Lessons of Integration of Aliens into Finland between 1917 and 1944

Global Politician, NY
Dec 12 2004

Lessons of Integration of Aliens into Finland between 1917 and 1944


By Antero Leitzinger

When Finland became independent on 6th of December 1917, the
constitution, dating back to Swedish rule over a century earlier,
required all Finnish citizens to be of Evangelical Lutheran faith.
Exceptions had been made regarding other Protestant, Roman Catholic,
and Russian Orthodox religions (after all, the Grand Duke himself, as
Emperor of Russia, was Orthodox). Non-Christians, however, were
excluded from the citizenship. They included Jews and Muslims. Jews
in Finland were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia, who were
later integrated into the Swedish-speaking minority. Muslims in
Finland were mainly Turkic-speaking Mishar Tatars from the Middle
Volga region, who were later integrated into the Finnish-speaking
majority, but who have retained their own mother tongue. There are
still about 1000 Jews and almost equally many Tatars in Finland. How
were they naturalised?

A distinct Finnish citizenship had developed by 1832, when the Grand
Duke (Emperor) declared, that all applications would be subjected to
his approval. Since then, the citizenship was applied and all
applications are preserved in the National Archive. Although Finns
enjoyed full rights everywhere in the Russian Empire, Russian
subjects did not automatically enjoy full rights in Finland. The
Finnish citizenship was a restricted privilege. Because of the
tendencies of Russification, no law of citizenship was passed until
in 1920 when Finland was already independent. Instead, many different
decrees and political considerations regulated the acquisition of
Finnish citizenship.

In 1914, out of three million inhabitants in Finland, an estimated 40
000 were foreigners – mostly Russian subjects. Their number decreased
since then, and only in the 1990s did both the number and the
proportion of foreigners in Finland pass the pre-independence level.
The most alien minorities were the Jews and Muslims, whose
integration within a generation was an interesting achievement. The
Jews have been studied among others by Taimi Torvinen in “Kadimah –
Suomen juutalaisten historia” (Keuruu 1989) [“Kadimah – the history
of Finland’s Jews”], and the Muslims by Antero Leitzinger in
“Mishäärit – Suomen vanha islamilainen yhteisö” (Helsinki 1996) [“The
Mishars – Finland’s old Islamic community”].

Jews in Russia suffered heavily from the pogroms starting in April
1881. Although international attention forced the government to deny
its direct responsibility, laws officially restricted the freedom of
residence, occupation, and education of the Jews even more. In 1891,
Jews were systematically ousted from Moscow. (Torvinen, p. 43-44)
Pogroms were repeated in 1897, 1899, 1903, and 1904-1905. Finland,
however, was more liberal-minded, sought Western support, and
emphasised the rule of law in order to strengthen its autonomy as a
Grand Duchy. After a long legal process, Jews were declared equal by
law on 12th of January, 1918.

Both Jews and Muslim started to apply Finnish citizenship in 1918.
The Muslims, however, could be accepted only after general freedom of
religion was declared in the constitution by 1919. The naturalisation
proceeded slowly, although three quarters of the Jews were born in
Finland by 1920. (Torvinen, p. 107-108)


Finnish authorities were initially relatively positive regarding the
social and political activities of Russian emigrant groups, specially
of the “frontier nations”, among whom the Tatars were considered
potentially influential. Finnish politicians and academicians met
with Tatar leaders, like Sadri Maksudi, president of Idel-Ural, an
autonomous republic in the Middle Volga region in 1917-1918. Even
when it became obvious, that the Idel-Ural autonomy was crushed and
Soviet power established all over Russia, Tatar nationalism was
considered friendly and it was encouraged by Finns. This made a
lasting impression on several Tatar activists, who later promoted
Finland in various international forums. Musa Jarullah Bigi, a
Crimean Tatar cleric, spoke warmly about Finns in a pan-Islamic world
congress in Jerusalem in 1932. (Helsingin Sanomat 28.2.1932)

The Finnish security police (Etsivä keskuspoliisi, EK; later
Valtiollinen poliisi, Valpo) screened through all citizenship
applications and rejected many on accounts of political suspicions,
if the applicants were suspected of communist sympathies. In
September 1920, however, the Border Land commandant Heinrichs
complained to the foreign minister, that most Russian emigrants were
“rich Jews”, and that “appealing to humanity is nothing but a
despicable Jewish business trick”. (Kristiina Erhola: “Suomen
pakolaispolitiikka 1917-1922” [Finnish Refugee Policy], Licentiate
work in the Helsinki University Political Sciences Department, 1994,
p. 233) In July 1921, the Interior Ministry was reported to have
started restricting immigration by turning down asylum applications.
Professor Yrjö Jahnsson intervened in behalf of Tatars and other
“frontier nations” and attributed the change of climate to the
“agitation” of the EK. (File 5 of the private collection of Yrjö and
Hilma Jahnsson in the National Archive)

>From 1921 to 1939, the EK was becoming increasingly defensive and
cautious. This may have been caused by swifts in the personal – many
of the older detectives had been people who knew Russian, had lived
in St. Petersburg or in the frontier area, and used to cross the
border easily, but they were replaced by men who (like the later
president Urho Kekkonen) had no personal experience of Russia and
little interest in contacts with Russians or representatives of
various minorities. A cosmopolitan tendency prevailed in army
intelligence, which employed many Tatars during the Continuation War,
but the EK considered Tatars and other alien groups a potential
source of trouble. Even anti-Semitism became evident.

In May 1926, an EK detective claimed in his report, that Jewish
citizenship applications should be rejected because experience had
shown, that they would not turn into good citizens, and that ethnic
Russians living in the border area should be rejected because there
were living already too few reliable people. The head-division of the
EK put it only slightly less clear by instructing the sub-divisions
to filtrate well especially Russian and Jewish applicants of
citizenship. Next year the same detective regretted in his report,
that the new government did not care to discriminate against Jews,
and was not hostile to emigrants. Even president Lauri Kristian
Relander was criticised in the EK reports for frustrating the
anti-Semitic security police officers. (Documents in a file titled
“Suomen kansalaiseksi ottaminen” [Accepting to Finnish Citizenship]
in the archive of the Directorate of Immigration)

The last Muslim refugees from Russia crossed the border secretly in
1929-1936, some of them escaping from the Solovetsk camp (“Gulag”) by
foot. Among them was also a remarkable Armenian, Anushavan Zatikyan,
who provided the Finnish military intelligence with information and
organised a common Armenian-Muslim resistance against Soviet rule in
the Caucasus. (EK-Valpo head-division interrogation protocol 82/1930
in the National Archive, referred to in my article in the Ararat
Quarterly 37/1996) His case is not only most interesting for Armenian
resistance history, but also because it implied deep-lying tactic
differences between the EK and the military intelligence of Finland.


The Winter War was a decisive test for the loyalty of various
political and ethnic minorities. Both “Red” (pro-Soviet) and “White”
(including pro-German) Finns, who had been fighting each other in
1918, were united in a national resistance. Also ethnic Russians and
other ethnic minorities, some of whom were not yet Finnish citizens,
proved to be loyal to their new homeland. Although the authorities
did take some communists, ethnic Russians, and other suspect
individuals into custody, in extremely few cases any kind of
pro-Soviet inclination was really recognisable.

Among the most dramatic potential loyalty conflicts were the
encounters between Finnish Jewish officers and Nazi Germans, who were
allied with Finland from 1941 to 1944. When a German Colonel Pilgrim
had been rescued by a Finnish captain, then still Lieutenant Salomon
Klass, the German offered his rescuer his thanks and the Iron Cross,
which Klass however declined to accept. When the German heard that
his rescuer was a Jew, he nevertheless shook the latter’s hand and
said: “I personally have nothing against you as a Jew. Heil Hitler!”
(Hannu Rautkallio: “Suomen juutalaisten aseveljeys”, Jyväskylä 1989,
p. 157-158) [“Finnish Jews as Germany’s Waffenbrüder”].

Soviet Union produced in 1944 a list of suspected war criminals. The
list included also a Jewish Captain Eugen Apter, who remained
innocently imprisoned until 1947. (Rautkallio, p. 142)

In the wars, 23 Jews and 10 Muslims fell for the freedom of Finland.
Many of the Jews and Muslims fought as volunteers, having not yet
received the Finnish citizenship.


Those aliens, who had not acquired Finnish citizenship by 1939 –
mostly defined as “subjects of former Russia” – were nevertheless
granted protection as refugees or simply foreigners with residence
permit. Beside the immigrants, Finland hosted also tens of thousands
of ethnic Finns evacuated from the German-occupied Ingermanland
[Ingria], or living in occupied East Karelia. There were also large
numbers of Soviet prisoners of war, and some additional war-time

Both Jewish and Muslim prisoners of war in Finland were provided with
religious literature by the Jewish and Muslim congregations. Tatar
prisoners of war were employed by fellow Tatars, and could thus live
outside prison camps in relative comfort. Some of them refused to be
returned to the Soviet Union after armistice in 1944.

Finland had received Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in the
1930s. The chief of Valpo, Arno Anthoni, however, deported in
November 1942 a group of foreigners, some of whom had committed petty
crimes in Finland, including eight Jews, to Germany. Seven of the
Jews perished in Auschwitz. This action was deeply resented by the
media and by many Finnish politicians, and the situation of Jewish
foreigners in Finland was secured thereafter – some of the refugees
were naturalised, others removed to Sweden. At the same time, Finland
succeeded in protecting half a dozen Jewish citizens living in
Germany and German-occupied countries. (The Finnish refugee policy in
the 1930s and early 1940s has been studied by Taimi Torvinen in her
book “Pakolaiset Suomessa Hitlerin valtakaudella” [“Refugees in
Finland during Hitler’s Reign”], Keuruu 1984.)

The Germans planned that the Finnish Jews would be sent to Maidanek
concentration camp. (Torvinen, p. 139 & 141) It was irony of history,
that a Maidanek survivor was married to Finland after the war, and
his son Ben Zyskowicz became a member of parliament in 1979, and one
of the most respected Finnish politicians. His wife happened to be a
Tatar. Thus, the Zyskowicz family symbolises not only the success of
Jewish integration in the Finnish society, but also the good
relations between Jewish and Muslim communities in Finland. Another
famous Finnish Jew is the retired diplomat Max Jakobson, whose
attempt to become general secretary of the United Nations failed only
because of the Soviet preference for Kurt Waldheim, a former SS

An Austrian Jewish organisation tried to get financial restitution
from Finland in 1968-1971. This, however, was considered unfair by
the Jewish World Congress. (Torvinen, p. 163)

Finland had also received Estonian refugees in 1943-1944. Among them
there were Tatars, one of whom served among other Estonian volunteers
in the Finnish army until August 1944, when he was given leave to
escape to Sweden. Before the Soviet occupation, Estonia had its own
Tatar community, related to those in Finland, of 200-300 persons.
After the war, they became the nucleus of the first Muslim community
in Sweden.

The article was originally written in October 2000.

Antero Leitzinger is a political historian and a researcher for the
Finnish Directorate of Immigration. He wrote several books on Turkey,
the Middle East and the Caucasus.