resettled in different parts of Finland. When the Second World War came to an end Finland lost its overland connectionto the Arctic Ocean.

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Page last modified: 25-09-2019 18:57:33 ZULU