]> In Finland

In Finland

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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, 2010-2011 and 2013-.

Enclave and Utopia

May 8, 2010

Nowadays it's fashionable in the United States to talk of the Scandinavian countries as "Socialist". After all, they support all of their citizens with health care, education, and a strong safety net -- and they tax highly to support it. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," we are reminded of. And yet, the Finns fought their only civil war over this very issue in 1918. Independence had just come into their lap almost by accident due to the Russian revolution, but half of the country thought, like their late easterly compatriots, that communism was the way to go. This side (known, naturally, as the Reds) was supported by the new Russian Republic, and Germany supported the Whites, who stood for democracy and capitalism. After a short but unfortunately bloody conflict of a few months, the latter prevailed, and the nation of Finland was born.

These two countries of Russia and Germany had not had their last to say in Finland however. In 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland with the goal of taking it over completely. Stalin wanted to restore and expand upon the last step in Peter's westward expansion. Finland, fighting for its life, managed to hold Russia at bay, though it lost its second largest city and 10% of its territory. During the ensuing WWII, Finland as a result sided with Germany, and together they recaptured the lost land and made progress into Russia itself. But in the end, as we know, the Russians won, and harsh terms were imposed. These included the re-ceding of the land lost earlier, together with massive monetary "war reparations".

The war reparations were perhaps a blessing in disguise, for they stimulated Finland, which had lost its first war to Russia partly due to running out of ammunition, to develop its industrial capacity. It was among the last European countries to do so, a topic that will be returned to later.

The point of all this is background to note that, while distribution of wealth and services has developed to be more even in Finland and the other Scandinavian countries than in the Anglo countries, their approach nevertheless stands in stark contrast with that famously tried by their eastern neighbors. We can readily see this by the evidence of free independent commerce in these photos from Sweden and Finland.


Despite all this, and regardless of the collapse of said eastern neighbors' attempts at egalitarian society, there is definitely something of central planning for the benefit of all going on in Finland's smaller cities and towns. My wife comes from Joensuu, a town of perhaps 50-100,000 in east Finland. Here, the government handles real estate development, opening up one section of the land it owns to new construction each year. It does not even sell this land to the builders or occupants, but rents it to them. Moreover the residents can't build just anything. In the 1970s when my wife's family moved to one of these plots, they were allowed to choose from a fixed list of three or four designs. More latitude was allowed on the interior, but outside even the color the house was painted was not left up to the occupants. Today, this color restriction remains, and while the selection has been broadened, the overall design is still subject to tight constraints.

This might sound stifling, but actually the results don't turn out worse than many privately generated tract-housing developments in the U.S.. In fact, I would go so far as to say some aspects bring echos of the idea of utopia to mind. Utopia: a paradisical society in which needs are met and desires are fulfilled -- but in moderation, so that they remain pleasurable. Behold:

This is my wife's parents' neighborhood, taken right outside their house. It might not jump out at you right away as paradise, but... Notice for example how the tall pines and spruces have been left to grow. The blue sign is the beginning of a pedestrian / bike path. It heads out past the end of the cul de sac and branches to run through the woods behind this neighborhood and other connected ones. It's possible to run or bike for some miles in various directions, visiting nature, friends, or the local church or convenience store as need arises. The presence of this path right outside the home is far better than any asphalt street or concrete sidewalk. It invites you to walk outside between the trees, to live and breath healthier. When you do it feels almost park-like, but still residential, as if you're in some Scandinavian version of Marin County.

Except unlike Marin you don't need an M- or JD and a thriving practice to get in. My wife's family was working class.

And that makes all the difference. We can think of calling this a utopia. With Marin County, beautiful of an example of modern human living amidst nature though it is, you just can't. An enclave perhaps; an exclusive community, a haven. But utopia -- that's something that everyone takes part in.

Is it really that good in Joensuu? Maybe not. But I think they're on to something.

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