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Fredrik Cygnaeus

Born April 1, 1807, Hämeenlinna. Died February 7, 1881, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, Imperial Alexander University, 1832

Vice-rector, Imperial Alexander  University, 1865-66
Dean, Division for History and Philology, Imperial Alexander University, 1856-67
Professor of Aesthetics and Modern Finnish Literature, Imperial Alexander University, 1854-67
Docent, History, 1839-54, acting Professor, Imperial Alexander University, 1848-53
Rector, Helsingin yläalkeiskoulu (Helsinki secondary school), 1839-52
Teacher, political and civic studies, Hamina military cadet school, 1833-37

President, Finnish Art Society, 1863-78
'Curator', Ostrobothnian student ‘nation’, 1838-49

Counsellor of State, 1867
Knight, Order of the Polar Star, 1867
Order of Merit (for service to the state), 1865
Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, Imperial Alexander University, 1860
Knight (2nd class), Order of St Stanislaus, 1856
Memorial Plaque, Hämeenlinna, 1948
Postage stamp, 1948

Photo: Helsingin yliopistomuseo / Timo Huvilinna
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by John Calton

The chief architect of Flora Day

Unlike many of his fellow students, Fredrik Cygnaeus was born into a wealthy family, which meant he did not have to struggle to make a living during his studies. At the university he met people such as Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Elias Lönnrot, and Johan Vilhelm Snellman, and was involved in the founding of the Fennoman movement.

During the best years of the Saturday Society (‘Lauantaiseura’ in Finnish), Cygnaeus was away teaching in the Finland Military Cadet School in Hamina. He was, however, very interested in the student movement and when he returned in 1838 he was elected ‘curator’ of the Ostrobothnian student nation. Cygnaeus received the respect of students because he acted as their advocate and patron. He was able to do this because he was on especially good terms with officers and civil servants of the state.

After spending several years in Italy and France gathering archive material and pursuing his interest in culture, Cygnaeus returned to Finland in 1847. The following year, the ‘Spring of Nations’, a wave of revolutions broke out across Europe and rebellion was in the air in Finland. In close partnership with the University’s Deputy Chancellor, General Johan Mauritz Nordenstam, Cygnaeus organised the Student Union’s famous Flora Day celebration on May 13, 1848.

In devising Flora Day, care was taken to placate the Russian authorities, since Finland was still a Grand-duchy of the Russian Empire. But at the same time the occasion  was patriotic, as evidenced by how it featured the first performance of Runeberg’s Vårt Land (‘Our land’, Maamme in Finnish), which was sung to music by Fredrik Pacius. The speech given by Cygnaeus, “Finlands namn”( ‘The Name of Finland’), subsequently took on a status of almost mythical proportions, and regrettably has only been preserved in an eponymous poem by Zachris Topelius describing the Flora Day celebration. Together with Pacius, Runeberg and Topelius, Cygnaeus was instrumental in averting the possibility of spontaneous separatist demonstrations.

The calm air of the Flora Day celebrations was decisive in convincing the Grand Duke (i.e. Tsar Alexander) of the political quietude in Finland, notwithstanding the febrile atmosphere raging elsewhere in Europe in 1848. Among other activities in the world of academia, Cygnaeus stood for loyality to the governing regime. As the curator of the Ostrobothnian student nation and later as dean of the division of history and language sciences, he opposed Scandinavian liberal ideologies and strove to keep the students’ boisterous high jinks under control.

In 1948, a hundred years after the Flora Day celebrations he organised, Fredrik Cygnaeus was depicted on a stamp.​
In 1948, a hundred years after the Flora Day celebrations he organised, Fredrik Cygnaeus was depicted on a stamp.​


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