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Finnland Nordlichter
Image: picture-alliance/robertharding/R. Moiola

Finland at 100: Brimming with 'sisu'

Mark Hallam
December 6, 2017

Finland became an independent nation exactly a century ago, facilitated by revolution in Russia. Now in the EU and the eurozone, but not in NATO, it's also a top performer in education, coffee consumption and motorsport.


December 6 is Finland's Independence Day, and 2017's anniversary marks exactly a century since it became an independent state. The country is best known for its forests, saunas, dark winters and summer sunlight, Aurora Borealis, motor racing success, and for treading a fine line between West and East as the EU's most northerly neighbor to Russia.

Not sure what's meant by "active neutrality," unaware that Finland was the first European country to give women the vote, in 1905? Then we've got you covered with this flurry of Finnish factoids.

History — First Swedish, then Russian, finally Finland

For six centuries, modern-day Finland was a part of the Swedish Empire. Swedish remains an alternative official language to this day in Finland, even though Finnish shares more linguistic commonalities with Hungarian.

Finland's Hossa national park, the rugged canyon river of Julma-Ölkky in Hossa national park in Kuusamo, Finland, on July 24, 2017.
Much of Finland's population lives on the southern coast, the country is the most densely-forested in all of EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Moilanen

Russia's Alexander I claimed Finland from Sweden in 1809. It remained a Grand Duchy of czarist Russia, with varying levels of independence, for more than a century.

The Russian Revolution during World War I paved the way for Finnish independence, which followed later in 1917. The nascent Soviet Union let Finland go, opting to recognize it as sovereign within a month of Finland's declaration of independence.

Wartime — Losses to Soviets, fought with and then against Nazis

Russia and Germany's "Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact" of 1939 put Finland in the Soviet sphere of influence. But when the Soviets demanded land for Red Army military bases, the Finns refused. An invasion from the East followed.

Finnische Soldaten im 2. Weltkrieg
Finns had to summon all of their 'sisu' (more on that later in the story) to fight three separate wars in the snow during World War IIImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Finland lost eastern territory in the "Winter War" of 1939-40 but was able to inflict sufficient damage to the Red Army that it could sue for peace. Western countries offered Finland moral support but little material assistance, distracted by Adolf Hitler's march through Western Europe. But Nazi Germany, now turning its eye east, was more than happy to support and restock Finland's depleted army. When Hitler broke his pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia in 1941, Finland launched the "Continuation War" of 1941-44, seeking to reclaim territories as a co-belligerent (albeit not a fully fledged ally) of Germany. Immediately after the Continuation War, Finnish forces had to turn their attention to Nazi troops, fighting the "Lapland War" of 1944-45 to force the retreating Germans out of northern Finland and back into occupied Norway.

Finland lost territory, had to relocate citizens, and paid considerable reparations to the Soviets at the end of the Second World War.

Modern politics — Military neutrality, but now in the EU

Finland's complex set of conflicts during the Second World War probably help explain why its Cold War history came to be marked by a policy of "active neutrality," also known as the "Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line," after the two Finnish presidents who implemented it for years.

Symbolbild Finnland Wirtschaft
After the Soviet Union crumbled, once-neutral Finland joined the EU and later the euro, but not NATOImage: Fotolia/Stephen Finn

Finland sought and maintained healthy ties both with the Soviets and the West, without getting close enough to either side to upset the other.

Since the Soviet Union's collapse, Finland has integrated more closely with Europe. It joined the EU in 1995 and later the eurozone — but unlike several fellow Russian neighbors in the Baltics, it has not sought NATO membership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, born closer to Helsinki than to Moscow, praised the quality of "political dialogue" with Finland on a visit there this July.

Education — luxury libraries, PISA star

The prosperous, small, militarily neutral democracy in Europe's northeast hardly dominates the headlines nowadays. Indeed, many people best know Finland for popping up at or near the top of some of the more curious world rankings.

The most saunas per capita, the least failed state in the world, the most densely forested country in Europe, the best country for mothers, host of the annual Air Guitar World Championships, the least corrupt government in the world, or simply magazine Newsweek's "best country in the world" — these are all accolades that Finland either holds, or once held.

Read more — Celebrating 100 years of Finnish culture

For years, Finnish school students were at or near the top of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings for the best performers in math, science and reading. Although Singapore now leads the way globally, Finland remains among Europe's best educators of its children. Perhaps that's partly connected to the country's love of libraries. Maintaining libraries at public expense is enshrined in law, and the nation's 5.5 million people borrow almost 68 million books a year. The new Helsinki Central Library, due to be completed next year, has had almost €100 million ($120 million) pumped into it. Academic libraries, for instance at universities, are also legally obliged to open their doors to all.

Finnland Helsinki Universitätsbibliothek
All Finnish libraries, even university ones like this in Helsinki, are open to everyone and totally free by lawImage: picture-alliance/Alexander Farnsworth

Miscellaneous — Rocking, racing and the 'sisu' effect

Just like their Nordic neighbors, Finns love their heavy metal. According to 2016 data from "Encyclopaedia Metallum," Finland led the world with 630 metal bands for every million people — compared to 122 for Germany and 72 for the US. Finnish rockers to enjoy international success include Children of Bodom, Nightwish, and Him.

Finnland Wodka Koskenkorva
People often think of the booze, but it's coffee and milk that the Finns really put away at paceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. S. Gustafsson

It might well have something to do with the dark winter nights and long summer days, but Finns also dig caffeine. The average Finn consumes 12 kilos (26.5 pounds) of coffee per year, around 10 times the global average. They're also leading consumers of milk. Many associate Finns with bouts of hard boozing, but the country's consumption of beer and spirits is actually more mediocre by international comparison. WHO estimates put a host of countries including Russia, Portugal, Ukraine and Andorra above 16th-placed Finland, although the Finns did drink their Nordic neighbors and beer-chugging Germany under the table.

Per capita, no country can match Finland's motorsport heritage. Finns grow up driving in icy conditions on difficult roads, traversing the hilly forests that cover 75 percent of Finland's land mass; advanced techniques like driving on a skid pan are obligatory for all learners to get their license. The country can claim an impressive four Formula 1 world championships (Nico Rosberg, son of 1982 champ Keke, would have made it five in 2016 if he hadn't taken German citizenship), and an incredible 14 world rally championships.

Formel 1 Grand Prix Qualifying von Abu Dhabi
'If you want to win, hire a Finn:' Valtteri Bottas is the latest in a long line of top-drawer Finnish racersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Bruno

The treasured national virtue of "sisu" might also explain Finns' sheer speed — it's a word without an accepted translation in English. Double F1 world champion Mika Hakkinen once used the word "courage" to describe it, but it's a more cerebral trait than the reckless bravery of the base-jumper or lion-tamer. Resilience and focus are at the forefront of sisu, the ability to push beyond your mental and physical boundaries and face challenges with determination as much as valor. Newspaper The New York Times wrote a full feature on sisu in 1940, as a kind of homage to the small country that had just fended off more than a quarter of the Red Army against all the odds: "It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate 'sisu' as 'the Finnish spirit,' but it is a much more gutful word than that."

Finland the modern-day state might be celebrating its 100th birthday, but the Finnish people, language and the 600-year-old concept of sisu have a rather longer legacy to look back on.