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Oula Silvennoinen and the Students of St Olaf – How Does History Affect Society and Thought in Today’s Finland

On Friday January 29th 2016 Historians without Borders helped organise a lecture for 51 American college students at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. Oula Silvennoinen, Adjunct Professor of European History at the University of Helsinki and a member of the HWB board spoke to students from the St Olaf College about Finnish history and how it affects the society and the views of Finns today.

The lecture titled ‘Finland in 60 minutes’ took a quick look at the most important events and turning points in Finnish history. Silvennoinen started his lecture by leading the students in to the subject itself by explaining how Finland has during its history been a part of both of its neighbouring empires, Sweden and Russia, and how Finns gained their independence in 1917.

Silvennoinen then continued his lecture with the more difficult aspects of Finnish history, including the years during World War II when Finland cooperated with Nazi-Germany and the post-War years of Finlandization, which still affect Finnish society and thought today. He explained the students how the Cold War years, when Finland had to balance its foreign policy decisions between pressures from both the Eastern and the Western camps and the policy of neutrality adopted during those years, explain for example Finnish people’s relatively negative attitudes towards the country’s possible membership in NATO.

The second half of the lecture was reserved for questions and general discussion with students and the faculty members of St Olaf College. The students were interested in a wide range of issues from current events like the European migrant crisis to historical issues like how Finland has processed its difficult past with Nazi-Germany.

Finland’s geographic positioning next to Russia interested the students. They wondered whether the recent cooling of relations between Russia and EU, combined with Finland’s long, and at times difficult, history with its neighbour, has in anyway altered Finnish people’s views of the country’s long policy of neutrality, and how does Finland manage its close ties with Russia in the current political climate.

In addition to analysing current world politics, Silvennoinen got to answer the students’ questions related to the Finnish welfare state such as gender equality, maternity packages and how a small language like Finnish can survive today. He was also asked to teach the students how to pronounce his last name and the proper Finnish pronunciation of ‘Helsinki’.

We at Historians without Borders in Finland want to thank Oula Silvennoinen and the students of St Olaf College for an exiting and interesting afternoon!

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