Official statistics say that Russians and other ex-Soviets represent by far thebiggest minority in Finland. But these numbers are skewed in a way. Around24,000 of these people categorised as Russians in Finland are in fact Finns!

How can this be?

These Finns are Ingrian Finns, repatriated from Russia because of their Finnishbackground, but categorised as Russians, since no more accurate criteriaare available. How can this be? Read on to see if the stats lie or not.

Repatriation of Ingrian Finns started in a major way in the early 1990s, following an interview with Mauno Koivisto, President of Finland, whose public statement about the status of Ingrian Finns became interpreted as an “invitation” for their repatriation.

Hence they came by large numbers. “When the repatriation began in the early 1990s, the Aliens Act did not yet feature any specific reference to Ingrian Finns,” recalls Marianne Laine, Team Manager with the Finnish Immigration Service. “Finnish authorities were not really prepared to deal with the repatriation wave, but because they had to adopt some idea as standard, it was decided that any Ingrian Finns wanting to be repatriated needed to have Finnish nationality.”


Number of people in Finland with a
foreign nationality, by country

Estonia 34,006
Russia 29,585
Sweden 8,481
Somalia 7,421

Number of people in Finland with a
foreign language as mother tongue

Russian 58,331
Estonian 33,076
Somali 14,045
English 13,804
(Source: Statistics Finland. 31 Dec 2011)

• Many Russian citizens have applied and
been granted Finnish citizenship; many
of them have dual citizenship.
• The difference between native speakers
of Russian and Russian citizens is
based on the principles of demographic
categorisation, where persons who
have Finnish citizenship are categorised
as Finnish citizens despite their dual
• At the end of 2011, about 17,000
residents of Finland had both Finnish
and Russian citizenship.
• Between 1991 and 2011, a total of
62,102 persons moved to Finland from
Russia or other former Soviet states. Of
these, 47,365 announced Russian as
their mother tongue.

The Soviet Union applied a system of internal passports, which stated that the nationality of anyone living in the USSR, and Ingrian Finns were categorised as Finns under that system. “These documents as well as official birth certificates were initially accepted as proof of the right for repatriation,” Laine explains. “At the very beginning, one document sufficed, but later on, as cases of forged documentation were encountered, applicants were required to have two official documents, and this applies today as well.” The Aliens Act was amended in 1996 in respect of Ingrian Finns. After the amendment, at least two of the applicant’s grandparents are required to be Finnish, and the applicants are required to have participated in immigration training. In 2003, a further amendment required that in order for applicants to be granted a residence permit, they needed to successfully demonstrate their proficiency in Finnish and have a residence in Finland.

“As a result, the role of repatriation training was emphasised so that the applicants could pass the tests,” Laine continues. The training is still provided to them for free. “The applicants study Finnish for 350 hours and then take the language proficiency test, for free as well. Today, the Finnish Immigration Service is in charge of arranging it.”

So the Finnish Government has taken a lot of trouble to help Ingrian Finns repatriate. “The fact that they have to study the language does help them and us as well in the repatriation process and facilitates their further education and employment search in Finland,” Laine says. “The authorities noticed that many of those to be repatriated were working-aged people who were able to work as well, but were unable to communicate in Finnish. This was one reason for setting up the training system, and no other immigrant group has been provided with a system this extensive.”

As we write this, the repatriation system established for Ingrian Finns is already destined for termination. “It was stated already in the mid-2000s that the system had been all but exhausted by those wanting to be repatriated,” Laine explains. “There has been a generation change; the younger ones are not so much in search of their ancestry but better living opportunities.” And nationality is not recorded in Russia in the same way as in the Soviet Union, so the Finnish authorities have limited chances of determining which applicants today truly have Finnish ancestry. “Those of them looking to enter the system have not learned Finnish at home but by studying,” Laine adds.

“One of the main reasons for setting up the system was to allow the return of those Ingrians who were relocated by Germans during WWII and taken back to the Soviet Union after the war, so that Finland could pay back her historical ‘honorary debt’, as President Koivisto put it,” Laine says. “But in today’s world, we reckon that the remaining relocated Ingrians who have wanted to move have already had ample changes to do so during the 20-plus years with the system in place. Our perception is that the system is no longer required, and the repatriation system will be terminated as of 1 July 2016.” However, those who were part of the relocated Ingrians as well as those Ingrians who served in the Finnish military during the war will retain a lifelong right to be repatriated to Finland. “They are not required to prove their language proficiency, only to demonstrate that they have a residence in Finland,” she adds.

About Ingrian Finns

What are these people? Are they Ingrians, Finns, Russians or something else? “We would like to draw a distinction between Izhorians and Ingrian Finns,” says Helena Miettinen, Doctor of Soc. Sciences and Head of the Ingrian Cultural Association based in Helsinki. “The ‘old’ Izhorians reside in Ingria, Russia not far from the Estonian border. But Ingrian Finns are those people who relocated to the east at the behest of the King of Sweden in the 17th century, and those are the people who have been repatriated.”

Why did they want to come? “Many of them escaped the dire economic situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Miettinen explains. “That was a difficult time particularly for old folks; a month’s pension may have sufficed for a monthly bus ticket and not much more, following the escalating change in the value of the rouble.” Anybody frowning these grounds for relocation should remember that an estimated one million Finns have left this country at different times – basically to escape poverty, starvation and, consequently, death.

How do they see themselves? “According to a common principle, you are what you believe to be. Many Ingrian Finns consider themselves as Russians in terms of identity,” Miettinen says. This is understandable: they speak Russian as their first language, and they have been raised in Russia. “The cultural association mainly attracts older people,” Miettinen states and adds that the Russian identity of many Ingrian Finns is partly due to the attitudes towards them; the fact that they are categorised as Russians in Finland works towards them adopting this identity.

Demographic identities

Ingrian Finns have been repatriated on account of their Finnish ancestry, but their demographic categorisation does not reflect this. A category for Ingrians simply does not exist – welcome to the world of what it means to be part of a minority. A discussion with a stats specialist reveals why it is so.

“Generally speaking, we prepare stats on all people who reside permanently in Finland, regardless of their origin,” says Markus Rapo, Senior Statistician at Statistics Finland. “The categorisation criteria that specifically concern those who have come to Finland from elsewhere include mother tongue, nationality, country of birth and a new one, origin, based on the country of birth of both the person in question and his/her parents. And obviously there are others as well, such as age, gender, marital status.”

One of the categorisation criteria is mother tongue. “As far as immigrants are concerned, the mother tongue specification depends on what the persons have announced,” Rapo states. “For Ingrian Finns, it may be Russian, or it may be Finnish. Ingrian language does not have an official status as a minority language, a classification used for the preparation of official demographics.” According to some estimates, as pointed out by Marianne Laine, at least 80 per cent of Ingrian Finns have Russian nationality and speak Russian as their mother tongue.

“In order for a language to be granted the official language status, this language must be used as an official language in some country, there needs to be a sufficient amount of literature available written in that language and that the language must be applied as a language of education somewhere,” Rapo explains. If these criteria are not met, a language does not qualify as an official language in accordance to ISO 639 standard, used internationally to determine which languages are official. “Globally, there are hundreds and hundreds of languages, including dialects and dialectal languages, which have not been granted this status,” Rapo expands on his answer.

Ingrian Finns are not alone in their quest to return to this Nordic country that their ancestors once left. “People have left Finland for other countries at different times since long ago,” Rapo says. “Insofar as these people have had children elsewhere, the country of birth for such children has obviously been somewhere other than Finland. If they move to Finland, they are categorised as having been born abroad. For example, a lot of Finns left for Sweden in the 1970s, and those of their children who were born there naturally have Sweden as their country of birth. Their native tongue may be Finnish or some other language.”

What is the deal with other descendants of Finns looking to be repatriated? “Any descendants of Finns living abroad are considered candidates for repatriation,” Laine says. There are many of them in Russia, many of whom descend from those Finns who escaped from the country after the Civil War fought on the losing side. And they also come from Australia, the United States, Canada, Japan, Israel and elsewhere.”

The Aliens Act states that a person shall be granted residence permit automatically for four years if he or she has been a Finnish citizen, or either of his or her parents is (or was) a native Finnish citizen, or if at least one of his or her grandparents is (or was) a native Finnish citizen,” Laine continues. “They must present documentation as proof of this, which is what they usually are able to do. An application to this effect can be submitted to any official representation of Finland abroad. And this right will most probably remain to be in force forever, to my understanding.”

Universal issues for minorities

Similar difficulties with demographic definitions can be found with other minorities in Finland, as pointed out by Ismo Söderling, Director for the Turku-based Institute of Migration. “Think about the Sami people in Finland; there are less than 10,000 of them,” he offers. “Who do you define as a Sami? A Sami is someone who has been registered on the list of voters at the Sami Parliament of Finland. How do you get on the list or off of it is a complex issue. Not even the authorities responsible for matters related to the Sami are fully aware of how these matters are handled or what truly goes into defining someone as a Sami. And the same goes for Romani people living in Finland; they are defined as Romani through self-identification.”

Demographics also include religious statistics, and the categorisation is based on the data concerning religion, as recorded in the Population Information System.

“In Finland we have the Freedom of Religion Act, which states how religious communities may be established,” Rapo explains. “Religious communities themselves notify the registry offices of any new members, and this is how the Population Information System is updated, and Statistics Finland can obtain the data from there.” The largest one in Finland is obviously the Evangelic Lutheran Church, and the Orthodox Church clearly comes second. There are other smaller ones, with small member counts. “As for those people who have come from abroad, the data is inadequate, because the data on religion in the system is provided only on people who are members of a religious community registered in Finland, and about 80 per cent of the people with a foreign language as their mother tongue have not been registered in a religious community in Finland; this obviously has very little to do with how religious these people are and whether they practice religion or not.”

Stats don’t lie – we’re all in a majority in that we represent a minority on one count or another.

Mika Oksanen