The popular belief that only violent uprisings and revolution leads to independence is not true. Passive resistance has often led to creation of national consciousness and independence in many countries.

Such is the story of Finland. The first large scale of a firm strategy and practice of passive resistance in Europe was expounded by the Finnish people in their struggle for self-determination within Tsarist Russia. In 1905, Finnish people staged a large-scale non-violent campaign against Russian Empire which kickstarted the process of democracy in their country.

Finland was conquered in 1809 by the Russian Emperor Alexander I. But instead of dissolving it, Finland was made an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. Political recognition was given at the Diet, a legislative system inherited from the pre-1809 Swedish system. The Diet was not a modern parliament, but it gradually expanded its powers and by 1886 was able to introduce legislation on its own initiative. It included representatives from four estates: nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasantry. On the eve of 1905 about 10 percent of the adult population in Finland were eligible to vote in the elections to the Diet. During that time some informal political groupings had been developing in Finland around the major issue of the language problem.

Russian Imperialism’s main method of appropriating conquered territories was that of gradually transforming the society of the region through a program of cultural Russification slowly leading to complete administrative control and territorial integration.

In late 1890s the Tsarist regime in Russia decided to abolish the independent institutions of governance in Finland and make it just another Russian province. Before this, Finland had been one of the most loyal regions in the Russian state. Polish-style separatism did not emerge, largely because Finland had no historical memories of independence and was permitted to develop its own autonomous institutions. The Diet, though hardly a modern parliament, gradually expanded its powers and by 1886 was able to introduce legislation on its own initiative.

Finnish attitudes quickly changed with the implementation of several Russification measures under Governor- General Nikolai Bobrikov. In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II’s February Manifesto reduced the Finnish Diet to the status of an advisory body for the enactment of imperial legislation. This effectively eliminated legislative autonomy.  A decree in 1900 declared the use of Russian as the language of administration. The Military Service Law of 1901 disbanded the Finnish army and required Finnish recruits to serve outside Finland.

This political invasion from Russia enraged the Finnish society. The Political parties in Finland-the Swedish Party, the Young Finns, and the Social Democrats-all considered the actions of the tsarist regime illegal. The Swedish Party and the Young Finns-together known as the "constitutionalists" led a strong passive resistance movement. Only a minority led by some conservative Finns were willing to accept the decrees of the central government out of sheer fear of harsher consequences.

There was already a narrative around passive resistance in Finland. Finnish Political philosopher Johan Vihel Snellman had argued that Finnish people should resist Russian imperialism by means of non-violence. In 1900, prominent activist Viktor Theodor Homen wrote a pamphlet titled Passive Resistance. In it he argued that passive resistance  provided a means by which a militarily weaker people could defend themselves against a stronger oppressor. He laid importance on the three principles of non-cooperation, disobedience, and non-recognition.  By non-recognition he meant a consistent refusal to cooperate with any illegal or violent act committed by the oppressor.

Until 1905, the Finnish passive resistance movement involved few peasants or workers. Several attempts to broaden the movement were made earlier by the largely middle-class activists. In 1900 the Finnish population totaled about 2.7 million, 87 per cent of whom still lived in the rural areas. However, a certain small share of the rural population worked in non-agricultural industries. The movement led to realization; a fundamental democratization of Finnish society was inevitable. Without it, there could be no strong national resistance to future attempts by Russia to reassert its imperialism.

The decisive revolution of 1905 began in the cities, but it soon spread to the rural areas in the second half of the year. The pattern was the same in all provinces-strikes by agricultural laborers and workers. Demonstrations for universal and equal suffrage were organized in Helsinki on 19 February and 14 April 1905, with permission having been obtained for them from the Russian government. The concentration of the working classes in large cities and population centers gave them a greater social and political impact.

The ‘Great strike’ of October-November 1905 was a final/massive blow to the Russian autocracy. This strike was supported by the whole Finnish Nation.  It was also a time of discovery of internal social differences.  political consciousness now began to reach the entire adult population of Finland, including the previously excluded lower classes. Initially the tsarist authorities did not find it necessary to proclaim martial law because of the nonviolent nature of the movement. In the urban areas the population expressed itself in mass demonstrations and meetings to condemn the tsar's policies, rather than in strikes. In the rural areas tenant farmers and landless peasants, perhaps because they believed in a legal tradition, chose not to express their discontent through violence.

The Russian administration in Finland was paralyzed. The police disarmed, some of them joined the strike, while others were ousted from the force. Many Russian administrators and policemen fled back to Russia. The Russian military garrisons were isolated from each other due to a railway strike. A Finnish national civil guard was formed to maintain law and order. The Finnish society witnessed extensive solidarity, with all its sections united against Russia. The Tsar was forced to allow for a truly representative Diet, which came to effect in 1906. The democratization of suffrage increased tenfold the size of the electorate, which included women for the first time in Europe, and despite later tsarist harassment Finland's modern parliament can be dated from 1905.

This is how Finland began its journey in becoming a democracy.

It’s necessary to accept the fact that it took a crisis of the Russian Empire as a whole – that of 1905 – for the Finnish passive resistance movement to succeed. The Finnish success had depended very much on favorable conditions that the protestors had worked to their advantage. Without the events of Bloody Sunday happening in St. Petersburg and the great Moscow railroad strike, and other events of the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, the revolution in Finland wouldn’t have created the impact it did.

Finland was more homogeneous ethnically compared to other countries under the Russian rule. Its agrarian relations were less intractable and historically Finland had looked towards Sweden and the West for political inspiration. Russia, even after being a vicious autocracy, was also a highly inefficient state that had work in cooperation with its numerous nationalities. It could not afford to counter nationalist assertions through widespread oppression or mass deportation.

Although the relationship between Russia and Finland was not resolved and new tsarist attacks began in 1907, it is significant that Finland was the only area in the Russian empire to obtain concessions in the realm of national autonomy in 1905.

The Movement in Finland represented one of the most successful cases of passive resistance in Europe. The democratization of Finnish society would lead to a stronger national resistance to any later attempt by Russia to reassert its dominance over Finland.

The Revolution of 1905 in the Baltic Provinces and Finland Author(s): Toivo U. Raun Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 453-467

The Russian Revolution of 1905 Centenary Perspectives Edited by Jonathan D. Smele and Anthony Heywood - Finland in 1905: The political and social history of the revolution by Antti Kujala

The Non-Violent Struggle for Indian Freedom, 1905 – 1919, by David Hardiman

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