100 years of independence

Though today is one of the dark days of early December alluded to in my recent posting — it’s Mozart’s death day, a sad occasion indeed — it’s also St. Nicholas’s day (gifts!), and Chris Waigl’s birthday (eggcorns, remote sensing of wildfires in the Arctic, Python, knitting, and more, in three languages!), and Independence Day in Finland. As Riitta Välimaa-Blum reminds me, this year’s Independence Day is something spectacular: the centenary of Finland’s declaration of independence from Russia.

(#1) The Finnish flag

So raise a glass of Lakka (Finnish cloudberry liqueur) or Finlandia vodka, neat, to honor that difficult moment in 1917 — the year should call to your mind both World War I (still underway then) and the Russian revolution, and these enormous upheavals were in fact crucial to Finland’s wresting its independence from Russia.

To come: background on Finland and its history; a digression on Lakka; a significant digression on two popular-culture icons of Finland, the creator of the children’s books about the Moomins, Tove Jansson, and the master of high-masculinity homoerotic art/porn, Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), who turn out to be something of a natural pairing;

(#2) Moomins and the Finnish flag

(#3) ToF men on Finnish stamps, with the flag in the background

Then a brief digression within a digression, on Swedish-speaking Finns, of whom Jansson was one; and a final appreciation of Riitta Välimaa-Blum, who got me into this posting in the first place.

Notes on Finland. First the map:

(#4) Finland’s place in Europe, between Sweden and Russia

Note Estonia, across a narrow portion of the Baltic Sea, and further south, Hungary; Finnish and Estonian are two Finnic languages, related to Hungarian in the larger Finno-Ugric family and to Samoyedic languages within Russia, in the still larger Uralic family.

On ethnic and linguistic matters, from Wikipedia:

Finns or Finnish people … are a Finnic ethnic group native to Finland.

Finns are traditionally divided into smaller regional groups that span several countries adjacent to Finland, both those who are native to these countries as well as those who have resettled. Also, some of these may be classified as separate ethnic groups, rather than subgroups of Finns. These include the Kvens and Forest Finns in Norway, the Tornedalians in Sweden, and the Ingrian Finns in Russia. The most notable autochthonous group is the Finnish-speaking population of Sweden, who trace their origin to Second Swedish Crusade after which Finland came under Swedish rule.

Finnish, the language spoken by most Finnic people, is closely related to other Finnic languages, e.g. Estonian and Karelian. The Finnic languages are a subgroup of the larger Uralic family of languages, which also includes Hungarian. These languages are markedly different from most other languages spoken in Europe, which belong to the Indo-European family of languages.

Then on Finland’s independence day, from Wikipedia:

Finland’s Independence Day (Finnish: itsenäisyyspäivä, Swedish: självständighetsdagen, Russian: день независимости) is a national public holiday, and a flag day, held on 6 December to celebrate Finland’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1917.

During the early decades of independence, Independence Day was a very solemn occasion marked by patriotic speeches and special church services. From the 1970s onwards, however, Independence Day celebrations have taken livelier forms, with shops decorating their windows in the blue and white of the Finnish flag, and bakeries producing cakes with blue and white icing. Today, rock stars and entertainers have been accepted as worthy interpreters of Finnish patriotism.

And on the history surrounding this event, from Wikipedia:

From the late 13th century, Finland gradually became an integral part of Sweden through the crusades and the Swedish part-colonisation of coastal Finland, a legacy reflected in the prevalence of the Swedish language and its official status. In 1809 Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. In 1906, Finland became the first European state to grant all adult citizens the right to vote, and the first in the world to give all adult citizens the right to run for public office. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Finland declared itself independent.

In 1918, the fledgling state was divided by civil war, with the Bolshevik-leaning Red Guard supported by the equally new Soviet Russia, fighting the White Guard, supported by the German Empire. After a brief attempt to establish a kingdom, the country became a republic. During World War II, the Soviet Union sought repeatedly to occupy Finland, with Finland losing parts of Karelia, Salla, Kuusamo, Petsamo and some islands, but retaining independence. Finland joined the United Nations in 1955 and established an official policy of neutrality.

But Finland eventually aligned itself more and more with western Europe, and is now a member of the EU.

Digression on Lakka. From Wikipedia:


Lakka or Lakkalikööri is a liqueur produced in Finland which derives its flavor from the cloudberry fruit. The word “Lakka” means cloudberry in Finnish.

The beverage is produced by soaking the berries in alcohol anywhere between two and six months until sweetened, and is branded by Chymos and Lapponia, both of which are distributed by the Sweden-based V&S Group, best known for its Absolut Vodka product.

And on the cloudberry, again from Wikipedia:

Rubus chamaemorus is a rhizomatous [plant] native to cool temperate, alpine, arctic tundra and boreal forest, producing amber-colored edible fruit similar to the raspberry or blackberry [also in the genus Rubus]. English common names include cloudberry, bakeapple (in Newfoundland and Labrador), knotberry and knoutberry (in England), aqpik or low-bush salmonberry (in Alaska – not to be confused with true salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis), and averin or evron (in Scotland).

Thanks to my Estonian colleague Ilse Lehiste at Ohio State, I have had Lakka a number of times — and also Finlandia Vodka (made from barley rather than potatoes), as well as several vodkas made from wheat (grain vodka’s a Baltic thing).

Tove and Tom. From the Cambridge University student newspaper Varsity on 11/24/17, “Finnish Independence: When Tove met Tom: On the centenary of Finnish independance, Anna Hollingsworth takes a look at her homeland’s cultural icons, and their unexpected similarities”, which I reproduce here in its entirety, because it does such a good job on the subject:

There was a time when all the cards I posted from home in Finland were carried off by Moomin stamps: from Moominpappa typing up his memoirs to Snorkmaiden fixing her fringe, I felt like my mail carried an extra dose of cuteness and goodwill to the world. But one day, a Finnish card appeared in my pigeonhole with a different kind of aesthetic: in the top right corner, a face with a thick moustache and a strong jawline peered at me from between a man’s muscular thighs, partly masked by his bottom – and a very perk one at that.

That was in 2014, and the Finnish Post had just launched a set of stamps celebrating the art of Tom of Finland, to accompany those with Tove Jansson’s Moomin sketches, long established as a national symbol. Now, three years later, Finland is celebrating its 100th anniversary of independence with an increased attention to its national ‘brand’ abroad. Where in the past the focus was on the once-glorious Nokia phones, minimalist Nordic design, education, and the recurring BBC piece on baby boxes and social welfare, now most international media attention goes to the unlikely pair of Tom and Tove.

Tom of Finland was the pen name of Touko Laaksonen, the Finnish artist who revolutionalised the homoerotic aesthetic of the second half of the 20th century and served as the inspiration for the likes of Freddy Mercury and the Village People. Advertising agency illustrator by day, freelance artist at night, Laaksonen introduced sailors, bikers, lumberjacks, and policemen into the gay fantasy canon. Much of his initial inspiration drew on his time in the army during the second world war, where there was no shortage of men in uniforms; although deeply disgusted by the Nazi ideology, Laaksonen later admitted to ranking the Germans as by far the sexiest in the trenches.

It’s not hard to see these origins reflected in his work: just as the leather clothing of the characters is bulging with muscle and male anatomy, the sketches bulge with a macho masculinity that had been largely absent from homoerotic art until then. It’s perky bums galore, whips and batons, manly men getting at it while rafting on logs, on breaks from construction work, or while a policeman stops a biker for inspection – in all senses of the word.

It was the same war – albeit not as much in the way of uniforms – that drove Jansson to write and illustrate the first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood. She felt the need to write something where everything would have a happy ending (not in the Tom of Finland sense of the word, mind you): in the novel, Moominpappa has gone missing, and his family – a tribe of large-snouted, round, hippo-like characters – go on an adventure to find him and encounter loss, sorrow and danger on the way, reflecting the war-time atmosphere, but in the end find hope of a brighter future. It was also the start of Jansson’s personal happy ending, marking the beginnings of international fame and a Moomin empire ranging from a comic strip in London-based Evening News to themed weddings for Japanese couples making the trek to Moominland in the coastal town of Naantali.

But there is more of a link between the butch bikers and tender trolls than their origins in war – after all, which artist living through a war would not be affected by it? Both Jansson and Laaksonen encoded their anti-authority stances in their art. Given that homosexuality was decriminalised in Finland only in 1971, it is hardly surprising that neither Laaksonen nor his sketches were out loud and proud. After gaining popularity in Physique Pictorial, an American gay proto-porn magazine, his work was initially spread through an underground network of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The sketches not only defied authority by virtue of the illegality of their subject matter, the uniform-rife imagery provided a hotbed for ridiculing the authority that wore it. A recurring theme in the sketches is how to, quite literally, fuck the police.

Later, Laaksonen’s work would feature in exhibitions in the US, but his own homosexuality remained a secret to even his family, apart from his sister, who actively discouraged him from coming out. His alter ego as Tom of Finland was revealed only after his death in 1991. In an interview, his nephew reveals how they knew that Uncle Touko spent his winters in California drawing calendars – but no one thought to ask what kinds of calendars they were.

Where Tom of Finland isn’t particularly subtle about erecting its rebellion, Jansson incorporated her own defiance into the Moomins in more hidden ways. Nevertheless, she, too, risked breaking the law with references to gay relationships. Thingumy and Bob, timid little creatures holding hands and speaking a language undecipherable to others, are based on Jansson herself and her former partner, Vivica Bandler. With them, they carry a red ruby tucked away in a suitcase: a powerful metaphor for forbidden love. The lighthouse keeper Too-ticky, on the other hand, is a portrait of Jansson’s later partner for life, Tuutikki Pietilä. Beyond portraying her own fordibben relationships, Jansson was also a critic of war: Comet in Moominland, where the inhabitants of Moomin Valley flee their homes to escape a fast-approaching comet, serves as an allegory for the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ultimately, though, as much as Laaksonen and Jansson rejected authority, their work is equally about advocating tolerance and inclusiveness. The Tom of Finland sketches mainstreamed ideas of sexuality and masculinity that until then had been very much outré, and served as a platform for many gay men in the 60s and 70s to feel more comfortable with them. Laaksonen also advocated inter-racial relationships, at the time still as condemned as same-sex ones. In his work, men of all skin colours are equal, with all men equally desirable and fetishised, and no tops or bottoms based on race.

Jansson, in turn, advocated for tolerance from a feminist perspective. The Groak – a terrifying being with a chilly aura and who freezes everything under her feet – would traditionally be cast as a male character, while the outspoken Little My has become a synonym for feminism. Beyond strong women, there is also an ethos of accepting anyone and everyone in more general: in The Invisible Child, Ninni, a human girl, is invisible because of past traumas – an allegory for children in children’s homes – but becomes visible after the Moomin family takes her under their wings. Even the Groak is not judged despite her freezing Moominmamma’s precious flowers: rather, the Moomins treat her with respect, feeling mainly sadness for the creature’s lonely existence.

It is not difficult to see why the Moomins and Tom of Finland’s men are gathering such a following today, even if they are not the most obvious choice for national branding. The world is calling for tolerance and rebellion more than ever, and that is why art questioning authority and advocating equality is bound to spark an interest, whether in the form of trolls or leather-clad policemen. There is something, literally, cheeky and oddly satisfying about licking a man’s bum on a stamp, sticking it to an envelope and posting it to anti-gay Russia. Through their work, Tove and Tom allow us to go to arms still today.

Tove on this blog: from 10/19/14, “Tove Jansson tomorrow”. Plenty of postings about ToF on this blog and (of course, given his passion for hyperreal penises) AZBlogX, but of special interest today is my posting here on 4/16/14, “Finnish stamp surprise”.

Digression: Swedish-speaking Finns. Tove was one, and published her children’s books originally in Swedish. From Wikipedia:

The Swedish-speaking population of Finland … is a linguistic minority in Finland. They maintain a strong identity and are seen either as a separate ethnic group, while still being Finns, or as a distinct nationality. They speak Finland Swedish, which encompasses both a standard language and distinct dialects that are mutually intelligible with the dialects spoken in Sweden and, to a lesser extent, other Scandinavian languages.

I will eventually post about a wonderful, and very funny, exhibition in its last weeks at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, “Curiouser”, of works by Nina Katchadourian, but it’s relevant here because one of her works is a documentary interview of her parents about their languages: her father is an Armenian-speaking Turk, her mother a Swedish-speaking Finn, and then French, English, and Arabic are involved as well. Polyglots rule.

Riitta Välimaa-Blum. Educated Finns are almost all polyglots (even if they’re not Swedish Finns). So it is with Riitta, who has a PhD in linguistics from Ohio State, publishes almost entirely in English (on Finnish and English), and is a retired professor of linguistics at the Nice Sophia Antipolis University (French: Université Nice Sophia Antipolis); her husband, Gilles Blum, is French.

Two samples of her work. First, her 1988 dissertation, published as a book in 2016:

(#6) Finnish Existential Clauses

This work proposes that grammatical constructions are among the basic units of syntax. Finnish existential clauses are used as an example. This clausal construction is defined in terms of its immediate constituency only, and its meaning is compositional. Free word order is seen to form an independent set of three sequence constructions, which cut across all clause types. Each of these constructions has a specific pragmatic value, and they also encode the definiteness of the NPs involved. An important formal concomitant of the sequence constructions is their accentual pattern. A pitch-accent analysis of Finnish intonation is proposed, and experimental evidence provided for the default contours of the sequence constructions. Intonation can also be used to signal an override of the default pragmatics of a construction. A nomenclature for discourse analysis is advanced in order to understand the pragmatics of word order.

And then a 2005 textbook:

(#7) Cognitive Phonology in Construction Grammar

This accessible textbook analyzes some central phenomena of the sound system of standard Southern British English and General American in the framework of Cognitive Linguistics and Construction Grammar. The sound patterns are examined from the point of view of the central function of language, that is, the expression of meaning. The topics covered range from articulatory phonetics and the more abstract phonological systems to word stress and intonation. The target readership includes both students and teachers of English and linguistics. Key features: An accessible introduction to both English phonology and phonology in general – suitable for beginners in the field Each chapter ends with exercises and the invitation to analyze English and other languages using the tools of Cognitive Linguistics.

4 Responses to “100 years of independence”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Just a note to point out that Finns are represented in linguistics way way out of the population size of the country. I mean, the Stanford department has three: Paul Kiparsky (son of an eminent Finnish linguist, Valentin Kiparsky) and Arto Anttila in the regular faculty, plus Lauri Karttunen among the adjuncts. And there was I, the lone Swiss linguist, and just an adjunct, and two generations removed from Switzerland — until Judith Degen joined the department this fall as an assistant professor (of psycholinguistics), so now the Swiss can begin to stand up against the Finns.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook:

    Rod Williams: Wait — where’s the digression on Sibelius?!
    AMZ: Believe me, I had to bite my tongue. I mean, Sibelius *and* Esa-Pekka Salonen.

  3. alicip Says:


  4. Riitta Välimaa-Blum Says:

    In fact, Finland was the first country in the world to grant voting rights to all citizens. New Zealand did not allow the native citizens to vote.

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