Omdahl: Why North Dakota Finns loved the Olympics
After 74 years of hoping, the descendants of the 2,486 Finlanders who had settled in North Dakota by 1910 finally had cause for celebration with the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Theu may not have been any local chapters of the Knights of Kaleva to rally the troops on Finland’s St. Urho’s Day on March 16, but the joy in the homes of North Dakota Finlanders could not be restrained.
Since most Finns are Lutherans, they are not given to boisterous celebrations in public. Consequently, their celebration was conducted in silence.
Though few in number, Finlanders settled at multiple locations in North Dakota. Counties recording their presence include Burleigh, Dickey, Emmons, Logan, Mountrail, Rolette and Towner. In the 100 years since settlement, they no doubt fanned out to other North Dakota counties and communities.
For the Finns, Feb. 19 was comeuppance day in the Olympics for the Russians when the Finn hockey team outlasted their historical nemesis with a final score of 3-1.
Because the loss eliminated Russia from the Olympics, the victory was even sweeter than the 5-0 loss handed the Russians in 1994.
The Sochi defeat, with Russian President Vladimir Putin expectant in the stands, was an insult for the host team because it followed a defeat by arch enemy United States in a dramatic shootout in which T.J. Oshie, a former star at the University of North Dakota, whistled four shots through the Russian goalie.
Perhaps the U.S. State Department ought to settle the Crimea dispute by proposing that Oshie do a round of shootouts with a goalie of their choice.
Though the U.S. men’s and women’s hockey team losses to the Canadians cast a pall over American celebrations, I reveled with Finland. From my point of view, it was the greatest event of the Sochi Olympics.
I have been for Finland since 1939.
Though only 9 years old, I remember listening intently to the battle reports from the Finland-Russian border where the “Winter War” was being waged against Finland by an overpowering Russian military. It didn’t seem like a fair fight to me.
It all started in 1809 when Sweden gave the territory that became Finland to Russia. The Finns were unhappy being “Russified.” At the opportune time, they declared their independence in 1917 while the Russians were busily occupied by the Bolshevik Revolution.
In 1939, the Russians figured Hitler was up to no good and demanded eastern Finland as a barrier to hold off the Germans. When Finland stood its ground, Russia attacked. The Russians were shocked when Finland put up a brilliant defense and imposed heavy casualties on the invaders.
However, the Finns had only one-third the troops and no air cover so a loss was inevitable. Both sides fought to exhaustion. In the peace settlement, the Russians confiscated the coveted territory. (Putin’s foreign policy these days is marked by the impulse to grab territory. Apparently, it is a genetic disease for which there may never be a cure.)
With this bitter experience on the eve of World War II, the Finns were hard-pressed to cozy up to the Russians against the Germans. So they declared neutrality, although they found it difficult not to favor Germany.
It boiled down to that old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” so any enemy of Russia was a friend to Finland.
Well, now that we have reviewed Finnish-Russian history, perhaps the disappointed American hockey fans can find a glimmer of brightness in the Winter Olympics of 2014.
After all of these years, a little bit of justice has been done.
Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.