Finland's traces of human settlement date back to the thaw of the
last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. The Finns' ancestors seem to
have dominated half of northern Russia before arriving on the north
of the Baltic coast well before the Christian era.
By the end of the Viking Age, Swedish traders and chieftains had
extended their interests throughout the Baltic region. Over the
centuries, Finland has sat precariously between the Protestant Swedish
empire and Eastern Orthodox Russia. For seven centuries, from the
12th century until 1809, it was part of Sweden.
Finland was blighted by constant battles with Russia, and severe
famines. From 1696-97, famine killed a third of all Finns. The 1700s
were punctuated by bitter wars against Russia, culminating in the
eventual loss of Finland to Russia in 1809.
With nationalism beginning to surge during the latter half of the
19th century, Finland gained greater autonomy as a Grand Duchy,
though new oppression and Russification followed, making Finns emotionally
ripe for independence.
The downfall of the tsar of Russia, and the Communist revolution
in 1917, made it possible for the Finnish senate to declare independence
on 6 December 1917.
Demoralising internal violence flared up, with Russian-supported
'Reds' clashing with nationalist 'Whites' who took the German state
as their model. During 108 days of a bloody civil war, approximately
30,000 Finns were killed by their fellow citizens. Although the
Whites were victorious, Germany's weakened position after WWI discredited
it as a political model and relations with the Soviet Union were
After the conquest of the Finnish tribes by Sweden beginning in
the 12th century (see History, below), the indigenous culture was
to a great extent dominated by Swedish influences, which endure
to the present.
Among the peasants, traditional epic poems continued to be sung
to the accompaniment of the zitherlike kantele, and wood carvings
and rugs were still decorated with the traditional polychromy and
spiral, swastika (an ancient symbol), and similar simple, geometric
Among the educated, however, Swedish culture predominated. Swedish
was spoken and, with rare exceptions, was the language of literature.
Because the styles of Swedish art and architecture were largely
derivative, many Finnish buildings and works of art reflected Italian,
Flemish, German, and other European influences.
In the 19th century, however, educated Finns began to revive the
folk traditions of their country. At the same time, a national literature
in the Finnish language emerged, and Finnish styles appeared increasingly
in art and architecture. The sauna, a steam bath produced by pouring
water over heated rocks, is a Finnish invention.