Finland has a long history of famines: currently available Finnish population series document famines in 1675–9, in the 1690s (with a population decline of 20.6% in 1696–7), in 1709–10, in the early 1740s, and more regionally delineated crises during the 1830s and 1850s, with continued food security crises related to harvest failure well into the 20th century. What makes the Finnish famine of the 1860s stand out was not only its relatively late occurrence (approximately 120 years after the previous large-scale domestic famine, and some 90 years after the last substantial famine in neighbouring Sweden) but also its magnitude, with a loss of nearly 10% of the pre-famine population. The Finnish famine of the 1860s took place in a poor country: in 1820 Finland had a per capita income level that was only 40% of the UK and 75% of Sweden. Even famine-stricken Ireland had a higher per capita income level than Finland, until 1850. The low average income level was an outcome of an overwhelmingly agrarian low-productivity economy: only about 6% of the population lived in urban centres, and about 90% worked in agriculture. The structure of the economy, combined with the dietary dependency on volatile grain output (rye being the staple in the south, cold-resistant barley in the east and north), meant that the economy and society as a whole were highly vulnerable to harvest fluctuations. The Famine of 1866–1868 was the last famine in Finland, and (along with the subsequent Swedish famine of 1867-1869) the last major naturally caused famine in Europe. In Finland the famine is known as “the great hunger years”, or ‘suuret nälkävuodet’: about 8.5% of the entire population died of hunger, reaching up to 20% in the hardest-hit areas like Satakunta, Tavastia, Ostrobothnia, and North Karelia. The total death toll was 270,000 in three years, about 150,000 in excess of normal mortality. Parts of the country had suffered poor harvests in previous years, most notably in 1862, but the summer of 1866 was extremely rainy, and staple crops failed widely: potatoes and root vegetables rotted in the fields, and conditions for sowing grain in the autumn were unfavourable. When stored food ran out, thousands took to the roads to beg. The following winter was hard, and spring was late: in Helsinki, the average temperature in May 1867 was +1.8 °C, about 8 °C below the long-time average and by far the coldest May in the meteorological record of Helsinki since observations commenced in 1829. In many places, lakes and rivers remained frozen until June. After a promisingly warm midsummer, freezing temperatures in early September ravaged crops: as a result, the harvest was about half the average, and by the autumn of 1867, people were dying by the thousands. The government of the Grand Duchy of Finland was ill-equipped to handle a crisis of such magnitude: there was no money readily available to import food from largely monopolized Central European markets, and the government was slow to recognize the severity of the situation. Finance minister Johan Vilhelm Snellman, in particular, did not want to borrow, lest Finland’s recently introduced currency, the Finnish markka, be weakened because of high interest rates. When money was finally borrowed from the Rothschild bank of Frankfurt in late 1867, the crisis was already full blown, and grain prices had risen in Europe. In addition, it was difficult to transport what little aid could be mustered in a country with poor communications. A number of emergency public works projects were set up, foremost among them the construction of the railway line from Riihimäki to Saint Petersburg. The weather returned to normal in 1868, and that year’s harvest was somewhat better than average, yet, contagious diseases that had spread in the previous year took many additional lives. Programs were launched to increase the diversity of Finnish agriculture, and rapidly improving communications made a recurrence of such a famine less likely. In general, ordinary Finns at the time saw the famine as an act of God. Few would have expected the crown to be able to do much more, and blame was directed mainly at local officials. No significant working class political movement had developed yet that could have capitalized politically on the crisis. The urban population was small, and for the people of the countryside, the first priority was to resume normal lives. In short, the famine did not threaten the social order, but its memory cast a long shadow. Because of the famine, many Finns immigrated into Murmansk.


“Income inequality and famine mortality: Evidence from the Finnish famine of the 1860s”, by Miikka Voutilainen, Economic History Review May 2022

Finnish Famine on Wikipedia