Written by Chet Yarbrough
Having Finnish grandparents made traveling to Norway and Finland more interesting. Because of little information about Hannah and Matt Savela, there is little prospect of finding anything about their lives in Finland or their arrival in the U.S. However, a tour of Finland, dinner with a Finish family, and a well-informed Nordic guide made one appreciate what it might have been like to be born and raised in a Nordic nation.
My grandfather arrived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. My grandmother may have already been in Minnesota. They moved to Oregon. My grandfather worked for the railroad and was gifted a watch at retirement. They raised four daughters and two sons. All their children married. All the daughters had children of their own. Some stayed married, others did not. Both male children served in the armed forces. All four girls worked outside their families, in addition to raising their children. One of the boys retired from the military, the other retired from some unknown employment.
Landing in Norway, after a long flight from Seattle, we were greeted by an Overseas Adventure Travel driver to take us to our hotel. At the hotel, we met our Swedish guide who gave us the next day’s itinerary and sent us off for a sleep. Our guide is a philosophy major with a doctorate in ethics. Her education is a great reward that helps uninformed travelers better understand the unique Nordic democratic culture.
The capital of Norway, Oslo, is our first stop. We tour The Vigeland Park with hundreds of sculptures that represent the circle of life. It is considered the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist, Gustav Vigeland. Depending on how you enter the park, gates open to a sculpture of intertwined humans in a circle, or from the other entry, a giant obelisk festooned with naked bodies of men, women, and children. The sculptures reflect life from birth to death. The park is beautifully landscaped showing autumn colors if you arrive in October.
The most well-known sculpture is the oft-photographed angry baby boy on the Vigeland Park bridge. The scowling baby is made famous around the world by post card illustrations.
Leaving Oslo, we visit the second largest city in Norway. Bergen has a population of approximately 285,900. It is on the west coast, occupying most of the district of Midthordland. Its history reaches back to the 11th century. One of many beautiful sites is at the top of Mount Floyen. Visitors are carried by funicular to a view of the harbor. In autumn the view is great but a short hike further up the hill at the funicular’s end reveals a beautiful lake, surrounded by fall colors.
Before leaving the Bergen area, we visit Oygarden’s salmon farm to view another source of income from the North Sea. After a brief introduction by a local guide, we are motorboated to an inlet across from an asphalt batching plant to view a salmon fish farm. Two things come to mind. One, why would the government authorize a dirty industry next to a fish farm, and two, why is it necessary to farm fish when one lives on the North Sea? Of course, the answer is the same for both questions. It provides employment and income to a country that serves its citizens more equitably than the rest of the world.
Wild salmon are nearly extinct. Without farming, salmon would disappear from dining room tables. The asphalt issue is little less explainable except in the sense of all countries being hooked on the carbon industry.
In Norway, we reach the farthest north one can reach by automobile. At this northern most point, a museum, a restaurant, and outdoor monuments memorialize one’s arrival. And, of course, there are the elusive and varied northern lights.
Discovery of oil in 1967 changed Norway and influenced its socialist objectives as a democratic nation. Traveling through the countryside one sees the impact of oil wealth with well-groomed towns with few residents but the newest mechanical conveniences for agriculture and public utility services.
Contrary to most Americans understanding of Scandinavia, our guide explains Finland is not a Scandinavian country. Finland is a Nordic country which includes Scandinavia, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Aland, and Greenland. Finland was once a part of Sweden but gained independence in 1917. Ironically, that independence occurs during the Eastern Bloc revolution that is won by the Bolsheviks (the Reds) who were competing with the Whites for hegemonic control of Russia. The Whites lost to the Reds in Russia but gained control in Finland. The irony is in the relative quiescence of the Reds and Whites historic conflicts and the Whites ability to maintain a level of independence from what became the U.S.S.R.
Our first stop in Finland is Kirkenes. The long porous border between Russia and Finland demands a great deal of compromise for Finland to remain independent. As we learned from one of WWII’s Finnish survivors, Russians are people with the same ambitions of all peoples of the world. Residents of Kirkenes refuse to be bogged down by political differences between Russians, Finns, or the Germans which they allied themselves with during WWII. Every relationship is measured by personal behavior, not government politics. Conflict arises from the politics of competing governments. The Finns did not want to live in a communist, particularly Stalinist, country. The Finns relished their independence and pursued it in ways a long border with Russia would allow.
During WWII Finland sides with the Germans, largely with the objective of insuring their independence from Russia. The Finns did not accept Hitler’s antisemitism or his horrendous “final solution”. What Finnish soldiers fought for is independence, not German hegemony or racial purity.
Today, a traveler notes the striking difference between Nordic countries’ and Russia’s vision and action to secure “common good” for their citizens. Scandinavia and Finland are heavily taxed, socialist countries. Collected taxes provide provably excellent educational and social/medical services at lower to no direct cost to all Nordic citizens. In contrast Russia (the former U.S.S.R.) is controlled by an appointed government body (the communist party) that focuses on building its national reputation in the world by demanding work from its citizens. Any benefit inuring to citizens is secondary to Russian leadership’s industrial or hegemonic plans.
The standard of living in Norway and Finland rivals the best educated and wealthy countries of the world. That cannot be said for the majority of Russian citizens. The principals of low-cost education and health services is a wonderful dream to many Americans, but Nordic success is a function of factors quite different from those in America.
Approximately 21 million people live in Scandinavia with Finland adding another 5.5 million. America’s population is 332.4 million. Though all are democratic, consensus building is more difficult in more populated democratic countries than smaller countries. The bureaucracy needed to provide educational and medical services are naturally larger and more expensive with bigger populations. Though both areas of the world are classified as secular, America has a strong religious base that influences public policy.
Our guide suggests religion is more of a tradition than “belief in God” in Nordic countries. Though the majority of Nordic residents identify themselves as Lutheran, they generally do not believe in God.
In Norway, oil revenues have become a major source of wealth for the country. Every year, an estimated 20% of the national budget comes from an oil industry’ self-perpetuating investment fund. It is used to support programs like social security, unemployment, education, and health benefits for all Norwegians. An ethics board reviews and regulates use (beyond the aforementioned) of the oil industries’ contribution to the national budget. That board outlines the ethical standards that must be met to use funds from the oil industries’ 20% contribution. Finland does not have Norway’s oil wealth but is politically organized to provide a similar safety net for its citizens.
Aside from oil wealth, there is a societal difference between Norway and Finland. Finland’s border with Russia entails a more intimate connection with Finnish culture. Trade between Russia and Finland is more important because of proximity and the need for food and household goods. Norway has enough wealth and separation to keep Russia at arm’s length. Another difference is that Finland has an indigenous population called the Suomi that is highly regarded and supported by the education system. The Suomi culture reverences reindeer in the same way an American cattle rancher reveres cattle. However, reindeer are exclusively owned and regulated by Suomi descendants.
The natural environment in Scandinavia and Finland is harsh. Water surrounds the peninsula and outlying Nordic countries. The frigid winter seasons isolate small communities throughout Norway and Finland which compel population concentration in a few cities. It is common to see small communities of a few hundred (or less) citizens living on a Fjord many miles from a major city. Self-reliance and independence are consequences of that isolation.
Despite that isolation and independence, one finds both Norwegians and Finns are personable when meeting outsiders. One senses the same assessment of outsiders that is referred to by the Finnish WWII survivor that explains her relationship with Russians. Outsiders are measured by their personal interaction with Nordic citizens, not by their nationality.
The most striking difference between American Democracy and what we experienced in Norway and Finland is in their success in melding democratic values with social welfare. America could benefit from understanding how Norway and Finland have managed to reach consensus on social policies that provide a more comprehensive safety net for its citizens. Many Americans may wonder how these two countries manage to achieve such benefit without compromising the human desire for freedom. One suspects it has something to do with how consensus is achieved through political discourse but there seems an underlying social understanding of “common good” in Nordic countries that is missing from American society.
Like America, Norway and Finland are not perfect societies. They have experienced some of the same right-wing violence that has occurred in America. One wonders how democratic cultures can as easily breed Norwegian murderers like Anders Behring Breivik or American murderers like Timothy McVeigh when so many great leaders have led their countries out of societal darkness.
These same democratic cultures create leaders like Jens Stoltenberg and Erna Solberg in Norway, and Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt in America.
Jens Stoltenberg, former prime minister of Norway, now serving as the 13th secretary general of Nato since appointment in 2014.
Erna Solberg, 2nd female and former prime minister of Norway, current leader of the opposition as Leader of the Conservative Party.
Abraham Lincoln, President of the U.S. during the Civil War, author of the Emancipation Proclamation to end American slavery.
Franklin Roosevelt, President of the U.S. during the Great Depression and WWII.
Political leaders are not perfect nor, for that matter, always right. They are human beings who choose to lead their countries to the best of their ability. The difference is the culture and structure of the government in which these leaders lead. Even in the most autocratic countries, leaders must have followers. It is in a process of consensus, whether in autocracy or democracy, that public policy becomes real.
After our trip to Norway and Finland, one cannot help but believe there is much for America to learn. On the other hand, neither Nordic nor American cultures have found the perfect balance between freedom and common good that ensures an equal opportunity for citizens to be sad or happy.