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  Main page: Politics & Society: National Minorities of Finland, The Old Russians   

National Minorities of Finland, The Old Russians

Written for Virtual Finland by Frank Horn, professor
The Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law
University of Lappland.
Updated by Heli Niemi, M.Pol.Sc., LLM

Photo: The H. Balalaika Orchestra
Sorry, no larger picture

The Helsinki Balalaika Orchestra has existed since 1910.

The Old Russians

The Russian, or Russian-speaking, population of Finland is often said to consist of the ‘Old Russians’ and the ‘New Russians’. The ancestors of the Old Russians came to Finland in three waves. The first Russians in Finland were serfs who were relocated from the cities of Yaroslavl, Tula and Orel to the Province of Karelia, which had come under Russian rule after the great Nordic War (1700-1721). This group is known for its famous brown earthenware, Kyyrölä pottery. The second wave was comprised of Russians who obtained permission to settle in the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland as merchants, Tsarist civil servants, Orthodox clergy and members of the military. Most of them settled in Helsinki or Viipuri. In 1917, when Finland became independent, there were approximately 6,000 Russians in the country. The third wave consisted of Russians who fled the Russian Revolution and did not move on to join the large emigrant communities in Paris, Nice, Berlin, Brussels, Prague or Novi Sad. In 1922, the number of Russians in Finland was at its largest - some 33,500 persons. It is this third group and their descendants, most of whom are Finnish citizens, who are called 'Old Russians'. It is difficult to estimate their present number as they have largely been assimilated into the Finnish-speaking majority or, to a lesser extent, into the Swedish-speaking minority, but it lies between 2,500 and 5,000 persons. The Old Russian communities are located in and around Helsinki, Turku and Tampere.

The historical Russian-speaking minority in Finland has over the years been joined by a large number of immigrants, first from the Soviet Union and then from Russia and other countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States as well as from the three Baltic states. These immigrants are referred to as New Russians. In the course of the 1990s, at least 25,000 Russian-speaking persons moved to Finland. The total number of Russian speakers in Finland at the end of 2003 was 35,222 of whom 24,988 were Russian nationals. Russian-speaking persons now constitute the second largest minority in Finland, after the Swedish-speaking Finns, and the size of the former is growing steadily. As their ethnic and religious backgrounds are mixed, the Russian speakers are best characterised as a linguistic and cultural community. Areas where there is a sizeable concentration of Russian speakers are in the southern and eastern parts of Finland.

A large part of the Ingrians - ethnically Finno-Ugric people known also as Ingrian Finns - now living in Finland belong statistically to the Russian-speaking minority as most of them had only limited or non-existent knowledge of the Finnish language when they arrived in Finland. Since the early 1990s, Ingrian Finns have been allowed to emigrate to Finland under a simplified procedure as returnees. Ingrian Finns originally moved to a region in the eastern corner of the Gulf of Finland called Ingria in the 17th century from a part of Finland which had been ceded to Sweden in connection with the Stolbova peace treaty. Only the oldest generation of Ingrian Finns, born before World War II, has been able to maintain a clear Finnish identity and speak Finnish fluently.

Finland has made a distinction between the Old Russians and the New Russians. For instance, Finland has considered that the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities de facto covers the former but not the latter group. However, it is the view of many that this distinction should not be given any decisive significance. In any case, Russian is an old minority language in Finland, and upon ratifying the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Finland declared that it undertakes to apply to non-territorial languages, mutatis mutandis, the principles listed in Part II of the Charter. These languages are Romani, Russian, Yiddish and Tatar. The Russian language is represented in the Finnish section (FiBLUL) of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages.

Teaching and use of Russian

At the end of the 19th century there were numerous primary schools and dozens of secondary schools to meet the needs of the Russian-speaking population in Finland. At the beginning of 1924 there were six schools for the established local Russians, seven for Russian immigrants and nine to which both groups could send their children. The most important was the Russian Secondary School in Helsinki (Gel’singfórskiy rússkiy litséy), which in 1955 was replaced by the present Finnish-Russian School (Fínsko-Rússkaya Shkóla). In connection with the comprehensive school reform of 1977 this school became a state school subsidised through the national budget. Finnish gradually became its language of instruction and Russian became only a taught language. As a result of the growing immigration of people from the Soviet Union, and later from the CIS countries, the need for instruction in the Russian language increased and at present instruction is in both Finnish and Russian. This establishment has a three-tier structure: a preparatory class for six-year-olds, a comprehensive stage and an upper secondary level. Next to the school is a private day care centre named Kalinka. Altogether, there are about 830 children in the Finnish-Russian School and Kalinka. The school is primarily meant for Finnish-speaking pupils and children who speak Russian as their first language make up abut 15% of the total. Thus Finnish-speaking pupils study Russian as a foreign language and vice versa.

The other school in Finland with substantial instruction in Russian is the Finnish Russian School of Eastern Finland, a private school located in three towns in the east of the country, Joensuu, Lappeenranta and Imatra. The school was founded in 1997 and it provides teaching from grade 5 onwards on both comprehensive (ca. 300 pupils) and upper secondary school levels (ca. 90 pupils). It is a networked school via the Internet and receives part of its funding from public sources. Here, too, Finnish-speaking pupils form a majority (ca. 75%) and study Russian as a foreign language. As in the Finnish-Russian School, the principal language is Finnish but a substantial part of teaching is in Russian.

In addition, the teaching of Russian either as a mother tongue or as a foreign language is provided in a limited number of other schools. Russian language and culture can also be studied at Finnish universities
In the 1980s, Russian-speaking kindergartens were set up in several places in Finland. Today, there are seven private Russian-Finnish-Russian day care centres in the Helsinki area, one in Turku and one in Joensuu.

One Russian-language newspaper (Spektr, founded in 1998) and several periodicals are published in Finland. Spektr is a tabloid newspaper published in 20,000 copies eleven times a year. It is distributed free of charge and fairly effectively reaches the Russian-speakers of Finland. Spektr contains news and information about social matters and Russian events in Finland.

Radio Sputnik is a Russian-language commercial radio channel in Finland. It was launched in 1999 and serves both Russian-speaking immigrants and Russian tourists. Radio Sputnik can be heard in southeastern Finland and it broadcasts 24 hours a day. Since March 2001, the Finnish Broadcasting Company has broadcast news programmes in Russian for 50 minutes every day, mainly in southern Finland. In addition, there are some neighbourhood radio stations that broadcast in Russian.

And radio and television broadcasts originating in Russia are available via cable or satellite.

Russians traditionally belong to the Orthodox Church. In Finland there is a Finnish Orthodox Church, which has the status of national church alongside the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is affiliated to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, plus two congregations founded by Russian emigrants which are under the Patriarchate of Moscow. The Russian immigrants have tended to become members of the two latter congregations. Orthodox religious services are held, inter alia, in Finnish, Russian and Church Slavonic. There are articles in Russian in the newsletters of the Orthodox parishes (Ortodoksiviesti, Analogi).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church organises activities in Russian in nearly all of the major urban centres. And the Helsinki Jewish Congregation regularly publishes articles in Russian in its newsletter HaKehila.


The Old Russians were long split into a number of organisations, a process that began before the Second World War and continued after it. During the period between the two World Wars there were numerous Russian organisations, of which the Russian Merchants’ Association (Russkoe Kupecheskoe Obshchestvo v Gel’singforse) and the Russian Colony in Finland (Russkaya Koloniya v Finl’andii) were probably the most influential.

There are currently some 40 Russian-speaking organisations which vary in size. Most of them were established after 1988. Only in 1994 was the Forum of Russian-Speakers in Finland (Fórum Rússkoyazytsnovo Naseléniya Finl’ándii) constituted as an umbrella organisation in Helsinki to coordinate activities and policies of the Russian-speaking population of Finland. A new central body, the Finnish Association of Russian-Speaking Organizations, was established for the same purpose in 2000 and started its activities in January 2002.

Both the Old Russians and the New Russians are represented in the Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations, ETNO, a successor to the Advisory Board for Refugee and Immigrant Affairs, PAKSI, but with a broader mandate. The Board is administered by the Ministry of Labour. Half of the members of the Board represent immigrants, e.g. Vietnamese, New Russians, Somalis, Kurds, Arabs and traditional minorities, whilst the other half represent the authorities and NGOs, inter alia. Members are nominated by the Finnish Government. ETNO is a forum for the discussion of common problems and is expected to propose measures for the prevention of racism and the promotion of good ethnic relations. ETNO's first term of office began on 15 May 1998 and ran until 14 May 2001. Its second terms covers the period from 17 August 2001 to 16 August 2004.

It has been proposed that a consultative body consisting of the authorities and representatives of the Russian-speaking population be established, as is the case with the Roma and the Sámi.

The Russian-speaking population has called for the strengthening of its status and rights. There are also calls for the recognition of Russian as a minority language so that it could become a language of instruction and administration in areas where most Russian speakers live, as is the case with the Sámi language. At present, the Russian language has no particular status under Finnish law. The fact that the Russian-speaking population does not form a numerical majority or a substantial minority in any part of Finland limits prospects for strengthening its status and rights. In this respect its situation differs from that of the Sámi and is more akin to the position of the Roma in Finland.

On the initiative of the Association of Russian-Speaking Organizations, a decision was made in February 2002 to set up a working group within ETNO to assess the status of the Russian-speaking population in Finland and to submit recommendations for further measures. The working group submitted its report to ETNO in February 2003.

Published June 2004




The Swedish-speaking Finns

The Autonomous Regime of Åland

The Sámi

The Roma

The Old Russians

Jewry in Finland

The Tatars