Friday, March 28, 2014


On a dark, and probably wet, night back in autumn I was munching on a hamburger in a McDonald’s on Mannerheimintie with a British friend, when the subject of secession came up. It was one a.m., at the end of a short pub-crawl, and the body was craving the salt and fat that we found so abundantly between two buns of uninspiring white bread.

My friend and I, as we often do on such evenings out on the town, had been pontificating on the affairs of the world and, I’m afraid, sometimes straying a bit beyond our depth. In these rambling contemplations (or friendly debates) about The Way Things Are, my friend often has a habit of posing surprising questions I’d never thought of or making some sly point that challenges my cherished opinions, playing devil’s advocate, if you will.

Ethnic map of European Russia, 1898. 
By the time we reached McDonald’s the topic of the moment was “independence”, maybe triggered by the recently announced plans for Scotland to hold a referendum on secession this coming September. (Why the Scots take an entire year to arrange such a vote, instead of whipping one up in a mere two weeks like the Crimeans did, is hard to imagine. Presumably, they want to give everyone time to think about it.)

My British friend, let’s call him Charles, often likes to rib me about how the American Revolution was the worst mistake we “colonials” ever made. Put on the spot there in McDonald’s, I was probably trying to defend the Revolution of as an act of self-determination by people who yearned for independence, liberty, fast food, yadi, yadi, yada. (In truth, over the years I’ve come to see the American Revolution as not being all it’s been cracked up to be, but that’s another story.)

Charles countered my argument with something like “Then what about the Civil War? Why wasn’t it okay for the South to become independent?” Provocatively, he asked why wasn’t Abraham Lincoln wrong to prevent the southern states from seceding.

For most Americans, even Southerners like me, such an idea is anathema, almost blasphemy. At least, that’s what I’d like to think. I do realize there is currently a weird kind of pushback among some conservatives against the conventional wisdom that slavery was actually bad and that Lincoln was right to oppose it.

That is a troubling trend I want to write more about soon, but it is something else entirely – namely, recent events around Europe – that has now brought to mind Charles’ loaded question about “southern independence” from a few months back.

We have seen not only the “secession” of Crimea from Ukraine in the last week or so, but also news of a similar, but wholly symbolic, referendum over whether Venice should break away from Italy (you would half-way expect it floating away, out to sea) and the oddly more realistic suggestion that the Shetland Islands could separate from Scotland, if Scotland separates from the United Kingdom.

This is, of course, against the backdrop of Scotland’s upcoming vote in September and a long-simmering movement for Catalonian independence from Spain, plus various other pockets of self-determination aspirations around the continent. Little parts of Europe seem to be trying to fling themselves every which way.

I have often wondered if the urge for self-determination is sometimes overrated. I understand that for people who identify as this or that ethnic or linguistic group within the patchwork of Europe the impulse must be strong to go it alone as your own little nation. I’m just not convinced it always makes sense. You can imagine countries splitting along regional lines into ever smaller and smaller nations that can’t really sustain themselves.

There can be big advantages to being part of a big nation, even though you might feel slighted or neglected by your compatriots. I think most Americans prefer living in a big country made up of 50 states rather than in a single independent, but smaller, “nation state”. I’m sure life in an independent Rhode Island, for example, would feel just a bit constrained. As a Georgian, I always liked the idea that I could freely move all the way across the continent, if I wanted, to California or Oregon.

That said, I took the opposite course and chose to live in a relatively small nation that decided already nearly a hundred years ago not to be part of a continental juggernaut. Finland isn’t Rhode Island, of course, and Russia isn’t the United States, so I’m sure Suomi’s decision to secede made sense. Finland was big enough and self-sufficient enough to go it alone. And with a language identity quite separate from Russia’s, it never really felt part of that giant nation anyway. I doubt any Finn feels the secession of 1917 was a mistake.
Reconstructed Orthodox chapel at Форт Росс, California.
Photo: Introvert

And I’m pretty sure everyone hopes it not reversible, though Finns did gladly take a step away from full independence in 1994 when they voted to join the European Union. Apparently, a European union is more to the Finns’ liking than a Soviet one.

Following the actions by the Soviet Union’s successor in Crimea lately, there have been some nervous musings about what might be in store for other former Russian “provinces”. Someone joked that Alaska, might be in danger, since it was once a Russian colony, back when the Czar’s influence reached almost to San Francisco. (My only experience of traveling in Northern California included a drive down a beautiful stream called the Russian River, not far from a city called Sebastopol and the site of Fort Ross, the southernmost outpost of the Russian Empire in North America. Russia probably wishes it had never given up that fantastic piece of real estate.)

It’s probably true that many Russian-speakers in Crimea genuinely desired to return the peninsula to Mother Russia, so you could make the case it was voluntary, though the legality of the move and the legitimacy of an election under armed occupation, well, that’s another matter.

Still, the effectiveness and single-mindedness of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, over the objections of Ukraine and practically the rest of the world, was surely not lost on other territories that also once belonged to the USSR.

After seceding from Imperial Russia, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all independent republics for 22 years until they were subsumed in 1940 back into a new Russian empire, rebranded the Soviet Union. Their second attempt at independence has now lasted slightly longer, some 24 years, so that’s some kind of progress.

There has been a lot of speculation that Putin’s raging success in Crimea has stoked ambitions of reconstituting the Russian Empire, starting with Ukraine itself and maybe even moving on to other errant subjects, like the Baltics. I hope that’s a farfetched idea and not something that the former KGB officer would undertake lightly, no matter how popular it might be with the Russian public. For one thing, all three are Baltic states now members of NATO.

Apparently, in all the excitement over Putin’s decisive land grab in Ukraine, even Finland has been mentioned (hopefully not seriously) as a lost territory ripe for re-plucking. Some Russian Internet commentator has suggested that in the future Finland could enjoy the same kind of status that Hong Kong has now within China.

That suggestion is as about as realistic as another I saw on the other side of the rhetorical Iron Curtain, namely that if Crimea could justifiably secede and return to Russia because it had “always” been Russian, then maybe it was time for Russia to hand Königsberg back to Germany. After all, that chunk of Baltic landscape was Prussian territory for 700 years, but has been Russian-owned Kaliningrad for only 60 something.

I suspect Vladimir Putin would resist redrawing that border. I hope that likewise, after Crimea, he has no plans to redraw any others. Right now, I’m not entirely optimistic about that.


  1. As someone who has never felt the twinge of nationalism I always find it terrible and frightening when I see it in others. It has its purpose, sometimes, but largely it just blinds its adherents to the facts.

    One of my old friends who wrote extensively (both fiction and non-fiction) about Finland got me interested in the nation some years ago. (He wrote books about the Finnish-Russo wars, Sibelius, etc.) So I read about your adopted nation more than most Americans have. There's much to admire about Finland.

    However, the blind nationalism is a problem. On the one hand you guys fear Russia far beyond the real threats. Russia, quite frankly, allowed Finland's independence because it was far too busy with other matters after the revolution. Afterward, Finland was used as a base of operations for destabilization of the Russian government (the Reds) by Britain and other western powers who used it as a staging area for counter-revolutionary activity.

    The so-called father of your nation is, in fact, a German by way of Sweden who couldn't even speak your language without an interpreter. One fact that everyone in Finland seems to miss is that when he (Mannerheim) was a high ranking officer in the Imperial Russian forces, he had no problem with Finland being a Grand Duchy of Russia. It was only after his side lost the revolution that his attitudes toward independence changed. He was, in fact, a Nazi collaborator who traded British-sponsored antagonism toward Russia for German aggression toward Russia. And while I've heard many an excuse for Nazi collaboration...there are none that bear out. Holding hands with what amounts to total evil is inexcusable.

    Several nations who collaborated with Nazi German got off relatively easy (in a political context) after WWII. Foremost among them would be Spain, Austria, and Finland. Finland paid some reparations and had to give up some modest territory, but politically it was untouched.

    Just my objective opinion from my reading various historical texts and comparing notes with people.

    I guess if Finland cooperates with the west in more modern destabilization and dissolution of Russia, and your side doesn't win this time, then maybe you have something to really be frightened about. Or else it should keep out of the business of other nations.

    1. I should write about Mannerheim sometime. He definitely led an interesting life, especially his espionage trek across Asia. He is still very well respected in Finland, though I would say the attitudes of Finns now in their 50s or so toward him has been more nuanced than you might think. My sense is for that generation the adoration of Mannerheim by the previous generation was always slightly embarrassing and a sign of excessive patriotism. Just as many Americans of my generation would be embarrassed to express too much admiration for Eisenhower, for example. It wasn’t cool.

      Anyway, I don’t see what Mannerheim’s lineage has to do with anything. It seems odd to consider him a “German” despite the fact his family had left Germany six generations earlier. I didn’t realize the “one drop” rule also applied to Teutonic blood. Maybe so, but it seems to me like an unhealthy obsession with ethnicity. And it’s true that, while he had learnt Finnish as a child, he had to relearn it in later years. Again, I don’t see why that matters.

      In any case, I don’t think Finns regarded him as any less legitimate on account of his being a native Swedish speaker and having Swedish (and distant German) ancestry. The Finns aren’t that nationalistic.

      A less trivial critique of Mannerheim might be that he “held hands with total evil” by collaborating with Nazi Germany. If, in absolutist worldview where there are only two shades of gray (black and white), such collaboration is always “inexcusable” then no one can surely forgive Stalin and the Soviet Union for its collaboration of August 23, 1939. That must be a stain on Russian history that keeps Vladimir Putin awake at night.

      The idea that Finland “got off easy” after the war is probably easier to believe from the benefits of distance and passage of time. Finland had to give up a “modest” 10% of its territory. That’s roughly equivalent to the US giving up California, Montana and North Carolina. Hardly noticeable.

      And from those territories there were some 400,000 Finns displaced (proportionally like most of California, all at once, having to be resettled elsewhere around the US). Now, that might seem like an easy task to some, but I’m willing to believe it was a hardship for the folks actually living through it.

      I’m not sure how the reparations Finland had to pay to the USSR compared to other countries, but it was still a burden, some 32% of the Finnish industrial base at the beginning. My wife’s mother worked for a company making ships and recalls that almost everything they made went straight to the Soviet Union. Of course, the silver lining is that this forced Finland to create industries where practically none existed before the war.

      But, it is true that the lost of territory, masses of refugees, and stringent reparations was all that Finland suffered (plus the war casualties). It did not lose its independence and political system. It did not suffer the same fate as the Estonian SSR, or even the People’s Republic of Poland. I’m pretty sure Finns think the post-war sacrifices were worth that.

      Anyway, I wouldn’t say Finns fear Russia. I think Finns generally have pretty friendly relations with Russians, and there is a lot of interaction between the two nations nowadays, also on a personal level.

      But when it comes to less positive attitudes, Finns are, at worse, wary of the Russian government (or least Putin), but more often simply troubled about certain aspects of Russian society (corruption, human rights, environmental degradation), or they don’t think much about Russia at all.

      And, until recently, I don’t think anyone felt that Russia posed a “real threat” to Finland. It felt like those days were gone. Now, after the incursion in Crimea and the massing of troops on the Ukraine border, that might be changing.

      I for one do not relish the idea of Finland getting a proper comeuppance from Russia just because the West has begun dissolving Mother Russia by forcing it to occupy the territory of a neighboring country. To me, that sounds like the opposite of dissolution.

    2. Not just 10% of the land, but something like 20% of the most fertile farmland and one of the largest cities. 400 000 Finns at the time was 10% of the population. The reparations of other countries got largely forgiven due to bloc politics.

      The accusation of Nazi collaboration is an easy target for a naïve simpleton. Why let the facts stop you? The man was a known anglophile and francophile. And, realistically, what was the choice? To be assimilated? It was the Soviets who attacked in the first place!
      At first the Western powers were not only unwilling but also unable to help and the Soviets were German allies dividing Europe between them (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact anyone?). Later, when Western countries could have helped, the supported Stalin. Soviet actions during the WWII have been almost summarily white-washed ever since.

      Besides, Finland wasn't fascist like Spain or a willing participant like Austria. You could easily argue that the only difference between Finland and Britain was that the UK was attacked by Germany and Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union.

      If you want really want to see things black and white, ask yourself why was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact essentially honoured by the Allies after the war. And if you want to go around finding evil people to lynch, there is quite a long line of people before you get to Mannerheim. He was no saint but all in all did well enough and a lot better than many people would have. Hell, start with W and Cheney. You can still get them.