History of the Student Nations

The medieval roots

The beginning of the Finnish student nations is found from the 11th century University of Bologna, Italy. In Bologna students started to gather together on the basis of their home regions, which on that era meaned also shared language or dialect. From Bologna the academic traditions of the university and the student nations have wandered via the University of Paris on 14th century and German universities on the 16th century to Sweden. The first Swedish university was founded on 1497 in Uppsala. From medieval universities and their student nations, nationes in Latin, originates some parts of the academic ceremonies and the use of Latin on some occasions. Medieval origins are most visible on the ceremony of Conferment Ceremony of the Faculty of Philosophy, which takes place in the University of Helsinki every second-fourth year, with the use of Latin on several occasions and giving the magisterial rings and laurel wreaths for the graduating Masters. On same ceremony the Doctors are given their black hats and swords. The Conferment ceremony durates three days with many ceremonies and evening balls, ending early in the morning on the Senate Square and a song for the rising Sun.


The Four Universities of the Swedish Empire

Origin of the Finnish student nations is on the era of Swedish Empire on the 17th century, when the Kingdom of Sweden managed to achieve Dominium Maris Baltici, over-lordship of the Baltic Sea region. As part of the empire building king Gustav II Adolph and his daughter queen Christina founded new universities to the “four-corners of the realm”. These four old Swedish universities are the universities of Uppsala, Tartu (old Dorpat), Turku/Åbo and Lund, all of them founded in the old cathedral cities. Oldest them, Uppsala, was a model after which the others were founded. The Royal Academy of Turku (Åbo in Swedish) was founded on 1640, under the surveillance of Count Pehr Brahe, who ruled the Finnish provinces on that time. Three years later the students of the new university were divided to different student nations, each of which was stated under the inspection of one of the professors. These professors are since called Inspectors (inspehtori in Finnish). The members of the student nation elected one of them to the post of Curator (kuraattori in Finnish), whose task was to lead the student nation and also help the Inspector to survey the nation. The members of the student nations were and are still in more formal parlance called with name civis, pl. cives, which means a citizen in Latin. This name came from the idea that the Academy was as a republic of it’s own inside the kingdom. And the situation was very much like that till the end of 19th century. The Academy had its own parliament (Consistorium), police forces (pedells) and even own jail, the Karsseri, named after the famous prison of the Classical Rome, the Carciere. Students were excepted from power of City Courts jurisdiction and only the Consistorium had the legal power over the students.


The Student Nations on the 17th century

Students nations mane tasks were the guarding of the manners and behavior of their members and also help them on difficult times. To the beginning of the 20th century the nations also organised the funerals for their deceased members, whose families couldn’t afford the ceremony. So, the purpose of the student nations was in same time disciplinary and social. The number of the nations varied during the history of the Academy, sometimes there where more, sometimes the nations joined together forming new, bigger nations. And on some periods the nations split to new smaller nations or the Consistorium divided the nations which it regarded too big for one professor to take care. Also the fluctuation of the borders of the Swedish Kingdom had their effect on the student nations, on the 17th century there where student nations for many Swedish provinces and also for provinces in Estonia and Livonia. Students from the province of Ingermanland also tried to organise their own student nation.

The era of the Swedish Empire come to end on the Great Northern War, which raged through much of the countries around the Baltic Sea and formed northern stage on the general European great war better known in English as the War of Spanish Succession. The city of Turku/Åbo was occupied by the Russian troops on 1713 like rest of Finland. The Academy fled to Stockholm and the student nations hibernated the war period. The war and occupation of Finland, known as the Great Wrath, came to end on the Peace of Nystadt on 1721. Sweden lost the provinces of Livonia, Estonia, Ingermanland and Carelia, and the rising Russian Empire get very strong hold on the inner politics of Sweden. As consequence of the inner turmoils in the end of the war and death of king Charles XII, the absolute monarchy was cut and the old Four Estates which formed the Swedish Parliament, Riksdag, took the power. Following period of reconstruction and early parliamentary rule is known as the Era of Liberty, or Era of the Estates.


The Era of Estates and Enlightenment

The Academy returned to the Turku and started to reconstruct itself. The 18th century saw the first peak on the scientific research and education in the Academy, when the Enlightenment spread to Sweden and the natural sciences started to separate from the old Natural Philosophy. Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy and Botanics flourished in Turku/Åbo as well as in Uppsala of Linnaeus. The subject of History experienced great rise and development under the professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan.


On 1772 the king Gustav III leaded a coup against the rule of Estates and old monarchy was restored, but the king had still negotiate with the Estates on some matters. This so called gustavian form of state and law formed the base on which the later Grand Duchy of Finland was founded.


The beginning of the Grand Duchy of Finland

In the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars Finland was conquered by the Russian Empire as part of the Pact of Tilsit made between Napoleon and Emperor Alexander I. In the Peace of Fredrikshamn (Hamina in Finnish) Sweden ceded Finnish provinces to Russia, and gained later as restitution the Norway from Denmark. The university city of Turku/Åbo experienced the change of ruler and an era as the capital of new Grand Duchy of Finland. Czar Alexander I decided to keep on the force old gustavian laws and forms of state, because they gave great powers for the monarch and it was also fastest way to settle the situation after warfare. The Finnish provinces formed a new autonomous Grand Duchy as part of the Russian Empire, like the regions of Baltic States had before. As sign of benevolence towards the Academy the new Grand Duke named his son and crown prince to be the Chancellor of the University, which was upgraded in to position of Imperial University and its budget was doubled.


The Great Fire of Turku/Åbo and move to Helsinki/Helsingfors

In Turku/Åbo tensions were growing between mostly Swedish-speaking students and the Russian troops which were garrisoned in the city. After student protests, riots and the Great Fire of Turku on 1827 the new Emperor/Czar/Grand Duke Nicholas I ordered to move the University to new capital Helsinki, like the Senate and Governor-General had done earlier. The students were suspected by the Crown as possible insurgents and well of rebellion, as aftermath of the Decabrist Rebellion in Russia on 1825. The Romanov Emperor ordered and planned new uniform for the students, as part of the militarizing of society to enforce the imperial rule in different parts of the Empire. Most long lasting piece of this uniform was its hat, blue cap with the lyre of University. This is the grandfather of the modern Finnish student cap.

The University moved to its new home on the side of the heart of Helsinki, Senate Square. New building of the University was planned by Carl Ludvig Engel, after the Humboldtian ideals of Berlin. The University in the middle of the new capital, on the era of Romantic movement and first waves of nationalism, soon become the forge of the new Finnish nationalism and played key role in the shaping of the Finnish state from the rudiments of the Grand Duchy. Move to Helsinki/Helsingfors ended the era of Cathedral-City university in a little provincial town. The old Academy was now thrown in the middle of elite circles and society of new Grand Duchy. The presence of Governor-General, the Russian Navy at the Sveaborg Fortress and visitations of the nobility from St. Petersburg brought new aura of civilized life of higher circles to the students life. As heritage of this age the Student Nations traditional Anniversary Balls replay and continue the culture of grand balls of the 19th century and many old academic dances which are danced originate from the Court of Romanovs.


The Internordiskt Studentmöte and dangerous ideas

Same time as the gilded splendour of Russian nobility cascaded over new student generations, the connections to the Scandinavian countries and old homeland Sweden get new political tensions. The Russian authorities regarded the visitations and contacts with the Swedish students dangerous, since more liberal Sweden was considered as a stepping stone for the revolutionary and liberal ideals from Europe to Russian Empire. In Sweden and Denmark the new Panscandinavic movement was growing among the students, spinning dreams of the united kingdom of all Nordic Nations. Partly as reaction to the diminishing standing of their countries in the international politics, the Panscandinavismen or simply Scandinavism was seen as threat for the interests of Russian Empire in Finland and in the Baltic Region. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian students started to organise general meetings of the students of Nordic countries in 1840s, thus starting the tradition of Internordiskt Studetmöte, which is still organised every second year on some university city of Nordic countries.


The Finnish Student Cap is born

In 1850’s also small group of Finnish students managed to slip from Finland to visit the Meeting in Uppsala. During this visitation they saw the new student caps of Swedish students, which were modelled after Danish caps. When this group returned to Helsinki, they ordered from a hatter first white student caps. First these caps were laughed at and called “milk-hats”, but very soon the tide turned and all students started to buy and wear this kind of caps during the summer vacation, during which the official old blue cap of Nicholas I wasn’t obligatory to wear. When the numbers of the graduating pupils from newly founded upper secondary schools or lyceums started also to buy that summer hat as symbol of their new status as the member of the republic of the learned, the Finnish student cap was born and it very soon overshadowed the old blue winter hat.


The Era of Outlaw Student Nations

Suspicion towards the Student Nations grow in the Governor-Generals Office and also the Emperor started to recieve worrying notes from the Russian spies in Helsinki about the speeches and doings of the student nations. Infamous happening were the so called Dinner Party of Töölö, where drunken students rose their classes for the rebellious Poles. Alarmed authorities forced the Rector of University to organise investigation on the parties and the process ended when the most notable friends of liberties were exiled from the Empire. Many of the exiles emigrated to Sweden, forming the circle of Finnish emigrates and exiles in Uppsala and Stockholm. When the situation was getting dark and tense before the outbreak of the Crimean War, the Emperor Nicholas I banned on 1852 the Student Nations as dangerous and rebellious groups, which spread revolutionary ideas to the Grand Duchy. Officially the Student Nations finished to be active, but in reality they went underground and continued to gather in camouflage of different “private” festivities, which kept alive the idea of the student nation.

The beloved Emperor and legalization of the Student Nations

1860’s were significant times in Finland and in the Student Nations also. After the disastrous War of Crimea (or War of Åland as known in Finland) the Russian Empire was on its knees on front of modernized navies and weaponry of France and Great Britain. The Old Czar Nicholas I had died during the war and new Czar Alexander II was more liberal and modern-minded than his father had been. Under his rule the industrialisation of Finland started, the Estates started to meet regularly, Finnish language was given legal position on side of Swedish and finally the Student Nations were legalized again in 1868. The Student Nations rose from their shadow life and gained new support from larger circles of population. The Student Nations organised the gathering of money for their new project, the students own house. After ten years of seeking permition from the Emperor and collecting money the Student House (nowadays the Old Student House) was opened in 1870. The Student House become the headquarters of the Student Nations and students in general, when the Student Union was formed to act as cooperation organ for the different student nations and other student organisations, like choirs and reading clubs.

The Candles of the People

The Student Nations get totally inspired by the national romanticism since the 1830s, when the national poet to-be Johan Ludvig Runeberg started his literary career as young student and later the teacher of the Gymnasium of Borgå/Porvoo. In the rising Finnish national feeling and as part of the process of creating the Finnish identity, the Student Nations organized the collecting of the local folklore and also to collect the remains of the history of Finland before their times. These collections of the Student Nations formed the nucleus for the later collections of the National Museum of Finland. Young students travelled the land from east to west and west to east during their summer vacations, collecting poems, songs, proverbs and folktales as old furnitures, archaeological founds and biological specimens from the provinces and regions of Finland. One of the strongest images of the Student Nations that still linger in the collective memory of the Finns is the group young students with their white caps travelling and singing through the Finnish countryside. As part of the shaping of the nation the Student Nations propagated for the schooling of even the poorest children in the most distant parts of Grand Duchy and schooling by their native language, the Finnish. Many members of the Student Nations ended to be the teachers in countryside after their graduation, thus laying the foundation stones for the later Finnish educational miracle. The teachers were called with epiteth “Candles of the People” for their role as spreading the light of education into even the most distant wilderness.