There Is No Finland: Birth of a Conspiracy Theory
We've all heard a lot of really weird conspiracy theories about the world — the Flat Earth, the Hollow Earth, and the world's governments all conspire to cover up the truth, for some reason. Some of these are so bizarre that they can only be jokes. None more so than the claim that Finland doesn't exist. The idea here is that where we all think Finland is is actually just ocean, and that Japan and Russia conspired to persuade the world there's a country there, to cover up the fact that Japan does unlimited fishing and whaling there with no international oversight. Today we're going to study why a tale so trivially disproven as that can actually survive to become passionately believed by a small but vocal group of conspiracy theorists.
On any map, Finland borders Russia to its east, and its south and west borders are in the Baltic Sea. To its north, Finland connects to Sweden and Norway. Believers in the conspiracy theory have drawn a new map in which most of Finland is simply erased, extending the Baltic Sea all the way to the Russian border; and the northern third of Finland is simply renamed as more of Sweden, thus extending Sweden's territory significantly. And thus is the Baltic Sea greatly expanded as well, giving those Japanese fishing boats plenty of space to do what they do, unpestered by fishing regulators.
How would such a thing come to be? According to the conspiracy theory, after World War II, Russia found itself short of food (and this is quite true). Japan was facing a related problem, in that they found they'd been overfishing and needed new waters. So they approached Russia with the idea of granting them secret fishing rights in the Baltic; and to hide it from the rest of the world, they'd mutually agree to tell everyone that much of the Baltic Sea was actually a landmass called Finland so there's no need for anyone to try and regulate fishing there. Russia agreed, and together they built the Trans-Siberian Railway to facilitate the endeavour, and as a quid pro quo, Japan donated much of its catch to Russia.
Finnish people, supposedly, are actually Swedish, but have been convinced that they live in a country called Finland, and since it's all forest anyway, nobody is the wiser. They were persuaded to adopt the newly developed Finnish language (created for this purpose) which is suspiciously close to Japanese. Maps, aerial and space photography, and GPS systems worldwide have been altered to make it appear that Finland is real — in an amazing act of international cooperation. Why do all of us other countries go along with this? As a gesture of goodwill to Russia and Japan. (Apparently, that's the best the conspiracy theorists could come up with.)
It seems hardly worth the trouble to point out the many ways this story is not only provably untrue, but historically implausible. But it's still fun to cover a few points. We can start with the fact that the idea of overfishing in our oceans didn't really even exist until the 1960s. Before the war, Japan had massive thriving fishing and whaling industries which extended throughout the Pacific and even as far as Antarctica. They scarcely needed new fishing grounds from the Baltic Sea — a third of the way around the globe. But World War II devastated their fishing industry, and they soon faced famine from the costs of their war effort. Immediately after the war, the Allied occupation authorities invested heavily in rebuilding Japanese fishing. Whaling was allowed to resume in 1946. By 1952, the revitalized fishing industry exceeded its prewar size. At no time in the history of Japanese fishing did they have any need to seek new waters from a distant and inconvenient land — and most especially not before the 1960s when overfishing began to become apparent.
One problem with the conspiracy theory's timeline is that by the 1960s, the Trans-Siberian railway had already been connecting both ends of the Soviet Union for almost 50 years — its first transcontinental span had been completed in 1916. It doesn't seem there's any way to shoehorn in the theory that it was built as a response to Japanese overfishing.
But we hardly need to verify things like that. Finland has a long history, having been settled as glaciers from the last ice age receded about 9,000 years ago. Ancient texts talk about Finnish history as far back as ancient texts go. Museums are filled with golden treasures crafted during the height of Finland's Roman period between the first and fourth centuries. The name "Finland" existed at least as early as the 11th century, when it was carved onto runestone U 582; and it also appears on the 13th century runestone G 319. The Early Finnish Wars took place in the 13th and 14th centuries. Even to open a discussion of the historical proof of the existence of Finland is an exercise in absurdity.
Yet the conspiracy theory dismisses all of this — which is one trait it shares with all conspiracies: the device of dismissing all contradicting evidence as part of the conspiracy. Those two runestones, for example, are in Swedish villages; so a believer finds them perfectly consistent with the part of the theory that says everything regarded as Finnish is actually in that northeastern piece of their extended Sweden. Since this part fits, they just mentally dismiss the fact that by acknowledging the runestones at all, they've just busted the entire foundation of the theory that Finland didn't exist until the 20th century. Cognitive dissonance is essential for all conspiratorial beliefs.
Yet, from elsewhere in northern Europe (specifically Estonia), the south coast of Finland is only about 60 kilometers away, easily visible on a clear day, and the bright city lights of Helsinki can't be missed at night. You can take the Tallinn to Helsinki ferry, which takes about two hours. The idea is going to be even harder to defend when the $13 billion Helsinki to Tallinn Tunnel is completed around 2030. But according to the conspiracy theory, it's not there. That's just more Baltic Sea, and those city lights are just Japanese fishing boats.
Today the "Finland Conspiracy" exists mainly as a number of threads and forums on Reddit. From perusing them, it's clear that the vast majority of people posting think it's silly. A few appear to believe it and defend it, saying that the provided explanations sound just too plausible to be fictional. And some of these are probably people who are actually just exercising their debating and rhetorical skills, defending an indefensible position. And some are probably Poes (people who deliberately post sincere-appearing nonsense for the fun of trolling and shaking things up).
And when we read these threads and click the links and dig as far as we can go, we finally hit bedrock. The Finland conspiracy turns out to have a Case Zero, a hard origin, a single identifiable point at which it was invented by a single person. The case was laid out by a reporter for Vice in December 2016, Mack Lamoureux, in his article "This Dude Accidentally Convinced the Internet That Finland Doesn't Exist".
Two years earlier, right after Christmas 2014, Reddit user "Raregan" came across an interesting question that someone had posted:
And there were a lot of fun answers. One guy's mom would always whistle to find him in crowded public places including places like the supermarket, which he only later learned was rude. Another was locked into his bedroom every night, which he grew up believing was perfectly normal. Raregan decided to post his own answer. He said:
Asked why, he elaborated:
And there we have it. From there, it became by far the longest thread in the topic, and spawned multiple subreddits of its own. Some people do appear to have become genuinely persuaded, and have added on their own details including at least one map of how Scandinavia actually appears.
Why, when it's so ridiculous and obviously indefensible? Like all conspiracy theories, it offers its believers that most tantalizing of rewards: an insider's perspective on forbidden knowledge. The superpower of knowing what the sheeple don't. A superior position, intellectual empowerment, bought cheaply through nothing more than a willingness to dismiss reality in favor of a spectral alternative.
What will the future of the Finland Conspiracy be? My prediction is that it will grow. Today, I couldn't find any YouTube videos promoting it, though there are several that mock it. What we usually see is that sensational yarns have longer legs than rational debunkings, so I expect that within a few years, there will be at least a few YouTube videos that take the conspiracy theory very seriously and promote it wholeheartedly, with new devices invented to fill in the obvious gaps. This is what happened with 9/11 truthers, with Sandy Hook truthers, and with Branch Davidian truthers; and I expect we'll eventually have a new crop of Finland truthers. The promise of superhuman geopolitical insight is just too compelling to go unclaimed.
Correction: An earlier version of this said that Finland can be seen from northern Europe — a terminal vortex of logic, since of course Finland is part of northern Europe. —BD
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