Finnish-Russian Relations 1880s-1920s


A review of Shared Space, Varied Lives: Finnish-Russian Interactions in Dacha Country, 1880s-1920s, by Kitty Lam.

It may surprise many visitors to Helsinki today that on the central square of the city there stands a statue not of a great Finnish president or general but instead of a Russian emperor, Alexander II. Other facets of the square likewise reveal Russian influence: the Lutheran cathedral behind the statue was modified to resemble the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Isaac in St. Petersburg, with an altarpiece donated by Nicholas I. Thus an urban space that we would normally expect to be a bastion of everything Finnish in fact tells a much more complicated story, one in which cooperation and antagonism, the imperial and the national, are almost seamlessly intertwined.

It is such a story that Kitty Lam seeks to unwrap in her dissertation about Russo-Finnish interactions in “dacha country,” the eastern regions of Finland where many Russians of varying social classes established holiday homes. The most important contribution she seeks to make is to question the value of ethnic and linguistic labels by studying the nature of social, cultural, and economic interactions in an imperial border zone where tourism necessarily engendered modes of behavior that cannot be simply categorized either as antagonistic or cooperative. Instead, she holds that “rather than treating these interactions as signs of either harmony or hostility between singularly defined social groups, we should consider how individuals attached meaning to these encounters on a situational basis” (p. 79). This in turn leads her to deconstruct alluring national labels: might not social class, for instance, play as significant a role as language or ethnicity in determining how one group of Russians interacted with a particular group of Finns? Lam holds that the best way to conduct such an inquiry is to look at everyday interactions in the border zone – a choice that makes particular sense in light of the existing historiography on the subject. This previous literature has tended to look only at relations between Finland and Russia on the level of imperial policy-making and national resistance at the higher levels of the Finnish state. By looking at contacts and connections between a fluid tourist population and “locals” in the borderland, Lam contributes to the growing literature on leisure time and tourism in late Imperial Russian society, an analysis that she continues through the Russian Revolution and the tumultuous twenties to demonstrate that categories of nation, language, and ethnicity were at best of limited use to the Finnish government when it came to dealing with refugee crises and property ownership by foreigners. Thus her work interacts with a wide range of historical subfields, from the history of nationalism to refugee studies.

Chapter one functions as the introduction to the broader themes of the dissertation, examining the history of Russian settlement in the Karelia region and the place of Finland within the Russian Empire. Interactions between Russians and Finns in the region were nothing new: the Russian government had settled villages around armaments factories throughout the imperial period and peddlers had long traversed both sides of the border when selling their wares. However, the nature of these contacts changed as rich Russians began to establish holiday homes in the region in the 1860s, as this tourism forged new kinds of relationships and behavior between Russians and Finns. Making use of the tourism literature published by Russians advertising the border zone as the perfect holiday destination, Lam argues that there was significant ambiguity to how Russians perceived Finland: some saw it as part of a greater Russia whilst others identified it as a foreign clime. This mixture of the foreign and the familiar also affected how Russians saw the region: as an extension of the urban space of the imperial capital or as a rural idyll. All of this was framed by administrative ambiguity. Finland, while part of the Russian Empire, enjoyed significant autonomy and did not grant Russians the rights of Finnish citizens, thus leaving the legal position of their property and personages an open question. Any answers to this question proved problematic.

The second and third chapters deal much more closely with the nature of everyday interactions between Russian “tourists” and Finnish “locals.” Lam’s first point is that, especially after 1880, the Russians who vacationed in the region came from a variety of social, economic and cultural backgrounds, a fact that suggests that labels of national identity concealed a much more fragmented reality. She holds up the circle of the artist of Il’ia Repin as an example: his circle, using the locale as an artistic retreat, held the more prosaic activities of lower-class Russian visitors in contempt and distinguished themselves from such tourists. The local population was also variegated, split along socio-economic lines and distinctions between Finnish- and Swedish-speakers. This leads Lam to contend that we should not draw hard and fast lines between the categories of “tourist” and “local.” Some Russians lived in the isthmus on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, and even those who only lived in their dachas for a small amount of time each year sometimes began to identify with the towns in which they holidayed. This forms the context of Lam’s discussion of economic and cultural interactions: these varied from certain forms of employment (for instance, Finnish nursemaids for young Russian families), to crime, to the establishment of local educational establishments aimed at both Finnish- and Russian-speakers. Lam holds that the meaning of these interactions derived not from predetermined categories of ethnicity or language but rather from the particularities of situations and personalities from which they emerged. Thus “people’s daily interactions brought them outside the confines of narrowly defined national communities” (p. 267).

Chapter four examines the way in which Russian political criminals of various kinds used the dacha zone as a hideout to escape the imperial authorities, and how the Russian state tried to find ways to pursue these outlaws residing just over the border. Unlike the rest of the dissertation, it almost exclusively examines the political battles between the highest levels of the Russian and Finnish governments over police jurisdiction, entering into the still unknown territory of the causal relationships between state policy and everyday life in this place and time.

The last two chapters of the dissertation seek to examine how these daily interactions left a lasting impression on the new geopolitical situation after 1917. With the revolutions of February and October and the onset of civil war, many Russians became refugees and fled across the border to a newly independent Finland, a significant number residing in the former dacha zone. The links and relationships forged by these Russians in better times could serve them well as Finnish friends and acquaintances did their best to alleviate their distress and present their cases to the Finnish government. Despite the existence of a general policy to prioritize Finnish citizens in Finland, Lam argues, the links forged in the pre-revolutionary period complicated and even disrupted the entire process of categorization on the basis of nationality. As management of refugees was of key importance to Finnish state-building, Lam suggests that earlier interactions of the sort that her dissertation examines had a considerable impact on the way in which the nascent Finnish state was formed. Much the same argument is advanced for the way in which the Finnish government treated the property of Russian-speakers in the Karelian isthmus in the 1920s. Finnish officials, determined to protect the financial and security interests of their nation, seized property in the name of the state. However, Lam suggests that in many cases this policy did not benefit the Finnish citizens residing on the border since it disrupted economic and social links developed by the tourist economy. In short, the interactions between Russian- and Finnish-speakers in the imperial era formed durable relationships that had more than short-term significance for the locality.

Throughout her work, Lam shows a mastery of a large quantity of primary and secondary literature from previously underused sources in Finnish and Russian. Given the number of historical fields within which she positions her work, this is a significant achievement. Her conceptual framework is clearly formulated throughout. She makes a coherent argument for the relevance of daily interactions in the dacha zone through compelling use of comparisons and sound connections to wider themes in Russian and Finnish history. In this way, her work serves as an excellent basis for a more comprehensive examination of Russo-Finnish relations in the “continuum of crisis.”

James White
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute

Primary Sources

Finnish National Archives (KA)
Mikkeli Provincial Archives of Finland (MMA)
Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA)
Leningrad Oblast State Archive in Vyborg (LOGAV)

Dissertation Information

Michigan State University. 2013. 278 pp. Primary Advisor: Lewis Siegelbaum.

Image: Helsinki Cathedral and Statue of Alexander II (1890-1900). Wikimedia Commons.

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