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Frank Nesemann, Ein Staat, kein Gouvernement: Die Entstehung und Entwicklung der Autonomie Finnlands im russischen Zarenreich, 1808 bis 1826.

Frank Nesemann, Ein Swat, kein Gouvernement: Die Entstehung and Entwicklung der Autonomy Finnlands im russischen Zarenreich, 1808 bis 1826 [A State but not a Province: The Origin and Evolution of Finland's Autonomy in the Russian Empire, 1808-26]. 389 pp. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2003. ISBN 3631397428. $62.95.

The somewhat laconic main title of this Heidelberg dissertation is taken from a memorandum, written at the beginning of 1811 by Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranskii--Finliandiia est' gosudarstvo a ne guberniia (an ambiguous phrase, which provoked much controversy later, but which may be translated as "Finland is a state [or a principality] and not a province"). This summation was intended to strengthen the case for a reorganization of the way in which Finnish affairs were handled. As Speranskii went on to say in his submission to the tsar, the administration of the recently acquired Finnish territory was being handled alongside a host of other matters by an inadequately staffed office. His proposal for a separate four-man commission, headed by a state secretary, to act as a kind of overseer and watchdog for the tsar over the administrative affairs of Finland, led to the creation of the Committee for Finnish Affairs later in the year. That committee was eventually wound up in 1826, but not before its Finnish members had made an unsuccessful attempt to define more precisely Finland's constitutional position. It was the uncertainties attendant upon this matter that in a sense provided the creative tension that gave life and substance to Finnish autonomy, not only during the period in question but until the very end of the relationship in 1917. This book is, in fact, concerned far more with the constitutional issue than with the development of Finnish autonomy in an administrative sense--a subject that has recently been covered comprehensively in the publications of the Committee for Administrative History (Hallintohistoriakomitea). It owes much to recent Finnish scholarship, in particular the work of Osmo Jussila, whose 1969 dissertation, "Suomen perustuslait venalaisten ja suomalaisten tulkintojen mukaan 1808-1863" (Finnish Fundamental Laws as Interpreted by the Russians and the Finns, 1808-1863), was truly a groundbreaking endeavor. Indeed, on almost every major point, the author finds himself in agreement with Jussila. Both, for example, believe that Speranskii was interested more in administrative efficiency than in the niceties of constitutional theory, and both see similarities between the ways in which privileges in the Baltic provinces and in Finland were treated. The definition offered by members of the Committee for Finnish Affairs in 1819 that Finland was united to Russia and was a part of the empire in relation to other states, but that in its internal administration it had a separate political existence, is seen by both writers as the first clear statement of a position that was to become axiomatic in Finnish political circles in subsequent decades.

Nesemann's book is thus largely a careful retreading of a path opened up by Jussila and Keijo Korhonen, the author of the definitive study of the Committee for Finnish Affairs. (1) He touches on other imperial experiments in constitutionalism, most notably in Poland, but does not go into any comparative analysis, and he says remarkably little about Alexander I's own ideas, certainly in comparison with the officials who served him, whose thoughts and actions are quite thoroughly examined. Although the author considers the inheritance of Old Finland--the territories ceded to Russia in 1721 and 1743--he devotes rather more space to the specific problem of the land donations than to asking how the experience of dealing with detached slivers of another kingdom might or might not have influenced Russian thinking about how to deal with a much greater chunk of the Swedish realm in and after 1809. He suggests that the Baltic German dominance of the administration of Old Finland created a kind of model for how the Russian state should deal with its newly acquired territories on the western frontier, but this does not fit in easily with his later assertion that Catherine the Great's attempts to bring her western borderlands more firmly into line with the rest of the empire fundamentally changed this administrative arrangement. Although the so-called Statthalterschaftszeit was brought to an end by Paul, the old order was not fully restored in Viborg (Vyborg) province, where a curious mixture of Swedish and Russian institutions remained until the reunification of the territory with the rest of Finland in 1812.

The tsar's decision to reunite Viborg province with the Grand Duchy, at a time when there seemed a very real possibility of Sweden being persuaded by Napoleon to join the Grand Alliance against Russia, puzzled and even angered many Russians. Leading Finns such as C. J. Walleen reported that everywhere in the capital, people were saying that they thought Russia had conquered Finland, but Finland seemed to have conquered a part of Russia. There were rumors of peasants refusing to perform labor service and of workers in the arms factory at Sestroretsk declaring that, as free men, they need no longer work there. Other leading Finnish officials were worried at the prospect of having to administer a backward province with serious social and economic problems. But the reunion was a significant step, not least because it gave a clear signal that Alexander had no intentions of imposing on his Grand Duchy the form of governance that had evolved in Old Finland. In common with earlier writers on the subject, Nesemann assigns to the leading Finnish nobleman of his day, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, the credit for persuading the tsar to issue the ukaz uniting Viborg province with the Grand Duchy at the end of 1811. Armfelt was very conscious of his own status and importance, and he was a great writer of memoranda, which have been assiduously used by succeeding generations of historians. He was without doubt instrumental in helping shape the outcome, but one would have liked a little more discussion of other, less grand figures who also had the opportunity to put their ideas to Alexander, men such as the diplomat David Alopeus, himself a native of Old Finland, or even the arch-intriguer Goran Magnus Sprengtporten, who did briefly hold the post of governor-general of Finland during the winter of 1808-9. The lack of any thorough consideration of Alexander's own thoughts on the matter, and of the wider political background at this time, is also to be regretted.

The development of Finnish autonomy as an administrative solution and as a political concept remains a fascinating story, and even though Nesemann offers no startlingly new insights, he tells it well. One is left with the impression that, as the French writer C. St. Julien observed in 1833, nature had truly guarded Finland's antediluvian character in the midst of revolutions. It is almost as if the flood of ideas and concepts flowing out of France--and indeed, other parts of Europe where the political landscape changed radically between 1780 and 1830--had no impact at all on that small group of men who conducted Finnish affairs during these years. Imbued with the eudaemonian spirit of the Enlightenment, they were quick to recognize benefits in the new association with a ruler whose personal charm did much to assuage fears. As Nesemann notes, two of the three proposals for a Finnish constitution drafted in 1819 bore little resemblance, in words or substance, to contemporary European constitutional documents, such as the French Charte of 1814 or even the Polish Charter of 1815. Loyal and obedient, Finland remained isolated from the convulsions that shook much of the rest of Europe, its elite fondly attached to the fundamental laws imposed by Gustavus III in the teeth of noble resentment. Though unwilling to concede the point that these laws were the constitutional basis for Finland's relationship with the empire, the imperial authorities and the tsar in particular had no problems with the substance of these laws, which firmly buttressed monarchical sovereignty. It is significant that the first major dispute that arose in the relationship was occasioned by religion and the rights of the Orthodox in Finland, and that there was virtually no public pressure for the convening of the estates before the green light of reform was switched on by Alexander II. Finland began to catch up with the rest of Europe thereafter, but comparison with another northern European country that found itself in a different relationship after 1814--Norway--reveals the degree of Finland's political backwardness. A state undoubtedly took shape during the course of the 19th century, but its form and essence was distinctly old-fashioned--the price of autonomy within the Russian empire, perhaps?

(1) Suomen asiain komitea: Suomen korkeimman hallinnon jurjestelyt ja toteuttaminen vuosina 1811-1826 (Helsinki: Suomen historiallinen seura, 1963).

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Author:Kirby, David
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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