Finland, 18 July, 1917 – the vital first step to independence

A guest contribution by David G. Kirby.

Shortly before midnight of July 18th Finland enacted her independence, or rather passed, ostensibly as a law, a revolutionary Landtdag resolution declaring the prerogatives of the former Emperors and Grand Dukes to be vested in the Finnish nation. The historic drama, which I witnessed, was played – for want of a Parliament House, the building of the former Estates of the Realm now being used only for committee meetings – in a modest meeting hall in the Regering Street, while in a hall underneath sailors of the Baltic Fleet and their Finnish sweethearts held a dance.

So wrote the Anglo-Irish journalist Robert Crozier Long in his article ‘Finland’s Independence: A Letter from Helsingfors’, published in the Fortnightly Review in November 1917. To the best of my knowledge, Long was the only foreign correspondent to witness the passing of what is generally referred to as the law on power (valtalaki) and to interview two of its leading socialist proponents, Oskari Tokoi (‘a little, stoutish, very dapper man… who … looks rather like a small but prosperous tradesman of an American country town’) and Yrjö Mäkelin (‘a very untidy, grim-faced and rude gentleman who spoke only Finnish, and very gruffly refused to take an interpreter’). Whereas Tokoi was sitting on the fence, fearful of the consequences if the valtalaki was passed, according to Long, Mäkelin asserted that ‘the socialists would pass the bill if necessary by unconstitutional means, and if the socialists in government resigned in protest, the stouter-hearted in the diet would not fear to take power – he himself ready to do so’.

Long’s eye-witness account of the passing of the valtalaki is unusual in portraying the events of July 1917 as a revolutionary declaration of independence. Most contemporary sources, relying on the Reuters news agency, speak of autonomy, rather than independence, and they were more concerned with the reaction of the Russian Provisional Government, which eventually resulted in the dissolution of the Finnish parliament and fresh elections in October 1917, in which the socialists lost their absolute parliamentary majority. Subsequent events have further tended to relegate the events of mid-July 1917 to the margins of Finnish history.

Is there however a case to be made for the recognition of the valtalaki as a vital step towards national independence? Independent statehood had never been a major political issue in the Grand Duchy, even when Finland’s autonomous status within the Russian empire was seriously threatened in the last years of the autocracy. The sudden collapse of the autocracy in the late winter of 1917 radically changed the fundamental nature of the Finnish-Russian relationship, but the idea of full sovereign independence was slow to gain momentum. Growing mistrust of the Russian Provisional Government and of any future Russian constituent assembly fuelled demands for national self-determination, but there was no clearly defined consensus on objectives. The leadership of the national-minded parties adhered to a cautious constitutional legalism and continued to view with suspicion the activists who looked to Germany and the Finnish volunteers of the 27th Jägerbataillon for salvation. The official Social Democratic Party memorandum presented to Kerensky at the end of March spoke of internal independence, but was careful to add within ‘an indissoluble union with Russia’. The activists’ maximal programme, drafted around the same time, argued that the question of Finland’s future position should be kept open for the time being so that it might be the subject of international settlement.

Much of the debate throughout the spring and early summer centred upon the question of who now possessed the powers hitherto held and exercised by the emperor/grand duke. It was to deal with this issue, at least temporarily, that the Senate placed a bill before the Finnish parliament (Eduskunta) on 8 June. This rather vapid proposal was radically altered in the socialist-dominated constitutional committee. What had been drafted as some sort of temporary modus vivendi with the Provisional Government now became a direct challenge, presented to parliament as a bill for the exercise of supreme state power in Finland.

This valtalaki was a clear statement of parliamentary sovereignty. Its three short clauses made parliament responsible for its own convention and dissolution and gave it full legislative powers. Government was to be accountable to parliament, which would also finally determine all matters concerning Finland formerly decided by the emperor/grand duke. Passed into law by 136 votes to 55, and obtaining the requisite five-sixths majority for immediate promulgation, valtalaki was a radical departure from the conservative elitist consensus that had governed Finnish-Russian relationship since 1809. It was in that sense a direct continuation of the parliamentary reform of 1906 that had replaced an antiquated four-estate diet with a single-chamber legislature elected on the basis of universal male and female suffrage.

Was it also a declaration of independence, albeit artfully concealed? In his book, Russian Revolution Aspects, published in 1919 by Dutton & Co., New York, Robert Crozier Long claimed that the law on power was in fact a coup d’état, and that its exclusion of questions of defence and foreign relations from the competence of the Finnish parliament had no meaning, since the vital point of the bill was that it was not to be submitted to Russia. In other words, Finland would be able to regulate mutual relations without Russian consent. Had the Provisional Government fallen, as had appeared likely during the decisive debate on the bill in the Eduskunta of 17–18 July, valtalaki might have been the point of departure towards full sovereign independence, but there are strong grounds for doubting the commitment to forcing the issue of national self-determination of its main proponents, the socialists. The party leaders were aware of the criticism of foreign and Russian socialists that their actions could jeopardise the revolution, and they were also nervous about the consequences of separation at a time of rising food shortages and social unrest. Bolshevik support for self-determination may have encouraged them, but they chose to fight the Provisional Government in July in the tradition of parliamentary politics rather than join the Bolshevik action in the streets.

The policy pursued by the Finnish socialist leaders during the summer of 1917 was essentially opportunist, trading in on Russia’s weakness in order to gain concessions. In that regard, they did not differ very much from the other parties. National independence had never been a matter of conviction in Finland as it was in Ireland or the Polish lands. Finland’s survival had been founded on a subtle policy of working with Russian authority, and it had worked remarkably well.   The few who did advocate independence were universally dismissed as cranks (and their reputation has not been sensibly augmented during the past hundred years, either).

Momentarily strengthened by the collapse of the Bolshevik uprising in July, the Provisional Government was able to compel the dissolution of the Eduskunta and the staging of fresh elections in October, elections in which the socialists lost their absolute parliamentary majority. The initiative now passed to the bourgeois parties, brought closer together by the perceived threat of social disorder in the country. The restoration of order was made a priority by the Svinhufvud government, and occupied a large part of the first official appeal of that government for international recognition of Finnish independence. The absence of any government in Russia that could command recognition at home or abroad, and the continued presence in Finland of ill-disciplined troops, were also highlighted.

Independence was not projected at the glorious fulfilment of national destiny, or as the final triumph of an age-old struggle for liberation. Rather, ‘in the circumstances in which they now find themselves [the Finnish people] are both entitled and obliged to take their fate in their own hands’, in the words of the appeal for recognition.  Independence is seen as an already existing state, which the new government has been authorised to safeguard, internally as well as externally.

The Svinhufvud-led senate in 1917.
Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The authority for the government so to act was explicitly declared to lie with parliament as the possessor of the right to exercise supreme authority in Finland.   This was not a confirmation of the validity of the valtalaki, but rested upon a motion approved by the Eduskunta during the tumultuous days of the November general strike, which resolved that parliament would ‘for the time being’ exercise the power hitherto appertaining to the emperor/grand duke. The Svinhufvud government preferred to follow the inherited constitutionalist principles of eighteenth-century Sweden, with a regency holding the powers of the former ruler. The 1919 constitution vested significant powers in the office of the president; not until 1999 did the balance shift once more in favour of parliament.

In retrospect, the valtalaki may be seen as a bold but premature attempt to resolve the Finnish-Russian relationship, but it was also a statement of the principles of radical parliamentary democracy, principles fully developed in the abortive constitution drafted in 1918 by the people’s commissar for education in the short-lived Finnish Red government, O.W.Kuusinen. Within a year, Kuusinen had denounced the ‘mirage of parliamentary democracy’ that had seduced his former party from the revolutionary path. With the bitter division of the left in Finland after the civil war, the valtalaki ceased to have any political appeal, yet it was undoubtedly a first step towards full national independence.

David G. Kirby is a former professor of modern European history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London (now part of UCL London). He has been researching and publishing extensively on modern Finnish and Scandinavian history. He has contributed to NordicHistoryBlog before, on constitutional development in Finland since 1918 and on British reactions to the Prussian-Austrian-Danish war of 1864.

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