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The Finnish famine has not been forgotten

6 Oct 2017

Academy Research Fellow Andrew Newby of the University of Helsinki knows the route as we depart along the ‘Hunger line’, on a tour of memorials of the Finnish famine in the region of Häme. What do the memorials tell us about the famine and Finland 150 years ago?

Newby comes from Ireland and the Great Irish Famine is part of his national heritage and his own family history. This led to his interest in famine as a research subject. He heard about Finland’s great famine for the first time from a fellow student at the University of Edinburgh, who later became his wife. “I thought that everyone in Finland was just as knowledgeable about the famine as she was.”

Out of a population of eight million, over a million people died during the Irish famine between 1845 and 1851, and a million emigrated – mainly to America. Newby explains that in Ireland it is often said that the famine could have been prevented if it were not for oppressive British rule. The Irish were largely dependent on the potato for nutrition, and the spread of potato blight did irreparable damage. The Irish population continued to decline after the 1840s, until the late twentieth century.

“In Ireland, it is claimed that the famine could have been avoided if we had had our own parliament and been able to decide things for ourselves. That could well be true, but the Finnish case teaches us that it was not the only outcome. In addition to the prevalence of severe frosts, it is known that in Finland’s case the country’s own administration was in charge of policy, but this did not prevent the famine,” says Newby. In contrast to Ireland, nationalist authors in Finland, writing the history of the episode, did not blame or even mention Russia. They created a narrative according to which Finns needed to become more diligent and nurture their own resources more carefully.

 

In the video, Andrew Newby explains more about the history of the ‘Famine line’ and the Finnish and Irish famines. Newby maintains an Instagram account where he publishes pictures of famine memorials: https://www.instagram.com/finnishfaminememorials/

Memorials commemorate the famine locally

It was Newby’s fascination with the issue that inspired him to seek out the memorials. From an Irish perspective, the Finnish famine can seem to have been largely forgotten, whereas the Irish famine still forms part of political discourse. Around 200,000 Finns died during the famine, as much as ten percent of the entire population. The famine amounted to a huge social, agricultural and economic crisis which, according to Newby's research, covered a considerably longer period – between 1862 and 1869 – than the worst years of 1867 to 1868. Alongside school textbooks and church records, local memorials have recorded a story of the duration and regional effects of the famine, which is different to the national account and its focus on the winter of 1867-8. "Taken together, local monuments paint a picture of a decade-long crisis," says Newby.

Newby points out that the memorials have drawn people's attention to the subject in an entirely new way. Finland has not built national monuments to the famine, but following Newby’s mapping exercise, 84 local memorials have been found and even more are likely to be discovered.

A new wave of monuments appeared in Ireland in the 1990s, in the wake of the 150th anniversary of the Irish famine and there is even an Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown. Curated by Newby, an exhibition on the Finnish famine opened in the Museum in September. Finnish agricultural tools, a bark scraper from 1868, and bark bread at various stages of preparation were loaned to Newby for the exhibition.

In connection with the exhibition, Newby also participated in a 160 kilometre historic walk from Strokestown to Dublin, arranged to commemorate the victims of the Irish famine. "It was important to me. I wanted to support it and become personally involved with a subject I have studied through the stories of individual people. Those who died during the famine were people, not numbers or statistics."

A comparative historian seeks links between the past and the present

Newby has hugely enjoyed searching for the monuments. "I enjoy my work when I can drive between monuments with my boys, even if it sounds a little like a story about mid-life crisis from a Nick Hornby novel," says Newby with a laugh.

"This would not have succeeded without the Internet. I could have toured Finland for 50 years without finding many of the sites, since this is such a big country compared to Ireland." Newby will soon begin a new project at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark, where he will study cross-national, famine-related phenomena in the Nordic countries.

Newby explains that much research remains to be done on the memorials. He believes that comparative historical research could create new perspectives on the present day as well as the past. He certainly has no intention of browbeating other countries on how they should act and commemorate famines: “With regard to history, I am interested in why there are certain generally accepted narratives, their causes and why they are being told.”

Several monuments, in towns such as Hikiä, Oitti, Lahti and Uusikylä, can be found along the Riihimäki-St Petersburg railway line, also known as the Luurata (Bone line) or Nälkärata (Hunger line). The Hikiä monument is located on the Pässinluko Hill. The stone was rolled into place to commemorate the dead in 1862. Around a fifth of Hikiä’s population died of hunger.  

This memorial in Kärkölä is located in a cemetery for railway builders who died in 1868-70. It was erected in 1967. In 1907, the railway workers’ publication, Juna, claimed that one railway construction worker had died for every kilometre of track built. The fence around the cemetery is built from parts of the track.

 

Text, images and video: Joonas Aitonurmi

 

Last modified 6 Oct 2017
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