National biography documents lives of Finnish notables over 600 years
Ten-volume work includes broad spectrum of life stories
Monuments of historical writing in Finland appear to stay on schedule better than major architectural projects such as the planned Music Centre.
The Suomen kansallisbiografia ("Finland's National Biography") project, which was begun in 1993, has been completed on schedule. In Sweden, the national biography project, which was launched in 1917, is still going on, having reached the letter s.
The ten-volume set of books has 5,891 miniature biographies and 264 articles on families.
Starting alphabetically from bank inspector Eero Aakku (1898-1959), the work concludes with Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Österman (1892-1975) (the Scandinavian characters å, ä, and ö come after z in the Finnish alphabet).
The time-line extends from Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, who was Finland's favourite patron saint in the 15th century, to computer programmer Linus Torvalds, who was born in 1969.
Not included are those born in the 1970s or later. Updates will be made available on the on-line version of the series.
The previous time that Finland compiled biographies of influential figures in Finland was in 1927-1934, when a five-volume edition of biographies appeared. It was a product of its time - a history of great men geared at nurturing national feelings among its readers. There was no room for pro-Russian figures, representatives of the workers' movement, ordinary people, or women.
Professor Matti Klinge, the editor in chief of the series, said that the aim this time was to avoid focusing on big heroes and statesmen.
"Appreciation for people of the past is a kind of stock market, where the value of some rises, and that of others falls. Similar evaluations are constantly made in Who's Who books, and afternoon paper headlines, where people can be turned into one-day celebrities. The more frequently a name is repeated, the more certain that person is to ger room in the indices of the future."
"We wanted to select people who have had an influence on the national consciousness into the national biography. This includes mythical figures, crooks, and celebrities. He did not want to make the work a catalogue of recipients of medals, or a state calendar", adds Professor Matti Häikiö, who compiled the figures in the national biography from the time of Finnish independence.
Häikiö notes that when work began on the biography in 1993, Finland was leaving behind the postwar situation and the special relationship with the Soviet Union.
Häikiö emphasises that the team that produced the book did not have a monolithic ideology, and it did not even strive for such a thing.
There were also some conflicts, reveals Dr. Anneli Mäkelä-Alitalo, the main editor of the sections dealing with the age of Swedish domination.
"My starting point was to describe the lives of people as broadly as possibly, without forgetting everyday life - or women. Another policy line was to make an index-type biography reviewing careers in a very condensed manner."
Mäkelä-Alitalo is pleased with the final result, the articles describe the full lives of people, including descriptions of their character. When servant girls and communion wafer producers were included, the proportion of women rose to 13 per cent.
The further in the past the biographers went, the more difficult it was to find anything about women from the male-dominated sources. Surprisingly, the proportion of women was greatest, 18 per cent, in the part that deals with the age of Russian rule. In the time of Finnish independence, only 12 per cent of the biographies are for women.
Personality was seen as an important quality in selecting the figures to be written about. Many professors, bishops, and judges were left outside who had focused on diligently doing their jobs.
Häikiö feels that celebrities whose achievements are not especially profound do have a place in the national biography. Susan Kuronen, the former girlfriend of Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen did not merit an entry of her own, but Häikiö wanted to include her in the entry on Vanhanen himself.
Olympic ski jumper Matti Nykänen is remembered both for his Olympic achievements, and for his numerous divorces, alcoholism, and attempts at working as a singer and a stripper.
"Nykänen is Finland's most successful ski jumper, but the main reason for including him in the national biography is that he later became a ‘phenomenon'", Häikiö explains.