A Greater Finland?

Territorial disputed were common symptom of the new states created in the aftermath of the First World War. Nations cited hundred year old historical claims, obscure treaties, and the newly instilled concept of national self-determination to justify why their newfound states should control territory over another. Finland was no exception.

Only days after Finland first declared independence, Finnish nationalists began to look enticingly across the Grand Duchy’s old borders so as to establish a “Greater Finland”. The Whites, with their origins within the Activists and their framing of the Civil War as a War of Liberation, sought to expand Finland’s territory at the expense of Russia. The series of irredentist campaigns to conquer land became known as the Kindred Wars (Heimosodat)

For Finland, the main target was Karelia, a region that spanned across the south-eastern border of Finland into Russia, comprising of the Karelian Isthmus, and the land between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, extending north to the White Sea.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Finnish bonds to Karelia originated during the surge of Finnish nationalism in the 19th Century. The 1835 national epic Kalevala identified Karelia as the central source of Finnish historic and cultural heritage.[1] Not all of Finland’s territorial ambitions were grounded in national self-determination. Some Finnish nationalists desired the annexation of the entire Kola Peninsula, including the Arctic Sea ports of Petsamo (Pechenga) and Murmansk.[2]

In the Civil War

The Finnish Civil War immediately flashed into areas of Karelia already under the Finnish control, but the matter became politicized when Vladimir Lenin pledged to cede other parts of Karelia to Red Finland. The Whites took this action to be akin to bribery, and in response General Mannerheim released his own pledge to unify Finland and Karelia:

“We do not need the charitable concession of a land which by virtue of its blood-ties belongs to us, and I swear in the name of the Finnish peasant army, whose commander-in-chief I have the honour to be, that I will not sheath my sword before law and order reigns in the land, before all fortresses are in our hands, before the last soldier of Lenin is driven not only from Finland, but from Russian Karelia as well. Confident in the rightness and justness of our cause, confident in the heroism of our menfolk and the sacrifices of our womenfolk, we shall create a mighty, great Finland.”[3]

The Kindred Wars Continue

The end of the Finnish Civil War did not end the Kindred Wars, rather the White victory enflamed Finnish nationalism further. Official and unofficial campaigns to conquer territory began being launched against Soviet Russia to conquer East Karelia.

In a Parliamentary debate on 11 April 1919, Finnish Centre Politician Santeri Alkio announced:

“The concept of the Finnish state includes the union of East Karelia and the Olonets region with Finland and this had been publically proclaimed many times over the past few years. I proclaim it once again in this assembly.”[4]

In the same debate, even the resurgent Social Democrats announced support for Finnish claims to Karelia, although they opposed annexation by conquest.[5]


A Russian propaganda poster during the Kindred Wars. The text reads: “We don’t want war, but we will defend the Soviets!” Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Kindred Wars even soured Finland’s relations with nations other than the Russians. During an expedition to seize the port for Petsamo, White Guards even traded gunfire with British soldiers who were securing the port as part of Great Britain intervention into the Russian Civil War. [6]

Self-determination and the conquest of territory was not the only motivation for the Kindred Wars. Political ideology and the desire to gain allies in the war against Bolshevism also played a role. Finnish volunteers fought in the Estonian War of Independence so as to establish a friendly government there.[7]

General C. G. E. Mannerheim, acting as Finland’s regent, wished to go further. He planned elaborate offensives aimed at capturing Petrograd and the destruction of Soviet Russia, with the assistance of the Russian Whites and the western allies.[8]

The Kindred Wars, albeit an unofficial war, ended officially on 14 October 1920. Upon the signing of Treaty of Tartu, Finland and Soviet Russia agreed to recognize one another’s sovereignty and traded territory, Finland got an arctic port but gave up parts of conquered Karelia.[9] The treaty was not enough for certain factions; Finnish volunteers would continue to fight despite their government’s wishes.

The Treaty of Tartu may have ended the Kindred Wars; the desire for Finnish territorial expansion into Karelia would have grave repercussions later in Finnish history.



[1] Paul M. Austin, “Soviet Finnish: The End of A Dream,” East European Quarterly 21, no. 2 (1987): 184.

[2] C. Jay Smith, Finland and the Russian Revolution 1917-1922 (University of Georgia Press, 1958), 98.

[3] “The White View of the Civil War – General Mannerheim’s Order of the Day to the Army in Karelia, 23 February 1918,” in Finland and Russia 1808 – 1920 – From Autonomy to Independence – A Selection of Documents (London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press LTD, 1975), 230–31.

[4] “East Karelia and Finnish Participation in the Intervention against Russia: The Diet Debate, 11 April 1919,” in Finland and Russia 1808 – 1920 – From Autonomy to Independence – A Selection of Documents (London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press LTD, 1975), 249–50.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Craig Gerrard, “The Foreign Office and British Intervention in the Finnish Civil War,” Civil Wars 3, no. 3 (2000): 98.

[7] Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim, trans. Eric Lewenhaupt (London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1953), 206.

[8] Smith, Finland and the Russian Revolution 1917-1922, 130–31, 149–50; Markku Ruotsila, “The Churchill-Mannerheim Collaboration in the Russian Intervention, 1919-1920,” The Slavonic and East European Review 80, no. 1 (2002): 5–6.

[9] David Kirby, trans., “The Russo-Finnish Peace Treaty, 14 October,” in Finland and Russia 1808 – 1920 – From Autonomy to Independence – A Selection of Documents (London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press LTD, 1975), 152.

Banner Photo – Finnish Volunteers fighting in the Estonian War of Independence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons