It is not very often that I read Finnish books, the obvious explanation being the utterly incomprehensible Finnish language. But occasionally Finnish books are also published in the minority language Swedish, which is the case with Jorma and Päivi Tuomi-Nikula’s new biography Nikolaj II – Storfursten av Finland about the last Grand Prince of Finland, perhaps better known as Emperor Nikolaj II of Russia.
201 years ago Russia defeated Sweden and took Finland, which became an autonomous Grand Duchy (Grand Principality would have been a more accurate English translation) under the Russian Emperor. In their book, the Tuomi-Nikulas have wanted to look at who the person Nikolaj II was and to weave this together with the history of his reign in Finland. They have succeeded in producing a highly readable as well as informative biography.
The story of Nikolaj II’s life is well-known from a multitude of books published in the 92 years since his execution, but few of his previous biographers have given much thought to Finland.
The authors argue that the popularity of the emperors had never been greater in Finland than in 1894, a year which had seen the festive unveiling of the statue of the beloved Alexander II in Helsinki, followed by mourning for Alexander III and rejoicing for the new emperor. Nikolaj II had already visited Finland five times before his accession and his promise to respect Finland’s autonomy and privileges was well-received by the Finns. But only five years later, the Finns would utter the name of Nikolaj II as a curse.
There was soon disappointment that the new emperor did not follow his father’s tradition of holidaying in Finland every summer, but the greatest trouble was caused by the attempts at integrating Finland more fully into the Russian Empire.
This policy was to be carried out by Nikolaj Ivanovich Bobrikov, who was appointed Governor-General of Finland in 1898. Bobrikov intended to introduce Russian laws in Finland and to make sure that Russian was the language used in public administration. In 1899 the Emperor issued a manifesto saying that he could make decisions about laws regarding mutual Finnish and Russian concerns without consulting the Finnish national assembly. This was seen as contradicting the promise he gave upon his accession to respects the laws of Finland and 1899 entered Finnish history as the year of the violation of the oath.
He followed up by banning separate Finnish stamps from being used and the abolishment of a separate Finnish army in 1900, which meant that Finnish soldiers could now be sent anywhere on behalf of Russia. In 1903 Bobrikov was given dictatorial powers for three years, which meant that he could ban meetings, dissolve associations and exile people as he pleased.
The assassination of Bobrikov in June 1904 (the murderer was hailed as a national hero) was followed by a wave of political murders and crimes. But the Finns also found more peaceful and cleverer ways of making their point – such as telling Bobrikov that the façade of the House of the Estates needed to be repaired, only to put up a relief showing Alexander I in his role as the Emperor who had granted Finland its privileges, which the Governor-General could not really protest against.
Or they covered the statue of Alexander II (“the liberator”) in flowers as a silent protest at the current Russian policy. Bobrikov forbade the press to print photos of the flower-bedecked monument, but the Finns issued the photos as postcard. One of the best of the many excellent illustrations in this book is such a postcard, where a group of people “happens” to be standing next to the monument smiling gleefully at the photographer.
The wave of politically motivated crime around 1905 was eventually followed by a détente, which coincided with the smaller Russian revolution of 1905 and increasing acts of terrorism on Russian soil. This caused the imperial family finally to begin to spend their summer holidays in Finland, which they continued to do until 1914 – the authors point out the irony in Nikolaj II accusing the Finns in his speech from the throne in 1908 of not being friendly enough towards Russia and its government while at the same time realising that Finland was the part of his realm where he was probably most safe.
However, the détente did not last. In 1909 Nikolaj II dissolved the Finnish national assembly as a reaction to its Speaker Pehr Evind Svinhufvud having criticised the way the Russian government dealt with Finnish matter and in 1910 he issued a manifesto which gave all Russian citizens the same rights in Finland as Finns, which was seen as another attempt at russification of Finland.
The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 saw the Dowager Empress Maria Fjodorovna, who described herself as “Finland’s best and most faithful friend” and had been staunchly opposed to her son’s Finnish policy, travelling back to St Petersburg through Finland and being greeted with ovations and great warmth by the Finns. This, the authors write, was also a reminder to the Emperor that he might have shared in his mother’s popularity were it not for his repressive acts against Finland.
However, the outbreak of war led to the Finns’ old loyalty towards the Emperor being re-awakened, but this did not last to the end of the year, when plans for russifying Finland entirely were revealed. From then on the name of Nikolaj II again became a curse and it was widely hoped in Finland that Germany would defeat Russia.
In March 1915 Nikolaj II visited Helsinki for a single day. He would never see the Grand Duchy again. The Finns declared their independence on 6 December 1917 and were recognised by Lenin on 30 December. Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse-Cassel was elected King of Finland, but he renounced his throne following the German defeat in WWI without ever having set foot in his kingdom.
The authors show sympathy in their portrayal of Nikolaj II, but make no secret of his failures and shortcomings. Altogether they have succeeded in writing a book which deepens one’s understanding both of why Russian rule over Finland failed and why the Romanov dynasty did not survive.