Celebrating 100 years of Finland independence

December 6 marked the official 100th ‘birthday’ of Finland. The Nordic country has rolled out a year-long centenary celebration throughout 2017 culminating in the grand finale on the centenary of independence.

And how does the home of Nokia celebrate its 100th birthday? – by sending birthday text messages to seven million Finnish mobile phones. In addition to the obligatory blue and white fireworks display.

Of course, Finland has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its more recent history, influenced by its strategic position between Sweden and Russia, has seen Finland caught up the wars between the two.  As a result, Finland has been at times both Swedish and Russian territory over the course of the 1700s and 1800s. Most recently, Finland was conquered by Tsar Alexander I in the mid-1800s and became a Grand Duchy of the Russian empire and remained so for just over 100 years.

When revolution came to Russia in 1917, Finland declared its independence. It endured a brief civil war, sided with Germany in World War II and was forced to give up territory to the Soviet Union following the Continuation War of the mid-1940 to maintain its independence.

Happily, Finland has remained a free and peaceful country ever since and avoided the fate of its Baltic neighbours (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) who were absorbed into the Soviet Union and waited decades to achieve their own independence.

My experience with Finland was fleeting – a hurried stopover between Russia and Norway in mid-2011 – but left a lasting impression.

I had not particularly enjoyed my stay in Russia. Language and cultural barriers made getting around difficult and it seemed like the entire population of Russia was mad at me for some reason I could just not fathom.

I boarded the then new Allegro high-speed train in St Petersberg bound for Helsinki. I emerged a few hours later into what seemed to be dazzling sweetness and light.

I set out to explore the capital and, me being me, I was quickly lost; unable to find a prominent landmark just a few blocks from my hotel.

Within seconds of pulling out my map and beginning to frown at it, a voice from my side said, ‘Hello, how can I help you find something?’

The voice, speaking perfect English, belonged to a smiling middle-aged woman, apparently on her way to work. I pointed at my intended destination, the city’s main cathedral, on my map and she said ‘You better come with me this way and I will show you where to go.’

An image of Helpi Helsinki visitor help mascot
Helppi and friend searching for visitors to be nice to

A few minutes later I arrived in the main square in front of the cathedral to find a team of green-clad information volunteers who roam the city looking for foreign visitors, just like me to be kind and helpful to. There is even a mascot called Helppi* dedicated to providing assistance to visitors.

I had only 2 1/2 days to explore the capital, enough time to take a self-guided walking tour of the central city, enjoy a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, check out the Olympic Stadium (home to the 1952 Olympics) and visit the world heritage listed Fortress of Suomenlinna. Time and again I was rescued from my own poor navigation skills by friendly locals.

The almost worrying level of niceness I found in Finland during my whistlestop stay left a lasting and very fond impression.

 

On my brief stopover in the nation’s cute capital I tried really hard, but unsuccessfully, to find something to slag the Finns for; but I just couldn’t do it. (I did see a someone run a red light in the CBD, which was very naughty).

The best I could come with was, what I found to be, an unnecessarily large number of men sporting pony tails. Then there is the rather annoying tendency of the Finns to be good at everything.

Canons at the Fortress of Suomenlinna.
Canons at the Fortress of Suomenlinna.

Studying sports history at university years ago, I learned that Finland had the highest per capita number of Olympic gold medals, thanks in part to the extraordinary record of distance runner Pavo Nurmi (once voted the greatest Olympian ever) and the Finnish prowess for throwing javelins.

Then in my working life I came in contact with the extraordinary success of Finland’s education system. Most international education studies rank Finland at or very close to the top, destroying theories about blondes being dumb.

Finland manages to provide all of its children with a world-class education regardless of their background or what school they go to. They have made all their schools good ones. In addition, they have excellent hospitals, generous social security, recycling programs, solar energy and superb green spaces. It’s a bit like a communist utopia without the communism.

One hundred years after declaring independence, Finland maintains one of the world’s highest GDP per capita and, perhaps most importantly, is one of the word’s happiest countries.

I didn’t get to pay my birthday respects in person in 2017 but I look forward to visiting again and being rescued by Helpii and the friendly citizens of Finland.

So Happy Birthday Finland and many happy returns.

Happy Birthday Finland!
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