by Rhodri C. Williams
I am writing this post having returned unscathed from my sole annual high-risk activity – the raising of the midsummer pole in the fine village of Svartsmara, at the heart of the Åland archipelago in Finland. The process begins benignly enough, with a happy assembly of summer and year-round residents plaiting aspen leaves into twine to be bound in geometric patterns onto the great, recumbent pole. Events take a more dramatic turn around ten, as the Northern sun tacks down to horizon level and a set of crude wooden lifting forks come clattering onto the lawn like medieaval siege instruments.
What comes next will probably have to be the equivalent of bungee-jumping or paragliding in my risk-averse life. The swains of the village assemble around a pile of garden gloves, then almost wordlessly set to with the lifting forks, allocating tasks through terse little debates in the porridge-thick local dialect, and suddenly hoisting through some telepathically communicated assent. Once the current sticks are maxed out, a detachment scrambles for new ones, eventually engaging the pole terrifyingly far below its center of gravity even as the distant top creaks up to meet the last rays of the sun.
The first time I joined, I found myself preoccupied by a number of previously exotic questions such as whether my insurance covers this activity, what the odds were that a rotten spot halfway up the pole would send the top half whistling down at us like a bus-length Louisville slugger and whether there was in fact an afterlife. I have little doubt that these questions remain burningly relevant three years later, but have managed to suppress them and just hoist with the rest.
And sure enough, every year the pole sways and creaks and groans but gives way, foolishly allowing itself to be guided to upright and locked in place for another long autumn and howling winter. As the last bolts are hammered in, the crowd claps a ragged applause and hats come off for a song that jarringly connects the placid evening, steeped in the glow of postwar Europe’s surfeit of welfare and peace, with a leaner, hungrier and more brutish time:
- Never have Alandian women and men
Let the honour of their tribe down
Warfare threatened us, but victoriously yet
We carry the heritage of freedom
- Loudly shall it sound, our Swedish language
Spoken with an urging voice
Enlighten our path like a sea mark of flames
Show us where we belong
Show us where we belong
Now, even after all this time, this is still pretty heavy medicine for a suburban white boy like myself. Granted, Åland is one of these European curiosities. On one hand, a quiet, lovely rural backwater of some 27,000 souls. On the other, a strategic Baltic bridgehead and a linguistic exclave of Sweden in a predominantly Finnish speaking Finland. Add a shake of historical contingency, and you have a tradition of demilitarization going back to the Crimean war, membership in the nationwide cultural autonomy negotiated at Finnish independence in 1918 for all the country’s Swedish speakers, and one of Europe’s oldest and strongest territorial autonomy regimes, devised by the League of Nations in 1921 as the price for Finland of averting Åland’s reunion with Sweden.
What does that mean in practice? Well, Åland is part of Finland but just try speaking Finnish here (legend has it that the archipelago’s first bankrobber did, only to have the matron behind him in line demand that he rob her bank in Swedish). Its certainly not against the law but it won’t get you much farther than it would in Sweden. Add to that the fact that Åland has its own parliament, government, postal system, flag, and (as we now know) national anthem. And people are seriously engaged in all this. For proof look at the fact that the tiny population supports two daily papers – the grand dame and the renegade – largely because most people here are thought to subscribe to and assiduously read both.
When I grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs, an elderly couple next door were the first ones who managed to convey to me the pace of change in our time. While it was shocking to imagine the younger Mrs. Ball trundling off in a horse-drawn carriage or encountering her first radio, it was not threatening. These experiences, like my own teenage liaison with the Sony Walkman, were insulated within a vast and powerful continent where change was presumed to be good and natural. Europe is different and Åland is one of those places where that difference remains quite tangible. The islands were small and poor and vulnerable. Friends in my mother-in-law’s generation still recall when fishing for perch after a hard winter could be a life or death activity. People died then in absurdly primitive ways, one moment breaking the ice to wash the Christmas linens, the next gone with pneumonia.
Entire peoples died too then in Europe, and change brought grave risks as well as possibilities. And as I learned in the course of a 2007 research project with the Åland Islands Peace Institute, the Åland autonomy was both promoted by its supporters and criticized by its detractors on its credibility as a guarantee for national survival. Asked in 1920 to explain their rationale for seeking to leave Finland for Sweden, the then-representatives of Åland began by rejecting an autonomy regime already on offer by the Finnish authorities. Pointing out that the proposal would allow anyone registered on Aland to vote and buy land, the Åland Legislature painted a picture of “denationalization” to be carried out by a Finnish government ostensibly known for its “brutal energy and … the weight [it] places on retention of the Islands under Finnish sovereignty.”
Many methods exist for such a de-nationalization. The fastest and most effective, albeit quite expensive, would be the purchase of a number of small properties on Aland (of which a large number already belong to Finnish-speaking settlers) and the setting up on each property … of large-scale industrial enterprises. This advance force of Finnish workers, employed in these enterprises, would provide an excellent means of excluding from the Legislature the native-born Alandic population who live spread on islands and archipelagos and would never be in a position to exercise their voting rights to the same extent as the newly-arrived workers, who would constitute a compact group together with their spouses and children.
The immediate result of this situation would obviously be the creation of a Finnish majority in the Legislature with the natural consequences thereof. Beyond the difficulties of an election campaign under these circumstances, the first detrimental consequence would be the creation of a feeling of disunity and discomfort among the Islands’ inhabitants, which would naturally lead to a significant increase in emigration to Sweden and America.”
A bit fanciful perhaps? Well, at the time, maybe, maybe not. Sadly, this corner of Europe has had its share of experience with dual purpose industrial investment. In Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which horrifyingly describes the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Russification takes the form of “people who appeared at the railway station and sat themselves down with their bundles. The trains kept bringing more of them and they disappeared into the mouths of the new factories.” Meanwhile, similarly objectionable practices arguably continue to take place today in settings ranging from Kashgar to the Western Sahara.
Back on Åland, points of tension undoubtedly remain with the government in Helsinki, but no one seriously fears a denationalization agenda anymore. After almost 100 years characterized largely by good faith on both sides, the autonomy has come to be seen as a good in itself. Beyond its value as a successful exercise in local self-government, the Åland regime includes numerous components potentially useful – and actively promoted – as confidence-building measures in contemporary ethnic conflict settings. And in Svartsmara, having faced our current fears (the pole!) and exorcised our past demons (the song!), we all troop back to the village hall for cinnamon buns and hot coffee, and hope for a long, warm summer.
 “Anmärkningar beträffande självstyrelselagen, framställda av Ålands landsting den 12 december 1920” (Observations related to the Autonomy Law, forwarded by Aland’s Legislature, 12 December 1920), Annex 5 to Ålandsfrågan inför Nationernas Förbund II, page 169 (translation by author).
 Ibid., page 167 (translation by author).
 Ibid., pages 165-7 (translation by author).