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Bunny Trails podcast

So why Finland?  Well, what do you know about Finland? … That’s why.  First, the dry info. Finland is a country in Northern Europe bordering the Baltic Sea, between Norway to the north, Sweden to the northwest, and Russia to the east.  The capital and largest city is Helsinki. The majority of the population is concentrated in the southern region. The official languages are Finnish, Swedish, and Sami, which you heard about in episode #47, Meeting New Peoples.  The two most common religions are Evangelical Lutheran and Finnish Orthodox. The sovereign state is a parliamentary republic with a central government based in the capital city of Helsinki, local governments in 311 municipalities, and one autonomous region, the Åland Islands.  Over 1.4 million people live in the Greater Helsinki metropolitan area, which produces one third of the country’s GDP.

With that out of the way, we can really get down to business.  The Finns are a fascinating people, not just down to their bones, to turn a phrase, but all the way down to their DNA.  The

Finns are considered a genetically independent population when compared to the rest of the population of Europe.  A study published in the journal Nature studied the genetic codes of more than 60,000 people from five continents in order to provide the biggest data set of its kind to the scientific community.  The study analyzed mutations in the protein coding regions in the DNA, called exome regions. Different populations display different mutations on some of these genes.

Gene mapping needs to be done prior to specialized studies and Finns are an ideal population for gene mapping due to their genetic lack of diversity, called homogeneity.  

A study at the University of Helsinki first investigated the genes of German and British populations as a basis for comparison and found them to be genetically close to one another – hardly a surprise considering their historical closeness.   But when the researchers looked at populations from Finland in comparison to other parts of Europe, the similarities between Finnish people and those of other parts of Europe were sparse enough to declare the Finns a genetic isolate. The ancestors of the modern Finns, once they arrived in this cold land thousands of years ago, remained relatively separate from even their closest European neighbors.   Although modern travel and telecommunications have reduced this isolation, the evidence of centuries spent apart from their neighbors will always be in their genome.

Being a genetic isolate has downsides, though.  They carry with them something known as Finnish Disease Heritage.  FDH consists of almost forty rare hereditary diseases that are clearly more prevalent in Finland than elsewhere in the world. These all are particularly rare diseases;  I would list some examples, but I have literally only heard of one of them before. FDH doesn’t include things like Parkinson’s or achondroplastic dwarfism. It is caused by the fact that the modern population is descended from a relatively small original population, some of whom carried the genes for these diseases.

In addition to the genetics of the Finnish people being distinct from their neighbors, their language also came from a different place than the languages of the nearest countries.  Finnish is Uralic language, while Scandinavian languages like Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic are Indo-European languages. Its Uralic cousins include Estonian and Hungarian.  The Finno-Ugric languages share enough common lexical and grammatical features, like absence of gender (the same Finnish pronoun, “hän,” denotes both “he” and “she”); absence of articles (a and the in English), numerous grammatical cases and no equivalent of the verb “to have.”

How long Finnish-speakers have populated Finland is a question that has always interested Finnish scholars.  It’s thought that speakers of a Finno-Ugric language have been living in present-day Finland since at least 3000 BCE.  During the following millennia, speakers of the Finno-Ugric language and speakers of neighbouring Indo-European languages interacted.  Along the way, Finnish picked up a number of loanwords from the other languages. Not only was vocabulary borrowed, but also many grammatical features.  Most present-day loanwords in Finnish have come from the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, especially from Swedish.

There’s a great infographic family tree of European languages and other bite-sized facts about Finland on our social media this week.

When you think of the highlights of twentieth century military history, Finland probably doesn’t make it onto your top ten list, yet Finland produced the man who is regarded as the deadliest sniper in history. With at least 505 confirmed kills during the Winter War of 1939–40 between Finland and the Soviet Union, Simo Häyhä rightly earned the nickname ‘White Death’

Simo Häyhä was born in 1905 in the old Finnish region of Karelia, which is now Soviet territory.  He was by all accounts a quiet man, a farmer by profession and enjoyed snow-skiing and hunting. The Winter War only lasted 105 days, but Hayha served for 98 of those days with 6th Battalion, Infantry Regiment 34.  It was the Soviets who gave him the nickname White Death and 98 days was more than enough time for them to learn to fear Hayha, who once killed 25 men in a single day. On one occasion, after Häyhä had once again killed an enemy sniper with one shot, the Soviets in turn tried to kill him with a mortar bombardment on his firing position. Häyhä emerged without so much as a scratch.  On another occasion, an artillery shell landed near his firing position and tore open the back of his coat; Häyhä did get one scratch from that.

For a soldier who spent so much time on the front line, Häyhä reported that he was never scared. He treated his job like he treated hunting and was always thinking of new ways to remain hidden and fool the enemy.  He developed clever techniques, such as pouring water into the snow in front of him so that the muzzle blast would not expose his location by disturbing the light snow. He would hold snow in his mouth so his breath wouldn’t fog in the air.  He also became a master of using sounds, smoke and artillery fire to cover his movements when changing positions.

Häyhä’s skill was compounded by his extensive preparations for shooting. During the night, he would often visit his ‘favourite’ firing positions, making whatever preparations and improvements he felt necessary.  With maps very scarce during the war, Häyhä relied on his memory to find the best hiding positions. His behaviour might be described as obsessive as he would go through his maintenance operations before and after a completing a mission, but in the -20°C temperatures of the Finnish winter, proper gun maintenance was essential to avoid it jamming.  His gun was an M/28-30, one that he had owned before the war, and it did not have a telescopic sight. This rifle was the standard issued one for Finnish infantry in the late 1930s and Häyhä preferred the reliability of this basic model and the consistency of its shot.

Häyhä’s skills had been developed through a lifetime of hunting, often hunting timid birds which reacted to even the slightest sound, reflection or sudden movement.  There are no foolproof methods in hunting, as each situation and condition is unique. Häyhä’s hunting experiences taught him was how to read and use the terrain and he was the ultimate master in exploiting the terrain of the battlefield to his advantage.  He also excelled at estimated distances, as well as predicting the the effects of wind and rain on the shot.

With Simo’s unique character and a lifetime of preparation, he was a nightmare for the Soviet troops in the winter forests of Finland, until he was wounded on 6 March 1940, in the forests of Kollaa.  He was hit by an explosive bullet during a Soviet attack. His injuries put him in a weeklong coma. When he woke up, the armistice had been signed. Häyhä suffered near-constant pain for many years, which will seem thoroughly reasonable when you see his picture.  Half of his jaw and the face around it has a surrealist melting appearance. He underwent a total of 26 surgical operations on his jaw and his speech was never fully restored. After the war had ended, Häyhä returned to his farm. His war exploits were legendary in Finland and he became something of a celebrity, but he preferred quiet solitude, living alone until he moved into the Kymi Institute for Disabled Veterans in 2001.  He passed away the following year at age 96.

Among the thousands of rows of white granite headstones in Arlington National Cemetery stands a marker bearing the names of four servicemen killed in Vietnam, three Vietnamese and one American, Major Larry Allan Thorne.  However, Larry Thorne was not this man’s given name and he wasn’t American. The deceased, though a legendary U.S. Green Beret of incredible courage and fierceness, was actually Finnish.

Larry Thorne was born Lauri Allan Törni in Finland in 1919.  He joined the Finnish Army as a teenager and fought off the Soviet invasion in the Winter War and the Continuation War (1941-1944), rising to the rank of captain and earning Finland’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor.  Törni was tasked with leading elite ski units on dangerous missions behind Soviet lines and was so effective as a guerilla fighter that the Soviets put a bounty on his head. The bounty was worth about $650,000 today and there are no records of bounties being placed on any other Finnish soldier.

While Finland had ceased Continuation War hostilities with the Soviets after coming to a territorial agreement, Nazi Germany was still at war with the Red Army.  In the Continuation War, Finland and Germany had been co-belligerents, or forces fighting against a common enemy without an official alliance. Törni wanted to continue fighting the Soviets.  He had trained with the infamous SS during the Continuation War, so he joined with the Germans again in the last few months of the war, before being captured by Allied forces. They placed him in a POW camp, but Törni, true to form, escaped and made it back to Finland.

After World War II, he emigrated to the United States, Americanized his name to Larry Thorne and joined the U.S. Army in 1954, thanks to the Lodge-Philbin Act which permitted the recruitment of foreign nationals into the U.S. Armed Forces.  Finnish-American officers recognized his abilities and directed him to the Special Forces, where he became an instructor and taught skiing, survival, mountaineering, and guerrilla tactics. He attended airborne school and earned his silver wings as a Green Beret.  Thorne also went through Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a first lieutenant. In the span of only three years, he rose from recruit to captain.

As a Green Beret captain, Thorne was known as one of the toughest officers.  He was extremely fit and often physically outperformed soldiers half his age.  Still fighting in his 40s, Thorne served with the 10th Special Forces Group in West Germany as part of a search-and-rescue unit and led operations to recover bodies from a crashed airplane in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.  

In November 1963, Thorne was sent to Vietnam where he served two tours and earned a Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts.  He continued to build his reputation for bravery by taking on difficult assignments and leading his men with courage and distinction.  On Oct. 18, 1965, Thorne was flying in a South Vietnamese Air Force helicopter when the weather turned bad. Caught in heavy fog and rain, Thorne would not order his chopper to leave out of concern for the men on the ground that his chopper crew was supporting.  The weather grew so bad that the chopper crashed into a mountainside and all on board were killed. Thorne was 46 years old. He was posthumously promoted to major and was awarded the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross.

His remains were not located until 1999.  Even then, military authorities were not sure it was him.  Thorne’s remains were intermingled with those of the three South Vietnamese Army soldiers who were with him on the chopper. They were all buried at Arlington under a single headstone that bears the names of Larry Thorne, Lieutenant Bao Tung Nguyen, First Lieutenant The Long Phan, and Sergeant Vam Lanh Bui.  And that’s how a soldier from Finland who once wore a German SS uniform was killed in Viet Nam and buried in America’s more venerated military cemetery.

Speaking of passed-on people who have gotten around, our audio correction today is from the episode Well-traveled Bodies, specifically where I said the man posing as Elmer McCurdy’s brother took his preserved corpse to Arkansas City, Kansas.  Turns out I said it wrong. Lucky for me, Dan Pugh and Shawna Harris at Bunny Trails Podcast know what’s up.

You can also leave corrections or audio feedback without benefit of recording equipment by leaving a voicemail at 804-404-2669.  Another cool thing that happened this past week was that my niece came over so we could film the first three episodes of Science With Savannah, Age 7.  The topics included how and why dogs bark, how different kinds of animals breath, and all about wind. It was a little harder than I’d anticipated, because I hadn’t considered having to keep a child focused while I have ADD, but we managed.  Look for the Science With Savannah Age 7 podcast and YouTube channels in mid-May, hopefully.

A major part of life in Finland, from ancient times to today, is the sauna.  That’s not me saying it like a jerk; that’s the way it’s actually pronounced.  SOW-na. The first written descriptions of the Finnish sauna dates back to 1112, when saunas were dug into embankments.  Later, log buildings were constructed. The sauna room did not have a chimney, only a small air vent in the back wall. A fire was placed in the center, in which the rocks would also be heated, and the smoke was allowed to fill the room while it came up to temperature.  It was a half-day process to heat this type of room. When the sauna was ready, bathers would let the smoke clear and go inside. The walls and ceiling would become black with soot. The sauna later evolved to the more typical metal wood stove heater with the chimney.

These warm wooden rooms could be used at lower temperatures too, and were at the heart of the major events of a Finn’s life.  They were used for drying flax, preparing malts, and curing meat. The sauna was known as the poor man’s pharmacy. In addition to soothing sore muscles and sweating out sickness, it was also the hospital where folk healers practised their art.  Women gave birth in them because the walls of traditional smoke saunas were lined with naturally bacteria-resistant soot, making them the cleanest room in the house. Saunas were the place for purification rituals before marriage, and the bodies of the dead were washed and prepared for burial on the wooden benches.  It’s little wonder why, for many Finns, the sauna is closely associated with their wellbeing. Today, Finland is a nation of 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas, found in homes, offices, gyms, hotels, ships and even deep below the ground in mines. They have more saunas than cars and nearly all Finns hit the sauna at least one a week.

Wherever Finns traveled they brought their sauna culture with them. It was first brought to America by Finns who settled in the current state of Delaware in 1638.  Modern day life and electricity evolved the sauna again. Saunas gained wider popularity in the U.S. after the electric sauna stove was developed in the 1950s. Finnish soldiers at war needed their baths just like others and built a dugout or tent sauna whenever possible.  Finns serving in the UN peace corps have also attracted attention by building a sauna at every base they end up at. In 1936, a sauna was built at the Döbernitz Olympic Village for the Berlin Olympic Games.

A sauna is a standard element in swimming baths and sports centres, hotels, holiday centres and camping sites. Innumerable families have sauna cottages by a lake or by the sea. An enterprise wishing to maintain the image of a successful business absolutely must have a sauna or sauna suite of its own. Finnish boats and car ferries have long served their passengers with saunas, and even the possibility of a train sauna is being investigated. The number of sauna types seems to be increasing, and the only one which has practically disappeared is the public sauna of the town.

Being invited to sauna with someone is a big deal.  Decline if you must, but you’d better have a good reason.  Even more so than at your gym, there are rules for using the sauna.  No eating or drinking, obviously. If you’re talking, you should not discuss your job, title or religion.  The exception to this being if you’re in a business meeting being held in a sauna, which is by no means uncommon and makes as much sense as the 80’s stereotype of discussing business over racquetball.  No clothes or swimsuits are allowed, for the same reason that you would not wear anything in the bath or shower – you’re in the sauna not only to relax, but to get clean. Men and women visit the sauna separately, unless they are members of the same family.  Children go with their parents, at least until they become teenagers, when they tend to use the sauna alone or with friends. So everyone is naked together and everyone is okay, and that’s the way it should be. We all have the same bodies and we’ve all seen naked people before.  To learn more about communal bathing and other interesting self-care rituals around the world, check out the book Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath by Alexia Brue. This isn’t the first book I’ve recommended on the show, so I’ve set up a list at

You will be sweating heavily in a sauna, so be sure to drink a lot.  While water is best for you, beer and cider are what Finns enjoy the most.  Another key part of the experience is roasting sausages either on the fire or in tin foil on the stove, but I’d check before doing that one at the gym.

“A sauna bath without a vihta is like food without salt,” as the saying goes.  What is a vihta? A small bundle of young birch branches with leaves. And what do you do with it?  You hit yourself, of course. The bather uses the vihta to beat themself lightly; this raises the blood circulation in the skin, speeds up perspiration and produces a pleasant aroma in the hot room.  There’s a similar practice in Russia, but someone else does the beating.

Bonus fact: “Sauna” is also the only Finnish word in the the English dictionary.  

And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today.  Don’t think I forgot about possibly the most important thing about Finland.  It leads the world in metal bands per capita, with 53 heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents.  Sweden is a distant second at 37. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.