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One hundred years ago, on December 6, 1917, Finland declared independence from Russia.
For centuries before that, going back at least to the twelfth century, the Finnish people were governed by other nations.
Finns had their own language, culture, and identity. They even had their own mythology, one that in many respects is similar to Norse mythology, but is truly its own.
Those stories, passed along through the oral tradition, as was the Iliad and other folk hero stories through the ages, were collected and published as the Kalevala, a book that has influenced modern culture and literature in ways most people don't realize, from inspiring Longfellow's Hiawatha to several of Tolkien's languages and the wizard Gandalf himself.
Finland is very much like Scandinavia in culture, climate, state religion, and many other respects, yet a lot of people don't consider it part of Scandinavia, instead referring to it as a "Nordic" country. (Never mind that the other Nordic countries are all considered to be Scandinavia.)
A big reason for that is likely the distinct language, which is part of a teeny tiny linguistic group, the Finno-Urgric languages, which is basically made up of Finnish, a few small ones like Estonian, and Hungarian.
But there's more to Finland that makes it unique and special and deserving of independence.
The Finnish people have endured things that most of us can't imagine. They've fought Russia multiple times (sometimes when it was part of the great Soviet Union).
The most recent was during World War II, when Stalin decided to invade Finland, using as his excuse the need to have more land between Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Hitler. In reality, he wanted more land for his empire.
Soviet forces crossed the border on November 30, 1939 in what Stalin believed would be a few days of minor skirmishes, a week at most, until the mighty Soviet army got the tiny Finnish one to surrender. Indeed, more Soviet troops crossed the border on the first day of the war than the Finnish army had total.
But the Finns would not be dissuaded. The United States, United Kingdom, and many other Allies promised help. The Finns hung on using brilliant tactics born of necessity, waiting for help that never arrived.
On March 13, 1940, when a ceasefire was finally in effect, Stalin made the Finns pay for making him a fool on the world's stage by putting heavy reparations on them and taking some of their land.
But Finland remained free.
And during the course of the Soviet Union's rein, Finland was the only country bordering Russia to never fall to Soviet or Communist rule.
Finns have a word that describes a national characteristic, one that has no good English equivalent.
The word is SISU, pronounced SEE-soo, and the best descriptions I've seen blend courage, guts, endurance, determination, stubbornness, and more.
The best approximation I've found in GRIT.
Whatever you call it, SISU is why the Finnish people finally, after centuries, finally got to have their own homeland and finally got to govern themselves.
SISU is what has kept them free.
I'm half Finnish. I've lived there. I've learned the language. Finland is my second home.
And I attribute much of who I am, and the things I've accomplished, to inheriting a bit of Finnish Sisu.
Today I celebrate 100 years of Finnish independence by putting candles in my windows and flying the Finnish flag.
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